By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
The Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development is considering to move for the removal of Bureau of Immigration’s (BI) authority to issue special working permits (SWPs) to foreigners.
Senator Joel Villanueva, committee chairman, said this as the panel conducted Thursday its second hearing on the influx of illegal foreign workers in the Philippines, wherein he stressed the “lenience” of the BI in issuing SWPs to foreign nationals who intend to work here.
He blamed the BI for surge of illegal foreign workers in the country, which comprise mostly of Chinese nationals employed in Philippine offshore gaming operations (POGO).
An SWP allows foreign workers to work in the country for three months and could be extended for another three months.
Villanueva is proposing to revoke the BI’s authority in issuing work permits and let the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) be the sole agency to have such function.
The BI, according to the senator, has no capability to vet whether or not job posts should be given to foreign national who want to work in the country, despite pronouncements that Filipinos do not have enough skills to fill the vacancies.
“What we want is they (the BI) will cease the issuance of SWPs,” Villanueva told reporters.
He added the government, through the DOLE, should only be giving alien employment permits (AEPs) to ensure that the employment opportunities given to foreign workers are not being “taken away” from Filipinos who can do the jobs equally.
AEPs are given by the DOLE to foreign nationals who have jobs that are highly technical, specialized, supervisory and managerial and cannot be fulfilled by the Philippine job market. Unlike the SWPs, these are issued for employment lasting for more than six months.
“We are not undermining the authority of BI in issuing work visas but work permits — as the name dictates — and Alien Employment Permits, ‘eh talagang (should really be handled by the) DOLE ‘yan,” Villanueva said, adding that it is stated in the country’s Labor Code.
DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III, at the hearing, said he shares Villanueva’s concern “that there are indeed sudden spikes in the entry of Chinese nationals” in the country.
He agreed that Filipinos should be prioritized in job opportunities here in the country, even as projects were loaned by other countries.
Bello said he will meet with the Department of Justice (DOJ), the BI’s mother agency, on the proposal to remove the bureau’s power to issue work permits. Although he maintained that the DOLE still needs the BI’s help in regulating the entry of foreign workers to the country.
BI Commissioner Jaime Morente, for his part, urged the Senate panel to “consider” the government’s revenue from the SWPs being granted to foreigner. He said the agency, in 2018, collected some P4.2 billion from SWP fees.
Bello said the DOLE issued 169,893 AEPs from 2015 to 2018, or an average of 42,000 a year.
Of the issued AEPs, 84,496 or 53.3 percent were granted to Chinese; 16,000 or 9.7 percent were Japanese; 9.1 percent were Koreans; 6.7 percent were Indians; 8.7 percent were Taiwanes; 2.9 percent were Indonesians; while 2.9 percent were Malaysian and Vietnamese.
Bello said 35.9 percent foreigner workers were involved in administration and support services, 24 percent were manufacturing, 10.6 percent information and communication technology and 17.5 percent in arts and recreation.
The BI, on the other hand, issued some 185,000 SWPs last year, said Villanueva.
Inter-agency committee vs illegal workers
Bello also reported to the Senate labor panel that the government is close to creating an inter-agency committee that would address the surge in illegal alien workers in the country.
He said he met Finance Sec. Carlos Dominguez, Justice Sec. Menardo Guevarra, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) chair Andrea Domingo and Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Commissioner Cesar Dulay and the BI regarding the said inter-agency committee, which shall be led by the DOLE.
The interagency panel, Bello said, is expected to consolidate all the processes in the entry of foreign nationals in the country, and address the government’s shortcomings in regulating foreign workers.
Villanueva cited “several lapses” by the said agencies in regulating and monitoring foreign workers here. Among others, he said the “varying” figures submitted by concerned agencies to the Senate panel proved their “lack in coordination.”
Bello conceded to this, saying this prompts the inter-agency committee to come up with an inventory of all foreign nationals working in the country.
“We will get a full inventory of foreign workers with the end view of regulating their work here, including the collection of taxes,” the Labor official said.
Aside from the consolidated data, the interagency committee panel will also “institutionalize” a procedure in the issuance of work permits, like lawmakers have appealed.
Sen. Nancy Binay, attending the hearing, also urged Bello to include the Department of Tourism so as not to compromise tourist arrivals in the country.
Binay, who chairs the Senate Committee on Tourism, said the government has to “strike a balance” between regulating foreign entry and opening up the country to tourists.
The committee will be established within one month, Bello assured.