Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Top 10 Reasons To Go To Hawaii

With less than a month to go before the 4th Global Filipino Networking Convention in Honolulu opens on September 28, you better register now and make plans to be there. If you haven't attended a Pinoy convention this year or ever, this is the one to go to. It will be the mother of all Pinoy conventions as it will feature one huge conference, the 7th National Empowerment Conference of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), and dozens of smaller ones on various issues.

The break-out sessions alone are reason enough to attend the convention but in case you haven't quite decided yet, let me provide you with 10 more reasons to attend the convention.

1. Celebrate the Centennial. The Diaspora that has brought about 8.5 million Filipinos to live and work outside the Philippines today all began with fifteen (15) sacadas (the first OFWs -Overseas Filipino Workers) who were brought to Honolulu on December 20, 1906. A feature of the convention is the Centenario Festival on October 1, with centennial exhibits at the Bishop Museum and entertainment provided by ABS-CBN stars and local entertainers. You are here in America because of those 15 intrepid OFWs who came 100 years ago. So celebrate their journey. You likely will not be around for the next centennial.

2. Network with other Pinoys. Bring your calling cards and make perhaps lifetime connections with Pinoys from throughout the US and from all over the world. This is the 4th Global Filipino Networking Convention with the 1st having taken place in San Francisco in August 2002, the 2nd in Manila in December 2003 and the 3rd in January 2005. The 5th is slated to be held in Australia in September 2007.

3. Empower Pinoys. In the 100 years of Filipino history in America, there has never been a national organization of Pinoys like the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) with a national office and presence in Washington DC and 12 active regional chapters throughout the US (for more info, log on to www.naffaa.org). This is the 7th National Empowerment Conference of the NaFFAA after the 1st was held in Washington DC in August of 1997. The 2nd was held a year later also in DC, with the 3rd in New York (1999), the 4th in Las Vegas (2000), the 5th in San Jose (2002), and the 6th in Chicago (2004).

4. Watch the World Premiere of SANDAAN. This is the movie that tells the story of the Filipino American in the last 100 years, produced by Sonny Izon, and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution which is hosting 7 national events to commemorate the Filipino centennial in America.

5. Meet Philippine Officials. Former President Fidel V. Ramos leads an impressive group of current and former Philippine officials who are slated to attend the global convention. Among the current officials are House Speaker Jose De Venecia who will speak in favor of Charter Change with former Senate President Franklin Drilon presenting the argument against the shift to a unicameral parliamentary system. Also attending are government officials like Tourism boss Joseph "Ace" Durano, Philippine Retirement Authority (PRA) head Gen. Edgar Aglipay, Philippine Culture Commission chair Ambeth Ocampo and Ambassador to Britain Ed Espiritu.

6. Meet Filipino American Officials. Former Hawaii Governor Benjamin Cayetano and Hawaii State Senator (and perhaps 1st FilAm Congressman) Ron Menor top this list which include former Washington State Rep. Velma Veloria and former Milpitas Mayor Henry Manayan.

7. Swear in as a Dual Citizen. All the Philippine Consul Generals in the US will attend the convention together with the current RP Ambassador to DC Willy Gaa and they will attend and officiate the mass swearing-in of Dual Citizens which will take place at the convention. If you always wanted to re-acquire your Philippine citizenship, just bring proof of your former citizenship (birth certificate or old Philippine passport) and be sworn in. The convention will also celebrate the Philippine Supreme Court decision affirming the right of dual citizens to vote in Philippine elections.

8. Say Farewell. Former Philippine Ambassador to the US Albert del Rosario will attend the convention to greet old friends from throughout the US whom he became close to during his 5 years of service. He will be especially thanked for stopping Calpers from withdrawing its investments in the Philippines and from stopping the US Senate from killing Philippine tuna exports to the US. Current NaFFAA chair Loida Nicolas Lewis, CEO of the TLC Beatrice multinational conglomerate will also bow out from the post she has held for the past four years. NaFFAA delegates from throughout the US will want to personally thank her for devoting so much of her busy time leading NaFFAA to its growth and expansion.

9. Find out who will succeed Loida. Filipinos love elections and suspense. A highlight of the convention will be the elections for the NaFFAA chair to succeed Loida. Will it be current vice chair Greg Macabenta (the publisher of Filipinas magazine), former vice chair Gloria Caoile (assistant to the AFL-CIO national president), Seattle NaFFAA head (Region 7)Alma Kern, Florida NaFFAA (Region 4) chair Ernie Ramos, Michigan NaFFAA chair (Region 3) chair Ed Navarra, Houston NaFFAA chair (Region 6) Arlene Machetta?

10. It's Hawaii! Hello? Who needs an excuse to go to the Aloha state? It's your chance to wear your old Hawaiian shirts and shorts and enjoy the sunny warm beaches of Waikiki.

What are you waiting for? Log on to www.naffaa.org and register now and then go to expedia, Travelocity, or whatever online travel agency you use and book your flight. Book your room by logging on to www.HiltonHawaiianVillage.com or call 1-800-hiltons and use the code "ABH" to avail of the special rate.

See you there. Mahalo.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Most Hated Pinay

At least as far as millions of overseas Filipino workers and their families are concerned, the "Most Hated Pinay" Award goes not to Imelda Marcos or Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo but to Manila society columnist Malu Fernandez.

This dubious honor was attained by Ms. Fernandez with just one article which appeared in her regular Manila Daily Standard (“Fierce and Fabulous”) column which dealt mainly with the hedonistic lifestyles of the Philippine rich and famous. In that piece, “From Boracay to Greece,” which was also featured in the June 2007 issue of People Asia magazine, Fernandez wrote of her travel to Boracay and of her spur of the moment decision while there to spend her Holy Week vacation in Greece.

Fernandez is apparently accustomed to riding in first class or business class but on her flight to Greece, however, she decided to “bravely” fly in economy class. This is how she recounts her trip: “To save on my ticket, I bravely took an economy class seat on Emirates as recommended by my travel agent……However I forgot that the hub was in Dubai and the majority of the OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) were stationed there. The duty-fee shop was overrun with Filipino workers selling cell phones and perfume.

“Meanwhile, I wanted to slash my wrist at the thought of being trapped in a plane with all of them. While I was on the plane (where the seats were so small I had bruises on my legs), my only consolation was the entertainment on the small flat screen in front of me. But it was busted, so I heaved a sigh, popped my sleeping pills and dozed off to the sounds of gum chewing and endless yelling of “HOY! Kumusta ka na? At taga saan ka? Domestic helper ka rin ba?” (“Hey there! How are you? Where are you from? Are you also a domestic helper?) I thought I had died and God had sent me to my very own private hell.”

After a nine-hour flight, Fernandez landed in Greece and quickly “washed the plane off” her as the “Louis Vuittons” under her eyes, she wrote, were “enormous.” Despite the cold, she “bravely went about in a lightweight sweater and a throw.” ("Bravely" is apparently her favorite description of how she does things.)

“On my way back, I had to bravely take the economy flight once more. This time I had already resigned myself to being trapped like a sardine in a sardine can with all these OFWs smelling of AXE and Charlie cologne while Jo Malone evaporated into thin air.”

From Meryl Streep, we learned that the Devil wears Prada. From Malu Fernandez, we know she also wears Jo Malone perfume, which sells for $100 per 100 ml bottle (approximately 5000 pesos), unlike the cheaper Axe and Charlie colognes some OFWs prefer.

As soon as Fernandez’ article was published, word about her condescending depiction of OFWs quickly spread through the Internet to the blogosphere of OFW communities throughout the world, especially to the 1.5 million Filipinos in the Middle East. Through various OFW blogs, hundreds of Filipinos expressed their personal anger at the person they called the “mahaderang matapobre” (a meddlesome person who contemptuously looks down on the poor). [Google the words.]

Francis Sangalang wrote from Dubai: “We are already having a hard time here working under the hot climate then we get a strong below the belt blow by our own kabayan who has totally no idea on being an OFW.” Ingrid Holm, from England, chimed in: “You wrote that you wanted to slit your wrists because you were stuck in coach with all the OFWs. I am moved every time I am on a flight with OFWs. I am reminded of their resilience. Of how hard they work, and how they keep the Philippines going. The economy relies on their bravery. You should have slit your wrists, hon. And you are going to hell if you don’t change the way you think. Think of sitting in coach, imagining your personal hell as a personal foreshadowing.”

The vitriol fueled by her article, which she personally thought was a product of her “acerbic wit”, did not cause Malu Fernandez to back down one bit. Instead she responded by throwing gasoline to the fire: “The bottom line was just that I had offended the reader’s socioeconomic background. If any of these people actually read anything thicker then a magazine they would find it very funny. Most people don’t get the fact that they need bitches like me to shake up their world; otherwise their lives would be boring and mediocre. I obviously write for a certain target audience and if what I write offends you, just stop reading.”

So the lower class OFWs can’t read anything thicker than a magazine, huh? And they should be grateful for self-proclaimed “bitches” like her for making their “boring and mediocre” lives exciting? If there were hundreds of Filipinos denouncing the “mahaderang matapobre” in various blogs and print publications before, her rejoinder caused thousands more to vent their spleen at her utter contempt for the poor. In his blog, Loi Reyes Landicho compiled a list of things for OFWs to tell Malu Fernandez when they see her. On the top of the list was this: “In case you die, we’d like to attend your funeral. However, we’ll probably just go to work that day. You know… business before pleasure.”

The “deeply personal insults” and “death threats” she received eventually caused her to resign from the Manila Daily Standard and People Asia. In her statement which she released in her website, Fernandez wrote: “To say that this article was not meant to malign, hurt or express prejudice against the OFWs now sounds hollow after reading through all the blogs from Filipinos all over the world. I am deeply apologetic for my insensitivity and the offensive manner in which this article was written, I hear you all and I am properly rebuked. It was truly not my intention to malign, hurt or express prejudice against OFWs.”

Even as she "bravely" travels around the world regularly, what Malu Fernandez failed to realize is how much the world she travels in has changed. Twenty years ago she could have written about the “que horror!” of being surrounded by OFWs and gotten away with it. Not anymore. The Internet and the blogosphere it produced, coupled with the economic power of their remittances, have empowered the OFWs and leveled the playing field. It’s not safe to be a “matapobre” now.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Ordeal of Ramil

In a press conference in Manila on August 4, Vice President Noli De Castro announced that there were only 11 Filipinos who worked at the US Embassy in Baghdad, not 51 as reported by John Owens and Roy J. Mayberry, two former employees of the Kuwaiti firm, in sworn testimonies at a US congressional committee last July 26.

Vice President De Castro, the chief presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), apparently learned this from reading the full-page ads that First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Company ran in five leading newspapers. The ads staunchly denied the allegations of Owens and Mayberry that First Kuwaiti had kidnapped 51 Filipino workers and forced them to work under inhumane working conditions on their $592-M US Embassy project in Baghdad. First Kuwaiti claimed that the Filipino workers “willingly agreed to work in Iraq before their departure and before they arrived at the site of the embassy.”

Perhaps the Vice President should be forgiven his gullibility because his previous job in the private sector, as a TV anchorman ("Magandang Gabi, Bayan"), consisted of reading the nightly news on the teleprompter, not investigating the truth behind the news reports he read on air.

Perhaps he should have spoken with Ricardo Endaya, Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait, who had recommended to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs as early as March 2006 that First Kuwaiti be put on a watch list for violations of the government ban on the deployment of Filipinos to Iraq. “Way back in 2004 when I was Charge d’Affaires in Baghdad, I investigated complaints of OFWs against First Kuwaiti for violation of employment contracts involving salary, overtime pay and accommodations,” Endaya said.

But the Vice President need not have even gone all the way to the Middle East; he could have just watched the new documentary "Someone Else's War" currently circulating in the Philippines and at US film festivals. The film features the true story of Ramil Autencio, a Filipino who worked for First Kuwaiti in Iraq.

Ramil’s ordeal was relayed to me by David Phinney, a journalist and broadcaster based in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and on ABC and PBS. Phinney read my column last week (“What Price of Remittances?”) and contacted me to inform me about Ramil, whom he had interviewed for a story he wrote in October, 2005.

"The promise to build a better life in the Philippines for himself and his young family took Ramil Autencio to Kuwait. He never suspected that a month after leaving home in December 2003, he would be living a wartime nightmare in northern Iraq, pushing boulders 11 hours a day, seven days a week for a contractor fortifying a US military camp in Tikrit,” Phinney wrote.

"Showers to wash off the day’s sweat were an uncertainty, and in the chilly January and February nights of 2004, he and seven other Filipinos would live in an empty truck with no windows, sleep on cardboard boxes for a bed, and eat leftovers and meals-ready-to-eat from soldiers. It was the only way to have enough food. He says crackling gunfire and crashing incoming mortar would wake him at all hours of the night and the unfortified trailer would tremble and shake from nearby rocket blasts.”

This was not what he had bargained for, Ramil told Phinney. An air conditioning repairman and technician, he had signed a two-year contract to work at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Kuwait for $450 a month. But when he arrived at the Kuwait airport, Ramil was quickly hustled over to a rundown apartment building managed by First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting, a Kuwaiti firm doing a booming multimillion-dollar business with the US military and the Pentagon’s primary support contractor, Halliburton.

To date, Phinney reports, First Kuwaiti has already billed the US government $2 billion for its work in Iraq, including the $592-million US Embassy in Baghdad now nearing completion.

Ramil was informed that there were no more jobs at the hotel in Kuwait and because his recruiter had processed only a one-month travel visa for him, he could not work in Kuwait. He had three options: pay a $1,000 penalty and work in Kuwait for free for six months, be arrested and jailed, or work in Iraq. As he pondered these choices, Ramil lived in an apartment building in Kuwait, without mattresses or blankets, with 800 other Filipinos. They would eat only chicken and rice under the building’s crumbling ceilings. One Filipino worker lost his mind and died in the building, Ramil recalled.

“A jail would be better,” Ramil told Phinney. “The building was so crowded, you could barely breathe.” Finally, one day, a supervisor presented him with some papers for him to sign. “I don’t read Arabic or English, but it was that, or jail,” Ramil signed and, together with other Filipinos, were then brought to a bus bound for Tikrit in Iraq.

Upon arrival in Tikrit, Ramil and the other Filipinos were forced to work 11 hour days, 7 days a week but were not paid as they were told the money would be waiting for them in Kuwait. As months passed and the conditions became increasingly unbearable for him and the Filipinos working with him, Ramil decided to find some way to escape from Tikrit.

He passed out a crumpled yellow piece of paper to his fellow Filipinos, asking them to join his escape back to Kuwait. About 40 Filipinos signed up. He then got a sympathetic Filipino soldier in the US Army to convince the driver of a flatbed truck headed south towards the Kuwaiti border to give them a ride. For three nights they rode in darkness, packed tight in an empty transport container with very little food or water. “We were nearly starved,” Ramil told Phinney.

Phinney reported: When they arrived at the border, the sheer number of desperate Filipinos arriving without papers stunned the Kuwaiti police. “We were even angrier then because one of us had died so there was nothing they could do to stop us,” Ramil recounted. “We pushed them away when they asked for our papers.... We outnumbered them.”

The group somehow made their way to the Philippine Embassy, where the ambassador provided them with shelter until their return home could be arranged.

Ramil received only $300 for his entire three-month ordeal. He now lives in a shanty in Manila about a mile from the place where Vice President De Castro held his press conference. The Veep doesn't need to walk a mile on a camel to talk to Ramil himself.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Price of Remittances

While balikbayan visitors from the US may complain that they’re buying less with their dollar than they used to because the peso has improved from 53 to 1 to 45 to 1, it’s an accomplishment of the current Philippine government that the strong peso requires it to expend less to pay off its foreign debt, leaving more for infrastructure improvements.

By all accounts, this improvement in the economy is owed chiefly to the $15-B in annual remittances that more than two million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) send back to their families in the Philippines. But what is the price that they have to pay for these Philippine economy-saving remittances?

While many of them have found great jobs as nurses or engineers, others are not so fortunate. Two reports about these OFWs, which appeared the past week in the mainstream media in the US, provide us with a glimpse of their lives and the human costs of their remittances.

The first report originally appeared on July 26 on Youtube - www.youtube.com - increasingly the source of news by CNN and other mainstream media. The video clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evRPwwyno_c was of a US House hearing where an eyewitness testified about the brutal conditions that 51 Filipino workers were subjected to in Baghdad while working on the $600-M US Embassy construction there.

The witness, an American medical technician, Roy Mayberry, was hired by the First Kuwaiti Company to work as an emergency medic for its contract in Baghdad. On the first day he reported to the company in Kawait, he was brought to a room with 51 Filipinos who told him they were bound for Dubai to work in hotels there. They showed their plane tickets to him which showed Dubai as their destination.

After they boarded the plane and the pilot announced that the next stop was Baghdad, “all you know what broke loose on the plane”, Mayberry reported, as the Pinoys screamed and demanded to be flown to Dubai. They returned to their seats only after security officials pointed their MP-5 submachine guns at the men and ordered them to do so.

"I believe these men were kidnapped by the First Kuwaiti Company to work on the US Embassy in Baghdad," Mayberry told the congressional committee. These men could do nothing, he said, but accept their fate. Their passports had been taken away from them in Kuwait. Their fate was to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with only short breaks in between. They could complain only on pain of being verbally and physically abused, or fined with huge wage deductions.

“They had no IDs, no passports, and were being smuggled past US security forces,” Maybery said. He also testified that while he had his own trailer at the construction site, the Filipinos were packed 20 to 30 people in one trailer.

“Everyday, they went out to work without proper safety equipment. I went to the construction site to watch. There were a lot of injuries out there because of conditions these men were forced to work in,” he said. They were working “without shoes, without gloves, no safety harnesses.”

He said he often saw the Filipino workers with their toes wrapped around scaffoldings “like a bunch of birds…One guy was up there intoxicated with pain killers and I had to yell and scream for 10 minutes until they got him down,” he said.

This wholesale kidnapping of Filipinos occurred a year ago but was only revealed to the world during the July 26 US congressional hearing. When confronted about this disclosure, a First Kuwaiti Company spokesman denied that it had any Filipino employees.

The second report on Filipinos came on August 8 when Dateline NBC devoted a full hour on prime time to the dramatic rescue of Lannie Ejercito, a 22-year old Filipina “sex slave” in Malaysia http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20185681. NBC Dateline host Ann Curry reported that the girl, “just one among hundreds of thousands of girls who are poor, helpless and na├»ve, preyed on by human traffickers” had one thing going for her. She had an aunt, Ravina, who is married to “Troop” Edmonds, a retired former US Marine officer living in Oregon.

On October 5, 2006, they receive a panicked call from overseas. “Get me out of here” was her anguished plea. The call came from Ravina’s niece, Lannie, whom they had financed her through nursing school. When she failed the national nursing exam, Lannie pursued a career as a hotel singer and was eventually contracted to sing in Malaysia.

But when she arrived in Malaysia, she learned that singing was not on the mind of her employer, who confiscated her passport and forced her to sign an 8-year contract that required her to work until she paid back the $80,000 which her employer said he had paid for her. It would be work not as a singer but as a prostitute.

Ravina told her husband to go to Malaysia to rescue Lannie and not come back without her. With that assignment, Troop recruited Jerry Howe, a buddy who was a retired FBI agent and they, together with a Dateline NBC film crew flew to Lannie’s hometown of Cebu to obtain clues on Lannie’s whereabouts.

After interviewing a Pinay who had recruited Lannie, the Americans and the TV crew went to Kuala Lumpur. With clever sleuthing and the reluctant aid of the local police, they managed to safely rescue Lannie.

There were 15 other Filipino “sex slaves” similarly living in “debt bondage” with her in an apartment, Lannie told them, but the Americans decided that it would be too risky to stay in Malaysia and attempt to rescue them as well. They quickly departed Malaysia and safely returned Lannie to her parents in Cebu.

Dateline NBC reporter Chris Hanson also reported on the side story of “Ann,” a Filipina who was a virgin when she was sold into “debt bondage” in Malaysia. Her virginity was sold for $80, she said, and she was forced to work as a prostitute until she managed to contact the Philippine Embassy which rescued her. By then, she said, she had contracted AIDS and was of no use to her employer.

At the end of the Dateline NBC program, my tears flowed freely just as they did when I watched Mayberry’s report about the Filipinos in Baghdad. Is the price of huge remittances from overseas Filipino workers worth all the pain and suffering many have to endure?