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PHILIPPINES: Filipino workers' worthless healthcare

Danilo Reyes

When an overseas Filipino worker falls ill or meets with an accident, obtaining assistance from the Philippine government is impractical , if not impossible. Normally, a country like the Philippines that ¡§exports¡¨ labour should be responsible for ensuring the welfare of its overseas workers. However, these workers often obtain assistance from their host country rather than their own.

While the Philippine government strictly collects payments from overseas workers¡Xthrough such means as the membership fee for the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration¡Xand this costs about 1,200 pesos (US)¡Xin reality many workers are unaware of how the funds are disbursed and how they can benefit.

Also, although membership in the OWWA is not mandatory, some of the group¡¦s collection officers give workers the impression that it is. The OWWA receives no funding from the government and its operation is entirely dependant on membership fees from workers.

Workers with new contracts have to pay for an OWWA membership when they go to their worksites abroad, as well as buy separate insurance, after which an Overseas Employment Certificate is issued to them. The OEC is presented at the airport when a worker checks in for a flight, exempting him or her from travel tax worth 1,670 pesos (US) and airport tax.

The OEC, which costs 100 pesos (US), is only valid for a single trip. So a worker has to apply and pay for it every time he or she travels abroad from the Philippines either upon getting a new contract or simply returning to work from a holiday. More travel means more money for the government through these OECs. However, once again workers are largely unaware how the government spends these funds.

Being an OWWA member and having an OEC should enable workers to claim compensation arising from illnesses or accidents during their period of contract abroad. Their welfare should be a priority¡Xbut experience has shown this is not the case.

A newspaper report recently mentioned that many overseas workers who did not renew their contracts after the OWWA initiated its Omnibus Policy, which restricts benefits to current OWWA members, have not been able to get assistance from the group; for instance, the 10,000 pesos (US4) death assistance, the 5,000 pesos (US2) financial aid for illnesses, and scholarships for their children, among other things.

Although Hong Kong, for example, has a Philippine Health Insurance Centre, workers do not benefit, as discounts on health treatments offered by the centre are not accepted by any hospitals in the territory. Rather, they are valid abroad. So, workers are forced to seek treatment from public hospitals for which they need to have a Hong Kong identity card. I am not aware of any officer or personnel posted to this Hong Kong PhilHealth Centre who are responsible for the welfare of Filipino workers who are their members.

In reality, being a member of such an organization has meant little in terms of compensation for workers who fall ill. It has been noted that many workers after returning to the Philippines lose their jobs due to illnesses acquired abroad. The Philippine government, which sent them abroad, knows that it has not done enough or failed to respond quickly when help was required.

One can imagine the frustration of ailing workers who are unable to obtain adequate assistance despite the money paid for OWWA membership, the OEC and PhilHealth contributions, which in reality should be available to them, particularly for long-term treatment. It is no surprise that ailing Filipino workers in Hong Kong have to depend on public hospitals and donations from co-workers and friends.

Perhaps that is why, when I refused to pay my membership fees to OWWA for reasons of dissatisfaction related to funding and lack of service, it certainly surprised the OWWA collection officer. In fact, on two occasions, in order to get an OEC officials required me to sign a waiver from OWWA membership, and it is likely that they will require it again when I apply the next time.

The last time I applied for it, an OWWA collection officer at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration office in Davao City took almost two hours to lecture me and insist that I pay, on the pretext that it is compulsory. She contacted the heads of almost all their offices in the region, including the national office in Manila, to get them to tell me I was obliged to pay. But I did not yield. They had to give me an OEC.

Apparently this was the collection officer ¡¦s first experience in her seven years of service with the OWWA that an applicant refused to be their member. She even tried to lecture me on what I should write in my waiver; for instance, that my family and I would never seek any claims, among other things. However, I told her it was meaningless since non-members do not get any benefits in the first place.

Even if a worker gets assistance from OWWA, there is no relationship between what he or she needs and is entitled to, and what he or she actually gets. The Philippine government should reflect on this practical experience of workers before many more like me realize it is not worth paying all those fees.

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