Senate tackles bill seeking to expand legal aid for distressed OFWs

Robie de Guzman

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate has started deliberations into the proposed measure which seeks to expand the use of a fund meant to assist overseas Filipino workers (OFW) facing legal actions in their places of work abroad.

Senator Joel Villanueva on Tuesday urged the Senate to approve Senate Bill No. 1233, after the committees on labor and foreign relations, signed the report reconciling the proposals filed by Senators Nancy Binay and Ronald dela Rosa.

In his sponsorship speech at the plenary, Villanueva explained the necessity of instituting amendments on the use of the legal assistance fund (LAF), saying the proposed measure would “ultimately benefit more OFWs in distress” should it pass in the upper chamber.

The legal assistance fund is being utilized by the government to cover various costs of OFWs embroiled in legal actions abroad.

“Full protection of labor more significantly implies a continuing positive duty on the part of the State to ensure that the rights of its workers are at all times protected and their welfare promoted and improved at every chance possible,” said Villanueva, who chairs the Senate committee on labor, employment, and human resources development.

The bill seeks to amend the provisions on the LAF in Republic Act 8042 or the Migrant Workers’ Law to expand its coverage to include the payment of bail bonds required by foreign courts, tribunals or other agencies.

The measure also proposes to amend the granting of authority to foreign posts to use the fund to engage the services of paralegals familiar with the country’s culture “to provide immediate basic assistance and legal aid to distressed overseas Filipinos.”

Its aim is to advance and improve not only the quality but also the promptness of the delivery of these services to our migrant workers and overseas Filipinos, according to Villanueva.

The measure also mandates the availability of the fund at all times for the use of distressed OFWs and Filipinos abroad.

“It further clarifies that such assistance shall be given from the moment the case is initiated, or the proceeding is commenced, until its termination, promulgation, and execution,” Gatchalian said.

“This assistance extends further to all appeals taken on these cases, thereby guaranteeing full and complete support to distressed Filipinos overseas,” he added.

The bill also seeks to allow the Secretary of Foreign Affairs to delegate the authority to the head of Post to approve an expenditure chargeable to the LAF, subject to existing rules and regulations of the Commission on Audit.

Villanueva said that under the current system, heads of Posts seek approval from the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila before the fund may be available to migrant workers and overseas Filipinos in distress.

This, according to the senator, results in delays in providing immediate legal assistance to distressed Filipinos.

“We urge our esteemed colleagues to rally behind this noble effort to further strengthen the protection afforded by the State to our migrant workers and overseas Filipinos. The risks and vulnerabilities suffered by our countrymen overseas cannot be overemphasized,” Villanueva said.

Citing government data, Gatchalian said there are about 8.9 million Filipinos abroad as of June 2019, 3.5 million of which are OFWs.

As of August 31, 2019, some 4,116 have already benefited from the legal assistance fund, data from the Department of Foreign Affairs showed.

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