Covering Immigration Woes
THE NINOY AQUINO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (NAIA) had been ranked among the world’s worst airports in the past. In any one of the four terminals, passengers have found much to complain about. NAIA 1 was built during the Martial Law years, and while it has undergone rebuilding and refurbishment, there is much still to be improved. Terminals 2, 3 and 4 have not escaped critical complaints. As more people travel, more flights cause delays and inconveniences; whatever has been improved will definitely be found wanting.
Does the current nightmare of long lines at NAIA deserve media attention? Actually, a quick review of previous monitors has shown that the NAIA has been a favorite target for critical coverage – be it falling infrastructure, delays on the tarmac, tanim-bala or long lines.
Have the long queues at NAIA immigration counters been reported sufficiently? CMFR noted that print media had refrained from prominently featuring photos of these long lines. Furthermore, because the lines were caused by a policy change, the media could have done much better to call attention to the situation in the airports. The nation’s flag carrier, Philippine Airlines, had advised travelers to go to the airport four to five hours before their departure time, to ensure that they make it to their flight.
CMFR monitored broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, The Manila Times, Daily Tribune and Malaya) and primetime newscasts (ABS- CBN2’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s Aksyon, and CNN Philippines’ News Night) from April 3 to 7 to assess reporting on the matter.
Absences, resignations and leaves by immigration officers caused the long-suffering users of NAIA more grief. Following President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to stop using funds from express lanes to pay for overtime (OT) on December 22, 2016, immigration officers chose to take advantage of remaining leaves, leaving many counters unattended.
Media provided background on the prohibition of the use of revenues by government agencies for 2017 under the approved General Appropriations Act (GAA). With overtime pay not being released, morale of the employees understandably dropped especially as this augments their salaries.
The long lines were only the surface of the story. These reflected a policy context which the public should be aware about, especially those who do have to travel for work or for planned holidays, especially in the period of peak travel time such as Holy Week and the rest of the summer.
Express lanes at the airport collect fees from travelers who want their documents processed faster. According to the bureau’s press release, the fund from these charges had been used to pay for OT for the last 29 years. Following the veto, immigration officers began filing leaves or submitting resignation letters. Clearly, those involved in the implementation of this policy decision were not prepared to provide the much needed services to the traveling public.
Coverage in the first week of April was still focused on the arguments surrounding the legality of the employees’ OT pay and the use of express lane funds, as officials interviewed argued for and against the veto.
Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Benjamin Diokno insisted that since the national budget already provides for overtime services, such fees should be taken from the GAA; there is no legal basis to use the said fees as source of funding. Another point of discussion he raised is the Civil Service rule (Joint Circular No. 1, s. 2015) which includes limitations stating that the total OT pay for a year should not exceed 50% of the employee’s basic salary for the year.
A report on CNN Philippines’ News Night illustrated a comparison of total compensation between an Immigration Officer 1 and a DBM Budget Analyst, noting that the same level employee in another government agency would only be allowed a lower amount for OT pay.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II has argued that the use of these funds is allowed under the Section 7-A of Commonwealth Act 613 also known as the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940, which states that “Immigration employees may be assigned by the Commissioner to do overtime work at rates fixed by him when the service rendered is to be paid for by shipping companies and airlines or other persons served.” He did acknowledge the need for a new law that would resolve the impasse on OT pay.
Issues for Efficient and Effective Governance
Aside from the legality of the overtime pay, the question of understaffing was raised by Bureau of Immigration (BI) Spokesperson Antonette Mangrobang which was picked up by the monitored broadsheets and newscasts. Reports mentioned that the bureau needs an ideal staff force of 4,000 and the current employees are just about half of that number. In the Star’s “1,074 posts waiting to be filled at BI,” Diokno said that there are thousands of job posts that the BI has yet to fill. Follow up reports could discuss this issue more fully, in order to promote better management of the BI.
To address the long wait at the airport, the agency has cancelled the approved leaves of employees. It also plans to assign other immigration officers to NAIA and several other immigration counters at international airports in the country. The DBM has also allotted money for additional posts for BI. The issue on OT pay however, remains hanging in the air.
Media coverage at this stage could have examined an aspect of the Duterte’s administration’s style of governance. The order against use of generated revenues also affects other agencies; the Commission on Elections, Department of Agriculture, Energy Regulatory Commission and the Philippine Regulatory Commission.
These agencies may not provide direct services to the public as much as the BI but surely, the morale of government employees affects their efficiency and effectivity. This policy decision may have other serious impact on other important areas of development and public service. Sufficient media coverage could help provide a venue for examining these.