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." #

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