Analysts cite OWWA fetters in protecting OFWs

by ISAGANI DE LA PAZ
www.ofwjournalism.net

MANILA (OFW Journalism Consortium, Vol. 6 Nos. 8-9, Dec. 16)—TWO Filipino-American analysts cited imbalanced services and weak state capacity as some of the factors fettering the Philippine government’s welfare fund in protecting the country’s economic heroes.

“In the Philippines, where one in 12 people is a migrant and where everyone has a relationship to migration in one way or another, managing institutions like OWWA [Overseas Workers Welfare Administration] can be inherently difficult,” Dovelyn Rannveig Agunias and Neil G. Ruiz said in their paper “Protecting Overseas Workers: Lessons and Cautions from the Philippines”.

Agunias of the Washington, DC-based Migration Policy Institute and Ruiz of The Brookings Institution would present their 32-paged paper this December 18.

Based on their interviews with “several high-level government officials and migrants’ organizations, as well as on an analysis of several data sources on the welfare and protection services available to overseas workers,” Agunias and Ruiz said challenges remain in making a welfare fund like OWWA work.

“A welfare fund has to find the right balance of services, create meaningful partnerships, build strong state capacity, and actively involve destination countries,” the authors said.

Based on OWWA data, the authors said the agency created in 1980 as Welfare Fund Administration “tilted more toward achieving fund stability” than providing services.

Based on the data the authors gathered, the bulk of OWWA spending last year was for repatriation of overseas Filipino workers and payment of insurance and burial benefits.

Repatriation expenditures formed nearly 14 percent of the agency’s spending last year at nearly P170 million. Payment of insurance and for burial benefits formed the second-largest bulk of spending at 12 percent to P155 million.

The OWWA’s revenue last year was pegged at P1.3 billion and had total 994,191 members.

However, the authors noted that the bulk of spending for repatriation last year benefited just above a percent or 10,834 OFWs of its total membership. On the other hand, spending for insurance and burial benefits went to less than a percent (1,122 OFWs’ claims or 0.11 percent) of the total membership.

Spending

AGUNIAS and Ruiz said that two years ago, OWWA spent only three percent of its fund balance on services.

“This ratio may be interpreted positively or negatively. OWWA may be spending less on services now so more is available for future services to future members. At the same time, however, it may also mean OWWA is simply under-investing in services,” Agunias and Ruiz wrote.

Based on OWWA’s latest audited financial statement that the authors used, 644,373 individuals were cited by OWWA as having benefited from their revenue spending.

In that report, OWWA should have provided services to a total 644,373 OFWs or members of their families. Some 2,177 of that are seafarers who were listed as having availed a training program.

The majority of these beneficiaries or 614,697 local and overseas workers were those that OWWA said was “assisted” by its 24-hour call center.

However, the OWWA didn’t cite how much it spent or how much this service, as well as for 11,759 OFWs it “assisted” at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, cost.

The OWWA, the authors said, Financial Management System (FMS) “does not allow for itemizing the specific services spent on workers assistance.”

Hence, OWWA’s total spending of P446.5 million (US$8.93 million at P50=US$1) last year went to 29,676 individuals or at P15,044 each on the average.

Trust

AGUNIAS and Ruiz described the OWWA as “essentially a single trust fund pooled from the mandatory US$25 membership contributions of foreign employers, land-based and sea-based workers, investment and interest income on these funds, and income from other sources.”

In the last five years, OWWA’s income averaged P1.9 billion (US$38 million) per year. Membership fees comprise the great majority of this income (73 percent) while the rest is from investments and other income, according to the authors.

For four years, the authors said OWWA spent more than half of its average annual spending of P0.9 billion to salaries of its employees and other administrative costs rather than on programs and projects.

Categorized as a quasigovernmental entity, it is entirely self-funded and receives no budget allocation from the national government, according to the authors.

“OWWA serves a population of 3.8 million, highly mobile temporary workers scattered in over 190 countries, as well as the families left behind –an enormous task that few governments have even attempted systematically,” Aguinas and Ruiz wrote.

Citing an interview with administrator Marianito D. Roque, the authors said that OWWA targets to reach a P10-billion income this year.

“Once OWWA surpasses that level, it will be able to spend more on services,” the authors quoted Roque as saying.

They added that while such goal makes sense, it has “compromised OWWA’s past and present ability to fund welfare services.”

Talks

THE two authors would elaborate on their findings in a forum at the Coconut Palace in Manila on December 18, the International Day for the protection of the rights and welfare of migrant workers and their families, as designated by the United Nations.

Advocate and lawyer Ildefonso Bagasao said the authors are expected to help local groups come up with “at least a consensus on action steps “regarding these issues that have tugged at us for quite a long while.”

Agunias and Ruiz said that other labor-exporting countries should also cull lessons from the OWWA experience as the matter of protection would rear its head in government halls around the world as “temporary migration continues to grow worldwide.”

“Temporary migration presents countries of origin with the dilemma of ensuring the protection of their workers abroad,” Agunias and Ruiz said.

They’re pointing to OWWA as a way to address this dilemma.

“Once its limitations are addressed, OWWA can be a useful template for many developing countries as they face the mounting challenges of protecting workers abroad,” Agunias and Ruiz said.

“Welfare funds require effective institutions that allow for transparency as well as a way to represent the views of the dues-paying members themselves. This guarantees that services remain relevant to the needs of beneficiaries. It is a challenge to design a useful way to consult the beneficiaries, given that migrants are typically dispersed to many countries.”