Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Using Asia's Poor to Build U.S. Bases in Iraq

By David Phinney, CorpWatch.
Posted October 15, 2005

Companies like Halliburton are importing 'third country nationals' -- and putting them to work in horrible conditions -- to fulfill their U.S. government contracts. Jing Soliman left his family in the Philippines for what sounded like a sure thing -- a job as a warehouse worker at Camp Anaconda in Iraq.

His new employer, Prime Projects International (PPI) of Dubai, is a major, but low-profile, subcontractor to Halliburton's multi-billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon to provide support services to U.S. forces.

But Soliman wouldn't be making anything near the salaries -- starting $80,000 a year and often topping $100,000 -- that Halliburton's engineering and construction unit, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) pays to the truck drivers, construction workers, office workers, and other laborers it recruits from the United States.

Instead, the 35-year-old father of two anticipated $615 a month -- including overtime. For a 40-hour work week, that would be just over $3 an hour. But for the 12-hour day, seven-day week that Soliman says was standard for him and many contractor employees in Iraq, he actually earned $1.56 an hour.Soliman planned to send most of his $7,380 annual pay home to his family in the Philippines, where the combined unemployment and underemployment rate tops 28 percent.

The average annual income in Manila is $4,384, and the World Bank estimates that nearly half of the nation's 84 million people live on less than $2 a day."I am an ordinary man," said Soliman during a recent telephone interview from his home in Quezon City near Manila. "It was good money."

His ambitions, like many U.S. civilians working in Iraq, were modest: "I wanted to save up, buy a house and provide for my family," he says.That simple dream drives hordes of low-wage workers like Soliman to travel to Iraq from more than three dozen countries. They are lured by jobs with companies working on projects led by Halliburton and other major U.S.-funded contractors hired to provide support services to the military and reconstruction efforts.

Called "third country nationals" (TCN) in contractor's parlance, they hail largely from impoverished Asian countries such as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan, as well as from Turkey and countries in the Middle East. Once in Iraq, TCNs earn monthly salaries between $200 to $1,000 as truck drivers, construction workers, carpenters, warehousemen, laundry workers, cooks, accountants, beauticians, and similar blue-collar jobs.

Invisible Army of Cheap Labor

Tens of thousands of such TNC laborers have helped set new records for the largest civilian workforce ever hired in support of a U.S. war. They are employed through complex layers of companies working in Iraq. At the top of the pyramid-shaped system is the U.S. government which assigned over $24 billion in contracts over the last two years.

Just below that layer are the prime contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel. Below them are dozens of smaller subcontracting companies -- largely based in the Middle East -- including PPI, First Kuwaiti Trading & Contracting and Alargan Trading of Kuwait, Gulf Catering, Saudi Trading & Construction Company of Saudi Arabia. Such companies, which recruit and employ the bulk of the foreign workers in Iraq, have experienced explosive growth since the invasion of Iraq by providing labor and services to the more high-profile prime contractors.

This layered system not only cuts costs for the prime contractors, but also creates an untraceable trail of contracts that clouds the liability of companies and hinders comprehensive oversight by U.S. contract auditors. In April, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress concluded that it is impossible to accurately estimate the total number of U.S. or foreign nationals working in Iraq.

The GAO's investigation was prompted by concerns in Congress about insurance costs that all U.S.-funded contractors and subcontractors in are obligated by law to carry for their workers -- costs which are then passed on to the government.

"It is difficult to aggregate reliable data," said the GAO report, "due in part to the large number of contractors and the multiple levels of subcontractors performing work in Iraq."

The menial wages paid to TCNs working for the regional contractors may be the most significant factor in the Pentagon's argument that outsourcing military support is far more cost-efficient for the U.S. taxpayer than using its own troops to maintain camps and feed its ranks.

But there is also a human cost to this savings. Numerous former American contractors returning home say they were shocked at conditions faced by this mostly invisible, but indispensable army of low-paid workers.

TCNs frequently sleep in crowded trailers and wait outside in line in 100-degree-plus heat to eat "slop." Many are said to lack adequate medical care and put in hard labor seven days a week, 10 hours or more a day, for little or no overtime pay. Few receive proper workplace safety equipment or adequate protection from incoming mortars and rockets. When frequent gunfire, rockets and mortar shell from the ongoing conflict hits the sprawling military camps, American contractors slip on helmets and bulletproof vests, but TCNs are frequently shielded only by the shirts on their backs and the flimsy trailers they sleep in.

Adding to these dangers and hardships, some TCNs complain publicly about not being paid the wages they expected. Others say their employers use "bait-and-switch" tactics: recruiting them for jobs in Kuwait or other Middle Eastern countries and then pressuring them to go to Iraq. All of these problems have resulted in labor disputes, strikes and on-the-job protests.While the exact number of TCNs working in Iraq is uncertain, a rough estimate can be gleaned from Halliburton's own numbers, which indicate that TCNs make up 35,000 of KBR's 48,000 workers in Iraq employed under sweeping contract for military support.

Known as the Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program (LOGCAP), this contract -- by far the largest in Iraq -- is now approaching the $15 billion mark. Citing security concerns, however, the Houston-headquartered company and several other major contractors declined to release detailed figures on the workforce that is estimated to be 100,000 or more.

High Risks, Low Benefits

"They do all the grunt jobs," said former KBR supervisor Steve Powell, 54, from Azle, Texas. "But a lot of them are top notch."Powell returned home from at Camp Diamondback in May this year. He was disillusioned, he said, with the high staff turnover of KBR employees and the treatment of TCNs that a KBR subcontractor from Turkey had hired as mechanics.

"The Filipinos were making $600 to $1,200 a month. That's good money for them, but there was tension from time to time. They sometimes thought they were doing all the work," says Powell who drove trucks for 30 years before working as a KBR truck maintenance foreman in Iraq for a year for $6,000 to $8,000 a month. "We weren't supposed to get our hands dirty."

The TCNs not only do much of the dirty work, but, like others working for the U.S. military, risk and sometimes lose their lives. Many are killed in mortar attacks; some are shot. Others have been taken hostage before meeting their death. In particularly gruesome set of murders on August 30, 2004, the captors of 12 Nepalese cooks and cleaners working for a Jordanian construction company beheaded one worker and posted a video of the execution on the Internet with the message: "We have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalese who came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve the Jews and the Christians . . . believing in Buddha as their God."

The murders led Kathmandu to bar its citizens from working in Iraq, although companies doing business there continue to employ Nepalese workers.The Pentagon keeps no comprehensive record of TCN casualties. But the Georgia-based nonprofit, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, estimates that TCNs make up more than 100 of the estimated 269 civilian fatalities. The number of unreported fatalities could be much higher, while unreported and life-altering injuries are legion.

Soliman was one TCN who barely escaped death on the night of May 11, 2004, when his living trailer at Camp Anaconda was blown apart by a bomb attack. Sardonically dubbed "Mortaritaville," the camp sits 42 miles north of Baghdad. Some 17,000 US soldiers and thousands of contractors have dug into the former Iraqi airbase for a long-term occupation.

Three others were injured along with Soliman that night. One roommate, 25-year-old fuel pump attendant Raymund Natividad, was killed. Soliman flew home to the Philippines in a wheelchair days later because he wanted medical treatment in his own country. But even after surgery and skin grafts, he sometimes feels nagging pain in his leg, he says. Doctors tell Soliman he will walk with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his left leg for the rest of his life."It was too deep" to remove, he explains.

The attack ignited shock waves of fear among the 1,300 Filipino workers at Camp Anaconda. Some 600 PPI employees immediately quit over safety concerns. "Filipinos don't want to work anymore in the mess halls, laundry and fuel depot," a Filipino embassy official in Baghdad said at the time. "There's a paralysis of work."

By mid-July, 2004, the Philippines would resign from the "Coalition of the Willing" and withdraw its modest military presence of 43 soldiers and eight policemen from Iraq one month earlier than scheduled. The precipitating event was a threat by Iraqi militias to behead Filipino hostage Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old truck driver for the Saudi Arabian Trading and Construction Company.

One day after the withdrawal, his captors released the father of eight. He returned home to the storm of media attention hailing his safe return and offers of a free home and scholarships for the children.

Only fleeting headlines in Manila greeted Soliman's homecoming just months earlier. Now jobless, he speaks fondly of the U.S. troops to whom, he says, he was forbidden to speak to by his company supervisors at PPI."

The Army treated us like friends," he said, boasting of a certificate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded him in recognition of his service as a warehouse worker who handled and received food supplies for the camp.His memories of PPI are less congenial. His managers were foul-mouthed and verbally abusive and lunches served on the job sites were unfit to eat, Soliman said.

PPI restricted employees to two 5-minute phone calls home a month and deducted the cost from their paychecks."They were $10 more expensive than at the PX (the retail store on the military base), but if they see you making a call at another location, they would send you home," Salomon said.

A number of former KBR supervisors say they don't know why TCNs continue working in Iraq when they face much more brutal working conditions and hours than what their American and European co-workers would tolerate.

"TCNs had a lot of problems with overtime and things," recalls Sharon Reynolds of Kirbyville, Texas. "I remember one time that they didn't get paid for four months."

The former KBR administrator, who spent 11 months in Iraq until April, says she was responsible for processing time sheets for 665 TCNs employed by PPI at Camp Victory near Baghdad. The 14,000 troops and the American contractors based at this former palace for Saddam Hussein have use of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a manmade lake preserved for special events and fishing.

But TCNs have to make do with far less. "They don't get sick pay and if PPI had insurance, they sure didn't talk about it much," Reynolds recalls. "TCNs had a lot of problems with overtime and things ... I had to go to bat for them to get shoes and proper clothing,"As for living conditions, TCNs "ate outside in 140 degree heat," she says.

American contractors and U.S. troops ate at the air-conditioned Pegasus Dining Facility featuring a short-order grill, salad, pizza, sandwich and ice cream bars under the KBR logistics contract.

"TCNs had to stand in line with plates and were served something like be curry and fish heads from big old pots," Reynolds says incredulously. "It looked like a concentration camp,"And even when it came to basic safety, the TCNs faced a double standard.

"They didn't have personal protection equipment to wear when there was an alert," Reynolds said. "Here we are walking around with helmets and vests because of an alert and they are just looking at us wondering what's going on."Contractors RespondPPI in Dubai has failed to respond to numerous phone calls about the accusations of mistreatment. "I don't think anyone will want to comment." said a representative who answered the phone and decline to provide phone numbers or e-mail addresses of company executives.

There is little public information about PPI, but other contractors say the company's leading officers boast of a close association with Halliburton and say that it was formed by staff who previously worked with local firms sponsoring Halliburton's business activities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Several sources say PPI was active as a major Halliburton subcontractor in Bosnia and at the high-security prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

.Halliburton spokesperson Melissa Norcross denied that the company has ownership or investment ties with PPI. The Halliburton unit is proud of its employees and subcontractors "who daily face danger to support the troops serving in Iraq and the Middle East," said Norcross, adding that Halliburton requires all subcontractors to provide acceptable living and working conditions for its workers."

KBR operates under a rigorous code of ethics that describes not only its standards of integrity, but its commitment to treat all of its employees and subcontractors with dignity and respect," Norcross wrote in an e-mail. The company "is aware of past disagreements between subcontractors and their employees, and KBR has interjected itself into the situation as appropriate and worked with the subcontractors to address these concerns."

Norcross did not offer details of past problems involving working conditions for TCNs, nor did KBR's project manager for Iraq and Kuwait, Remo Butler, when contacted by e-mail. But if allegations of wrongdoing or contract violations are found, Norcross said, Halliburton would address them, and "would also report any wrongdoings to the appropriate authorities, including our customer, the U.S. military."

The military, however, is apparently either unaware of the conditions or has simply chosen not acknowledge them. Margaret A. Browne, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Field Support Command which manages KBR's LOGCAP contract, confirmed that the company is expected to fulfill health, security and life support requirements for subcontractors in the LOGCAP agreement.

These are "serious issues and we are presently investigating the specific incidents you've addressed," she said referring to problems outlined by former KBR supervisors and TCN workers. "We are concerned about employment conditions for all employees," Browne said in an e-mail, adding that KBR is expected to fulfill a number of requirements outlining the health, security and life support requirements for subcontractors under the LOGCAP agreement, but that oversight for those requirements is under the purview of Halliburton and its subcontractors.

Diverted to Iraq

Challenging Halliburton and Army assurances, former KBR supervisors say they frequently witnessed subcontractors failing to meet required conditions, while some TCNs share horror stories with claims that they were falsely recruited, believing they were signing up for work in Kuwait and then having their contract changed to Iraq.

"I had no idea that I would end up in Iraq" says Ramil Autencio, who signed with MGM Worldwide Manpower and General Services in the Philippines. The 37-year-old air conditioning maintenance worker thought he would be working at Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month.

He arrived in Kuwait in December 2003, only to discover that First Kuwaiti had bought his contract. The company, which now holds U.S.-funded contracts valued in the neighborhood of $1 billion, threatened that unless he and dozens of other Filipino workers went to Iraq, the Kuwaiti police would arrested them, he says. "We had no choice but to go along with them. After all, we were in their country."

Once in Iraq, Autencio found that there were no air conditioners to install or maintain, so he spent 11 hours a day "moving boulders" to fortify the camps, first at Camp Anaconda and then at Tikrit.

Food was inadequate and workers were not getting paid, he says. "We ate when the Americans had leftovers from their meals. If not, we didn't eat at all."Working and living conditions were so bad, that in February 2004 Autencio escaped with dozens of others. A U.S. soldier born in the Philippines helped them leave the camp, and sympathetic truck drivers working for KBR offered them rides through the country.

By the time the Filipinos reached the Kuwaiti border, Autencio said the number of fleeing workers was so great that the border police let them pass through without proper papers.

First Kuwaiti general manager Wahid al Absi says Autencio is lying. His proof is a working agreement, purportedly signed in the Philippines by Autencio. Al Absi admits that unscrupulous recruitment agencies do sometimes misrepresent jobs and take money from people eager to work, but he provided Autencio's undated contract with First Kuwaiti that identified the job site as both Kuwait and "mainly" Iraq.

The agreement also lays out salary: $346 a month for 8-hour days, seven days a week, plus $104 a month for a mandatory 2 hours overtime every day.Al Absi insists that Autencio was paid in full."He sued me in court over this, and he lost," Al Absi said. "He doesn't have a case against us."

First Kuwaiti holds $600 million in Army contracts, Al Absi said. The company is also a leading competitor for $500 million contract to build the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and presently holds contracts for more than $300 million for preliminary work on the project.

Pattern of Recruiting AbusesAutencio is not the only former TCN worker with a grievance against Halliburton subcontractors and the layers of third-party recruiters.The Washington Post lays out an intricate recruiting scheme involving dining service workers from India who were lost in a maze of five recruiters and subcontractors on several continents. The Indians claimed to have been falsely recruited for jobs in Kuwait, only to end up in Iraq.

During their time at a military camp in the war zone, they lacked adequate drinking water, food, health care, and security, according to the July 1, 2004 article."I cursed my fate -- not having a feeling my life was secure, knowing I could not go back, and being treated like a kind of animal," for less than $7 a day, Dharmapalan Ajayakumar told the newspaper.Ajayakumar's case is a study in the convoluted world of Iraqi contracts: Workers were reported to have been first recruited by Subhash Vijay in India to work for Gulf Catering Company of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Gulf Catering was subcontracted to Alargan Group of Kuwait City, which was subcontracted to the Event Source of Salt Lake City, which in turn was subcontracted to KBR of Houston. And KBR, of course, is a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Nepalese worker Krishna Bahadur Khadka told a similar story of false recruitment in a September 7, 2004 news report in the Kathmandu Post. After being recruited for a job in Kuwait, he says, he arrived only to be told by First Kuwaiti Trading that if he and 121 other workers they refused work in Iraq, they would be sent back to Nepal."I was not happy at first as my contractors did not provide me a job as heavy vehicle driver as pledged. But they had offered Rs 175,000 [$2,450], and one would not be able earn half that amount in Kuwait. So I signed the papers," Khadka said, adding that he had already invested $1,680 as payment to an agent in Nepal.

First Kuwaiti's general manager claims that this allegation, too, is a lie and that Khadka misrepresented his skills. Again al Absi presented a contract identifying the work site as "mainly Iraq." It bore Khadka's signature and fingerprint."Khadka is a troublemaker who was trying to organize the workers," al Absi said, noting that thousands of TCNs working for First Kuwaiti have renewed their contracts with raises. "We treat our workers with excellent care," he said.

Labor Strike, You're OutBut cared for or not, hundreds of Filipinos in Iraq face being fired for staging labor strikes and sickouts to protest their treatment at military camps. In May 2005, 300 Filipinos went on strike at Camp Cook against PPI and KBR. The workers were soon joined by 500 others from India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to protest working conditions and pay, according to the Manila Times. The dispute was settled with intervention from the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs.

At the time of the strike, the Philippines offered the strikers free flights back to the Philippines, an invitation first made in April when the Philippines reiterated its ban on work in Iraq. The offer sparked concern at the U.S. embassy in Manila, according to news reports, because a loss of Filipino workers threatened military support services in Iraq.The U.S. embassy then clarified its position on April 27.

Embassy spokesperson Karen Kelley acknowledged that while Filipinos "play a crucial role in the allied effort to bring peace and democracy to a people who have been too long deprived of both," embassy officials also "recognize the government of the Philippines' concern for the welfare of its citizens."Other strikes have gone unreported, recalls former KBR employee Paul Dinsmore.

Hired as a carpenter, he later transferred to Logistics as a heavy truck driver at Camp Speicher, a sprawling 24-square-mile installation near Tikrit in northern Iraq. Dinsmore says the work crews he supervised at the former Iraqi airbase were made up of Hindis, Pakistanis, Nepalese, and Filipinos working for First Kuwaiti.

Working at Camp Speicher for seven months before returning home in May 2005, Dinsmore said he knew of three different instances of TCN construction workers who refused outright to work or showed up only to sit out most of the day. Asked what was going on, TCNs told him that First Kuwaiti had not been paid them for several months and that they didn't want to be treated that way."

I heard that several hundred Filipinos were fired in September 2004 before I got there because of labor problems," Dinsmore said. After discovering that the TCN assistants were not paid any overtime, he was careful to get them back to their compound after their 10 hour day.

Like Powell and Reynolds, Dinsmore recounted dismal working conditions. "One of the construction Filipinos told him that they were treated like human cattle by some of the Western employees there and that they did not receive enough medical treatment when they were ill.

"Many times, Dinsmore said, he would buy non-prescription drugs from the PX for his crews, especially when a very bad virus was going around during the winter of 2004-2005. If the case was bad enough, he would take the workers to the KBR clinic. His supervisor and the clinic medics told him that treating TCNs violated company policy. "We were told that First Kuwaiti was supposed to take care of them," Dinsmore said.

Dinsmore also turned to the Army for food. He says the food First Kuwaiti served was so poor, that he and other KBR employees would hand out military field rations -- known as "meals ready to eat" or MREs. "When the Army stopped that practice, many of us KBR people would pick up "to go" plates from the DFAC [dining facilities] and hand them out to the TCNs we were responsible for. If you want them to work well, you've got to feed them."

Despite these conditions, TCNs finished jobs ahead of schedule, says Dinsmore. He credits these workers for personal praise he won from KBR and the military for his own performance. "The reality was that without the TCNs, very little construction would get accomplished on time on Speicher," said Dinsmore adding that "I heard that eventually KBR took care of the pay issue."

First Kuwaiti manager Wadih Al Absi insists that his company provides the same quality of living and food that the U.S. Army provides to its soldiers and that the company has received commendations from the Army. "We have no problems with our employees; they get excellent care," he said.

Let Them Eat SandRandy McDale, who rose to be a KBR foreman for heavy construction equipment at Camp Victory and other installations near the Baghdad International Airport, confirmed many of the other contractors' and TCN's charges of miserable conditions and inadequate safety."Everyday was like T-bone steaks for us, but I would starve to death before eating what they had," he said of the workers with PPI. "Guys would just go and get lunch for them and bring it to the work site. The TCNs couldn't get it fast enough."

McDale, a KBR foreman for heavy construction equipment at Camp Victory and other installations near the Baghdad International Airport, spent 15 months in Iraq before returning home in April to an eight-year-old trailer house on 35-acres of land in cattle ranch country outside of Bogata, Texas, "halfway between Paris and Texarkana."Earning about $7,500 to $8,000 a month before his promotion, McDale said many American workers saw a clear line between themselves and the TCNs. "

There's a prejudice among some Americans that they are not equal and just labor force," he said. "Americans are supposed to be the experts."The division was made all the more clear to McDale by TCNs' lack of protective armor for threat alerts and boots and hard hats for construction work. "Some were wearing sandals walking in the mud when it was winter and 40 degrees," he said of the Indians, Sri Lankans and Filipinos he worked with. "One guy didn't even have a coat."

KBR gave McDale grief after he requested 20 hard hats for his workers, he said. "I don't know why KBR wasn't giving PPI a hard time for not getting the right equipment. That's the way it works in the States. If a subcontractor isn't ready, you fire them."Willing to ReturnAlthough Filipino passports now explicitly ban entry into Iraq, the ranks of Filipinos sneaking over the border from neighboring countries has as swelled from an estimated 4,000 before the 2003 ban to 6,000 today.

Filipinos "believe it is better to work in Iraq with their lives in danger rather than face the danger of not having breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Philippines," said Maita Santiago, secretary-general for Migrante International, an organization that defends the rights of more than a million overseas Filipino workers.

Despite complaints about First Kuwaiti, Autencio said he would return to Iraq if he had guarantees for proper food and pay. "I would take my chances abroad if I couldn't find a decent job here," he said during an interview at his home in Pasig City, an urban area in metropolitan Manila. "But I'd take any job here that pays enough to buy me a second hand car and start my own business."Soliman, now finds his problems with PPI and injuries in Iraq pale in comparison to life back in the Philippines.

Jobless, he sees his life teetering on the edge. He may be splitting up with his wife, and plans for providing a new home to his family are on hold. He says he doubts that PPI will be sending money for his final medical checkup or even the several months salary he says he is still owed But those things don't matter so much.What really matters now is finding another job. "If you hear of anything, let me know," Soliman said at the end of the interview. "I would even go back to Iraq."

( David Phinney is a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington D.C., whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS. Lucille Quiambao and Howie Severino reported from the Philippines for this article. Additional research by Pratap Chatterjee.)

Remittance standards urged to protect OFWs

Wednesday, November 02, 2005 / 4:09:31 PM

TO protect overseas Filipino workers and their families from abuses, a lawmaker has urged the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the Departments of Trade and Industry and Labor and Employment to work out and establish minimum standards for banks, money transfer agents, door-to-door dispatchers and other entities engaged in the remittance business.

"Owing to the remittance boom, just about everyone wants to be in on the trade. In fact, no less than the DTI has warned the public about the emergence of a number of fly-by-night remittance agents. Regulators must now step in and make sure that all remittance handlers operate according to a minimum set of standards,"

Rep. Eduardo Gullas said. "The agencies concerned are duty-bound to protect our OFWs and their families, not just from outrageous transfer fees, but also from foreign exchange conversion short-changing as well as sloppy delivery services," he said.

To prove his point, Gullas cited the complaint of a Filipino nurse working in California, who recently sent $600 to her family in Cebu City. The money was coursed through a leading Manila-based door-to-door parcel courier that has since ventured into the remittance trade.

Gullas said the courier's California office guaranteed that the peso equivalent of $600 would be delivered to the consignee within two days. However, the money arrived after seven days. He also said the courier converted the $600 at the exchange rate of 1:55.15 (P33,090). Yet, on the day the remittance was taken, the Philippine Dealing System's average exchange rate was 1:55.65.

"In effect, besides paying the $12 (P661.80) transfer fee, the nurse or her beneficiary incurred a hidden loss of $5.44 (P300) upon conversion of her dollars into pesos. And the loss of 50 centavos for every dollar became the courier's P300 (foreign exchange) gain," Gullas said. The nurse thus spent $17.44 (P961.81), or about three percent for the $600 remittance. And yet the money was delivered five days late, Gullas said.

"Government has to set minimum standards, to possibly include reasonable and transparent limits to foreign exchange gains that may be realized by handlers at the expense of our OFWs," he stressed.

Handlers that repeatedly fail to deliver remittances within the promised period, including banks that delay the crediting of cash to a beneficiary's account in the case of direct deposit transfers, should also be penalized, Gullas added.

The BSP expects remittances to hit $10.3 billion this year, up 22 percent from the $8.5 billion posted in 2004.

The $10.3 billion does not include some $3 billion in transfers coursed through informal, non-banking channels, such as those hand-carried by returning laborers on behalf of co-workers. #

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Indonesian and Philippine centers to produce 'custom-trained maids'

The Jakarta Post

SINGAPORE (DPA): A Singapore company promising "custom-trained maids" is setting up schools in Indonesia and the Philippines, its director said Tuesday. "We want maids with the right attitude and aptitude," The Straits Times quoted Alvin Kor, director of the company Homemaker, as saying.

"If they don't meet these requirements, we will send them back home." Kor said the center in Jakarta, Indonesia, would open next month. The center in the Philippines is due to open in January 2006. The maids will spend two months at the 280-square-metre center in Jakarta learning housekeeping techniques and ways to take care of infants and the elderly.

They will also learn safety tips and how to handle chemicals. Indonesia and the Philippines are the primary sources of the 160,000 domestic helpers in Singapore.

Others come from Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. Abuse of Indonesian maids from rural areas by Chinese employers has become rampant in Singapore. After several maids fell to their deaths while washing windows in high rise housing blocks, Singapore's Manpower Ministry has been trying to crack down on the abusive employers by issuingguidelines on what employers can and cannot expect.

Homemaker currently provides housekeeping services for expatriates living in Indonesia's capital. A training facility for maids was launched on the Indonesian island of Batam last year, but an instructor told The Straits Times that half of the maids received little or no training.

The approximately 50 maids who pass through the center daily use it mainly as a transit point to register with the center's officials, check their documents and attend a three-hour briefing on work safety and Singapore law.

Kor said his company, for an additional fee, will conduct home visits to help employers supervise the maids and to draw up their schedule.

Regardless of their nationality, the salaries of the trained maids will range between S$300 and S$350 (US$178 and US@208). "There is value in paying higher for better maids," Kor said.

Maids' pay-rise hopes dashed

Vol XXVIII NO. 203
9 October 2005

A NEW minimum wage for Filipina housemaids, stipulated by their own government, is not worth the paper it's written on, say recruiters in Bahrain.

Recruiters may sign the minimum-wage contract required by law to get maids out of the Philippines, but families here will simply ignore it, say agents.

They say Filipina housemaids receive high salaries compared to domestic helpers from other countries working in Bahrain.

More Bahraini families are also choosing Indians, because they are "easier to get along with, learn to adapt easily, experience less culture shock once in Bahrain and are more loyal".On average, Filipina housemaids are said to earn about BD50 a month, while those from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia reportedly earn around BD40.

The Philippines' government has set a new minimum wage for Filipina housemaids in Bahrain at $200 (about BD75), which it says recruiters will have to meet.But manpower agencies dismissed this as a "formality".

They said the $200 minimum salary would be stated in contracts, but Bahraini families would most likely continue to pay Filipina housemaids BD50.

"I am happy to follow the $200 minimum wage, but the problem here is that the majority of Bahraini families would not be paying this salary. They are not in position to pay," Al Shoala Public Relations managing director and Bahrain Recruiters Society president Ali Al Shoala told the GDN yesterday.

Al Shoala Public Relations, a leading manpower supply company in Bahrain, brings on average about 40 housemaids from various countries to the kingdom.Mr Al Shoala said that he personally would like to see the BD75 minimum wage materialise, but doubted that anyone would pay it.

"It is very rare in Bahrain that families would pay even BD65 for a housemaid. Even rich families won't do that," he said.Three Bahraini families the GDN spoke to yesterday said that they paid their Filipina housemaids BD50 each a month.One family head said he would consider raising his housemaid's salary to BD60, even BD75, after a few years' service.

"It also depends on her skills. If she speaks good English and learns quickly, then why not raise her salary?" he said."Unfortunately, the growing problem with Filipina housemaids is that they generally think they can just leave and run away to their embassy at the slightest hint of a problem.

"Years ago, I had one Filipina housemaid who run away after two months because she said she was homesick."Another Bahraini family said that they would pay BD75 for a Filipina housemaid if she had a college education, other than that - they would only pay BD50."Why should we settle for someone who is not educated?" reasoned one member of the household.

Al Shoala's public relations manager Makki Abdulla said Goan housemaids were in high demand in Bahrain."Most Bahraini families want Indian housemaids now, this is what we have found out," he said."Indians make very good housemaids and they tend to adapt to Bahrain more easily than Filipinas.

They also stay for a long time in each household."All housemaids brought to Bahrain by Al Shoala are also trained prior to working with families here.If they are unpaid, abused or maltreated, they are urged to contact the agency and complain, said Mr Abdulla."If the employer is bad then we immediately put his name in our blacklist.

"A spokeswoman from Shaker Management Consultation Services said that it welcomed the minimum salary, set by the Philippines' Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE)."The Philippine Embassy in Bahrain pushed for a $300 (BD113.4) minimum salary, which we thought was a lot compared to other GCC countries - where it is $200," she said.

"This is in favour of Filipina housemaids definitely, especially if this means we will be able to hire more qualified candidates."Unfortunately, I doubt if anyone would pay BD75 a month. There is a trend in Bahrain that Filipino housemaids get BD50 a month.

"She said that Filipina housemaids got more in other countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, the UAE and Kuwait."Their salary in Bahrain is really minimal, whereas in Abu Dhabi Filipinas earn about BD75," said the spokeswoman.

"But within Bahrain, Filipinas earn more than Ethiophians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshi housemaids."Lower salaries could mean lower quality of work, said a Zainal Manpower spokeswoman."The $200 minimum wage is just a formality in contracts, because anything less than that, the housemaid may not be able to leave the Philippines. But in reality, they get paid BD50 here," she said.

"But as an agency, our main concern is that the housemaids we bring are paid on time, they are treated properly and not abused."


The Philippine Embassy hopes to hold another meeting with the Bahrain Recruiters Society.

Their last meeting was held at the embassy in Zinj in July, to find ways to ensure that employers stick to the standard contract for domestic staff.

The embassy also stressed to the BRS the fact that the Bahrain labour law of 1976 did not cover domestic helpers. This means that they have no benefits, such as medical insurance.

The society said that problems faced by housemaids in Bahrain were 'solvable'.

The society has a total of 61 manpower agency members. #

Thursday, October 27, 2005

$3B in OFW remittances eludes banks

Posted: 2:16 AM Oct. 27, 2005
Inquirer News Service

AS MUCH as $3 billion in cash sent home by overseas Filipino workers is still coursed through non-bank channels such as couriers, Governor Amando Tetangco of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP, the central bank) said Wednesday, citing findings of a government study.

Banks are expected to capture $10.3 billion in OFW remittances this year and will likely capture a bigger proportion as the money inflows continue expanding in the years ahead, Tetangco said. "As we are able to improve remittance systems and able to use technology, we'll see more and more portions of these remittances into the banking channel," he told a forum of foreign correspondents.

The OFW money that elude banks still benefits the economy as a whole, Tetangco noted. "It still goes into the country, still goes to consumption and other uses in the economy."

"That's why in the BoP [balance of payments], we try to capture some of that by assuming there's another 20 percent that is being coursed through non-banks," he said."

That's a conservative estimate, because the survey shows it's somewhere between 25 and 30 percent." The Department of Labor and Employment did the study on OFW remittances, together with consular offices abroad. To encourage use of banks in sending OFW incomes home, the BSP is asking banks "to come up with products that OFWs can use, for those who don't have the time or inclination to go into business," Tetangco said.

He said the central bank was also studying ways to link OFW inflows with microfinance. "The $10 billion is a big account and we have a lot of people in the countryside that are potential entrepreneurs," he noted.

"Looking forward, we see that there's still potential for further expansion in the industry, for a number of reasons," Tetangco said. "One, there is increasing demand especially from countries whose populations are aging," Tetangco said. With

Almost 5,000 Filipino workers in jail overseas

First posted 07:53pm (Mla time) Oct 25, 2005
Agence France-Presse

NEARLY 5,000 Filipino workers have been jailed overseas for various crimes but the government is doing its best to help them, Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas said Tuesday.

Most are detained in Middle Eastern countries although there are others who have been jailed in Japan, Hong Kong, Brunei and Singapore, she told reporters. Up to eight million Filipinos live abroad, many on short-term employment contracts.

"Legal assistance to [overseas Filipino workers] who have committed offenses in their host countries are provided jointly by the Philippine Embassies in the host countries and by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration," she said.

Social workers are also providing humanitarian aid, she added. The lure of higher-paying jobs overseas has seen almost eight million Filipinos go abroad with nearly a million finding work overseas every year. #

Study: Worker remittances to reach $225B in '05

WASHINGTON - Migrant workers are expected to send home a whopping $225 billion this year, the World Bank said Monday, as a new study showed remittances playing a key role in slashing poverty rates in developing economies.

Worker remittances also increase spending in home countries on education, health and investment, the bank said. "Close to 200 million people are living in countries other than the ones in which they were born, and remittances are estimated to reach about 225 billion dollars in 2005," the Washington-based bank said, quoting from its forthcoming publication, Global Economic Prospects 2006.

"This makes remittances the biggest source of foreign exchange in many countries and has major implications for strategies to reduce poverty in developing nations," it said.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) earlier said it expects remittances from Filipinos working overseas to hit $10.3 billion this year, up 21 percent from 2004.

BSP Governor Amando Tetangco told reporters remittances could rise further to at least $11.3 billion next year. BSP officials have said total remittances could be around 20 percent higher if informal transfers, such as money sent home through visiting relatives and friends, are accounted for.

Remittances help fuel consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of Philippine gross domestic product.

The World Bank report, to be released in November, examines policy options to increase the poverty-reducing impact of international migration and remittances. The World Bank presented the findings in conjunction with the release on Monday of a new study, "International Migration, Remittances and the Brain Drain," produced by its research department.

It includes a detailed analysis of household survey data in Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines -- all countries that produce millions of migrants -- which concludes that families whose members include migrants living abroad have higher incomes than those with no migrants. "The studies show that remittances reduce poverty and increase spending on education, health and investment," said World Bank economist Maurice Schiff, who co-edited the book with Caglar Ozden, also an economist at the bank.

He said the findings were consistent in all three country studies.

Further research is underway to see if they apply in other countries, he added. "The household survey evidence presented in the book demonstrates a direct link between migration and poverty reduction in the countries studied," said Francois Bourguignon, the World Bank's chief economist.

"It is groundbreaking work that is essential to sound policymaking in this area," he said. While remittances highlighted migration's positive impact on development, a more complex picture -- the so-called "brain drain" -- emerges when the study's focus shifted to the educated migrants from developing countries.

One chapter in the book unveiled "the most comprehensive database" to date, based on census and survey data from OECD countries, tracing a massive exodus of professionals from some of the world's most vulnerable low-income countries.

Eight out of 10 Haitians and Jamaicans who have college degrees live outside their country. In Sierra Leone and Ghana, the same ratio is five out of 10. Many countries in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as some island nations in the Caribbean and the Pacific, show rates of migration among professionals over 50 percent.

This was in sharp contrast to much bigger countries such as China and India, from which only three to five percent of graduates are abroad, as well as Brazil, Indonesia, and the former Soviet Union, which also have low migration rates among the educated.

On a larger scale, the study showed that migration dramatically increased global economic output by enabling workers to move to locations where they were more productive, and as a result, earn much higher wages than they would have in their developing home countries.

A large portion of these economic gains accrues to the migrants and to their families back at home through the remittances they send, it said. (AFP)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

WB study: OFW money lifting families out of poverty

Posted: 2:09 AM Oct. 25, 2005
Inquirer News Service

MONEY remitted by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) is lifting many Philippine households out of poverty by boosting funds for education, health and entrepreneurship, a new World Bank study has noted. The study, titled "International Migration, Remittances, and the Brain Drain," includes a detailed analysis of household survey data in the Philippines, Mexico and Guatemala.

The chapter on the Philippines says households with OFWs tended to be wealthier than others in terms of per capita income based on 1997-1998 data. It said that in June 1997, a month before the Asian financial crisis set in, 5.9 percent of Philippine households had one or more members working abroad.

Fifty-one percent of these households landed in the top 25 percent of the national household income per capita distribution while 28 percent were in the next-highest quartile, it said. Only nine percent of Philippine households with OFWs were noted to be still living below the poverty line.

The average per capital income of OFW households was estimated at P20,235 ($778) during the pre-Asian crisis period as opposed to ordinary households, which had a higher poverty rate of 31 percent and a lower per capita income of P11,857 ($456).

The study further noted that a currency exchange shock similar to the peso devaluation against the US dollar during the Asian crisis could lead to increases in household remittance receipts and in total household income. A 10-percent improvement in the exchange rate leads to a drop of 0.6 percentage point in the poverty rate, it noted.

Households enjoying a more favorable exchange rate were also more likely to start a business, particularly in transportation and communication services, and manufacturing, which were activities involving considerable fixed costs in vehicles and equipment that could become more affordable in the wake of positive exchange rate shocks, the study pointed out.

Those investing in transportation services were likely to venture into taxi and minibus operation while likely manufacturing activities include small activities such as mat weaving, tailoring, dressmaking and food processing, the study said.

"The fact that the exchange rate shocks stimulated such investments suggests that the shocks are likely to have persistent and positive effects on household well-being over the long term, in addition to their leading to reductions in current poverty," it said. The study also found evidence of positive spillovers to households without OFWs in terms of gift-giving.

Other key findings of the WB study were:

• 31 percent of OFW household heads have college or higher education, compared with just 20 percent of non-OFW household heads.
• 23 percent of OFW household heads work in agriculture, compared with 38 percent in all other households.
• 68 percent of OFW households live in urban areas, compared with 58 percent of non-migrant households.
• Saudi Arabia is the biggest single destination of OFWs, with 28.4 percent of the total.

Hong Kong (China) comes in second with 11.5 percent. The only other economies that account for six percent or more are Taiwan (China), Japan, Singapore, and the United States.

• OFWs have a mean age of 34.5 years; 38 percent are single and 53 percent are male. The two largest occupational categories are production and related workers, and domestic servants, each accounting for 31 percent of the total.

• 31 percent of OFWs have achieved some college education, and an additional 30 percent have a college degree.

To address rising unemployment and balance-of-payments problems, the Philippine government initiated an Overseas Employment Program in 1974 to facilitate the placement of Filipino workers abroad.

At first, the government directly managed the placement of workers with employers overseas, but soon yielded the function to private recruitment agencies and assumed a more limited oversight role.

Doris Dumlao, with

Reports on runaway workers in thousands

The Saudi Gazette

RIYADH -- The runaway workers section in Riyadh s Expatriate Department gets as many as 4,500 reports of runaway maids and workers a month, according to a report in the Arabic daily Al-Watan on Monday.

The paper said that the department s director would not give any information on the issue, saying that he had no authority to divulge such information. But the newspaper said that there is information that the department receives as many as 150 so-called missing worker reports each day.

The paper quoted visitors of the Expatriate Department in Riyadh as saying that a major contributor is the illegal employment of runaway workers by a number of citizens and expatriates for higher wages.

Fahad Al-Shammari believes that competent authorities including the Passports Department, police, and other, do not enforce harsh sanctions which would be a deterrent.

Offenders are arrested if, by coincidence, they are caught by police and sponsors are required to pay for tickets to send them home even though their legal responsibility for runaway individuals ends upon filing a running away report , he said.

Shammari adds that competent authorities are at times aware of the presence of runaway workers and when a report is filed, the Passports Department and the Police assign responsibility for arrest to each other until citizens give up and resign to the status quo.

Mahmoud Al-Haq, an expatriate, blames the running away to a number of sponsors requiring workers to pay certain amounts upon coming to Saudi Arabia in order to have the sponsor s authorization to work.

These amounts are increased each year. No longer able to bear this injustice, some workers simply run away.The head of the Expatriates Department in Riyadh declined to disclose information on the issue or on the Department s role in curbing the phenomenon on the grounds of non-competence.

However, there is information that the Section of Run-Away Labor, affiliated to the Department, receives more than 150 reports each day, which translates into more than 4,500 reports each month.

A citizen whose subordinate has run away is given a form to fill. The form contains information on the run-away worker and on his/her sponsor.

A list of workers employed by the government is then shown to a sponsor to determine whether or not a run-away worker may be working in the public sector.

On the other hand, the Department requires citizens who wish to retract a run-away report to pay fees of up to SR2,000.A sponsor who fails to report a run-away worker within three days of the running away is fined SR1,000, taking legal excuses into consideration.

Reports are received within three days of the running away incident on condition that the sponsor has not filed a lawsuit against his subordinate with any government authority.

A responsible source at the Passports Department defended the levying of a fine, explaining that some citizens make agreements with their subordinate whereby they are allowed to run away and work for other parties against a fee paid in cash to the original sponsor.

The purpose is to dodge responsibility in case a run-away worker is arrested.

In the case of maids, a sponsor is required to obtain a letter from the Maids Affairs Section indicating that the maid is no longer in his employment.

The remaining reporting procedures are subsequently finalized. The passport of a missing worker is normally handed over to the authorities within three months.

However, an exception is made in the case of maids and drivers whose passports may be handed over within two weeks in order for a sponsor to be able to apply for recruitment of a replacement.

STARTING NEXT YEAR: Maids in S'pore must be given one day off a month--report

First posted 04:26pm (Mla time) Oct 25, 2005
Associated Press

SINGAPORE -- Employers of foreign maids working in Singapore must give their domestic helpers at least one rest day a month or compensate them in cash starting next year, The Straits Times newspaper reported Tuesday. Under current legislation, Singapore's employers are not obliged to give maids any free time, but the Association of Employment Agencies watchdog group said that from January, agencies must include a clause in employment contracts that stipulate one day off a month for maids.

Following the move, domestic helpers not given their monthly rest day can sue their employers for breach of contract, the report said. More than 140,000 maids, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, are employed in Singapore, a wealthy Southeast Asian city-state.

Singapore made it mandatory for maid agencies to be accredited in 2003 to encourage ethical and proper employment practices. The watchdog group is one of two organizations which run accreditation schemes requiring the more than 500 agencies under them to set out clear refund policies and employment terms for maids.

Maid employment agencies that do not include a clause for time off in contracts drawn up between maids and employers may not be reaccredited, the newspaper reported."Employers tell us that they are busy, that's why they can't give their maids a day off," the paper quoted David Haw, director of employment agency Newway Holdings, as saying. "It's a shame that we are from a developed country and yet we treat our maids like slaves.

"The report said a sample of the new employment agreement had been submitted by the association to the Manpower Ministry and that a standard contract would be issued shortly, implying government approval of the measure. The association can make recommendations to employers, but has no power to enforce policy.

The watchdog and the Manpower Ministry could not be immediately contacted by The Associated Press to confirm the report.

There have been periodic cases of employers abusing their maids in Singapore, and some activists want the government to do more to protect the rights of foreign domestic helpers.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dubai imposes visit visa curbs on six countries

Nation Immigration & Visas Published:
24/10/2005, 08:36 (UAE)
Gulf News.Com

By Sunita Menon and Bassma Al Jandaly, Staff Reporters Dubai:

Authorities in Dubai have stopped issuing visit visas for people from Bangladesh, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Niger, Iraq and Nigeria, a Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department official said yesterday.

The official, who did not wish to be named, said that family visas for people from the six nations would be issued only after the approval of the director general or the deputy director of the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department (DNRD).

The official did not know when the visa issue would be resumed. Senior DNRD officials were not available for comment.

A senior Bangladesh official at the Bangladesh Embassy in Abu Dhabi however confirmed that issuance of visit visas for Bangladeshis has been stopped due to illegal visa trade by unscrupulous agents.

Representatives of the five other countries were not available for comment.

Officials at the Bangladeshi embassy as well as the consulate said that they had received enquiries made by Bangladeshis about the stopping of visas.

"The reason behind suspending the issuing of visit visas for Bangladeshis is due to the illegal visa trade," said Mirza Shamsuzzaman, the Bangladesh ambassador.

He said during the past year a growing number of Bangladeshis had been conned by dishonest agents into buying visit visas for a large fee.

"Many have fallen victim to the visa trade and it has caught media attention in Bangladesh. Some people have also approached me for assistance to get their money back from the agents," said Shamsuzzaman.

"The agents sell the visit visa for 200,000 taka (Dh11,182) to people who are looking for employment overseas. The victims are often illiterate Bangladeshis from villages," Shamsuzzaman added.

He said the matter had been discussed with the UAE foreign ministry, which had assured him that the temporary suspension of issuing visit visa should not be taken as discrimination against the community.
"There are about 400,000 Bangladeshis in the UAE and there is a high demand for Bangladeshi manpower," said Shamsuzzaman.

Kamrul Ahsan, the Bangladesh consul general, told Gulf News that he too had received complaints from Bangladeshis about not being able to bring their relatives to the UAE on a visit visa.

A few Bangladeshis who spoke to Gulf News said they were disappointed when informed by the enquiry desk at the DNRD that they will not be able to apply for a visa.

A Bangladeshi resident said: "Initially I called the DNRD customer service for information on the working hours. I was informed by them that visit as well as family visas for Bangladeshis have been temporarily stopped."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

4,775 jailed Pinoys all over the world

Aside from diplomacy, the Department of Foreign Affairs has also been busy providing legal assistance to at least 4,775 Filipinos — of which 1,103 are women — who are languishing in foreign prisons as of the end of 2004, Senator Ralph Recto said yesterday.

Citing an official report from DFA, Recto said the number of “prisoner OFWs” is about 10 percent of the number of current domestic prisoners.

“The dispersal of Filipinos worldwide has also resulted in the incarceration of a few of them in diverse places. Some of those who have joined the great Filipino diaspora have never found their own ‘Promised Land,’” Recto said.

Of the 82 Philippine diplomatic posts abroad, only 12 reported that there was no Filipino detained or awaiting trial in their area of jurisdiction, Recto said, noting that most of the Filipinos imprisoned violated immigration laws.

Recto said the DFA’s global situationer on OFWs revealed that at least 1,200 Filipinos were detained in Malaysia, mostly in Sabah, following the country’s crackdown on undocumented workers.

Next to Malaysia was Israel, where the Philippine embassy in Tel Aviv reported that 1,028 Filipinos were facing charges in court. Those not out on bail are detained in jails in Ramle, Hadera, Nazareth, Beersheva and Holon.

Others were caught trying to sneak into the country without papers, as in the case of 13 Filipinos caught in Croatia.

Recto said the other countries with Filipino prisoners were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

“But many Filipinos in five continents were facing charges other than those that pertain to work or immigration concerns. Name it, they allegedly did it,” Recto said.

“One OFW issued fake checks in Vietnam. A nurse in Ireland was arrested for alleged Al Qaida links. A Filipina physical therapist in Michigan allegedly committed health fraud, and an aircraft engineer was arrested for smuggling contrabands into Nigeria,” he added.

In many Muslim countries, Filipinos were arrested and jailed for drinking alcohol, he said.
Recto also noted the rise in the number of Filipino women arrested for serving as “mules” or couriers of international drug syndicates.

There were also Filipinas in jails in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, Hong Kong and Peru, among others, last year.

Other cases mentioned in the DFA report involved crimes of passion, including detention of a Filipino in a South American country for seducing teenagers.

In view of the rising number of Filipino prisoners abroad, Recto asked Congress to increase the DFA’s legal assistance fund in the proposed 2006 General Appropriations Act.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

US to crack down harder on illegal immigrants

First posted 01:12pm (Mla time)
Oct 19, 2005
Agence France-Presse

WASHINGTON -- US President George W. Bush signed a new budget for the Homeland Security department Tuesday that sharply boosts funding to fight illegal immigration, as the department's head said they would now expel without exception all illegal immigrants.

The bill totaled 30.8 billion dollars in discretionary spending, 1.8 billion dollars higher than the current year's budget.

Of the total, 7.5 billion dollars is committed to fight the rising number of illegal immigrants in the country."We've got to strengthen security along our borders to stop people from entering illegally," Bush said.

"We're going to make this country safer for all our citizens," he said.

The government will also make stronger efforts to search out and deport illegal immigrants already in the country, Bush said."We must improve our ability to find and apprehend illegal immigrants who have made it across the border," he said.

"We've got to work to ensure that those who are caught are returned to their home countries as soon as possible," he said.

Buh's statement followed comments by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff earlier Tuesday that his department aims to expel all illegal immigrants without exception.

"Our goal at DHS (Homeland Security) is to completely eliminate the 'catch and release' enforcement problem, and return every single illegal entrant, no exceptions," Chertoff told a Senate hearing.

"It should be possible to achieve significant and measurable progress to this end in less than a year," he said.The Homeland Security budget includes 2.3 billion dollars for the US Border Patrol, and millions of dollars for increasing and improving border fences and technological surveillance.

The increased budget will enable the government hire 100 more immigration department agents and 250 investigators.

Prison space will be expanded by about 10 percent, or 2,000 beds, to accommodate the expected increase in apprehensions of illegal immigrants who are not Mexicans.

Chertoff told senators that currently a non-Mexican illegal imigrant caught trying to enter the United States across the southwest border has an 80 percent chance of being released immediately because of the shortage of holding facilities.

"We are moving to end this 'catch and release' style of border enforcement by reengineering our detention and removal process," Chertoff said.Bush meanwhile explained a separate strategy for Mexicans, who comprise by far the largest number of illegal immigrants in the country.

Rather than just forcing captured immigrants back over the order, under a new program called "Interior Repatriation," he US will fly or bus Mexican illegal immigrants all the way back to their hometowns.

"Many of these folks are coming from the interior of Mexico, and so the farther away from the border we send them, the more difficult it will be for them to turn around and cross right back into America," Bush said.

"By returning Mexicans to their homes, far away from desert crossing, we're helping to save lives," he said.

Chertoff's remarks in favor of returning "every illegal entrant, no exceptions" raised questions of an apparent conflict with the US policy toward illegal Cuban immigrants.

Though Cubans picked up at sea heading for US shores are returned to their country, those who reach US soil by any means are allowed to stay and work -- a policy Cuba says encourages dangerous attempts to get into the United States.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

International shipping firms prefer Filipino seafarers, MARINA says

Dumaguete City, Philippines
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Competence and skills make Filipino seafarers the most sought-after in the international shipping industry despite the low labor rates by their counterparts from China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh, Maritime Industry Authority regional director Glenn Cabañez said at the recent Kapihan sa PIA.

This was held in line with the National Maritime Week celebration on the theme "A Globally Competitive Maritime Industry: A Key to a Strong Republic." Officer-in-charge, Evelia Durato, of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration agreed with Cabañez that the Philippines is still the manning capital of the world in exporting qualified seafarers.

In 2002, the country deployed about 209,593 seafarers abroad and since then, the number of deployment has increased by 2.3 percent every year, Durato added. She also aired the same concern over the low salary rates particularly to Chinese seafarers.

She said that a Chinese seafarer with an ordinary seaman rank is paid only US$ 50/month compared to his Filipino counterpart with wages between US $200-300/month. Filipino seafarers rank fourth in the largest number of deployed Overseas Filipino Workers. Skilled workers, medical professionals, and domestic workers follow.

Cabañez said they will soon issue separate licensures to seafarers in the domestic and international shipping industry under different criteria and qualifications.

In order to help the domestic shipping sector hire only qualified and competent seafarers, the MARINA-7 also issues qualifying document certificates.*RG

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Groups discuss adverse impact of unabated migration of nurses, docs

MindaNews / 15 October 2005

DAVAO CITY -- A global union of health workers is initiating this month a dialogue with key government officials and an international campaign on the adverse impact of “unabated” migration of nurses and other health professionals from poorer nations on the quality of health services worldwide.

The Public Services International (PSI) has teamed up with its domestic counterpart, Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLink) for the dialogue and to raise awareness on the problems created by continuing migration of health professionals.

PSLink, in statement released today, said it will hold dialogues this month with officials of the Philippine Overseas and Employment Authority, Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Labor and Employment, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and Department of Health.

PSLink said it expects a delegation of health workers affiliated with PSI from Sri Lanka, Fiji, United Kingdom, Netherlands, United States of America, Canada, Japan and the Philippines to join the dialogue with labor and foreign affairs officials at the POEA headquarters in Mandaluyong City.

Jillian Roque, PSLink national secretariat member coordinating the event, said that immediately after the dialogue, the delegates will hold a three-day “partnership meeting” at the Grand Men Seng Hotel here starting October 25 to discuss ways at raising public awareness on the problems of continuing migration of nurses and health workers.

Awareness campaign plans formulated during the workshop and meetings here “will be implemented nationally, regionally and internationally,” Roque said.She said the meeting also aims to develop possible bilateral cooperation between health workers from sending and receiving country.

Roque said PSI and PSLink jointly initiated the activity in response to recent warnings from the World Health Organization and the domestic Alliance of Health Workers on the troubling trend of outward migration of nurses and other health professionals from the country.

A recent study conducted by the Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies, the National Institutes of Health Philippines, University of the Philippines Manila and the Health Science Center noted an increasing trend of deployment of nurses abroad from about 5,747 in 1992 to about 13,536 persons in 2001.The number of nurses tapered off to around 8,968 persons in 2003 but the number of nursing graduates produced yearly during these years outnumbered the projected demand for nurses.

The study noted that at present there are a total of 332,205 nurses in the country but the demand here and abroad only reaches 193,223 nurses.

The study also noted that the migrating health workers from the country are predominantly female and are between the ages of 20 to 30 with specialized training on critical care in nursing, operating room, delivery room and emergency room, and with one to ten year working experiences.

The study noted a combination of factors has driven the nurses away. Among these are low salaries, lack or inadequacy of hazard payments, low coverage of insurance, overload and stressful working condition, slow promotion, limited opportunities for employment, decreasing government budget on health care and the declining peace and order condition in the country.

The study said positive working conditions like high income, benefits and compensation packages, opportunities for skills upgrading, advance medical technlogy and better peace conditions are enticing the nurses to move abroad.

But the study also noted that as a consequence of the draining number of health workers, the country is losing senior and competent health staff. Health care in the country has also been “compromised” due to inadequate staff and poor pool of skilled health workers.

Some hospitals have also closed shop because there are not enough applicants for required residency programs.

PSLink, in its statement said the negative implications of the health workers’ migration worsen the condition of health care in the country. The country is already reeling from problems of inadequate budget and unresolved issues on the “exploitative treatment” of Filipino migrant workers. #

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Saudi Arabia to allow more women workers, more benefits for them

3:22:37 PM

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Thursday reported that a new labor law has been passed by the Saudi Council of Ministers in line with the priority agenda of King Abdullah in addressing the problem of unemployment in the Kingdom.

Citing a report from Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bahnarim Guinomla, Acting Labor and Employment Secretary Manuel G. Imson said that one of the salient features of the new law include allowing women to work in all fields and their entitlement to maternity leave.

Imson said the new law also imposes an obligation on employers providing jobs to 50 women or more to arrange for babysitters who will take care of their children below six years old. The new law, he added, also requires companies to have at least 75 percent of their workforce to be Saudi nationals. However, this may be subject to reduction in instances where there is a shortage of qualified hands required by the companies, Imson said.

The new law also directed the Saudi Labor Ministry to establish employment offices that will provide free services to jobseekers and employers.

It also covers certain categories of workers for the first time including mine workers and the law aims to protect the rights of workers and ensures a balanced relationship between employers and employees.

The new labor law would surely impact on our overseas Filipino workers in that part of the region as the law is the realization of the Saudization plan of the Kingdom as well as its applicability to female OFWs deployed in that country, Imson said. #

Saturday, October 08, 2005

More remittances from women emphasize feminization of migration – ADB study

By Jeremaiah M. Opiniano
OFW Journalism Consortium
Saturday, 08 October, 2005

MANILA – Southeast Asian women migrant workers, of which over a half are Filipinas, sent more money than male workers to their home countries, a study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) showed. An estimated 2.182 million contract workers and immigrants, largely women, remitted some US$3.3 billion from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia "on monthly averages ranging from US$300 to US$500," said the ADB study Southeast Asian Workers´ Remittances.

This development surrounding remittances from Southeast Asian migrants reflects the significant trend of increasing number of female migrants from Southeast Asia, "especially those who independently decide to migrate", the study cited.

"The human movement involved in labor migration is of obvious economic importance and… (labor export) has become the largest single foreign exchange earning activity, outweighing commodity exports, in a number of Asian labor-surplus nations," added the study, presented by the ADB in a conference last September.

Women dominate migrant volumes Citing estimates on the volume of migrants in East Asia, the ADB said there are 1.423 million Asian migrant workers in Japan, 621,400 foreign workers in Singapore, 1.43 million documented and 400,000 undocumented migrants in Malaysia, and 340,000 foreigners in Hong Kong.

From those estimates by the four East Asian host countries, 240,000 female migrant workers in Hong Kong are Filipina and Indonesian domestic helpers, while some 230,000 of the 240,000 maids in Malaysia are Indonesians.

Some 180,000 migrants in Japan are Filipinas, mostly as overseas performing artists (OPAs), and 150,000 of Singapore's 621,400 foreign workers with work permits are mostly Filipina and Indonesian domestic helpers. ADB noted there were a "large number of single women working in a country other than their own, in large part to support family members through (their) remittances¨. "These women overwhelmingly work in domestic labor situations.

In addition to frequent employer pressure upon workers and would-be migrants, these women tend to face numerous challenges, some but not all of which are worse because of their sex.

Meanwhile, the sex industry is another likely arena where women migrants work," the ADB study added. Estimated remittances From the US$3.3 billion estimated remittances from those Southeast Asian women migrants (see table 1), the study said Filipino migrants remitted US$2.3 billion, Indonesians remitted about US$0.7 million, and Malaysians sent back to their country about US$0.27 million.

Of these amounts, more than half of the Asian migrant workers, especially Filipinas, were domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore, and as entertainers in Japan, wrote the study. The volume of remittances, ADB added, may be higher "if estimates of undocumented workers are included".

The ADB study was based on a survey of 2,500 Filipino, Indonesian, and Malaysian remitters who send money from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. Filipinos and Indonesians in the four East Asian states were surveyed, while Malaysians in Japan and Singapore were made part of the survey, as Malaysia was considered both a country that sends out and receives migrants – the latter including Filipinos and Indonesians.

In the respondents´ profile of the study, 58 percent of Filipino remitter-respondents in Japan, 97 percent of those in Hong Kong, 88 percent of those in Singapore, and 58 percent of those in Malaysia were women. Women comprise 65% of OFW deploymentBased on Philippine labor department data, nearly 3,000 Filipinos leave the country everyday for work or residence abroad, adding to the stock estimate of a total eight million Filipinos living and working temporarily or residing permanently in 197 countries worldwide.

Government data shows that over-65 percent of these deployed overseas workers are women. Deployment data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) confirms that most of the Filipinas in Japan are overseas performing artists (OPAs), and those in Hong Kong and Singapore are mostly workers.

Meanwhile, a majority of the Filipinos in Malaysia are undocumented migrants in Sabah island that crossed the border from Western Mindanao.

If the estimates of this latest ADB study on the remittances of Filipinos in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong are correct, these are higher than 2004 actual remittance figures by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas in those countries.

Multilaterals´ efforts on remittances Funded by the Japan Special Fund (JSF), these data comes from the Bank's second major study on remittances –the first being the 2004 study titled Enhancing the Efficiency of Overseas Workers' Remittances. ADB spent US$650,000 for the Philippine and Southeast Asian remittances studies.

Apart from culling estimates of remittances, the latest study analyzed migration trends in Southeast Asia; how both senders and receivers of remittances use the money; the regulatory framework on remittances; the remittance industry in these countries; and financial intermediation initiatives.

During the conference Remittances and Poverty Reduction: Learning from Regional Experiences and Perspectives that the ADB, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)-Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) co-convened on September 12 to 13 in Manila, ADB vice president Liqun Jin said the Bank sees its role "as a focal point for research and development of remittances in Asia".

While the ADB, Jin said, "stepped up its efforts in addressing remittances concerns in the past two years" through "substantial research and policy development initiatives," IDB's MIF has "convened conferences, commissioned studies and surveys, and financed projects on the volume, transaction cost and the potential development impact of remittances," its website wrote. IDB-MIF, from 2001 to August 2005, has financed remittances projects through non-refundable technical cooperation grants and loans to the tune of US$40,030,653, information in revealed.

Jin said that US$53 billion (or 42 percent) of the world's US$127 billion total of remittances coursed through banks in 2004 come from Asia. India, the Philippines, China and Pakistan are among the top five remittance receiving countries worldwide – the Philippines being number three.

ADB, a multilateral development finance institution with 64 member-countries, annually lends about US$6 billion to members, and provides technical assistance usually totaling about US$180 million a year. Cyberdyaryo 10/08/05

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Relations of RP, Singapore not tainted over slain OFW ­ envoy

Tuesday, 09/27/2005

Even with the brutal slaying of Jane La Puebla, a Filipino domestic helper, the bilateral relations of the Philippines and Singapore remains intact. Philippine Ambassador to Singapore Belen Anota yesterday confirmed this, stressing the recent tragedy involving two overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) was not in any way causing damage on the bilateral relations of the two countries.

“I am not here during the Flor Contemplacion case, but I can speak for what is happening now and the things are going on very smoothly,” Anota said.

Both countries, Anota added, are “very senstive” to each other's concerns and so far there was no indication that this might create another tension between the Philippines and Singapore should the ruling of the subordinate court turned out unfavorable to us. Guen Aguilar, the suspect in the murder of La Puebla, was currently detained at the Changi Womens prison.

Philippine authorities feared this case would again cause another spark between the good relations of the two nations 10 years ago during the execution of Flor Contemplacion, the Filipino domestic helper convicted of killing her compatriots Delia Maga and a Singporean boy.

Anota said there is an ongoing backdoor channelling with the Philippines and the host government to ensure the La Puebla murder slay will not put both parties at stake.

“We are in close coordination with all the authorities so that nothing gets out of hand,” Anota explained, adding she is heading the Philippine team. But she refused to give details of the backdoor negotiations since she noted this may harm the ongoing back room channelling.

Anota added despite the recent tragic event, the Singaporean government did not impose stricter rules on the entry of the OFWs in the country, claiming our deployment has not been affected. Citing the figures of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Singapore, Anota said there are an estimated 90,000 OFWs in Singapore at present and the number continues to increase.

But when asked how many are considered illegal, the diplomat noted if we are using the Singapore laws, there is no “illegal” workers in the host country since all of the Filipino workers there are documented and are able to secure their work permits.

But she claimed if we will use the Philippine laws, majority of the OFWs in Singapore could be considered illegal since they entered Singapore using a tourist visa.

Meanwhile, Anota has committed to give all the support to both the Aguilar and La Puebla families until the case will be over.

Court Magistrate Carolyn Wee last Friday suspended the court hearing for the third time to give the police some more time to gather pieces of evidence and complete their investigation.

Based on reports, the next hearing of Aguilar is set on Oct. 14. Marie A. Surbano

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Brain drain now a na

Brain drain now a national ‘hemorrhage’ First posted 09:32am (Mla time) Sept 21, 2005 By Christian EsguerraInquirer News Service THE BRAIN drain has become a “national hemorrhage.” Some 80 percent of government doctors are now enrolled in nursing schools nationwide so they can land higher-paying jobs as nurses overseas, according to a group of concerned health professionals. The situation was troubling since one Filipino doctor tended to between 10,000 and 26,000 patients, warned the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD).The local ratio was a far cry from the United States and even Cuba where there was one doctor for every 225 patients.“Let’s look at the irony -- we are producing so many nurses yet our hospitals are lacking in quality nurses and the quality of health service that we’re giving to Filipinos is very poor,” Dr. Gene Nisperos, HEAD secretary general, said Tuesday in a press conference in Quezon City.HEAD, an organization of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, linked up with the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) to pressure the government and other stakeholders to address the worsening health care problem.Last week, the AHW predicted that the local health care system would crumble in two to three years unless the exodus of doctors and nurses was arrested.In the media briefing, Nisperos said the brain drain started in the 1960s when doctors and nurses left for higher studies and training overseas.By the mid-1970s, however, the Philippines was already the top exporter of doctors and nurses in the world, second only to India in peddling local doctors abroad.The problem of health professionals leaving the country for better pay and working conditions came to a head in the late 1990s when the US and several European countries jacked up their demands for doctors and nurses.From 2000 to 2003, Nisperos said a total of 51,580 Filipino nurses left the country. In 2004, some 5,000 doctors jumped on the bandwagon to work as nurses. Around 4,000 more doctors are taking up nursing this year.The growing number of doctors settling for a nurse’s cap has been welcomed by nursing schools. At least 45 of them now offer an abbreviated nursing course for doctors lasting between 1 1/2 to 3 years, according to HEAD.Nisperos said administrations, past and present, should have taken concrete steps to keep doctors and nurses in the country.“This is mainly a government-sponsored phenomenon,” he said. “We believe strong medicine is needed to address the hemorrhage in the health sector.”The HEAD-AHW alliance proposed four steps to deal with the health sector crisis: First, the Arroyo administration should increase the budget for health care and abide by the World Health Organization prescription that countries set aside at least 5 percent of their gross national product for this purpose. At present, only 0.6 percent of the GNP was purportedly allocated to the health sector.Second, the government should work to adequately compensate doctors and nurses. In the South African country of Namibia, the alliance said a junior physician earned $1,161 monthly while a Filipino counterpart here had a salary of between $300 and $400.Third, the government should review -- or perhaps rescind -- its commitments to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Such commitments purportedly allow countries like the United Kingdom to lure local doctors and nurses to work abroad, with no regard for the fate of the local health care system.Fourth, there should be more consultations among all stakeholders in the health care crisis, particularly patients, to arrive at other concrete solutions. #(image placeholder)

Kuwait plans minimum

Kuwait plans minimum wage for foreign workersTuesday, September 20, 2005 / 7:31:24 PM KUWAIT CITY, Sept 19 (AFP) - Kuwait's minister of social affairs and labour Faisal al-Hajji has proposed the introduction of a minimum wage for hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers, a newspaper reported Monday.    Al-Qabas newspaper quoted Hajji as saying he has submitted recommendations to the cabinet calling for a 50-dinar (170-dollar) minimum monthly wage for foreigners hired by private companies involved in government contracts. He also proposed a 70-dinar (240-dollar) minimum wage for expatriates working as security guards for private companies. Monthly salaries of many expatriate menial workers, like cleaners, are as low as 70 dollars a month. Hajji said that after the recommendations are approved, no private company will be awarded a government contract before guaranteeing it will pay the minimum wage. More than 1.8 million foreigners live in Kuwait, which has a population of 2.8 million. About 900,000 work in the private sector, including about 60 percent from the Indian subcontinent. Kuwait also employs about 450,000 domestic workers, mostly from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Asian workers have staged a series of strikes in recent months, claiming they had not been paid wages in several months. The government intervened and threatened action against employers if they did not pay. The US State Department in its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" released in June criticised Kuwait and three other Gulf states for not doing enough to halt human trafficking and child labour. Washington has also stipulated improving labour conditions and amending the labour law as two of several conditions for starting free trade talks with Kuwait. Like other oil-rich Gulf states, foreigners working in Kuwait's private sector must have a "sponsor," a regulation which restricts their movement and puts them at the mercy of their employers. Officials have said Kuwait has been cooperating with the International Labour Organization for the past four years, and is considering ILO suggestions for changing the sponsor requirement. In June, the labour ministry prohibited employers from forcing labourers to work under the sun from noon to 4:00 pm during the summer months when the temperature reaches 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). #

Malaysia tightens OF

Malaysia tightens OFW entry rulesTuesday, September 20, 2005 / 7:04:45 PM FILIPINOS who intend to work in Malaysia will be required to attend a 10-day induction course and pass a 90-item written test on Malaysian laws and culture, including basic Malaysian language, the Department of Labor and Employment said yesterday. Labor Attaché to Kuala Lumpur Josephus Jimenez, in a report to Labor Secretary Patricia A. Sto. Tomas, said the government of Malaysia has come up with the new policy to help foreign workers avoid problems that may arise due to their ignorance of Malaysian laws, culture and language.  The course aims to teach foreign workers basic Malaysian language, help them adjust to Malaysian culture, religion, and social norms, avoid violations of Malaysian laws, and raise awareness on foreign workers' rights. After the induction course, foreign workers will be required to take a written test.  Those who pass will be listed on the Roster of Passers and granted a Certificate of Eligibility.  Only those with CEs will be granted a work visa.  Jimenez said the policy is applicable to foreign workers who will arrive in Malaysia starting November 1, this year.  Those who arrived in Malaysia between Nov. 1, 2004 and October 31 this year will be required to attend an orientation course to be conducted by Malaysian employers, Jimenez said, adding employers who fail to conduct the orientation will be penalized. Sto. Tomas said the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority will submit a list of training centers for  accreditation to Malaysia before October 30 this year.  #

Monday, September 19, 2005

Migrant party pickets Philippine office in Taipei

Industrial accident victim's rights were protected, MECO labor officials say
2005-09-18 / Taiwan News, Staff Reporter / By Marie Feliciano

A group of Filipinos staged a picket protest inside the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei last Sunday to denounce the alleged incompetence and gross negligence of labor officials who helped negotiate a compensation package for occupational accident victim Seraflor Mabuti.

Seraflor, a native of Ilocos Norte, figured in a work-related accident in Taipei on September 10, 2004. The injuries left him paralyzed from the waist down. The Filipino returned home on November 10 last year In a dialogue with the protesters, MECO-Labor Taipei Representative Reynaldo Gopez and Welfare Officer Lydia Espinosa stressed that MECO did all that it could to secure Seraflor a just compensation package.

The occupational accident victim and his wife, Rocel, also voluntarily agreed to accept one of the two options drafted by the Taipei County Labor Bureau, the two said. "Everything was explained to Seraflor.

He was advised (by us and someone who was really looking after his interest) not to leave Taiwan (so that he could pursue his case) but he still insisted on going home. We respected (Seraflor and Rocel's decision), and we understood their situation at the time," Gopez said.

"If you (are well off), you could easily say, 'Yes, I can wait (for the compensation package from the labor insurance bureau).' Their situation however did not permit that. You can't blame them for accepting the settlement." Espinosa confirmed Gopez's assertions. "We explained to them their options.

We discussed everything with Seraflor and Rocel," she said. Seraflor's wife however insisted that MECO-Labor Taipei bungled the settlement process, and demanded that Gopez and Espinosa re-opened her husband's case. "Bakit po pinabayaan ninyo kaming pumirma (ng kontratang) mali? (Why did you let us sign an unfair contract?)" Rocel asked the two officials.

The Filipina, who attended the picket staged by the Migrante Sectoral Party, works as a caregiver at a Taipei nursing home. MECO, which assisted Seraflor during the negotiation process, allowed Seraflor to sign a document in Chinese dated November 3, 2004, Rocel said. The Philippine labor center did not even bother to translate the agreement in English or Tagalog, she continued.

By doing so, MECO failed to fully explain to them that signing the contract meant they were waiving all of Seraflor's actual labor insurance claims, Rocel continued.

Item 7 of the agreement stated that Seraflor was "forfeiting" all of his insurance claims, and that he was authorizing his former employer to collect it. The said article also stated that Seraflor must sign 10 withdrawal slips so that his former boss could withdraw the money. The final sum was also none of Seraflor's business, it added. Based on the contract that Seraflor signed, the Filipino would be receiving a total of NT$795,040 from his former boss.

The amount included the NT$150,000 in compensation package paid to him by his former employer, two months' salary amounting to NT$31,680, and NT$613,360 in estimated labor insurance benefits. The latter amount, a rough assessment of Seraflor's insurance claims, was initially shouldered by the Filipino's former employer.

The employer would later get a reimbursement when the labor insurance bureau has determined Seraflor's actual insurance benefits. The entire sum, once released, would go to Seraflor's former employer, the contract said. Negligence? Reverend Joy Tajonera, one of the individuals who provided moral support and assistance to the Mabutis, described the agreement as "lopsided."

"First, the contract that Seraflor signed - and this is a contract that MECO brokered - is in Chinese. Everyone knows that Mr. Gopez and Mrs. Espinosa neither speak nor read Chinese. If that's the case, then there's no way that those two officials could honestly say that they had fully explained its contents to Seraflor when they themselves could not even read it," said Tajonera.

MECO only produced an English translation of the contract after Rocel, Tajonera, Alice Librea of the Migrant Workers Concern Desk, and a representative from the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries asked Gopez to furnish them a copy during a visit on November 8, 2004, said the priest. Rocel did not have a copy of the agreement.

"If they (MECO-Labor Taipei officials) really knew what they were doing at the time, they would have drafted an agreement stating that Seraflor still had the right to collect his insurance claims. If the actual amount exceeded the NT$613,360 in substitution payment shelled out by Seraflor's former boss, the excess amount should still go to Seraflor since it's his. Baldado na nga iyong tao. (His injuries left him paralyzed)," the priest said. "What went wrong? What would MECO do to ensure that this would never happen again?" Tajonera added he was puzzled that MECO agreed to a contract requiring a migrant to sign withdrawal slips.

"No one in his right mind - especially government officials who are mandated to protect the rights and welfare of overseas Filipino workers - would agree to that. They themselves are breaking their office's own policies," he said. On the evening of November 8, MECO's Tony Wu asked Rocel to drop by the Philippine labor center and sign another waiver the following day, Tajonera said. "I told her not to sign anything," said the priest.

During the said meeting, Gopez promised Rocel, Tajonera, and representatives of the MWCC and TAVOI that he would ask MECO lawyers to go over the agreement, the Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrants said in a statement. "Mr. Gopez never got back to the three to relay to them the lawyer's opinion - if there was any," APMM said.

In a handwritten statement, Seraflor claimed that Espinosa and former MECO-Labor Taipei administrative assistant Tony Wu - Wu was one of MECO's local-hires who was "eased out" earlier this year - discouraged him from pushing for a bigger compensation package. Seraflor's statement "Since my employer's offer was quite small, my wife and I decided to ask for a larger sum (NT$1.4 million).

My employer turned down our request. MECO's (Tony Wu and Lydia Espinosa) told us that if we insisted on getting that amount, we might end up with 'Option 1' (total receivable was NT$181,680 exclusive of actual insurance claims after 180 days) or a sum that was even smaller than that. Worse, we might end up with nothing," Seraflor said in Tagalog.

"Why are they (Espinosa and Wu) like that? Instead of encouraging us to fight (for our rights), they discouraged us at tinakot na baka mas maliit o kaya'y wala pa kaming makuha (and they warned us that we might either end up with a smaller sum or nothing at all)."

Espinosa denied Seraflor's allegations. "What we told Seraflor was that the employer rejected their demand, and that the latter even said Seraflor could file a case if he wanted to. I asked him, 'What do you want to do? File a case and go to court?" she said. "We simply explained to him what his options were." The NT$613,360 in estimated insurance claims stipulated in the agreement was also a "fair assessment" of what Seraflor might eventually get from the labor insurance bureau, Espinosa continued.

"We based that on labor insurance bureau estimates. We did the best that we could even though we were pressed for time," she said. The final decision always rest with the migrant, Espinosa continued. During last Sunday's dialogue with Migrante protesters, Gopez told Seraflor's wife, "Rocel, may kasabihan sa Ingles na (there's a saying in English that says), 'You can't have your cake and eat it too."

"Pasensya na. Naiintindihan kita (I feel for you and I understand you)," he said. "I'm also thankful to Migrante because they are helping you out, and that's what we are hoping for. Let's help each other. What's wrong with that? Instead of assigning blame, let us cooperate with each other. If you think what we are doing is wrong, tell us. Now, let's talk about her husband. How is he? How can we help?"

Rocel lamented that when her husband was still confined at a Taipei hospital, MECO failed to get him a 24-hour caregiver. "He is paralyzed so he needed someone who would regularly change his diapers and empty his catheter," she said. "No one was there to care for him. It was really tough for Seraflor." Espinosa said she did request Seraflor's former broker and employer to provide the Filipino with a caregiver during his therapy sessions.

"It even reached a point where it's the broker who ended up looking after him," she said. Gopez called on overseas Filipino workers to care for their own. "It's difficult to get sick abroad since you are away from your families. We have to help each other. Mga negosyante ito eh bakit sila magsusuweldo ng taong magbabantay? Igiit man natin iyan, kulang pa rin. Iyong bibig natin ilagay natin sa trabaho.

Tayo ang magbantay (They are businessmen so why would they pay for your caregivers? Even if we were able to push that, it would still not be enough. Let's put our words into action by looking after our sick countrymen)," he said.

Rocel added that the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration did not even provide them with an ambulance when they arrived in Manila on November 10. She had to arrange for one and pay for it. Espinosa said the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration in Manila did not dispatch any ambulance to the airport since Rocel did not inform her that they were indeed flying home on the said date.

The agreement that Seraflor signed stated that his flight was tentatively set on November 10, 2004. "The night before we left, Tony Wu kept on calling me. He said he would meet us at the airport, and that he would ask us to sign a waiver concerning my husband's insurance benefits. So how could you not know that we were flying home on the said date?" Rocel asked. In a text message to the Taiwan News, Wu, who is no longer with MECO, neither confirmed nor denied Rocel's allegations.

"I was not at the airport, so how could I ask them to sign (the waiver)?" Wu said in his text message. He added that he was only employed as an administrative assistant at MECO at the time, and had no power to make tough decisions on behalf of Seraflor. "Do you think without the (officer's authorization) I would be able to solve that kind of problem?" he asked.

Accountability In a statement, the Asia-Pacific Mission for Migrants called on MECO to immediately endorse Seraflor to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration in Manila for medical and psychological assistance. The group also called on the Philippine government to closely examine MECO-Labor Taipei's performance on the Seraflor case.

"As of this writing, Seraflor had stopped his rehabilitation program at the Mariano Marcos Memorial Hospital in Batac, Ilocos Norte because of financial constraints.

His doctor is still recommending that he continues the said program since possible complications might arise," APMM said. "Vocational training should be considered and (possible) psychological problems like depression and anxiety reactions should be seriously addressed." #