MANILA, Philippines – Despite his efforts to maintain "neutral," Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III on Tuesday, September 17, expressed support for the proposed creation of a new department that would focus on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
"Being labor secretary I have refrained from taking a position but as I already stated earlier, since the leadership already took a position, I support this move to create a separate department for OFWs," Bello said at the Department of Labor and Employment's budget hearing at the Senate.
Bello said he had wanted to refrain from taking a position on the matter as his role as labor secretary meant "my position will always be suspect." Despite this, senators pressed Bello for his opinion, considering that DOLE would be directly affected if the new department were created.
Changing tunes: In particular, senators were concerned over moves to create a new agency alongside efforts to rightsize the government.
Senator Franklin Drilon, who was a former labor secretary, pointed out that in the previous Congress, the executive department itself opposed the creation of a new agency for OFWs in line with efforts to streamline the bureaucracy.
"Creating a new OFW department goes directly against the heart of that policy but if you don't want to explain i can appreciate that. Being a member of the cabinet you're suppossed to follow the process," Drilon said.
Prior to this, Bello in 2017 had said in a position paper given to the Senate that with efforts to streamline the government, the executive position at the time was to hold off on creating a sole departmet for OFWs.
"Moreover the rightsizing bill streamlining the executive branch has been among the legislative priorities of the President. The creation of the department at this time should be studied," Bello said in the paper read by Senator Joel Villanueva.
Bello, though, said that was 2017 and since then, "things have changed."
The labor secretary himself earlier admitted he was surprised that a new OFW department was proposed as the Cabinet previously opposed it.
Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler
Will anything new be offered? Villanueva claimed that in previous meetings of the Development Budget Coordination Committee, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said the creation of a department for OFWs was not an urgent measure.
Villanueva asked Bello to explain why a new department for OFWs is needed.
Bello said a new department would "underscore the value" and OFWs, saying it was only fair that there was "a department to focus on the protection and promotion of their rights."
Drilon refuted this saying the mandates of both the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) were clear. POEA and OWWA are attached agencies of DOLE.
"You are admitting... are you saying that your present bureaucracy does not respond to this need to underscore the contribution of our overseas Filipino workers?" he said. "I dispute that."
Villanueva then told Bello: "It's okay secretary to have a change of heart.... We're willing to support if we see the need. Pero hindi pa rin kami sold (But we're not yet sold) sa pronouncement on creating the Department of Overseas Filipinos."