Shabby treatment of OFWs at airport

MANILA, Philippines—My esteemed colleague, Conrado de Quiros, picked the overseas Filipino worker (OFW) as the Filipino of the Year 2007 (Inquirer, 1/2/08). I concur. Collectively, OFWs propelled the economy more than anyone else, made the peso respectable, and funded their relatives: appetite for homes, cars, motorcycles, TV sets, appliances and foodstuff. In turn, Manny Villar’s Vista Land, Henry Sy’s SM Malls, and Tony Tan Caktiong’s Jollibee sold more, employed more and multiplied the OFW largesse all over, to both the rich and the poor. Of course, these frenzies mean more VAT collections for the government.

Tet’s lament. Even the Catholic Church has recognized their work. OFWs fill up the churches in America and Europe. In Hong Kong, Britain and other “friendly” places, Filipino nannies teach their wards the true “Reason” for the Christmas season. Small wonder they have been acclaimed “Bagong Bayani” (new heroes). The big wonder, however, is why they are shabbily treated, especially at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) when they return to their work places. Let me be more specific.

Our daughter Tet (nickname for Maria Theresa) finished her bachelor’s degree at the Ateneo de Manila and her Master’s in Business Administration at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1999, while she was a manager at the Corporate Planning Department of the San Miguel Corp., the Automatic Data Processing Corporation (ADP), a Fortune 500 company listed in the New York Stock Exchange, offered her an executive position. She was given a signing bonus, a salary she could not refuse, free relocation and travel for her family, and other privileges. In short, she became an “expat” in the United States.

She has never needed any government assistance in her job or daily life. After all, her company has provided her family complete health insurance benefits. Nonetheless, whenever she came to visit, she always patiently applied for “clearances” and willingly paid all fees required by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). What she laments are the hassles whenever she exited Naia.

Uncaring POEA employees. Last Dec. 15, she came for her annual visit. A week after, on Dec. 22, she and her brood left for Bangkok and flew back here on Dec. 28, with the intention of returning to New York on the early morning of Jan. 2, 2008. Prior to her departure for Bangkok, she applied for the clearance required by the POEA from all OFWs who are returning to their places of work. Why she needed this clearance, in the first place, is beyond me.

In any event, two POEA/OWWA personnel at the Naia told her that, to obtain her clearance for her US trip, she had to fall in line at their “Edsa office” upon her return from Bangkok. Tet carefully explained that she was coming back to Manila at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 28 and leaving for the United States on Jan. 2 at 7:55 a.m. The intervening days were all non-working holidays, which made falling in line at the “Edsa office” impossible. Her simple explanation was shrugged off uncaringly by the duo. “Wala kaming paki,” they chorused. They also refused to give her a clearance application form.

My daughter is normally soft spoken, rule-abiding and rarely agitated. But, from her friends, she has heard of horror delays caused by POEA fiascos at Naia. She had to be back at her ADP office in New Jersey on Jan. 3. Her boss would accept no excuse. So, I decided to bring the matter to Labor Secretary Arturo Brion.

Exemplary Cabinet member. I was able to reach Secretary Brion, through his mobile phone, on Dec. 31 evening. Immediately, he understood the problem and acted swiftly. He said he was going to office in the afternoon of the following day (New Year’s Day!) to take care of the problem. We exchanged several text messages on the documents that should be brought to his office to process the clearance. I received his last text message at midnight (to be exact, 12:03 a.m.) amid the New Year revelry.

True enough, Tet’s POEA clearance was issued on the afternoon of Jan. 1 after she sent all the needed documents and paid the necessary fees. She was able to board her flight early the next day and was at her office as ADP vice president on Jan. 3. Tet could have avoided all the hassles had she taken US citizenship, because non-Filipinos are not subjected to POEA red tape. Her husband and two daughters, who accompanied her, are Americans. But I advised her to remain a Filipino, in the hope that she (and her family) would settle down here and perhaps use her US-honed talents to help our country.

Pity the poor OFWs. I deeply appreciate Secretary Brion and Undersecretary Lily Pineda’s action for Tet. But how about the poor, ordinary OFWs who are subjected to worse hassles and red tape? Many have missed flights due to the POEA’s incompetence and inefficiency. Others have more harrowing tales.

At the Naia, as I saw off Tet that morning, I pitied another OFW who—after enduring the long queues at the security stations and the airline counter—was brusquely told to go to the POEA unit outside the secured area to get her clearance. Assuming she got it promptly, she had to waste another 30 minutes queuing up again to reach the same check-in counter. Tragic!

The POEA proclaims OFWs as heroes but shabbily treats them as nobodies. There must be a way of reforming the POEA and training its people so it could be routinely caring and efficient, without Cabinet-level intervention.

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