By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Migrante International has another bone to pick with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
The Commission on Audit (CoA) recently released its report on the POEA’s “Balik Manggagawa Program” and implied that the agency has been overcharging overseas Filipino workers by at least P13 million ($ 302,326 ).
In its 2010 report on the POEA, the auditing institution said the former and its adjunct offices in the various Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (Polo) in 27 countries worldwide used arbitrary rates of exchange in charging the Balik Manggagawa processing fees. In the guidelines of the POEA, the fees were only supposed to amount to P100 ($2.32) or the foreign currency equivalent.
According to the CoA, Polo collections in 2010 amounted to P40.207 million ($ 930, 233). If the Polo offices followed the guidelines strictly and collected only the equivalent of P100 ($2.32) from OFWs, the total collection should only have amounted to P26.945 million ($ 627, 907) from 269,454 OFWs. The CoA report went on to declare that there were “total excess charges” amounting to P13.262 million ($ 302,325); this was P960,615 ($ 22,348) more than what was excessively charged in 2009.
The CoA said that even as it was admitted that the excess charges were beneficial to the government as it was the allegedly the sole beneficiary of the over-collection, OFWs – particularly the low-salaried workers – were deprived of enjoying the much lower actual rates.
In reaction, Migrante’s International said it welcomes the report because it validates its claims that the government has been implementing policies of “institutionalized mulcting” against OFWs.
Migrante chairman Garry Martinez said the COA report further affirms what many of their chapters abroad have been complaining about.
In a report on the POEA, it was explained that the “Balik Manggagawa Program” allows returning OFWs seeking to file official home leaves from their work abroad or those who are planning to return to their countries of employment at the soonest possible time can process their papers directly with the local POEA offices in their respective regions, or from the Polo offices in the countries where they work.
Under the “Balik Manggagawa Program” valid passports, working permits and other relevant documents are verified and processed at the POEA Regional Centers, Regional Extension Units and satellite offices in the various regions, POEA-deputized OWWA Regional Offices and Units, Polos in the almost all Philippine embassies and consulates abroad.
Martinez, however, said Migrante chapters continue to report how the POEA offices and units abroad charge excessive fees beyond what is stated in official guidelines. The group said that in Hong Kong, for instance, the Polo office charges HK$ 20 or its peso equivalent of P110 (HK$1=P5, or S2.56) overcharging by P10 ($.232).
The Manila Economic Cultural Office (Meco) in Taiwan charges P150-P250 ($3.48 –$5.81) for processing fees of the overseas exit clearances. POEA guidelines state that OEC fee should not exceed P100 ($2.32).
“The P13 million is only one of the sums that have been overcharged to OFWs. We have no doubt that not only millions but billions of pesos have been extorted from OFWs through the various state exactions. The government has been bleeding OFWs dry, not only by overcharging processing fees, but also by imposing exorbitant rates in passport fees and translation fees. These agencies led by the Department of Foreign Affairs have little or no compunction against making OFWs pay excessive amounts for document processing,” he said.
Martinez also shared that in Japan, the Philippine Embassy has been overcharging passport renewal fees five-fold. In Hong Kong, the Philippine Consulate charges $65, or P2,795, for passport processing. “This is P1,845 ($43) more than what is required by law,” he said.
“Government budget for services for OFWs has greatly decreased but the government continues to come up with many schemes to bleed more money from OFWs. The latest tactic was the move to increase premium contributions to Philhealth. The least the government should do in the wake of the COA report is to return this money to the OFWs by increasing the budget for services and benefits,” he said.
Corruption of OWWA officials
Migrante Middle East Coordinator John Leonard Monterona for his part shared that OFWs who want to go on vacation in the Philippines but will full intent on returning to their countries of deployment are required to pay the OEC. Fees collected upon the issuance of the OEC are the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) membership fee amounting to $25, PhilHealth premiums costing P900 ($21), Pag-Ibig membership fees of P100 ($2.32) and POEA processing fee P100 ($2.32) . All this totals to P2,181 ($51).
“We’re quite certain that the OWWA through its overseas labor officials also overcharged OFWs in 2011,” he said. He said that the CoA should also hasten to come up with a report for the last year because in all likelihood, the OWWA and other agencies mandated to assist OFWs also charged fees higher than what is legally mandated.
Monterona recalled that in November 2011, the CoA also released a report that there were about P21 million ($ 488,372) in unremitted funds spent by various OWWA officers deployed abroad. He said migrant groups have already demanded that the OWWA authorities investigate the unliquidated expenses of some of its officials.
“There have been well- founded allegations that OWWA officials racked up unliquidated expenses when they travelled abroad. These officials charged their expenses to the OWWA trust funds. These expenses must be investigated, too,” he pointed out.
He added that the OFWs funds being a trust fund collected from OFWs hard earned money must be given protection and must be secured by the Aquino government from any misuse and misallocation.
Monterona said Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz and OWWA administrator Carmelita Dimzon should respond to the CoA report and find means to return the overcharged P13 million($ 302,326 ) in Balik Manggagawa Program funds to OFWs .
“A government paramount mandate is to deliver affordable, if not free, social and welfare services. The Aquino administration continues to fail its mandate to do this,” he said.
Finally, Migrante International called on the CoA and the House of Representatives to investigate the issue more deeply. The organization has previously demanded the full disclosure on the previous Macapagal-Arroyo administration’s use of the OWWA funds, and a full-blown investigation of all state exactions of government on OFWs.
In latest reports, the POEA has said that the guidelines to address the issue have already been drafted but the labor department has yet to issue a response. In the meantime, even as the Polo’s guidelines do not provide for specific foreign currency equivalents to the P100 fee, the POEA has released a memorandum stating a limit on what is allowable to collect as fees.