The International Organization for Migration (IOM) just released a paper, “Repatriating Filipino Migrant Workers in the Time of the Pandemic.” The paper lauds the Philippines for best practices in repatriating Filipino migrant workers and cited three of these: a) Philippine recruitment agencies as partners in the repatriation of OFWs; b) the use of online and social media to provide information and support to repatriated OFWs; and c) the development of the OFW Assistance Information System as a tracking system to “facilitate an orderly and smooth repatriation, and assistance to the huge number of returning OFWs.”

The paper also states:

“Although OWWA is currently the designated agency for repatriation, the Office for the Undersecretary of Migrant Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs was at the helm in the transfer of OFWs from overseas to the Philippines. (The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) comes into the picture once the OFWs arrive in the Philippines.”

This is surely a feather in the cap of the Philippines. I am just saddened that the paper overlooks the huge and indispensable role the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), headed by Sec. Silvestre “Bebot” Bello III, plays in bringing distressed OFWs back home to the Philippines.

The paper makes the readers think that repatriation is a matter of putting OFWs on planes and waiting for them at airports, taking them to accommodation facilities, testing them for COVID-19 infection, and ensuring their transportation to their provinces. These are huge tasks done by OWWA except for booking the flights of OFWs which embassies and consulates do. But before they happen, a lot of work needs to be done by Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs) and even embassies and consulates.

POLO-Geneva repatriated fewer than 50 OFWs. Compared to other POLOs, especially those in the Middle East, that is an insignificant number. However, even with its limited experience, POLO-Geneva realizes the monumental challenges POLOs face to prepare the OFWs for repatriation. While POLOs do not book flights and pay for tickets of these OFWs, they collect the data necessary to determine the reintegration assistance needed by every OFW. They interview OFWs, which, at times, is not completed in one sitting. They coordinate with employers and recruitment agencies for shared responsibility in repatriation. In the Middle East, POLOs need to negotiate with employers to give OFWs exit permits. POLOs troubleshoot for OFWs in case of delayed or cancelled flights. They provide psychosocial counselling and capacity-building services to equip the OFWs for reintegration. They coordinate with OWWA and constantly report to the OFW Command Center created by Sec. Bello to operate around the clock. The OCC was envisaged to make sure that the home office is immediately apprised about OFWs in distress so that assistance will be provided at once. Some of the POLO activities I mentioned are undertaken by or with Philippine Embassies and Consulates.

Sec. Bello marshalled POLOs to see to it that OFWs return to the Philippines seamlessly and are capacitated for reintegration. Although he pats POLOs on the back at times, he can be exacting when it comes to expectations of OFW protection. Trust a Labor Secretary with a strong human rights background to be that.

Clearly, the services DOLE provides through OCC-POLOs are by no means unnecessary or negligible. In fact, they are indispensable for smooth repatriation. No OFW boards a plane without most or all of the services being performed. This is erased from the picture painted by the paper. Although he is one of the most hardworking Cabinet officials, Sec. Bello does not drumbeat his agency’s accomplishments. For one, he believes that public service is its own reward. But if the Philippines is now an example to the world for how it has been repatriating OFWs, it is due in large part to his leadership at the helm of DOLE, the services POLOs do on the ground, and the services of OCC, which complement what OWWA, OUMWA, and Embassies/Consulates tirelessly do.

Admittedly, the OFW repatriation procedure is by no means perfect although it has improved compared to how it was during the earlier days of the pandemic when mass repatriations had to be carried out. Our failures and successes will serve as lessons to guide future policies and actions. We do not pray for a catastrophe similar in magnitude and effect to the COVID-19 pandemic. But should one strike us again, we will be better capacitated to confront the challenges.

We hope that the OFWs who have been repatriated have socio-economic opportunities in our country. As Sec. Bello, the DOLE, IOM, and many labor groups say, labor migration should be a choice, not a dictate of dire economic need.

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