Manila | Dubai: Leo Manalaysay, a Dubai-based overseas Filipino worker (OFWs), wants to go back home to see his wife and three-year-old son in Philippines after spending more than two years away due to pandemic travel curbs.
He has been gainfully employed at an industrial design and contracting company based in the UAE. The Dubai-Manila flight is 8 hours. Before he could fly home, like all OFWs, Manalaysay must fall in line for more than 8 hours outside the Philippine Consulate General.
During the workweek, the queue starts from as early as 4am, outside the diplomatic mission's compound.
Due to the sheer number of Filipinos in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, and lifting of travel restrictions, serpentine queues outside the consulate have emerged. For most, it's to secure a simple but important piece of document, the Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC).
The OEC — also known as "exit clearance" or "pass" — is a slip certifying the regularity of recruitment and documentation of an OFW and a proof of his or her registration with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which regulates overseas employment.
Without it, a departing OFW will by barred by immigration authorities at Philippine airports.
"Yes, these long queues under the sun outside the consulate is a fact of life. We understand the need for contract verification," said Manalaysay (name changed upon request). "But we're in the digital age. Our people will do well if we digitise the process. Use apps instead, like we do with COVID vaccine verification," he added.
Chris, a Filipino manager based in the UAE, recently showed up at 6am for contract verification and OEC application outside the consulate office, by which time, 200 people were already on the queue.
The so-called "contract verification" is straightforward process, but can take a circuitous route, involving cross-checking with several entities. On paper, it is designed to protect Filipino expat workers, especially household workers.
Due to manual processing, the lack of manpower among frontliner staff, and the surge in the volume of applicants, the travails of OFWs keen to fly home has raised stress levels.
The OEC is just the tip of the iceberg.
"Applying for an OEC is a very degrading experience for us. OFWs may already face untold difficulties in the workplace. Working far away from loved ones isn't easy. The process for obtaining an OEC just adds insult to the injury," said Chris.
"It's a sad state of affairs, whether you're applying for affidavit of support or even simple notarisations. I don't blame the people at the consulate. It's the system that needs an overhaul," he added.
Rolando Agustin, a Filipino accountant in the UAE, said: "For those of us who wish to see our families back home, yes, we do expect this sort of treatment to be dealt with immediately, by digitising contract verification and the OEC papplication process."
OEC travails of OFWs
The OFWs' travails over the certificate has apparently reached the halls of Malacañang, the presidential palace.
On Monday (July 25), President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. ordered the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) to automate services to ensure the immediate delivery of assistance to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
In his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), Marcos Jr emphasised the need to curb bureaucratic red tape to ease the burden of OFWs.
Marcos said he had ordered the DMW to work with the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) to usher in the digital processing of OFWs' documents.
“We shall automate the verification of contracts and issue secure Overseas Employment Certifications (OEC) that you can keep on your smartphone. I call on the Department of Migrant Workers and the DICT to make this a top priority,” he said in a speech delivered at Batasan Complex in Quezon City on Monday.
Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople earlier vowed to simplify the existing processes to ensure “enhanced, efficient, and transparent” services for OFWs.
She also guaranteed that she is prioritising the review of the POEA's rules and regulations, including its system on contract verification and issuance of OECs in order to streamline its key frontline services.
"I’m happy that they are looking into using technology, AI, automation and Apps to help ease the burden of OFWs," said Chris. "They can even outsource some of these services, similar to our passport renewal which is now through VFS. These will be more humane and free up the consulate staff from such admin work. Instead they can focus on more important tasks."
Faster, simpler transactions
Marcos Jr also sought the faster deployment of OFWs by shortening the processing period to three weeks from the current three months.
“Mula sa tatlong buwan ay gagawin na lamang nating tatlong linggo para sa isang dayuhang employer na i-proseso ang mga papeles ng Filipinong nais nitong kunin bilang empleyado (Instead of three months, we will make it just three weeks for a foreign employer to process the papers of Filipinos they want to hire)," he said.
Help jobless OFWs
Marcos also told the DMW to seek the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to help OFWs who lose their jobs.
He called on the DFA to ensure the immediate employment of jobless OFWs. Marcos also assured that OFW's rights will be protected.
“Sa ating mga kababayan sa ibang bansa (To our fellow countrymen living and working abroad): You deserve a Home in Government not only for the money you send home, but for you are not cold tools of the economy. You deserve it for your sacrifices, for our country and your perseverance and excellence in the global arena,” the chief executive said.
One Repatriation Command Centre
Marcos also noted that the One Repatriation Command Centre has been launched to provide immediate response to distressed OFWs.
"Para sa mga kababayan nating naiipit sa kaguluhan, inaabuso, at nanganganib ang buhay, ikinagagalak kong sa ilalim ng aking pamumuno, ay inilunsad ang One Repatriation Command Center or ORCC (For our fellow countrymen who are experiencing abuse or in danger, the One Repatriation Command Center has been established under my watch)," he said.
1-348Hotline for One Repatriation Command Center (ORCC)
Distressed OFWs or their immediate families may call the ORCC hotline "1-348."
The command centre, which operates on a 24/7 basis with case and welfare officers working three shifts daily, can accommodate calls and walk-ins or regular weekdays.
Requests can be made through the 1-348 hotline on weekends.
Marcos also vowed to provide educational assistance to the children of OFWs.
"You represent the fighting faith of the Filipinos as a nation and as a people. Let us transform your overseas journey into inspirational stories for all time,” Marcos said Monday, on his first state-of-the-nation address.
To make government transactions with OFWs simpler, the president likewise directed the issuance of pamphlets, replacing the OFW handbook which serves as a reference for the migrant workers’ rights and contains information to help them address their problems and concerns.
"We will also direct the department to make the complicated handbook for OFWs simple to help them understand the transactions for their foreign employment," he said.
“From 240 sections contained in the handbook, we will just make it less than 100 pages through the issuance of a pamphlet. Life is already difficult, and we do not want our migrant workers to find it difficult to fulfill their deams," Marcos added.