By Jeremaiah M. Opiniano
OFW Journalism Consortium
MANILA—Labor executives are banking on technology to curb illegal recruitment and shabby treatment of departing Filipinos at the country’s major airport terminals.
Beginning March 1, departing overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) should go first to any of three Labor Assistance Center counters at the country’s three major airports to validate their overseas employment certificates (OECs).
This process replaces the step that allows OFWs to go directly to terminal fee counters. OFWs are exempt from paying a P750 airport terminal fee required of departing passengers.
LAC chief Carlos Cañaberal said the latter allowed OFWs to sidestep the scrutiny of immigration officers and for some to board planes carrying spurious documents.
Just recently, six females disguised as nuns were spotted by airport officers of the Bureau of Immigration and were prevented from leaving.
According to Vice-President Jejomar Binay, who is also presidential adviser for OFW affairs, they were tipped off by the red high-heel shoes some of the “nuns” were wearing.
Recruiter Lito Soriano said that allowing OFWs to go directly to terminal fee counters made illegal recruiters and traffickers bolder, if not easier for their operations.
The requirement for departing OFWs to bypass the LAC began in March 2008 after then POEA Administrator Rosalinda Baldoz issued a circular removing the validation function from the LACs.
Soriano attributes Baldoz’s move to an incident in January 2, 2008 when the POEA LAC staff allegedly refused to give an exit clearance to Maria Theresa, the vacationing daughter of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban.
According to the former Chief Justice’s newspaper column, her daughter “willingly” applied for an exit clearance to the POEA. But since POEA offices were closed due to non-working holidays when she returned December 28, 2007, she wasn’t able to secure an exit clearance.
The Chief Justice admitted in his column that he brought the matter to then Labor Secretary and current Supreme Court Associate Justice Arturo Brion. He also complained of the “shabby treatment” his daughter, who is working for a Fortune 500 company in New Jersey, United States, allegedly received from LAC staff.
Baldoz, receiving flak after the publication of the former Chief Justice’s column, prompted her to order the removal of the validation function of POEA’s LACs.
Baldoz was appointed undersecretary at the Department of Labor and Employment, the POEA’s mother agency, and replaced by Jennifer Manalili, an aide of Chief Justice Panganiban.
After Manalili’s term expired in end-2010, she was replaced by Carlos Cao last January. Cao issued a circular ordering the return of the validation function to the LAC.
POEA Planning Branch chief Mia Alvarez said the removal of this function from the LAC saw an increase in illegal recruitment cases –including those victims spotted at airports and those OFWs facing labor-related cases in host countries.
Alvarez said that in the January-to-September 2010, these cases went up by 2.36 percent to 1,648 compared to the 1,610 recorded for the same nine-month period in 2009.
She added that Immigration and LAC personnel complained also of problems dealing with OFWs carrying fabricated documents such as the OEC, the pre-departure orientation seminar certificate, and visa, among others.
Cañaberal blamed Baldoz’s removal of the LAC’s validation function to the rise of “offloading,” a situation wherein immigration officers prevent departing OFWs from leaving until documents are authenticated by the POEA.
“There’s too much hanky-panky going on,” Cañaberal said.
With the return of the validation function to LAC, Canaberal says that an OFW will be given a minute to validate his or her documents using computers linked to the POEA headquarters’ computers containing records. The OFW is then given an exit clearance. The POEA also collects the OEC document, yet OFWs still do not pay any terminal fee.
The real-time capture of departing OFWs will hopefully lead to more accurate statistics of the ones who were eventually deployed to overseas jobs, Cañaberal said.
At the moment, there are three LACs to station each of the three terminals of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).
Terminal 1’s LAC handles the most number of departing OFWs with 3,500 to 5,000 daily since foreign airports are in the said terminal. Terminal 2’s LAC handles 800 to 950 OFWs, while terminal 3’s LAC handles 400-500 OFWs, Cañaberal said.
He, however, notes that long queues would not be solved by the return of the validation function to the LAC.
The ten-person staff complement is not enough to validate the documents of departing OFWs, Cañaberal said. So expect problems associated with managing long lines of OFWs at the LACs, especially in Terminal 1, he added.
Still Cañaberal promised that the POEA will “tighten up” its work at airports to ensure that OFWs departing carry only authenticated documents.