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Find out Why this OFW won’t be home for Christmas

Christmas has begun. Overseas Filipino workers like me are excited to go home to celebrate with family and friends. But news just broke of the two-week suspension of issuance of new overseas employment certificates (OECs), or exit passes. Thousands of OFWs have been prevented from leaving and possibly lost their jobs.

This made me reconsider my plans to buy that overpriced return ticket: SIN-MNL-SIN.

I am a direct hire, working legally in Singapore for almost seven years now. Direct hires are hired without going through an employment agency. This is now banned by Section 123 of the 2016 Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Rules. Sure, there are exceptions, but these rely solely on Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III’s discretion.

Is that not a terrible bottleneck? The labor secretary reading thousands upon thousands of requests for OEC exemptions daily? Is that not too much to ask of Bello, a senior citizen?

And what does one do while waiting for him to decide? Nothing but wait and pray that he comes to his senses and realizes that there is a better way of protecting the rights of Filipinos working abroad.

Last year, they changed the rules so I no longer need to apply for new OECs as long as I work for the same company. But come the time that I find a better opportunity and want to change employers, I will be required to apply for a new OEC or whatever the POEA will require then.

My fear is this: If I go back for Christmas, a new POEA rule might suddenly prevent me from leaving. I could lose my job and the entire world I spent years building abroad.

Of course, there is a workaround: I could declare myself a tourist and pay for the airport and travel taxes. I could simply lie. They would not dare curtail my constitutional right to travel, would they?

I remember the last time I stood in an immigration queue at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. I saw domestic helpers clutching their neatly arranged documents dearly. Their hands shook as they approached the immigration officer, who knew very well that he had the power to decide if the kasambahay could leave or not.

I wanted to tell them to be cool, that it is their basic right to travel and to pursue what they think might be a better life. But, of course, I kept my mouth shut and minded my own business. Like everyone in that special OFW queue, I wanted to get out of there with no hassle.

The question is: Why do our kababayan fear immigration officers even if they are carrying complete requirements? Because “offloading” is not uncommon. An OFW can be prevented from leaving any time. Then if you want to try to get on another flight, you have to pay for a new ticket. Even legitimate tourists are subject to this injustice.

I would love to see better and more realistic rules implemented by the POEA. I understand that Bello’s mandate is to protect OFWs from abuses. But all-encompassing rules such as banning direct hires, with vague exceptions, is a waste of time, effort and resources.

I know of Filipinos who work as vice presidents in multinational banks. I sincerely doubt that these folks, or even a lowly IT consultant for a global company like myself, would need an employment agency’s help to resolve employment issues.

The government would be better off auditing existing agencies that deploy domestic helpers and charge exorbitant fees that they have to pay over several months—over SG$1,000. Let me spell that out: The POEA requires these humble helpers to work for months just to be able to pay agency fees. Is that not a form of legalized, modern-day slavery?

Going back to my dilemma, should I go home for Christmas and risk not being able to fly back and eventually lose my job? Or should I just tell my mother that, sorry, I will not be there for Christmas, her birthday and New Year’s Day, like in the past three years?

The risk of being trapped in my own country by a POEA rules change is too worrying. We will have to be content with virtual hugs for a fourth year. – Inquirer

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