MANILA — Voting 20-0-0, the Senate unanimously passed the proposed Department of Migrant Workers (DOMW) and Overseas Filipinos Act on the third and final reading on December 14. 

Sen. Joel Villanueva, chairman of the Senate labor committee and principal sponsor and author of Senate Bill number 2234, said the proposed migrant workers department seeks to be a “dedicated service arm for 10 million Filipinos overseas who account for 10 percent of the population and whose remittances comprise 12 percent of national income.” 

“This moment is for every Filipino abroad who has sacrificed so much for their family and our beloved country. This bill is a chance to change for the better the way our OFWs, our modern-day heroes, are recruited, repatriated, and reintegrated,” Villanueva said, noting the new department will be “laser-focused” on the needs and welfare of overseas Filipino workers (OFWS). 

“The department will orchestrate all efforts and policies, which unfortunately have become fragmented, to protect OFWs. With POEA as the backbone, a total of seven offices are consolidated and merged as the Department of Migrant Workers (DFA-OUMWA, POEA, POLO, ILAB, NRCO and NMP under DOLE, and the Office of the Social Welfare Attache of DSWD). The OWWA will be an attached agency of the new department,” the Senate stated.  

Villanueva also assured the transfer of agencies to a new department will not be a mere “lipat-bahay” as the role of each, based on their strengths, will be well clarified.  

“Hindi po basta ‘lipat-bahay’ o ‘pagpapalit ng karatula ng pangalan’ ang itinatayo nating kagawaran kundi isang ‘bagong bahay’ na may maayos na plano at base sa pangarap at adhikain ng mga mismong mayari ng bahay na ito, wala pong iba kundi ang ating mga Overseas Filipino Workers,” Villanueva said. 

“We are in unison that it is not the policy of the state to promote overseas employment and it is our common aspiration that Filipinos will migrate or work abroad only out of choice and not out of necessity,” he added. 

Sen. Bong Go, also a main proponent of the bill, thanked Villanueva for pushing for the measure’s passage.  

First-class citizens 

“For far too long, our OFWs were hailed as our heroes but were often treated as second rate and second-class,” Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) President Raymond Mendoza said, lauding the passage of the bill as an early Christmas gift to OFWs, according to another ThePhilippine Star report.

“With this new Department, this is our national commitment to them and their families, that they are truly first-class citizens,” he added.  

Mendoza said OFWs should be treated as well as their personal remittances which kept the economy afloat before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the contagion “amplified OFWs’ clamor for a better government response to address unemployment, hunger and poverty.” 

“OFWs were last in line for vaccination, not given green lanes to facilitate their travel, and were faced with extreme difficulties in claiming their just compensation,” he said. 

“They also had contracts which were replaced and substituted at will by employers and recruiters who milked them dry and sometimes killed them. Their passports and phones were confiscated, and they were treated as commodities,” he added. 

Mendoza said the new law should make labor migration as a choice and not a necessity by rationalizing government functions for the overseas employment of Filipino migrant workers and ensure that their human and labor rights are protected at all times. 

Mendoza also noted that the new department will “mainstream government initiatives to strengthen reintegration program for the sustainable return of OFWs into Philippine society, with livelihood projects, wellness programs, financial literacy programs and other similar projects based on the specific needs and skills of the returning OFWs.” 

“As principal sponsor of this bill, we have taken all precautions to ensure that no additional cost will be charged to our OFWs who already carry a huge financial burden – borrowing money and selling properties just to be able to work abroad to provide for their families,” he said.

According to TUCP, the new law will cover all migrant workers deployed and to be deployed, contract workers, seafarers, and fishers on board, and excludes Filipinos living abroad. 

Under the new law, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) will continue to service overseas Filipinos and they will be covered by the PHP1-billion ATN fund and the PHP200-million legal assistance fund. 

“The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) will become the backbone of the new department to ensure that it can hit the ground running and will not have a long learning curve,” the group said, noting the new department will also “promote the empowerment and protection of Filipinos working overseas by empowering and training them to gain appropriate skills and by ensuring access to continuous training and knowledge development.”