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BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews /18November) —  It was a campaign promise fulfilled within a year, and shows how fast this government can move when it wants to.

Executive Order No. 44 creating the bank was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on September 28, 2017, almost a year after he made the promise in front of OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) in Tokyo, Japan.

E.O. 44 converts the Philippine Postal Savings Bank, a state-owned thrift bank with assets of 9.29 billion pesos ($181.4 million), into the Overseas Filipino Bank that will deliver “microfinance and micro-insurance products and services for OFWs.”

And not only OFWs but also overseas Filipinos, adds Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who encouraged OFWs to invest in the bank “because they actually own the bank”. OFWs can use their credit line with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to buy shares of stocks when the bank becomes operational.

The OF Bank will offer low remittance service rates and profitable investment offers, with Bello saying the Land Bank has agreed to offer 2.5 %  per annum interest for loans from OFWs returning to the country to start businesses or to build homes.

That is certainly lower than the private banks rate of up to 7.5% per annum interest.

“The plan is to capture the market of the remittances from abroad exclusively through the OF Bank,” Bello said. Satellite offices of the OF Bank will be established in all Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) globally.

The government is targeting to create 12 million jobs by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022.

Bello had previously said that the President’s ultimate goal is to get all overseas Filipinos home “by providing good jobs with good pay.”

A group of overseas Filipinos, however, remains cautious on this development.  Days after the news on the bank’s creation, Migrante International said in a statement that the creation of OFB “does not address the issue of forced migration.”

“Instead of providing a comprehensive and genuine economic program that decisively deviates from a policy of labor export and focuses on creating domestic jobs to end the cycle of forced migration, Duterte’s economic compulsion is to keep exporting Filipinos to maintain or, especially, to increase, concentrate and manage remittances,” said Migrante.

If OFW banks should be created, said Migrante, these should ensure that OFWs’ hard-earned money “are invested towards genuine rural development and national industrialization that will create jobs at home and end the vicious cycle of forced migration.”

Reactions among OFWs have also been mixed. A bigger part has been joy and appreciation from this sector which had helped vote Duterte into power last year, and where the President remains popular. Much is made over the fulfilment of a promise, and the swiftness in which it has been made.

On the other hand, there is some distrust over this government’s plea for OFW investments in the OF Bank, with some comments from overseas workers on Facebook likening the scheme to the forced coconut levy which fleeced coconut farmers in the 1970s and the 1980s and gave personal gain to then President Marcos and a few business cronies.

Certainly here, the promise of lower money transfer charges is enough to make OFWs change loyalty, because the current exchange rate for the Swiss Franc is high (1 Franc = Php 50 or higher).  In Bern, Filipinos moved over from a Pakistani private firm which charged 7 Francs for every remittance, when another private firm charged only 5 Francs.

Several questions also remain: Will the OF Bank actually offer lower remittance charges and better loan conditions than the private sector? Will OFWs trust and move over to the bank?

The promise to give OFWs their own bank is an old one, according to Bello. “As early as martial law days, itong OFW bank eh na-conceptualize na ‘yan. Naipangako na ‘yan,” he said.

But did government really think through this one? Or is the creation of an OF Bank a campaign promise that might be difficult to follow through?

In Bello’s view, the OF Bank is not an empty promise of this President. “Hindi empty promises ang binitawan ng ating Pangulo sa mga OFWs,” said Bello.

But again, there were a few promises or government action for OFWs that were ultimately shot down or shelved as being impractical or unnecessary, or difficult to implement, like the so-called Department for Overseas Filipino Workers or DOFW, which then Foreign Affairs Secretary  Perfecto Yasay Jr. turned down as unnecessary.

Yasay told Filipino community leaders gathered at the Philippine Embassy here in Bern last February that a DOFW would only replicate agencies already working on OFW concerns, and waste scant government resources for assisting Filipino workers overseas.

Or take the revised customs rules on balikbayan boxes, which Customs Commissioner Isidro S. Lapeña suspended last month, only two months after customs started its implementation on August 1 this year.

In a directive, Lapeña   moved the implementation of the new rules to March 31, 2018 following an uproar from OFW balikbayan box senders and deconsolidators or forwarders,  who claimed the new requirements were complicated and  burdened them and caused delay in moving the boxes.  The new rules required detailed lists of content on the box, purchase receipts for brand-new goods and limited recipients of balikbayan boxes to family and close relatives of the senders. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He  is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)

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