I had lunch with Karl B. Miranda, the Assistant Solicitor General, and our conversation ranged from one topic to another.
Karl, was my legislative supervisor when I worked full time in government in the office of Senator Nene Pimentel in the nineties.
Karl, a graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School of government is a passionate public servant.
We were guided under the leadership of Nene Pimentel, who we all look up to when it comes to tireless, dedicated public service.
Anyway, our lunch ventured into the plight of overseas Filipino workers.
You might have heard of the names Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan.
Flor Contemplacion, was the Filipina OFW who was executed by hanging in Singapore for "supposed" murder, during the Ramos Administration.
Sarah Balabagan was an under-aged Filipina who killed her employer who raped her in the United Arab Emirates.
Their Filipino government lawyer during their time of legal crisis was Karl Miranda.
Karl therefore, knows a lot about the legal woes of our bothers and sisters working in other countries, many in less acceptable conditions.
Karl said the government is hard put in extending legal assistance to many OFWs who get into trouble with the laws of the foreign country.
I was shocked when he told me that the P100-million budget for legal assistance to OFWs was “wiped out” handling just four cases involving Filipinos.
Virtually, when Filipinos get into legal trouble abroad, they are on their own.
The government simply does not have enough funds to provide each legally-distressed OFW with legal assistance.
Remember that in a foreign country, Filipino lawyers cannot practice law.
The Philippine government can only hire the “local lawyers” in the foreign country.
The Philippine government is left leaning upon the shoulders of these “local lawyers,” who are the ones familiar with the laws of their own country.
In the course of our conversation, we came up with an idea on how to effect long term legal help to Filipino OFWs.
Our OFWs are the true heroes of our nation.
Because of their billion dollar remittances annually, the Philippines is kept afloat.
Yet, OFWs do not receive the assistance they deserve when they get into trouble.
One suggestion we came up with is for our government to make an “investment” where we will send and fund Filipino students to study law in those countries where we have the most number of Filipinos.
Let’s take for example, Hongkong, where we have one of the largest population of OFWs, many working as domestic helpers.
Instead of paying Hongkong lawyers to take up the cases of Filipino OFWs, why don’t we send young Filipinos scholars to law schools in Hongkong?
Just like the Philippine Military Academy, these public-funded legal scholars will be made to sign a contract where they will have to serve at least eight years taking up cases of OFWs for free in the country where they are able to practice law.
That would be their way of “paying back” the people’s money paid for their foreign legal education.
Of course there could be stumbling blocks.
There may be countries, which only allow their own nationals to practice law, just like the Philippines.
In the U.S., one can practice law even if he/she is not a U.S. citizen, as long as they pass the state bar exams.
We suggest that there be a government-to-government mutual arrangement where exceptions can be made.
This can be made under an executive agreement or treaty.
Another stumbling block is the language barrier.
The laws of another country may not be in English.
The legal proceedings may not be in English, like perhaps, China.
Our suggestion is that if learning the local language is imperative, then our government should invest in teaching our international legal scholars the foreign language, aside from studying law.
My point is, let us do for the OFWs all that it takes to accord them legal assistance, when they get into trouble abroad.
I think in the long run, this investment will be less expensive, rather than budgeting P100-million yearly for legal assistance for only four cases.
We are not suggesting that we send Filipino law scholars in every country.
We suggest sending scholars only to those countries that have many Filipino OFWs.
Aside from Hongkong, we can send scholars to Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia.
For Saudi Arabia, we can send Filipino muslim scholars from Mindanao, who would no longer have major religious adjustments to make.
We suggest the government do a pilot project in nearby Hongkong.
Then later, let’s replicate this in other countries.
It is different when it is a Filipino lawyer advocating for an OFW abroad.
There is a built-in desire, if not passion, to help a countryman, rather than hiring a foreign advocate.
We hope the next president of this country, will have that heart for our OFWs, and will do everything to provide genuine, meaningful legal assistance our OFWs truly deserve.
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