Overseas Filipinos queue up for OEC at Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Dubai, earlier this year. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Despite not being able to secure an online appointment, UAE-based Filipino expatriates Mark and Phillip (names changed upon request) braved the summer heat and went to the Philippine Overseas Labour Office (POLO) in Dubai to have their employment contracts verified and acquire an overseas employment certificate (OEC) — a mandatory travel document for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

They were not lucky as “strictly by-appointment only” transaction is being enforced by POLO Dubai. Both Mark and Phillip have already booked their tickets to visit their respective families in the Philippines later this month.

According to a POLO Dubai advisory: “All applicants (contract verification, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration membership/Balik Manggagawa-OEC, Social Security System, Home Development Mutual Fund/Pag-ibig membership) are required to present a confirmed appointment to be granted entry (at POLO Dubai), except for OFWs with confirmed flights the following day.”

“In such cases and upon presentation of complete documentary requirements, they shall be accorded with the contract verification services. Should the confirmed flights fall on the weekend and/or legal holidays, they shall be accommodated on the nearest working day,” it added.

“POLO verified contracts and OECs are not required when going home to the Philippines,” noted POLO Dubai, adding: “Those (documents) are required when the OFW is returning to his/her jobsite (in this case, the UAE).”

For Mark and Phillip, the problem was that they could not secure an appointment before their flight. Both haven’t seen their families for two years.

‘Exasperated OFWs’

The case of Mark and Phillip is not isolated. Back in April, POLO Dubai experienced an “unprecedented number of clients for more than a week”, resulting in long queues of Filipinos seeking employment contract verification.

Filipino expatriates had then taken to social media to express their “exasperation at having to wait for long hours”. They also shared photos of people lining up outside the POLO office in Al Qusais 3 (next to the Philippine Consulate General) as early as 4am to get an OEC.

Gulf News had earlier reported the sentiments of Filipinos who vented their ire through social media posts. Rein Angelo Ramoz called for the scrapping of OEC. His compatriot, Renzi, posted a message on the Gulf News Facebook page addressed to POLO-Dubai, saying: “Please don’t let the Filipino people suffer (because) of OEC and employment contract verification. I don’t think waiting in a long line under the sun for more than 12 hours is justifiable. Please be considerate. I saw them patiently waiting outside. I don’t think they deserve this.”

There are no more long queues at POLO Dubai, following the implementation of strict appointment system, but for Mark and Phillip and other OFWs, securing an online appointment is a big challenge.

Why OFWs need OEC

Employment contract verification is a pre-requisite for the issuance of an OEC. Under the directive of Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), all OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) are required to possess an OEC for returning to their work overseas. The OEC, also known as exit clearance/pass, is a document certifying the regularity of recruitment and documentation of an OFW and a proof of his/her registration with the POEA.

The OEC is presented to the immigration officer at the airport of exit in the Philippines. An OFW who holds OEC can enjoy the following privileges: Travel tax exemption, airport terminal fee exemption and reduced travel tax for spouse or dependents.

An OFW exiting from the Philippines without OEC may be prevented by the immigration officer from leaving the country.

John Rio Aceveda Bautista

Philippine Labour Attache John Rio Aceveda Bautista has reiterated that the OEC is mandated by law. “The system is being maintained by POEA and scrapping it is a policy issue that only the management can address.”

‘Scrapping OEC for any one country not tenable’

“As long as it (OEC) is required under POEA regulation, we will implement it,” noted Bautista, adding: “Scrapping of OEC solely for UAE or one country is not tenable as it is being required for all countries of destination. That is why we highly encourage that they pass through the legal channel.”

Bautista underlined: “OEC is the exit clearance, recognised by immigration officials for OFWs to depart from the Philippines. OEC also exempts the OFW from airport terminal fee and travel tax. OEC issuance is mandated by the POEA rules and considered valid until declared unconstitutional by court of law.”

Scrap OEC now

Filipino expat Rica Turay pleaded: “Please remove this OEC requirement. This OEC has given us a lot of stress. We only want to go home to see our family.”

Ion Gonzaga

Filipino vlogger and social media influencer Ion Gonzaga told Gulf News: “The OEC has presented [people with] more frustrations than benefits.” He asserted: “Our UAE employment visa should be enough to validate our employment. We need proper assistance rather than a mere ‘certificate’.”

Gonzaga also criticised the “poor appointment system”, adding: “The website is poorly designed; online booking is poor; data verification is inaccurate. POLO-Dubai does not even accept cards or digital payments.”

Gonzaga continued: “Philippine travel tax at the airport is just around Dh115. We actually pay more for OEC and contract verification. They cost Dh92 and Dh40, respectively, plus you add the money spent going to POLO-Dubai and the time wasted in processing the request — it’s very inconvenient and more expensive.”

No empirical data

Barney Almazar

“There is no empirical data that the act of contract verification being done by the POEA can justify the curtailment of the fundamental rights of the traveller. The freedom of movement is a constitutional right, which a citizen cannot be deprived of without due process of law and only on clear and compelling grounds of national security, public health and public safety,” noted Barney Almazar, director at the corporate-commercial department of Gulf Law.

“The requirement to secure an exit pass or OEC is essentially an infringement on a Filipino’s right to travel,” he added.

Duty to OFWs

Almazar is also pushing for the scrapping of OEC. He explained: “There is a need to balance the government’s duty to protect its people and the citizens’ right to travel and look for jobs abroad. Human trafficking is not prevented by a mere act of rubber stamping an employment contract. Criminals are not dumb to provide a contract that they know will be rejected. The government should crack down on illegal recruiters and not punish those who simply want to work abroad for their families.”

He added: “The best way is to offer support to OFWs and channel resources to agencies based in the host countries, rather than spending on useless paperwork and bureaucracy.”