Salary woes still hound Immigration workers. Where's the solution?

MANILA, Philippines – Gina Valenzuela was sent home to the Philippines in 2014 when civil war broke out in Libya, where she was working as a nurse. Fortunately, she found a job at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) and Gina swore she would never leave her 3 children again.

But that promise had to be broken. On April 1, 2017, Gina flew back to the war zone in Ras Lanuf, Libya, because the government slashed their extra pay at the bureau.

And the solution that is touted by officials is a bill that is not even among the urgent measures of the Congress.

Measly basic

BI was shaken up around February this year when Immigration Officers (IOs) stationed at the airport started snubbing work to protest President Rodrigo Duterte’s veto of the budget provision that had, for years, sustained their salary.

For decades, profit from the airport’s express lane fund (ELF) is used to augment workers' salaries. Duterte vetoed it coming in to 2017 and said the profit should go to the treasury, not the bureau. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno called it a corrupt system, firm that it will not be returned to the workers. (READ: Diokno says soldiers can man airport immigration counters)

BI Commissioner Jaime Morente and his subordinates had a series of meetings with Diokno and Palace officials. Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II promised they were finding ways to address the problem.

Duterte’s trusted aide, Secretary to the Cabinet Jun Evasco, had also intervened.

Aguirre said in April that he was trying to convince Duterte, through Evasco, to let them use ELF in the meantime, or at least adopt a new formula that he refused to elaborate at the time.

"So siguro ang ating Pangulo na ang aakto dito considering na hindi namin maconvince ang DBM (Department of Budget and Management) tungkol dito sa temporary arrangement na ito," Aguirre said then.

(Maybe the President will act on it himself since we cannot convince the DBM in this proposed temporary arrangement.)

Five months since, nothing has changed, according to workers Rappler was able to talk to.

One IO who spoke on condition of anonymity said she’s now only earning P11,000 a month. A Salary Grade (SG) 11 worker, she is entitled to P19,000 a month. Before the veto, they could receive as much as P70,000 due to overtime or extra pay from the ELF.

Before the veto, only tax and other deductions are slashed from their basic pay. Health care benefits deductions are paid for through their overtime pay. Now it’s all on their basic pay.

Ang ginawa nila, every month, alternate yung bayad ng principal tsaka dependents. Nakukuha ko lang ngayon 11k+ dahil sa bawas ng health card (What they did was they take out the health card fee every month, alternately for the principal and the dependents. I only get P11,000 because of the health card deductions,” the IO said.

Before Gina left for Libya, her P19,000 basic pay would be reduced to P16,000. 

Hindi kasya and take home pay na P16,000. May babayaran sa school, may loan na babayaran, may mga bills pa (My take home pay of P16,000 is just isn't enough for school expenses, for loans to pay and for bills),” she said. She is sending two children to college.

‘They’re not reaching out’

According to the IO, higher-ups have not reached out to them since the news died down in recent months.

“Hindi man lang sila nagri-reach out samin. Wala talagang mga official announcement so nagrerely lang kami sa tsismis (They couldn't even reach out to us. There are no official announcements so we rely on rumors),” she said.

As Congress is in budget season again, workers of the bureau are anxious to see what solutions are enclosed int their budget.

The answer is: there are no solutions in the proposed budget.

BI has a proposed P943.201 million budget for 2018, but nothing in the National Expenditure Program (NEP) addresses the salary problem.

In fact, it even reiterates that fee collection from the ELF shall be deposited to the treasury. “Failure to comply with the above requirement shall render any disbursement from said income void, and shall subject the erring officials and employees to disciplinary actions,” reads the 2018 NEP on BI’s budget.

Very fluid ang situation, kaya hindi rin kami inclined mag comment ng mag comment (The situation is very fluid that's why we're not inclined to comment),” BI spokesperson Antonette Mangrobang said in a phone interview.

But Mangrobang said the solutions are enclosed in the Immigration Bill. Justice Undersecretary for Immigration Erickson Balmes also pointed to the amended Immigration Act, pending in Congress.

A priority?

Salary problems in the BI is a perennial problem because they still follow what is on the very old Immigration Law, signed in 1940. 

For example, an Immigration lawyer with salary grade 16 only takes home around P24,000 a month. It was the reason why former Immigration Commissioner Miriam Defensor Santiago came up with the mechanism to use ELF funds for salary augmentation.

There are several bills pending before both chambers of Congress to address the problem. The bills propose, for example, to upgrade IOs from salary grade 11 to salary grades 16-17.

At the Senate, Balmes said Senate President Koko Pimentel has committed to fast-tracking it. Pimentel has not responded to Rappler as of posting.

Two of the bills are authored by Senators Loren Legarda and Franklin Drilon. Legarda has also not responded to Rappler. “No information, sorry,” was Drilon’s response.

The House bill is set to undergo 2nd reading. Committee on Justice chairman Representative Reynaldo Umali confirmed it has been approved on their level.

After it passes 2nd reading, it will have to go through 3rd and final reading. When the Senate passes its version, a consolidated bill will go through a bicameral conference who will process it for transmission to the President.

Sounds like a long way to go, but is it a priority measure? “Yes,” said Umali.

However, it was not included in the 28 priority and urgent measures approved by the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) end of August this year.

“It was probably included in a prior list due to problems in BI,” Umali said.

‘Has he forgotten the war on poverty?’

From the P1.2 billion ELF earns every year, P780 million goes to overtime pay for regular workers, P470 million to the contractual workers, while P28 million is used to pay for their health insurance.

Diokno said using it to pay for their health insurance is illegal, since government workers already have PhilHealth.

He said he is firm on stopping a corrupt system.

"This corrupt system has been going on for so long, kasi walang accountability here… Probably COA just closed their eyes in the past, hindi nila pinapansin, baka kasama sila dito sa mess na ito. Puwedeng part of it, I'm not sure, but it's possible. Bakit hindi rin tsine-check ng BIR, hindi ko rin alam. This has opened a can of worms; maraming implication," Diokno said in April.

(This corrupt system has been going on for so long because there's no accountability here. Probably COA just closed its eyes in the past, it didn't take notice; maybe it's part of this mess. Maybe it's part of it; I'm not sure, but it's possible. The BIR also isn't checking this, I also don't know. This has opened a can of worms; there are many implications.)

He also criticized the BI for not filling its thousands of vacant positions, calling it a deliberate move.

As of the 2018 NEP, BI still has not filled out its 1,074 vacant positions.

But the IO we talked to said new people had come in since the last months. The new hires had so far been sufficiently filling the gaps left by those who had gone on indefinite leave or who had resigned, said the IO.

The officer is thinking of resigning herself.

Ako gusto ko 'tong work na to. Pinaghirapan ko to. Madaming nag-apply tapos konti lang nakuha. Minahal ko na din to. Pero alam mo yun, hindi kami mahal ng gobyerno.  Gusto ko na rin umalis. Kahit hindi kasing laki ng dating sweldo. Nakakahinayang lang na yung pinaghirapan mo tapos bibitawan mo lang,” the officer said.

(I like this job, I worked hard for it. Many applied but few were hired. I have learned to love my job. But you know, the government does not love us back. I want to leave too, even for a job that doesn't pay as much as I used to earn. But it's a pity because you worked hard for it and then you're just going to have to let it go.)

Gina’s children did not want her to go back to Libya, but P16,000 a month just was not enough for a single mother like her sending two children to college.

Gina interrupted our conversation because her hospital had just gone on code blue. She is in a desert, a war zone. It is just one of the many sacrifices she has to do because work back home just could not cut it.

Before she rushed off to the emergency call, she said she had a message to the President: “War on drugs lang ang priority niya. War on poverty, nakalimutan na ba niya? (His only priority is the war on drugs. Has he forgotten the war on poverty?)” –

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.