WE FIND the Commission on Audit’s 2014 Report on Salaries and Allowances of government officials posted in the Commission’s website, outrageous and scandalous but perfectly conceivable. After all – and despite its “Tuwid na Daan” (Straight Path) mantra of governance – the entire BS Aquino presidency – with 11 months remaining in its term – has been characterized by scandals and allegations of corruption.

The COA report revealed that 7 out of the 10 highest paid government officials are diplomats of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Philippine Ambassador to China Erlinda Basilio was in the No. 1 spot having received P16.44M salary and allowances combined, Ambassador to UK Enrique Manalo in the 3rd spot with P12.34M, 4th was Ambassador to Australia Lourdes Yparraguirre P11.74, Ma. Theresa Tagulang, Consul General Tokyo with P10.91M was 5th, Esteban Conejos Philippines representative to WTO with P10.7M was 6th, Philippe Lhuillier, Ambassador to Portugal with P10.56-M, ranked 7th and in the No. 8 spot was Ambassador to Germany, Ma. Cleofa Natividad with P9.86M.

Aside from the 7 mentioned above, there were 6 other diplomats who each received at least P9.1M in salary and allowances during the 2014 fiscal year.

Whilst these diplomats were earning millions, the Aquino government allocated a meager P100M to the Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) in its 2015 national budget, a massive cut back from the original proposal of P500M that took into account the alarming increase in the number of distressed, stranded and undocumented OFWs who urgently and desperately need government onsite services and welfare programs.

President Aquino even made a ‘conditional veto’ to the LAF item i. e. the DFA can use the fund provided it has funding sources such as collections or savings. No wonder Philippine diplomatic posts abroad have intensified its collections by imposing consular fee increases in passport renewals, authentications and certifications.

In effect, the 100M LAF will be sourced and passed on to OFWs in the form of state exaction and fees imposition. This ‘kotong’ scheme has overburdened the 12 million OFWs and as well as their families as remittances are cut back due to increased fees and additional unnecessary impositions.

While Aquino’s diplomats were earning millions and living comfortably in fully furnished and air-conditioned rooms, thousands of OFWs – victims of abuses and labor malpractices – are distressed, stranded and undocumented.

Currently, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, there are at least 200 women OFWs at the Philippine Embassy’s halfway shelter, Bahay Kalinga, at least 120 stranded male OFWs at the Philippine Embassy-rented villa and another 70 women OFWs under the care of the Saudi Social Welfare Agency (SSWA) are sheltered at its holding center. These, on top of an estimated 20,000 undocumented OFWs who all need onsite assistance and welfare services from these very diplomats who are earning millions from the fees and collections from 12 million OFWs.

Depending on the concentration of OFWs, diplomatic posts are earning millions for authentication and certification and other consular services – and to make it worse, they have increased consular services fees and imposed unnecessary certification and authentication of OFW-related documents.

Take passport renewal: Philippine diplomatic posts charge fees that are three times higher than the fee in DFA-Manila which ranges from P950 for regular processing to P1,200 for express processing. For example, the Philippine diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia imposes 240 rials (roughly equivalent to P2,800) for the renewal of passport for at least a month of waiting for its release whilst in the United Arab Emirates 240 dirhams (at least P2,900) in Hong Kong 480 HK dollar (equivalent to at least P2,800).

Even travel documents fees and airfares are being collected from the distressed and stranded, a usual complaint they received from OFWs despite government pronouncement that airfares of distressed and stranded will be provided free.

There must be an auditing of all Philippine diplomatic posts and we call on the Commission on Audit to look into the millions of Philippine diplomatic posts collections on consular services and fees.

We also call on all pro-OFWs Congressmen and the representatives of the progressive Makabayan bloc to initiate an investigation in aid of legislation, and in which findings will be the basis for filing graft cases against those who usurped the General Appropriations Act (GAA).

The 2016 proposed national budget by the Aquino administration must be thoroughly scrutinized, and the various peoples’ organizations and NGOs active participation are crucial so that a graft-free, equitable, social services-oriented national budget that does not neglect OFWs will be approved.

Dolores Balladares, chairperson
UNIFIL-MIGRANTE-HK

Mario Ben, chairperson
MIGRANTE-KSA

Nhel Morona, national coordinator
MIGRANTE-UAE

John Leonard Monterona, regional coordinator
Migrante-Middle East

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