2 Comments 06 May 2014

By Maribel Castillo


WHILE on a cruise to Alaska, my husband and I met many Filipino workers — now hailed as modern-day heroes of the Philippines — who endure many months at sea to support their families and help keep the nation’s economy afloat. alaska cruise4_550alaska cruise maribel2_550alaska cruise-maribel4_550Comprising almost half of the ship’s staff, Filipinos work as waiters, chefs, retail clerks, spa staff, fitness directors, cruise ship entertainers, lifeguards, production managers, host staff, kitchen staff, cruise ship bartenders, cruise casino workers, security workers, beauticians, excursion organizers, customer service representatives, deckhands, even as ship doctor. Manuel Carlos was the handsome Filipino maitre’ d at our favorite Italian restaurant of the Norwegian Sun. Here is his story.

THE plot is familiar, reminiscent of the teleseryes so popular among Philippine TV viewers. Manuel Carlos (not his real name) was one of seven children of a petty bureaucrat and a homemaker from Binangonan, Rizal. His mother often resorted to creative ways of stretching her husband’s meager earnings to feed and raise a brood of seven. “We were so poor that my parents could not afford to give us an allowance while we attended high school. I walked to school every day so I could save on jeepney fare,” Manuel recalls. “In December, when all my schoolmates got new clothes for Christmas, I had to make do with khakis, the single pair of pants that I would wear every day the entire school year until I outgrew it.”

Early on, Manuel’s mother urged her children to seek their fortunes elsewhere. “Hangarin ninyong lumayo upang kayo ay umasenso”. This is the sorry lot of the poor and the lower middle class in the Philippines. For many, there is only one way to pull themselves out of the rut of poverty. They must tear themselves away from all that they hold dear: family, friends, familiar surroundings, country.

Manuel Carlos is one of those wanderers, among the growing number of OFWs (Overseas Foreign Workers) who are fortunate enough to land a job abroad. Manuel works with one of the world’s large fleets of luxury ocean liners. He is a veteran of the sea, having worked with Norwegian Cruise Lines for 15 years now.

A marketing graduate, Manuel started out as a detail man for a pharmaceuticals firm in Manila. Heeding his mother’s advice, he did a brief stint in Saudi Arabia as a bank clerk. Back in the Philippines, married and with a growing family, Manuel realized he would never be able to send his kids to college on a clerk’s income.

Noted for their hospitality and friendly disposition, Filipinos excel as waitresses and chambermaids on cruise ships.

Noted for their hospitality and friendly disposition, Filipinos excel as waitresses and chambermaids on cruise ships.

So, with hope in his heart, he endured the long lineups in a narrow alley close to the recruiter’s office in Intramuros, hoping to land a job – any job – with one of the cruise lines. Like many others before him, after two long months of patiently waiting in line by the recruiter’s office, he landed his first contract with Norwegian Cruise Lines. In 1994, he started out at the lowest rung of the ladder, working as a mess man in NCL. Manuel spent the next 10 months at sea, catering to the whims of vacationers who dined and wined on board ship as if there were no tomorrow. The hours were long, the pace gruelling and the nights lonely. But he was ecstatic. For the first time in his life, he had savings, and with it he satisfied the elusive dream of owning his own car. “I never imagined I would be driving my own car. I couldn’t even afford jeepney fare when I was a student!”

Several contracts later, Manny realized his family needed more stability. His family was growing. His wife Shirley had borne him three children. He decided to take the plunge and make the ultimate Filipino dream a reality. With his savings and proceeds from the sale of his car, Manny bought a small plot of land in a residential subdivision in Binangonan, Rizal. With his status as an OFW, Sam joined the government’s PAG-IBIG housing program and obtained a half million-peso housing loan, which was released in three batches after submitting photos of ongoing construction. The house was finally completed when Manuel was back at sea. He could barely believe his good fortune until his wife sent snapshots of the two-level, three-bedroom concrete house. He was, at last, a homeowner.

Filipinos are in great demand around the world for their musicality and singing prowess.

Filipinos are in great demand around the world for their musicality and singing prowess.

The years with NCL have been a financial godsend to Manuel, Shirley and kids. Manuel eventually rose up the ladder. He was promoted to the post of assistant MD (Maitre’d). His children are all enrolled in private schools, Manuel declares proudly. Chelsea, 19, is a nursing student at Far Eastern University. Matthew, 17, is a computer science student in Taytay, Rizal. Nathan, 14, is still in high school.

On the surface, all seemed well. But the long months at sea, away from the warm embrace of family, had taken its toll. Young, good-looking and virile, Manuel succumbed to passion and started a four-year affair with a Filipina waitress on the same ship. The relationship bore him a son, now 6 years old. At the time, Manuel basked in his notoriety as the ship’s Pinoy Casanova. Temptation was rife. There were many other lonely women workers on board ship. He started a liaison with another co-worker, with whom he also conceived a child. His two paramours were locked in bitter combat. Sadly, his second lover miscarried.

Back home, his wife Shirley shed many tears, but could not break off with Manuel because she had no income and would be unable to support herself and the children without her husband’s remittances.

It was Chelsea, his eldest daughter, who found the guts to tell him to his face: “You have made my mother miserable. She cries every day. Don’t show your face to us. My father is dead.”

This was Manuel’s wake-up call. He agonized for several weeks trying to sort his life out. That’s when he decided to become a Born-Again Christian. He made a decision to cut off his extra-marital relationships. Twice a week, after his last shift at 11 PM, he joins the Christian fellowship on the ship and spends two hours reading the Bible. He now preaches how to tread the straight and narrow to his fellow workers. He says he has found the courage to resist temptation.

Manuel has now mended the rift with his family. His wife Shirley has been magnanimous in her forgiveness. When Manuel comes home for his 2-month vacation, she will welcome his young son by his paramour into her home. The boy is the spitting image of his father, a reminder of his past transgressions, but also a symbol of the healing that has started to repair family ties broken by the tough challenges posed by being an absentee husband and father.








No Comments 02 February 2014

I am not a fan of the American dream, but I’ve always been a dreamer. The thin line between optimism and wishful thinking becomes narrower when dreams fade into the background of reality. I left the Philippines in 2007 in search of greener pastures in the US. READ FULL STORY




No Comments 02 November 2013

By James M. Noriega

It does not really matter how often I go back to the Philippines. The same nostalgic feeling always brings back old memories but absence and distance have given me a different perspective and appreciation of what I always call home. PHOTO – Author (right) with Filipino worker Ronaldo Go.

The visit this time, however, was for a special purpose. I came home to test and interview shortlisted candidates with the goal of hiring 15 Stainless Steel Tig Welders for a Canadian company, a rare opportunity that could change the lives of the applicants and their families.

How so? For starters, the successful applicants will receive a fortune based on Philippine standards. At $25.62 per hour, they will earn about Php 190 thousand a month, or about Php 2.3 million a year, and with overtime, they can probably add another million pesos. 


The author, James Noriega, (right) poses with two of the Filipino workers – Jordan Lucaben and Juris Ballugo.

The author, James Noriega, (right) with two of the Filipino workers – Jordan Lucaben and Juris Ballugo.

Likewise, they get medical and dental benefits, paid holidays, and disability and unemployment insurance. The best part is the chance later to become permanent residents of Canada, bring their families with them, and eventually become Canadian citizens. And not to forget, they will be working not in some far-flung area but close to one of the most livable cities in the world, Vancouver.

The interview process was both an eye-opener and a tearjerker. Most of the applicants were former OFWs, with stints in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. One who worked in Kuwait related how for five years he was earning only $500 a month working for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Another described the adverse and dangerous working conditions he had to endure in the mines of Angola for a measly pay. From the horror stories I heard, what was clearly evident were the resiliency and endurance of our overseas workers. When I asked them why they wanted to work overseas, they all gave a common motivation. They said they were not seeking greener pastures nor wanting to improve their skills. What they were simply after was the opportunity to earn a decent pay for a considerable period of time so they could support their families.

Poring over the resumes, with particular attention on the applicants’ training and education, I immediately noticed that trade certification programs are nearly non-existent in the Philippines. Even apprenticeship programs are sadly wanting. Worse, there are stories about nursing and HRM graduates paying their way to get accepted as interns and be able to gain work experience. It is like day and night when one compares the prevailing situation in the Philippines with that in Canada, where there is direct linkage between employers and educational and training institutions, not to mention the government incentives for employers to hire apprentices.

I also found that testing equipment in technical and vocational schools in the Philippines are sorely inadequate and outdated. This was evident when I brought a piece of finished industrial part for the applicants to reproduce. Not one of them could come close to duplicating it. But they claimed that they could do it with the right equipment and material, something that I could relate and attest to, having personal knowledge of the capability of Filipino workers. A foreign recruiter who has no understanding of the unique situation of our local workers and who would base his recruiting decision solely on such an encounter would surely come out empty-handed. I can imagine how many Filipino jobseekers have missed their chance to work abroad because of the substandard equipment and inadequate training they receive at home.

Canadian employers are not looking for cheap labor when they set their eyes on foreign workers. After all, wages are mandated by the Canadian government; the salary offered to foreign workers must be at par with the prevailing industry rate. Recruiters are after skills that they can measure and evaluate during hiring. Amid the prevailing economic slowdown in some parts of the world, Filipino jobseekers are competing against applicants not only from Third World countries but also from the US and Europe. In fact, prior to flying to Manila, I hired a number of American and Italian workers. 


Noriega giving instructions to one of the new recruits, Joey Calingayan.

Noriega giving instructions to one of the new recruits, Joey Calingayan.

The selection process stretching to 12 hours a day for a week was strenuous and exhausting. It was such a welcome relief to be able to make a side trip to the world-famous Palawan Underground River. Returning home after many years of living in Canada – considered as one of the most livable countries in the world – one feels like a fish out of a display aquarium being released into the lake. As soon as you hit the street, you at once sense that you belong and you are back to your elements amid the noise, garbage, traffic, and the hot and humid air. Whatever negative things some foreigners may say about our country, the Philippines remains one of the most beautiful places in the world, even made more wonderful as a destination by Pinoy hospitality. 

The days went by in the blink of an eye and it was time to return to Canada. As I headed home, I replayed in my mind how I handled the recruitment process and asked myself if I picked the right applicants. My decision could prove to be a twist of fate to the chosen ones, the same opportunity that was given to my father 46 years ago when he was offered a job in Manila from faraway Ilagan, Isabela. With the able support of my mother, the family survived on their meager government pay and all their nine children turned out to be professionals — justice, banker-writer, engineer-GM, nurse, doctor, architect, dentist, IT manager and animator. I could not help but speculate how the children of these OFWs would turn out some day. Will any of them become the next Mark Zuckerberg or perhaps the first Pinoy Prime Minister of Canada? Who knows? What I am certain about is that I have paid back the break given my father fifteen fold. I feel truly fortunate to be able to share my blessings with some of our kababayan.

(The author is currently Vice President and General Manager at Accent Stainless Steel Manufacturing based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. He finished his Mechanical Engineering Degree at the University of the Philippines. He completed his Masters in Business Administration in Ateneo de Manila University and took courses in the Executive MBA program at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada. Prior to immigrating to Canada in 1997, Noriega worked at Carnation Philippines as Materials Manager, Sandoz Phils. as Production and Logistics Director, and Philippine Steel Corporation as Vice  President for Supply Chain. He was former president of the Philippine Institute of Supply Management.)




No Comments 09 June 2013

Mateo Ragonjan took a leap of faith in August last year.

The executive sous-chef of a seven-star luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi packed his bags to take up a similar job back home in the Philippines.

He is one of a small group of like-minded Filipinos returning to jobs back home, a sign of confidence in an economy that for decades has seen millions leave in search of better prospects overseas.

Ragonjan now helps run a 300-man kitchen that caters to guests and high-rollers flocking to Manila’s newest and most luxurious casino resort, one of 400 overseas Filipinos who came home to work at the hotel.

“The Philippines is booming at the moment, so I thought it was the right time to go back,” Ragonjan, 41, said on a break from his 10-hour shift at the Solaire Resort & Casino in Manila Bay, developed at a cost of $1.2 billion.

The Philippines economy is leaving behind its reputation as a regional laggard. It reported annual GDP growth of 7.8 percent in the first three months of the year, outstripping China to make it Asia’s fastest-growing economy.

Earlier this year, the government secured an investment grade credit rating, reducing its borrowing costs, while the stock market has reached a series of record highs this year.

Returnees like Ragonjan are just a trickle compared to those still leaving the country, but the hope is that the more the country can draw the diaspora back to the Philippines the more that the entrepreneurial spirit that prompted them to leave in the first place can add fuel to the economy.

Nearly two million Filipinos left last year to take on jobs such as seafarers, maids, laborers, hotel staff, and medical workers, forming one of the world’s largest diasporas of nearly 10 million migrants, about a tenth of the population.

The returnees are limited for now to a few sectors, including entertainment, tourism and information technology, but some hope that it marks the start of a stronger flow.

“I am seeing the trend happening,” said venture capitalist Francisco Sandejas, who as head of the Brain Gain Network, an online platform connecting professional Filipinos overseas to develop business ideas in the Philippines, has been campaigning for more job creation at home for two decades.

“I am just seeing that now it is much easier to convince people to come home, it was never easy and it is still not easy… people are very optimistic about the next three years,” he added, referring to the remainder of President Benigno Aquino III’s six-year term.

Still, Aquino faces an uphill task to overturn criticism he is presiding over a jobless economic boom.

The economy is unable to create enough jobs for around a million new job seekers each year. A quarter of the labour force is unemployed or underemployed and the government is struggling to reduce poverty.

Solaire is the first of four new casino-resorts to open in Entertainment City, a 10-hectare development near Manila Bay that is at the forefront of the government’s push to boost tourism and investment.

Ragonjan said part of his decision to return to the Philippines was because there seemed to be more opportunity than in the past. He says his base salary in Manila is higher than it was in Abu Dhabi, but in returning home he has also given up some financial grants that went with his job in the Gulf.

“If the Philippines continues to grow like this, it can help a lot of Filipinos here. It is good to be back,” he said.

The Philippines’ call center industry, the world’s biggest, continues to grow strongly and the country is also home to small but expanding software and information-technology firms. The country’s business process outsourcing industry is expected to employ 1.3 million people by 2016, up from 640,000 in 2011.

Earl Valencia, a former business incubation manager at Cisco Systems in California, came home with his family two years ago to help co-found a business incubator and accelerator company in Manila to support start-ups and tech entrepreneurs.

“There were a lot of things to anchor me in the United States, but there were also a lot of economic attractions in this part of the world,” said the 30-year old.

To turn the trickle of returnees into a flood, officials acknowledge the economic boom needs to be more broad-based.

Some skeptics say the boom is mostly benefiting the country’s entrenched elite, with little trickling down to alleviate a poverty rate that has remained stubbornly high near 30 percent, far from the 17 percent Aquino hopes to achieve by the time is he due to leave office in 2016.

Per capita GDP was 6.1 percent greater in the first quarter than a year earlier, the highest in at least two years. But official unemployment remained stubbornly high at 7.1 percent as of January, the highest in Southeast Asia.

“Growth is not resulting in the creation of more jobs because the growing sectors are not really labor intensive,” said former Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno. “We really need to revive manufacturing. We can do more.”

In one promising sign, manufacturing grew in the first quarter by 97 percent over a year earlier despite sluggish export demand. Capital formation, a measure of investment, jumped 48 percent as the private sector expanded capacity to meet domestic demand, which is partly fueled by funds sent home by overseas Filipinos.

While Aquino has had success in plugging holes in the national budget and imposing revenue reforms, his government still faces a daunting task to fix infrastructure bottlenecks and investment constraints that hinder broader-based growth.

Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan acknowledged that while real GDP per person has risen 11 percent over the last two years, the gains have not been evenly spread.

“Inclusive growth is not about averages, but about the lower part of the income distribution,” Balisacan told reporters after the GDP data.

He said the solution is to link the poor to growth sectors in the economy, such as manufacturing and agriculture.

In the latest World Competitiveness Report by the Swiss-based Institute for Management Development, the Philippines moved up five places to 43 out of 60 economies, overtaking Indonesia and India.

While it showed improvements in economic performance, and government and business efficiency measures, the gains were not accompanied by job generation. It was down seven places in employment, one notch down in overall productivity and two rungs down in labor productivity.

Still, in Manila’s bustling new casino, freshly returned workers, or overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as they are known, believe the time is ripe for the decades-long exodus to reverse.

“I believe it is really time for our country, our economy to get a slice of the cake that companies abroad are enjoying at the expense of our hard working OFWs,” said Rosario Chavez, a gaming manager at Solaire, who spent three decades abroad.

“I really hope that our government will open more opportunities here, more reasons for our OFWs to come home.” (Reuters)


Migration, People


No Comments 22 June 2011

By Jose Antonio Vargas

Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant. READ FULL STORY




No Comments 25 February 2011

British banking giant Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) sees the peso strengthening to 37.50 against the dollar this year and further to 35.50 to $1 next year as the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) is likely allow the local currency to appreciate further to cushion the impact of imported inflation brought about by rising global oil and food prices.

“We believe the peso will end the year at 37.50 per dollar. By 2012, it will be 35.50 per dollar. The growth in the Philippines is strong, and the foreign exchange should reflect that,” visiting HSBC economist Frederic Neumann said at a press briefing last Feb. 16 in Manila.

The Hong Kong-based economist sees the peso appreciating steadily at P40.50 to $1 in the first quarter, 39.50 in the second, 38.50 in the third, and P37.50 in the fourth quarter of this year.

Sen. Ralph Recto foresees and even stronger peso at less than P35to the dollar this year once the central bank raises its key policy rates from record lows to tame inflation. The BSP has kept its key policy rates unchanged since July 2009 and will review them when the policy-setting Monetary Board meets in March.

What is good about a stronger peso, Recto said, is that it could offset the impact of higher fuel prices as social and political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa disrupt oil supplies and will likely continue in the coming weeks. A rise in fuel prices will spur inflation higher, he said.

“In layman’s terms, when peso is strong, there would be fewer pesos needed to import fuel which we pay in dollars, and this should trigger similar downtrend in prices of fuel and food,” Recto explained.

eumann explained that strong capital inflows to emerging markets including the Philippines as well as the robust remittances from overseas Filipinos would continue to support the local currency.

Latest data show that the country’s gross international reserves (GIR) surged 36.8 percent to a record level $62.371 billion last year from $45.03 billion in 2009 while the balance of payments (BOP) surplus more than doubled to hit a new record level of $14.4 billion from $6.42 billion in 2009.

Record-high in 2010

OFW remittances likewise grew by 8.2 percent to hit a record-high of $18.76 billion last year from $17.35 billion in 2009, exceeding the revised growth forecast of eight percent set by the BSP.

“I would think that as growth becomes more entrenched, BSP should allow the peso to be determined by the market. Given our forecast for growth and inflation, BSP is likely to let the exchange rate do the lifting,” Neumann said.

The bank recently raised its gross domestic product (GDP) growth forecast for the Philippines to five percent instead of 4.7 percent this year and to 5.8 percent next year. The country’s GDP growth surged to its fastest in more than three decades after expanding by 7.3 percent last year from 1.1 percent in 2009.

Another bright spot

HSBC economist Sherman Chan said in a study that another bright spot is the country’s external position that remained on a firm footing buoyed by rising reserves and steady growth in equity flows.

“That said, the economy remains vulnerable to rising capital inflows and ensuing appreciation pressure on the peso. The former may fuel asset inflation; the latter could hurt export competitiveness,” Chan added.

HSBC sees inflation climbing to 4.4 percent this year and 4.8 percent next year from 3.8 percent last year. The BSP expects inflation to average 4.4 percent instead of 3.6 percent this year and 3.5 percent instead of three percent next year but still well within the target of three percent five percent between 2011 and 2014.

Neumann expresses concern on the possibility that the BSP would keep interest rates at record lows despite the risk of higher inflation in the coming months.

“Every central bank in East Asia, except BSP, has raised its interest rates. Unless interest rates go up, there will be a danger of inflation,” he added.

$1.7-B in December alone

Central bank data showed that money transfers by OFWs also reached a new monthly record of $1.694 billion last December, up 8.1 percent from December 2009, which eclipsed the $1.673- billion record booked last October.

The amount of remittances in 2010 topped the revised 8 percent growth forecast by monetary authorities, with the BSP initially saying the amount would likely grow by 6 percent.

“The 2010 level slightly exceeded the BSP’s forecast of $18.7 billion, or an 8.0 percent year-on-year growth for the year,” said BSP Gov. Amando Tetangco Jr.

Tetangco said remittances jumped by $1.415 billion from the previous record of $17.348 billion in 2009 as the money sent home by sea-based OFWs went up by 11.9 percent while that of land-based workers increased by 7.2 percent.

Driving factors

“The major driving factors that helped accelerate the growth in remittances were the diversity of the destinations and skills of overseas Filipinos combined with the expanding network of bank and non-bank service providers both here and abroad to capture a larger share of the global remittance market,” Tetangco explained.

He cited the steady improvements on the variety and coverage of global remittance networks that have enabled more OFWs to send remittances at a more affordable cost, including web-based services, automated teller machines, as well as reloadable or reusable cash cards.

“The continuing innovation of financial products and services being offered in the market to facilitate money transfers have likewise contributed to the resilience of remittances throughout the year,” Tetangco said. (Culled from newspaper reports)




1 Comment 27 January 2011

By Mynardo Macaraig

Mabini, Batangas — On an isolated hillside in the Philippines, a tiny slice of Italy has risen from among the vegetable patches and coconut trees, the product of thousands of overseas workers.

Large stone houses — often with brand-new vehicles in their driveways — cover the district, even though the narrow streets can barely accommodate more than one car at a time.

This is a sharp contrast to the lifestyle in the 1980s, recalled district chairman Raymundo Magsino, 63.

“Back then, we depended on farming: vegetables, fruit and corn. We were the poorest district in the province. These were all just thatch huts,” Magsino said, pointing to the pastel-colored houses that dot the hilly area.

This new wealth comes from the remittances of residents — including entire families — who have gone to Italy to work, turning a district of subsistence farmers into a relatively prosperous community in a generation.

About 6,300 people from the town’s total population of 47,000 have made the trip, said Aileen Constantino-Penas, program director of a non-government organization for migrant workers in Mabini.

The money sent home from Italy by Filipinos doing mostly domestic work and laboring has completely changed the face of Mabini town, located about 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of Manila.

Those who have left have brought touches of Italy back with them.

“The accents of their homes are no longer typical of Filipino homes,” Constantino-Penas said.

Italian-style large terraces or wrap-around porches with marble balusters proliferate in Mabini, some with exteriors covered with artificial stone. Other houses look like mini-Pantheons, complete with Roman-style columns in front.

Traces of Italy can also be found inside the houses, even in the bathrooms. Bidets are common here even though they are unheard of elsewhere in the Philippines.

And when speaking among themselves, those from Italy sometimes use Italian words including the occasional “Mama Mia” exclamation, said Constantino-Penas, whose relatives are also among the workers in Italy.

Going abroad to seek higher-paying work is nothing unusual in the Philippines: nine million people, or about 10 percent of the population, are currently laboring abroad.

They work as sailors, nurses, construction workers, musicians, maids and in dozens of other professions in almost every country in the world.

But the people of Mabini have found Italy to be especially welcoming.

District chairman Magsino said some people made the journey to Italy as early as 1977, at a time when this meant sneaking into the country illegally.

Working in Italy really caught on in the 1980s as word spread of the opportunities there, luring even more Mabini residents.

People who have relatives there talked to (prospective) Italian employers and told them that (their relatives) will work for you so they fixed the papers to bring them in,” Magsino said.

Luciana Hernandez, 81, said she was one of the pioneers of the exodus to Italy, having helped arrange for her daughter to go there to work in 1986, back when that meant sneaking into Italy from Austria or the former Yugoslavia.

“An agency took her by plane (to Europe). Then by speedboat, then they crossed the mountains on foot, hiding all the time,” she recalled.

Once her daughter was established in Italy, she was able to petition for the rest of her siblings to go there, where they also obtained jobs, said Hernandez.

Eventually all but one of Hernandez’s 10 children went off to work in Italy. Most of them are still there and have taken their own children with them, she said.

“When they first left, I cried every time I thought of them. But I am used to it now and these days, they can call very easily with these new phones,” she said.

Life as a foreign worker in Italy is easier than in other countries, say those who have worked there. While tales of abused Filipino maids proliferate in many countries, Filipinos in Italy enjoy legal protection and many of them get along well with their hosts, they say.

“Italy is a better place, even if you are just a domestic helper. They treat you well and even give you insurance for hospitalization,” said Alona Solis, 39, who first went to Italy when she was 16 years old.

“They are not allowed to hurt you. You can complain about abuse, unlike some other countries.”

Since she left for Italy in 1986, she has returned to the Philippines only twice: once in 2005 to get married and last December for a vacation that she is still enjoying. But she plans to go back to Italy soon.

“I am used to working there. My boss there already sees me as his child,” she said.

Her husband also has a job in Italy and they share an apartment with her two young children, said Solis, who can speak Italian.

Solis can earn as much as 1,000 euros a month ($1,350) as a domestic helper if she works overtime, far more than she could ever get in the Philippines as a high-school drop-out.

“If the educated people have trouble finding a job here, how much more the uneducated,” she said.

Despite the wealth brought by the Italian ventures, officials concede that there are costs to having so many people from the community working outside the country.

Magsino, the district chairman, said family members left behind had become dependent on the remittances of their relatives.

“Many don’t want to work in the farms anymore. They just play cards and go to cockfights,” he lamented.

Constantino-Penas said her non-government organization, Atikha, had been working to teach the overseas workers how to manage their money and to make sure their relatives at home didn’t suffer the ill-effects of separation.

“There is a social cost of migration. Children left behind don’t want to study. Their mindset is they should go abroad and not study. We see a lot of drop-outs, most of them among overseas workers’ children,” she said.

Her organization is teaching children to stay in school, to save their money rather than spend it, while also helping their guardians learn how to budget and invest the money that is sent home from Italy.

Meanwhile, Mabini tourism officer Pacencia Casapao has struggled against the apathy lingering over the town in her effort to give it more touches of Italy.

“I’ve been asking for someone to come back and set up an Italian restaurant for tourists. But no one wants to do that,” she said. (Agence France-Presse)




No Comments 17 January 2011

By Pepper Marcelo

I have been married for five years and have a three-year-old daughter. We are doing okay but dream of having our own home and traveling. My auntie in the Dubai has offered me help in getting a job there but I am worried about leaving my family behind. I have heard of other stories of how marriages have broken up because the long-distance.  What should I do?

– Farah of Sta. Rosa, Laguna, posted on www.ofwonline.com

For many of the estimated 10 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), coping with life abroad is a stressful, sometimes terrifying experience. For those who have spouses and children left at home, severe homesickness could lead to mental stress and psychological illness. The family left behind can be negatively affected as well.

It is sad to note that while the government constantly harps on the contributions of the OFWs in propping up the national economy, it has miserably failed to provide adequate services to address the physical, emotional and psychological needs of OFWs and their families. What makes the situation doubly pathetic is that even the basic and simple need of OFWs to communicate with their families has been totally neglected by authorities. One would expect that the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, with the millions of pesos it collects from OFWs, would tap cheap technology such as the Internet to provide counseling and communication services to the workers and their families.

Thankfully, there are a few non-governmental organizations that attempt to alleviate the miserable situation of our migrant workers. One such private initiative addresses the need for a Help Line for OFWs and their families where they can seek counseling and expert advice.

“That’s where we come in. We tend to be the social support for OFWs who feel they cannot talk to friends or family,” says Dr. Regina Hechanova-Alampay, founder of OFW Online, a 24-hour free online service for overseas Filipino workers and their families.

An organizational psychologist who has done significant research relating to the psychology of the Filipino within a work environment, Alampay has trained employers, managers and workers on how to become more effective in their work. She is currently an associate professor at the Psychology department at the Ateneo de Manila University and the Executive Director of the Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development (Ateneo CORD).

Based on her extensive experience, Alampay knows first-hand how difficult life is for the OFW, particularly the psychological toll of living abroad for extended period of time on both the worker and the family left behind.

The idea for OFW Online was born in 2007 while Alampay was attending a conference on Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT for D). “They were showcasing how technology was being used to address social problems. I was the only psychologist in that conference and it made me think, ‘Why can’t we harness technology to help OFWs’?”

She said that it took some time to obtain funding for the project. She credits the Singapore Internet Research Centre (funded by the International Development Research Center of Canada) for supporting the project.

OFW Online currently has 18 professional counselors who offer their services seven days a week from 9:00 am to 12:00 midnight. The counselors provide free consultation according to their specializations, such as marital issues, personal development, family matters, work issues and cultural adjustment.

The website has three primary features: Counseling which allows users to chat online with a counselor in a set amount of time, usually one hour (although follow-up sessions can be scheduled); Family Chat which allows OFWs to talk privately with family members; and Forums, where OFWs and their families can post messages.

To date, the website has had more than 25,000 visitors, with counseling exclusively done through chat or email. Asked whether not being able to personally interact with their client one-on-one has its drawbacks, Alampay admits that Internet communication has its advantages and disadvantages.

“On one hand, the anonymity is liberating for some users who would not ordinarily seek face to face counseling,” she says. “On the other hand, this kind of counseling is not appropriate for people with clinical disorders or suicidal tendencies.”

She says the most prevalent problems she and her colleagues are most often faced with are issues relational in nature, i.e., problems with marital relationships and parent-child relationships. “The separation from family is really tough on both the worker and those left behind. It is difficult to maintain intimacy and communications across the miles and that is often the source of difficulties,” she explains.

Alampay emphasizes that there are social costs to migration and a decision to work abroad needs to be thought out very carefully beyond monetary gain. “When possible, I would suggest trying to keep the family together to avoid the difficulties that arise from prolonged separation.”

If one needs more assistance than the internet can provide, she suggests that they seek out a professional counselor in their location. “Sometimes, this can be found in the churches (as in Hong Kong) or nonprofit organizations that may be able to refer them to someone who can help them.”

For her significant contributions to public service, Alampay was named one of 2010’s “The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service” (TOWNS). The award is presented by the TOWNS Foundation to outstanding Filipino women ages 21 to 45 years old who have contributed positively to strengthening national capability and in shaping the nation’s future and served as catalysts for economic, social, and cultural development by providing pro bono their time, talent and resources to government, business media, the arts, the academe, sports, and non-government organizations.

“I feel extremely grateful for the acknowledgment but at the same time humbled because the work isn’t just mine,” she says. “OFW Online was my idea and I got it started but there are many other people who are involved in this and it is in their behalf that I accepted the award.”

With 20 years experience as a human resources consultant in organizations both in the Philippines and in the US, Alampay has taught companies to be culturally relevant and globally competitive in an industrial and corporate setting. “Basically, our role is to ensure that workers are happy, well and productive,” she says. “At the same time, we also assist groups and organizations in becoming more effective, competitive and sustainable.”

In award-winning publications that she has written, such as The Way We Work: Research and Best Practices in Philippine Organizations, Leading Philippine Organizations in a Changing World and For the People, With the People: Developing Social Enterprises in the Philippines, she calls attention to the cultural difference between how work is viewed and treated by Filipinos and the rest of the world, particularly Western society.

For more information about OFW Online, check out its website at www. ofwonline.com.




No Comments 12 January 2011

By Pepper Marcelo

In September 2010, a Filipina domestic worker returning to Manila from Qatar left her newly born baby in the lavatory of a Gulf Air airplane. She later claimed that she had been raped by her employer, becoming pregnant as a result and, fearing shame from her family, decided to abandon the baby in the trash compartment of the airplane restroom. The baby, later named George Francis by caregivers, survived and has been reunited with his repentant mother.

The following month, another OW committed suicide inside the plane that was bringing him home. Marlon Cueva, 36, was found dead by flight attendants as Gulf Air Flight 154 was preparing to land in Manila from Abu Dhabi. The victim was observed to have been anxious through most of the flight and kept on telling other passengers that he was “sorry.”

Cueva left for the country in September last year to work as an electrician. But barely two months into his two-year contract he resigned, citing “personal reasons.”

These two incidents are the latest grim statistics on the human toll of overseas employment. Every day a sad, often tragic, tale unfolds in every nook and cranny of the world where some 10 million overseas Filipino workers toil under physically severe and emotionally draining conditions.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is currently monitoring some 100 active death penalty cases involving OFWs around the world. Of that number, 16 are for murder-homicide (including rape-robbery with murder), and 74 involve drug trafficking. Last December, President Benign Aquino III admitted that the government had boycotted the Nobel Prize awarding ceremonies in Oslo so as not to earn the ire of the Chinese government, which protested the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a prominent Chinese pro-democracy activist. Saying the government’s move was “in the national interest,” the President cited the ongoing cases of five OFWs facing execution in China for drug related cases.

Material gain

To be sure, overseas employment has been good to millions of our countrymen and to the economy as well. Think of the mouths it has fed, the students it has sent to school, the houses it has built, the business it has spawned and all the material wealth it has generated.

Then factor in the invaluable boon to the local economy by the enormous remittances sent in by OFWs. The remittance volume last year was projected at $18.5 billion, up by eight per cent from the 2009 level of $17.35 billion. Economists say without these money inflows, the Philippine economy would have been in tatters a long time ago.

But at what price? As if separation from one’s family is not enough pain to bear, migrant workers have to endure untold suffering abroad – abusive employers, inhuman working conditions, meager pay, inhospitable surroundings, homesickness, lack of government support, no job security, discrimination. All this contribute to indescribable physical, emotional and psychological anguish which could push the workers and their families to mental stress, bodily illnesses, and even death. One can only recall the case of Flor Contemplacion, the Filipina domestic worker in Singapore who was executed for killing a fellow Filipina housekeeper and a Singaporean boy the latter was caring for. Citing Contempacion’s unstable mental condition at the time, her supporters pleaded for clemency but to no avail,

Social cost

“It’s difficult to characterize the social cost for OFWs,” says Maria Angela Villalba, CEO of Unlad Kabayan, a program of the Asian Migrant Center which provides services to migrant workers, including savings mobilization and alternative investments at home.

“The situation is this – you’re being uprooted and placed in a situation where the people and environment around you are hostile. You work like a beast of burden from the time you wake up to the time you sleep. You’re always at the mercy of your employer. It is so unbearable that many lose their minds.”

Villalba says the suffering of migrant workers is made worse by the absence of a safe and welcoming place of refuge in their place of destination. “Their coming home to the family after a long day of hard work is taken for granted. But if you do hard work, and you have no family to come home to, and you come home to a cold bed, in a small room, and then wake up the following day to do the same thing, you get yourself into that depressing situation,” she laments.

Given the government’s inability to provides protection and services to OFWs, non-government organizations (NGOs) and migrant workers groups like Unlad Kabayan heroically fill the gap by offering a myriad of services – from crisis intervention, paralegal assistance and counseling to setting up refuge centers and educational services on self-organization, human rights and financial literacy.

The number of OFW-related deaths is rising, notes Villalba, but whether they are due to work-related stress or depression remains untracked. “The government’s response is not all of them died through mysterious circumstances,” she says. “Many of them were supposedly sick, or had accidents, and generally when they’re abroad, there’s a chance or possibility they will die.”

Families left behind

Back home, many families left behind by OFWs are not faring in terms of their psychological and emotional well being. Countless accounts have been told about broken families caused by philandering spouses, either the one abroad or the other left behind.

“Marital relationships require nurturing and intimacy,” says Dr. Gina Hechanova-Alampay, psychologist and founder of the online counseling site OFWOnline. “This becomes difficult when the spouses are physically separated from each other. The OFW and his/her spouse need to find a way to establish such intimacy at least emotionally across the miles. Unless this is done, it is not surprising that they will turn to people who can fulfill their needs for companionship and intimacy.”

With regards to the children, many feel abandoned, and potentially grow up to be spoiled and undisciplined without proper parental guidance. Communications technology such as the internet and cell phones cannot fill the vacuum created by absentee parents.

“Parenting is not just about providing for the needs of children. It is also about being their emotionally and psychologically in order to raise children and teach them the right values,” says Hechanova-Alampay. “Having an OFW parent simply means that the burden of this may fall on the parent who is left behind unless the OFW can constantly communicate with their children to provide such support.”

Besides the separation anxiety that comes from longing for parental care, children of OFWs may also be confused about gender roles or develop a materialistic attitude. Sometimes, when the father is reluctant or unwilling to fill the parental void left by an absent mother, it is usually the eldest daughter who assumes the role of caregiver for the family.

Government’s role

The Philippine government is fully aware of the problems confronting OFWs and their families. But for all its avowed concern for the “Bagong Bayani,” it has not been able to provide the necessary services for workers abroad and their families at home. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLO) and the Philippine embassies and consulates are grossly short of funds and staff.

Migrant groups have complained that government agencies are slow to respond, and even insensitive and apathetic to the plight of the migrant workers. “I’ve heard reports from workers about government officials admonishing them, ‘With the lack of jobs in the Philippines, you should be thankful to have a job in the first place,’” narrates Villalba. “It is not very encouraging, to say the least.”

Hechanova-Alampay adds that government political and legal officers and consulate staff are not trained to provide psychosocial support to migrant workers. “I think the government needs to recognize this need and find ways either by assigning people in the consulate who would have the capacity for such type of psychological service or to at the very least train staff on doing ‘first-aid counseling’.  The consulate staff could also be trained on spotting danger signs so they can refer OFWs to appropriate professionals.”

Given the government’s inadequate resources and services to cope with the myriad of pressing problems of our migrant workers and their families, our OFWs have only themselves, their kababayans and migrant organizations to fall back on. With very limited options, they can console themselves with the thought that perhaps conditions back home are not any better.

For workers experiencing hardship abroad, Villalba advises them to remain optimistic and to focus on their goals for the future.

“Save your money, and then build your dream or plan your future while you are still here in your destination country,” she says. “You will not be in that country forever; you have a family to come home to. Put your plan together early and realize it with your family before you become strangers.”




No Comments 03 January 2011

By Mynardo Macaraig

The Philippines’ famous diaspora of overseas workers is fuelling a boom in the real estate market back home as they snap up houses and apartments to safeguard their futures.

Property prices have recovered strongly since the global financial crisis of 2008, with investments from the 9 million Filipinos toiling away in foreign lands a significant factor, industry figures say.

“Overseas workers are moving the market. Properties now are selling and when there is demand, prices go up,” Emily Duterte, head of the Real Estate Brokers Association of the Philippines, told Agence France-Presse.

Industry sales nationwide this year are estimated to hit 300 billion pesos (6.9 billion dollars) compared with about 100 billion pesos each in 2009 and 2008, according to Claro Cordero from Jones Lang La Salle, a global real estate consultancy firm.

Quick recovery

“Nobody thought there would be such a quick recovery from the slump that began in 2008,” said Cordero, research head of the company’s Philippines’ branch.

Filipino workers abroad have a reputation for working as lower-paid employees, such as construction workers, maids, sailors and janitors.

But their sheer magnitude — they account for about 10 percent of the Philippine population — mean they have long been a major force in the economy.

In 2009, they sent home 17.3 billion dollars, making up more than 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to government data.

And Filipinos are increasingly moving into higher-paid sectors, such as medicine, engineering and the media.

Overseas workers usually opt for houses costing about two million pesos (45,000 dollars), humble by foreign standards but well in the middle-class bracket for Filipinos, according to Duterte from the brokers’ association.

Real estate investment

Fifty-year-old merchant seaman Rodolfo Oliverio has spent most of his working life outside of the Philippines but he is an active player in the domestic real estate market.

Oliverio has used his overseas earnings to buy two small houses in the heart of Manila for his wife and children to live in, and he is paying for a third he recently bought just outside the nation’s capital.

“If you work here, nothing will happen. The salaries are too small. The only way to afford a house is to become an overseas worker,” Oliverio told AFP while on his annual vacation in Manila.

“Naturally, among overseas workers, the most important thing is a house and lot.”

Oliverio said that as a ship’s bosun — the crew’s foreman — for a foreign company, he earned about 82,800 pesos a month, roughly four times more than he could earn doing the same job with a local cargo line.

Home sweet home

With his salary, he said he was confident he could afford the repayments on his third house, a middle-class 42-square-meter (452-square-feet) place south of Manila which cost a little over 1.5 million pesos.

Industry observers said Oliverio’s real estate goals were typical of many overseas workers.

“Most have left families back home so they want to have a home for their families. Their children, their parents, these are the ones who stay in the houses they buy,” said Duterte.

Filipinos have traditionally preferred living in houses, no matter how small, over apartments, but living overseas has started to change preferences.

Revitalized condo market

Overseas workers have revitalized the condominium market, said Manuel Serrano, head of the Chamber of Real Estate and Builders Association.

“In the beginning, they were more interested in house and lots but in the last two years, the tempo has changed. The demand now is for condos,” Serrano told AFP.

“Most of these people have gotten used to the lifestyle abroad and, in condos, they don’t have to worry about doing a lot of cleaning, gardening and watering of plants.”

Even for the traditional housing market, living overseas has changed the tastes of many Filipinos.

“A lot of developments are incorporating designs that are inspired by architecture worldwide, with a Mediterranean or an American feel,” said Jones Lang La Salle’s Cordero.

$15.5-B in first 10 months

Meanwhile, OFW remittances grew by 10.6% in October at $1.7 billion, the highest monthly level so far this year, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) said.

This brought remittances for the first 10 months of 2010 to $15.5 billion, up 7.9% year on year.

Money remitted came mostly from the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, United Kingdom, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Germany and Norway.

The BSP noted that steady demand for professional and skilled Filipino workers abroad, and increased access of OFWs and their families to formal money transfer channels continued to boost remittance growth.

Based on preliminary data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), approved job orders overseas reached 578,535, of which about 39.2% was comprised of processed job orders for service, production, as well as professional, technical and related workers.

The central bank expects remittances to grow 8% in 2010 from $17.3 billion in 2009, a record high despite weak employment numbers worldwide due to the impact of the global financial crisis. (Agence France-Presse)


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