By Corina Oliquino 

MANILA — The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), along with other agencies, are being urged by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano to convene an inter-agency meeting to study and consider programs to address concerns of OFWs stranded abroad, as well as those returning to the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cayetano also asked concerned agencies to submit their funding requirements which can be funded under the Bayanihan to Recover as One (Bayanihan II) or the 2021 National Budget.

During his stint as Foreign Affairs Secretary, Cayetano recalled the establishment of an inter-agency working group to “identify existing programs across different government agencies and discuss areas of cooperation and integration,” adding returning OFWs often experience being pointed to one agency after another for their documentation, funding, training, and educational needs.

“It requires full coordination and adoption of a whole-of-government approach,” he said, recommending the House committee chairs on labor and overseas workers affairs be included in the proposed inter-agency meeting.

“We need to work together to survive the crisis and execute a united response to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

In a report by The Philippine Star, Cayetano initially urged DOLE and the DFA to focus on: relief, repatriation, recovery, return and re-integration.

Under the proposal, DOLE will provide relief to returning OFWs while the DFA works for their repatriation.

“I do believe government has many programs but the OFWs and their families do not know how to access them. And even if they can access them, the red tape that still exists causes delays and pain and hurt. And sometimes, we gain the reputation that we act only if media begin to notice,” Cayetano said.

Assistance from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), Cooperative Development Authority, Department of Science and Technology and financial institutions will be needed for their recovery and reintegration, he added.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr), on the other hand, will assist OFWs in their return home.

Meanwhile, Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) party-list Rep. Democrito Mendoza advised officials to seek President Rodrigo Duterte’s intervention on behalf of returning OFWS. OFWs complained about stringent and discriminatory regulations imposed by local government units (LGUs), hindering the national government’s efforts to repatriate stranded and displaced OFWs.

“We have to get around that problem. If the President can just speak to the political leadership of local government units, I think this will be resolved,” said Mendoza, who presided over a virtual meeting on the repatriation operations for thousands of displaced and stranded OFWs as chairman of the House committee on overseas Filipino welfare.

During the Congressional briefing, DFA Undersec. Sarah Lou Arriola confirmed they are processing the return of 50,000 OFWs this month.

Arriola noted that at least 70,533 OFWs have already been repatriated while 21,107 are ready to go home.

Currently, at least 169,000 OFWs displaced temporarily or permanently have not yet signified their intention to return home.

Up to 100,000 OFWs sent to provinces

DOLE on its latest report confirmed about 95,702 OFWs repatriated by the government due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been transported back to their homes.

Data from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) revealed the latest batch of 1,691 homebound OFWs who tested negative to COVID-19 took their rides back to their respective provinces on July 18.

Since May, over 34,000 OFWs were sent home by the government to their respective regions with 61,000 following suit on an almost daily basis in the succeeding months.

Despite the surge in returning OFWs, Labor Sec. Silvestre Bello III assured the government will exhaust all means to help OFWs regain jobs they lost overseas due to COVID-19.

DOLE has also developed a tracking system called OFW Assistance Information System (OASIS) for its command center to facilitate the orderly and smooth repatriation of returning and outbound OFWs.

As of press time, there are now 572,442 OFWs who have sought assistance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Latest reports from DOLE’s overseas office and OWWA revealed 240,583 requests for assistance under the government’s AKAP program have been approved, with 203,585 OFWs already receiving the emergency aid.