Thursday, 30 December 2010

Pinoy Harvard grad facing deportation released

LOS ANGELES, California - A Filipino Harvard graduate detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for allegedly being an illegal immigrant has been released.

In a phone interview with ABS-CBN North America News Bureau, ICE said they granted a "deferred action" to Mark Farrales for one year to afford him "additional time to pursue his options."

Farrales, 31, was detained at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, California last October.

Farrales's supporters in the Filipino-American community were happy about his release.

The online petition against the deportation of Farrales was started by University of California San Diego students where Farrales is getting a doctorate degree.

Filipino organizations in LA’s Historic Filipinotown joined this effort. This is the place where Farrales grew up and graduated valedictorian of his high school class.

"When the community hears of one of its own, who went out and was doing really well, and being targeted unfairly, then of course, people will come out. There's the petition, there's the letter-writing to the senators in his support," said Jollene Levid.

"He has gone through so much and has come from nothing and been able to make a lot for himself," said Mark Ramos, a youth leader who supported Farrales.

In a statement he posted on Facebook, Farrales thanked his hundreds of supporters who actively contacted US government officials to help him.

“I am absolutely shocked and dumbfounded by this level of support. I cannot find the words to express just how I feel. It’s an overwhelming feeling, a transcendental feeling, a transformative feeling,” Farrales wrote on Facebook.

He added, “From a purely legal standpoint, my journey is far from over. My release from detention – as wonderful as it is – is but the first step. I face many months, probably years, of legal struggle. But at least I am out. And I am with my family on Christmas Day. And I have your love and support.”

“I truly feel blessed. I wish you all the best and hope that this holiday season you feel the love of your friends and family.”

Farrales was only 10 years old when his family flew to America. Jaime, Farrales’s father, filed for political asylum after he was nearly killed due to his political activities in the Philippines, according to Farrales's interview with The Los Angeles Times.

While his father's political asylum for the family was ongoing, Farrales went on to excel in school and graduated with top honors at Harvard University.

However, when his father died, Farrales's future as an American became unclear.

The Filipino-American community was dismayed when they heard about the Fil-Am Harvard graduate's immigration problem.

Filipino groups have been joining the call for US President Barack Obama's administration to consider the cases of exemplary young immigrants like Farrales.

“Every day they work so hard to try to battle and get good grades and go to college. That's what they came here for. They try so hard and all of sudden, everything can be taken away," said youth leader Ramos.

Community leaders are also asking the Filipino-American community to step up in this and other immigration cases.

"Stop your apathy. Be involved. There are 1.5 million Filipinos who have no papers or [are] undocumented. It doesn't matter if we're citizens here, it doesn't matter if we're Democrats or Republicans. Help other Filipinos. If you're a Filipino, you will help your fellow Filipinos," said Arturo Garcia, Historic Filipinotown community leader.

Because of the failure of the DREAM Act, the measure that could have paved the way for the legalization of the students who are children of illegal immigrants, many young Pinoys who have lived in America most of their lives are living in fear of deportation.

Some of them, like Farrales, are hoping to get green cards through private immigration bills that lawmakers can file for immigrants with extraordinary cases.

The US Congress and President Obama can approve these bills. Though it's a rarely approved immigration tactic, on December 22, Obama signed bills that granted legal status to 2 Japanese nationals. It was the first private immigration bill approval in 5 years.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

New-look Magic face Christmas test against Celtics

ORLANDO, Florida – The retooled Orlando Magic knocked off NBA leaders San Antonio on Thursday, and have their sights set now on the league's number two team when they host Boston on Christmas Day.

"We've only seen a glimpse of what we could be and how well we could play and what we could do," said Orlando's Jason Richardson, who joined the Magic on Saturday as part of two blockbuster trades engineered by the struggling club.

Orlando acquired Richardson, Hedo Turkoblu and Earl Clark from Phoenix, and Gilbert Arenas from Washington in deals that saw them give up Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus and Martin Pietrus along with a 2011 first-round draft selection.

The new-look lineup lost their first two games before cruising to a victory over a weary San Antonio - ending the Spurs' 10-game winning streak.

"Boston will be another good test," Richardson said. "But time will tell how good we really are."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he didn't know if Orlando match up better now with Boston.

"I'm not sure how, since they've gotten smaller, what sense that makes," Rivers said. "They've just brought more talent and they're a better team, to me, in the long run because they've added more talent."

Even Magic coach Stan Van Gundy isn't quite sure how the mid-season moves will pan out for Orlando against the Eastern Conference's elite teams.

"I think Miami and Boston are very, very good. Chicago, Atlanta and New York are all playing well and are good. And I think we're a total unknown," Van Gundy said.

But win or lose against the Celtics on Saturday, Orlando center Dwight Howard said the real test of the changes will come later, in the playoffs, when Orlando will be hoping to improve on their performance of last year when they were knocked out by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

"We're not playing for December or January," Howard said. "We're playing for June."

Lakers, Heat, downplay Christmas clash

LOS ANGELES – The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers get their first face-to-face look at the new Miami Heat on Saturday, with many on both teams downplaying the significance of the Christmas Day clash.

"I don't think it's a measuring stick for us," said two-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, who created a stir in the offseason as he linked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a superstar trio in Miami. "It's just another game."

Lakers star Kobe Bryant said much the same in a television interview last week, but the contest may have taken on more importance for Los Angeles after their shocking 19-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.

Bryant was ejected for two technical fouls in the waning minutes of that game and has since kept his thoughts to himself.

It was a disappointing performance for the Lakers, who own a 21-8 record but have often looked lackluster in taking on a series of soft-target teams.

"I thought their come-uppance might come against Miami, but Milwaukee delivered the blow," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "So maybe it got their attention so they can get focused on basketball."

While James and Bryant have denied the game has any extra significance, Lakers point guard Derek Fisher admitted it was an intriguing matchup.

"The personalities that are going to be matching up in this game, I don't know if it can get any bigger," Fisher said. "Although there will be other games in this regular season that can mean more, from a personality standpoint and a star-power point, I don't know if it can get any bigger."

Star-power notwithstanding, James insists the real tests will come in the playoffs.

James led Cleveland against the Lakers on Christmas last year in a Cavaliers victory that saw frustrated Lakers fans throwing souvenirs and water bottles on the court in irritation at their team.

But the Lakers went on to win it all and Cleveland failed to advance from the Eastern Conference playoffs -- prompting James to move to Miami.

"I was in Cleveland and we beat the two-time champs twice in one season, and it didn't get me anything," James said.

"It's one game," he said of Saturday's contest. "The media guys hype it up, but when that time is over and done with, we've got to move on to the next one."

OFWs campaign for justice in Canada


WINNIPEG – When Antonio Laroya, Arnisito Gaviola and Ermie Zotomayor left the Philippines for Canada in 2007, they never expected they would be jailed and face deportation 3 years later.

The 3 fathers came to Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to work in a gas station in High Prairie, Alberta. Although it is illegal in Alberta for recruiters to charge workers a fee for finding employment, the 3 were charged $3,000 each for the jobs.

Like many other foreign workers, they went to Canada to escape poverty and to provide a better life and opportunity for their families.

“I am the breadwinner, not only of my own family, but also of my mother, 62, and my brother and sisters,” said Gaviola, 42.

As of 2009, over 280,000 foreign workers were in Canada, according to the Citizen and Immigration Canada, 2010.

From 2007 to 2009 alone, almost 50,000 foreign workers from the Philippines entered Canada via the TFWP.

3,900 Filipinos leave daily

The chronic unemployment and lack of opportunities in the Philippines has resulted in the daily exodus of approximately 3,900 Filipinos who find jobs outside the country, according to data from IBON Foundation in 2009. Many of these university-educated workers find employment in remote communities doing jobs which locals are unwilling to do.

Just last year, 3,649 foreign workers entered Manitoba to work in the service and agriculture sectors to fill the labor shortages in these industries.

After almost 2 years of working, the 3 were laid off from the gas station. They obtained work permits and employment at a restaurant in Peace River, Alberta where they lived together in a mobile home. They asked their restaurant employer if they could be sponsored under Alberta’s Provincial Nominee Program but unfortunately the employer could not, and the 3, once again, found themselves looking for jobs once more.

After a friend found a job at a gas station in Thompson, Manitoba, the 3 packed their belongings and headed to the distant town with the promise of new work permits and low-wage jobs. Their new employer insisted they start working at once and promised that the work permits would soon follow.

Unfortunately after waiting for 3 months, the employer still failed to obtain the new work permits as promised even after repeated follow-up.

This caused the workers to be "out of status".

Arrested for having no work permits

On June 24, 2010, the trio was arrested by the Canadian Border Services Agency and jailed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for not having proper work permits. When they were released, all their identification cards were confiscated including their Philippine passports.

Since their arrest, the 3 have not been allowed to work, which has caused great distress for their families.

“I’m also depressed because my daughter stopped studying. She’s a smart girl. She did not want to stop, but what can I do?” said Laroya, 45, a career overseas worker who worked in Israel for almost 3 years prior to coming to Canada.

The 3 tried to seek legal advice in Thompson after their release but the Legal Aid Manitoba office said they were not eligible.

After seeking the advice of a Philippine consular official, they applied for another job with the help of an immigration consultant who charged them $4,500 to process their permits.

However, because of their arrest and pending court hearing, the work permit, which they paid the consultant to process, could not be granted.

Migrante Canada is assisting the 3 in their campaign to stay in Canada and is asking for support from Filipinos and the wider community. About 100% of the proceeds from their campaign will go to help the 3 men.

Migrante Canada and the 3 are also asking Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney to consider their appeal to stay in Canada after their trial on December 23 in Winnipeg.

“We never had any intent to violate any laws. Our only wish has always been to work to provide for our families and one day be reunited,” said Zotomayor, 45.

Migrante Canada is an alliance of 16 organizations in Canada advocating for the rights and welfare of migrant workers.

Toyota pays crash victims’ family $10M

CALIFORNIA - Japanese carmaker Toyota Motor Corporation has agreed to pay a Filipino American family $10 million to settle a lawsuit over a car crash that resulted in the death of 4 people in San Diego last year.

California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor, his wife Cleofe Lastrella, daughter Mahala, and his brother-in-law Chris died on the spot after the Toyota Lexus they were riding went out of control and crashed in August 2009.

In accepting the settlement, surviving family members agreed to drop the lawsuit against Toyota.

Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles in 2009, most notably its best-selling hybrid Prius, due to complaints of sticky gas pedals.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The wretched of the sea: piracy's 600 anonymous hostages

NAIROBI - Huddled together in the dark sooty hulls of their ships, often abandoned to their Somali pirate captors by governments and shipowners, as many as 650 seamen await their fate on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

Last month's release of British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler grabbed the headlines but the hundreds of Filipino, Yemeni or Ukrainian seafarers who are going to spend New Year as hostages are causing a storm of indifference.

The Iceberg, captured on March 29 in the Gulf of Aden, is a typically average catch: a 4,000-ton vessel flagged in Panama, owned by a Dubai-based company and carrying a cargo of generators.

Its crew is almost a perfect sample of the most represented nationalities on the thousands of merchant vessels plying the world's trade routes; they hail from Yemen, India, the Philippines, Ghana, Sudan and Pakistan.

"Diseases have appeared among crew members, some have hemorrhoids, one has lost his eyesight and another has serious stomach problems," the ship's Yemeni captain Abdirazzak Ali Saleh told Agence France-Presse by phone.

"The water we have is unclean and we have only one meal a day, boiled rice, that's it. The crew is suffering physically and mentally," he said, adding they had been locked up in a room of five meters square for close to nine months.

In October, the Iceberg's 3rd officer Wagdi Akram, a father of four, jumped overboard in a fit of dementia. The pirates fished him out dead.

A video shot last month and obtained by AFP shows two crewmen unzipping an orange plastic casing to reveal the Yemeni sailor's body kept in a freezer with a few bags of ice to keep it cold.

"The body is still in the freezer but we have no diesel to run the generators," the captain said.

Saleh said the crew was banned from calling their families.

The dead seaman's relatives cannot receive inheritance benefits without a death certificate and their demands for financial assistance have been rejected by the owner's agent in Aden.

While pirates are not politically motivated and have tended to spare the lives of their hostages, the crews' detention is no less traumatic and often lasts longer than needed to conduct a successful negotiation.

"The longer a hijacking lasts, the more money shipowners with the right insurance and their intermediaries can get paid," said Ecoterra International, an environmental and human rights NGO monitoring piracy in the region.

"If no party with the interest of the crew at heart is applying pressure, negotiations that could be conducted in a matter of three to four weeks can last many months," an Ecoterra spokesman told AFP.

In the case of the Faina, a Ukrainian ship hijacked in September 2008 with a controversial cargo of weapons and on which the captain also died, the ransom paid after four months was the exact amount demanded after two days.

Adding to the trauma, crews are often still onboard when hijacked vessels are used by the pirates as "mother ships" from which to launch fresh attacks.

Few seamen have access to counselling when they get home.

The MV Iceberg's crew is confined to its hold and no contact has been made with the ship owner for six weeks, the captain and one of the pirates said.

"When a yacht is caught, the sailors are worth more for the pirates than the boat. But in most piracy cases, the value of the vessel itself and its cargo is what guarantees to the captors that a ransom is paid," Ecoterra explained.

"The crew's welfare becomes a very low priority, with pirates wishing they didn't have more people to feed and shipowners sometimes wishing they didn't have a crew preventing them from pulling off an insurance scam and sinking the vessel," the spokesman said.

On Thursday, relatives of Kenyan seamen held on three different hijacked vessels organized a vigil in the coastal city of Mombasa to demand news of their loves and financial support.

Families are often kept in the dark by governments hiding behind a "no negotiation with pirates" policy and by the complex onion-layered ownership structures of many vessels.

Caregivers lose jobs as employer faces embezzlement charges

EL CAJON, California – These are the final hours of operation for live-in caregivers at Park Villa Care Center. The end of their work here came as a surprise as their administrator Maria Corazon Park was arrested and charged last week with embezzling over US$600,000 from former patients.

“We have no work. That’s the bottom line. We don’t have a job and Christmas is coming. It’s so sad,” Priscilla Cumilang, a caregiver at the site for 2 years, said.

Park is facing 26 counts of elderly financial abuse, embezzlement, and money laundering. Prosecutors said she endeared herself to former patients so they can grant her access to their money. They eventually gave her power of attorney. But when they died, instead of distributing the money as instructed, Park spread them throughout several of her bank accounts and went on extravagant shopping sprees.

In another incident, Park allegedly tried to withdraw money from a deceased patient’s bank account, which raised suspicions among bank employees.

The Department of Social Services has ordered a closure of the 3 care homes administered by Park.

Cumilang said none of them were employed during the alleged scheme, but they said they are the ones suffering. A total of about 10 caregivers, most of them Filipinos, will be out of work. They worry more about their elderly patients that will also be stressed from the sudden change in living arrangements.

“The seniors are used to this place. It’s sad because all of a sudden, they’re in a different environment.”

Today, all the patients were relocated to nearby care homes.

Park is due to appear before a San Diego County Superior Court on Monday for preliminary hearing. She is currently held in prison on a $500,000 bond

Pinoy jai alai player makes a name for himself in Florida

DANIA, Florida - A Filipino athlete is making a name for himself in a fast-paced sport that until recently was banned in the Philippines.

At a sports complex in Dania, 24-year-old Charlie Medrano plays one of the fastest and most dangerous ball games in the world—the jai alai.

"I'm very happy. I'm blessed. This is an opportunity and a dream come true for me. So I grabbed it," Medrano said.

It’s a court sport played with a ball using one's hand and a basket.

In a jai alai game, Medrano said the ball travels through the air at 180 miles per hour.

“Mayroon akong experience, tinamaan ako sa kaliwang tenga and talagang 6 stitches ang aking nakuha,” Medrano said.

Jai alai was banned in the Philippines due to illegal gambling in 1986, but it got reinstated in March this year in Cagayan.

Medrano was only 11 years old when he first learned how to play jai alai.

He turned pro when he was discovered by a Dania Jai Alai executive who was impressed with his performance at the World Amateur Championship Competition in Mexico where he represented the Philippines in 2007.

“He's a very solid player. He's very sure. He has good core positioning which gives him the advantage when he does catch an easy ball to put the point away,” said Dania Jai Alai players’ manager, Benny Bueno.

But it was a rough start for Medrano. In his first year, he lost his first 72 games. When he finally won game 73, his winning streak began.

Today, he is one of the strongest and most admired players in Dania. He ranked number 2 overall in the last 2010 jai alai season.

“He's improved quite a bit. He's put on some weight. Last year, I believe, he won more games than any other player in the United States. So that's quite a change for a kid who lost 72 straight games," Hal Lesser, a fan from Delroy, Florida, said.

Medrano's goal is to make it to prime time jai alai as a featured game player--the league of elite players in Dania Jai Alai.

He also plans on going back to school to become a businessman or an accountant.

“Jai alai is not forever. As long as you're young, you're competitive. But if your age is above 30, not like in the Philippines, they still compete at age 40,” said Medrano.

At the rate his career is going, fans say he could be the next big thing in the fastest sport in the world.

Friday, 17 December 2010

RP Azkals unfazed despite loss to Indonesia

RP football team coach Simon McMenemy a day after his team lost to Indonesia in the Suzuki Cup semifinals.

MANILA, Philippines -- The morning after a loss is normally one of the toughest ones to wake up to as you deal with the reality that the loss indeed happened.

But the Azkals we saw Friday morning looked far from devastated. It seemed that they knew what they have in their hands now, and they are not about to let this situation and opportunity slip away.

Phil Younghusband, one of the team's strikers who had 2 solid attempts early in the game that were saved by the Indonesian keeper, felt that more than the intimidation of the home crowd, it was the noise level that affected them.

Younghusband said he had never played in a stadium louder than that. Even if a teammate was just a meter away, they could not hear each other due to the nonstop screaming and cheering of 70,000 strong spectators at the Bung Karno Stadium.

He conceded that Indonesia had some great defense as well, particularly the goal keeper who saved both his shots early on.

"They pulled back a bit more than we expected and that took us a bit by surprise ‘cause we normally expect them to attack and we prepare with our counterattack," he said.

As for Coach Simon McMenemy who has seen the best football all over the world, he likewise admitted that

RP football team striker Phil Younghusband a day after his team lost to Indonesia in the Suzuki Cup semifinals.

Indonesia's crowd and noise level was out of this world.

He likened it to a disco where you have to scream at someone's ear to get a word across.

Coach McMenemy felt that was one of the reasons why they gave up the first goal when Goal Keeper Neil Etheridge bumped into defender Rob Jonsson.

Nevertheless Coach McMenemy is confident the boys are over the loss and they have what it takes to bounce back.

Younghusband believes a tweak in the offensive strategy may be needed in the second half of Game 2 if the score is still close as the Azkals need to win by 2 to advance to the Finals or win 1-0 and get to a penalty shootout.

The team had lunch with the Philippine Ambassador to Indonesia Vidal Querol on Friday after a short limbering and swim session.

No practice has been set on Friday as team officials felt it is more important for the team to relax a bit and return to the pitch on Saturday before Sunday's Game 2.

Pacquiao all set for 32nd birthday party

MANILA, Philippines – Filipino boxing hero and Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao is all set to receive his guests in his birthday bash in General Santos City on Friday.

The boxer-turned-politician is celebrating his 32nd birthday with a lavish party at the KCC Convention Center, which was set up with a modern Greco theme.

Pacquiao is expecting at least 1,500 guests, which will include politicians, celebrities, athletes and fans.

Among the “very important personalities” attending are boxing promoter Bob Arum and his wife; Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson, beloved boxing coach Freddie Roach, Puerto Rican boxing champion Juan Manuel Lopez and musician Lito Camo.

Already on display in the venue are prizes to be raffled during the party. The prizes include a Toyota Vios, 2 motorcycles and 3 flat screen televisions.

Also on display is a classic 1962 Lambretta motorcycle with the life story of Pacquiao drawn all over it.

Mommy D’s wish

Pacquiao’s mother, Mommy Dionisia, has already greeted her beloved son.

“Sabi ko sa kanya, ‘happy birthday, anak’… antok pa siya niyakap ko,” she said.

Mommy D said she will appeal to Roach to convince her son to retire from boxing.

She said she is afraid that his work might take its toll on his health.

Pacquiao’s children Queenie, Princess, Michael and Jimuel also greeted their daddy.

Jimuel, the eldest among the four, even made a birthday card.

“I wish you all the success in life, I love you so much,” said his message written in the card.

A good political career

Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, said she wants the boxing champ to have a good career in politics.

“Sa boksing kasi lahat nakuha na so kung ano iyong gusto niya pa gawin sa pag serve, iyon [ang hiling ko],” said Jinkee.

She said she is willing to support her husband all the way, even to the vice-presidential or the presidential seat.

“Kung God's will, why not? Hindi natin alam kung ano pa ang wish ni Lord,” said Jinkee.

All geared up to party

Pacquiao, meanwhile, is already wearing his birthday get up.

He is clad in Burberry polo, Hermes belt and an expensive Patek Philippe watch given to him by Arum.

Pacquiao also received a rose-gold colored Rolex watch as a gift from Jinkee.

Before heading to the venue, Pacquiao and Jinkee attended a mass in Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage church.

There he prayed for his birthday wish.

“Hiningi ko [sa Diyos] na gabayan ako kung anong gagawin ko para makapag silbi, makatulong ng tao…para malaman ko kung ano gusto niya, gagawin ko,” said Pacquiao.

Swedish version of Syjuco's 'Ilustrado' launched

SWEDEN – Multi-awarded Filipino writer Miguel Syjuco recently launched the Swedish version of his book “Ilustrado” in Stockholm.

Balitang Europe reported that this is the 15th time that his book was translated into another language. (Related story: Miguel Syjuco's 'Ilustrado' impresses UK critics)

“Very proud as a Filipino to know that we have Filipino representatives in literature and I hope we get more of these people," Angelo Fredriksson, Filipino Youth Organizer, said.

Filipinos and foreigners waited in line to buy his book and to have the novel autographed by the Pinoy writer.

“It’s the best gift for my family and Swedish friends," said conference hostess Jeannette Lunderg. The New York Times recently named it as one of the top 100 books for the year (Related story: 'Ilustrado' joins top 100 books of NYTimes for 2010)

Philippine Ambassador to Sweden Zenaida Angara Collinsson was likewise proud of the extensive media coverage that the book launch received.

“Ito ay malaking karangalan para sa atin. Ang coverage niya dito ay very extensive, and for the first time, we had major dailies writing positive news, mabubuting bagay tungkol kay Miguel Syjuco at sa kanyang obra maestra na 'Ilustrado',” Ambassador Collinsson said.

Syjuco is grateful for the warm welcome he received in Sweden. He said his novel mirrors the events that happened in the Philippines.

Furthermore, he is confident that President Benigno Aquino III will instill the much needed reforms in the country.

“Personally, I think he is the most qualified and the most well-meaning among all of them,” Syjuco said.

"Illustrado" won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize and the grand prize in the 2008 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.

Filipino-Belgian dancer makes waves in Europ

THE NETHERLANDS – A Filipino-Belgian dancer is making waves in the Netherlands for pioneering and taking contemporary urban street culture to a higher level through dance and theater performances.

Marco Gerris is popularly known as one of the members of the jury of the hit dance show “So You Think You Can Dance”. But he is also the founder and artistic director of “ISH”, a dance company which aims to train young people interested in underground disciplines like hip hop, break dancing, skating, martial arts and beat box. He adopts these disciplines and transforms them into dance and theater shows for the general public.

Gerris, who grew up in Belgium, is proud of being 100% Filipino. He was adopted by his Belgian parents from an orphanage in Cebu when he was only 3 years old.

Bringing street culture to the stage

Originally wanting to be an actor, Gerris got into dancing when he was kicked out of Antwerp’s Terleick School of Drama. Since moving to Amsterdam when he was 23 years old, he discovered street dancing and started his own company “ISH”.

“I felt that there’s too less hip hop and breakdance on stage and if you found it, it was always too little. And I said, I want to make a crew, a dance company, with all these underground skills like skating, martial arts, beatbox, hip hop, breakdance, what comes from the street and make a show with it. 10 years later we are still doing it and we are still developing and inspiring a lot of youngsters,” said Gerris in an interview with Balitang Europe.

“ISH” quickly jumped to popularity after its first show in 2000, and has since then gathered several recognitions. Their shows were a hit, not only in the Netherlands but also in the United States and Canada, as well as other parts of Europe.

Gerrris' life also inspired the award-winning documentary “Wheels of Fortune,” and he has played in several dance movies.

With an initial crew of 7 young people, Gerris strived to develop his company, and in 2005 achieved his dream of playing in Broadway at the New Victory Theater in New York together with his crew.

Helping youth through dance

From the US, Europe, India and Africa, ISH has been touring their dance workshop all over the world to develop kids with the same interest and teach them the value of standing up for themselves.

“The concept with these workshops with kids is we ask the kids, what are you thinking, what do you think is wrong with this world and how do you think you can change that? And together with the teachers and the dancers, we create a performance about these with them.”

Gerris is proud of his former students from the slums of Bangalore in India, who started a dance company with the same concept as theirs. These achievements continue to inspire him to bring his work all around the world.

“The youngsters always get our philosophy about believing in yourself, stand up for yourself, you have a voice try doing something with that,” said Gerris.

Both in the studio and in his circle, Gerris is considered a friend and a mentor.

“Not only that he recognizes your talent but he also gives you the space and freedom to develop something in your own style. And of course he will lead you and give you his advice and he will guide you through the process,” said Abdelhadi Baaddi who has been training with Gerris for 5 years now.

Meanwhile, another friend and colleague also have the same compliment for the Pinoy dancer.

“He is a really great guy, he is a really good choreographer. You can really see the difference between him choreographing in ISH and him being a friend. Outside, he is really a cool guy, levels with everybody--colleagues, friends--but in the work space, when he is working something, then he is really a choreographer.”

Acknowledging his roots

When he was 25 years old, Gerris visited the Philippines for the first time. He said that a whole new world opened up to him, something that is very different from what he was used to. And although he was not able to find his biological parents, Gerris was happy to have visited.

“My biggest goal was to see where I grew up, that was the nicest thing for me. I want to go back one day again. I think every 5 years I want to go there.”

It was also during this visit that Gerris discovered where some of his talents came from.

Bringing his tools with him, Gerris played with some street kids. From there, he noticed how talented the Filipinos are.

“Filipinos are so creative, so talented. When I was there, I was playing with them and they pick it up in split seconds. Oh, so, there’s my talent from, I recognized it,” he said.

Gerris is also enthusiastic of bringing ISH’s dance workshops in the Philippines if there is an opportunity to collaborate with local companies.

“I think if we will ever have the opportunity to come to the Philippines with my concept, with ISH, I think we will blow them away. I think they will be very enthusiastic and will keep on doing it.”

Simbang Gabi kicks off in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES, California - Parols, singing priests, and Philippine attire. It’s the countdown to Christmas in Los Angeles.

About 2,000 Filipinos from all over southern California kicked off Simbang Gabi at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles. From now until Christmas eve, Catholic Filipinos will be going to church every night, sometimes during the late evening.

“It’s our culture and tradition over there so I’m reminded and I’m very much happy,” explained Feli Emmons of the Bukas Loob Sa Diyos Prayer Group.

Liberty Unciano added, “It’s a Filipino tradition. We always do it every year, all 9 days, at 5 o’clock in the morning.”

Many of the faithful stopped by The Lady of Pe├▒afrancia statue with their Christmas wishes. With this year’s theme of family and being together, many of them prayed for each other's well-being.

Ana Duenas prayed for good health, good jobs, and good business.

“Mama Mary always listens to our prayers. She’s a mother to us,” she explained.

The Anunciacion family has a son deployed in Kuwait who will spend the holidays on military duty. They are praying that he comes home soon.

Susan Anunciacion said, “I guess war would be over soon. I have an older son who’s in the military serving overseas, so I’m praying for them, and praying for their safe return. “

Simbang Gabi has become one of the biggest yearly events at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles since the downtown church first opened in 2002.

This year's Simbang Gabi, though, marks the last one for Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, a priest well-liked by the Filipino community.

Mahony will be retiring next year.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Living on the edge: Vulnerable workers in the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines - While trying to take in as many passengers as he could, Arthur Crisostomo, 45, skips lunch and bites from a P6 bread to ease his hunger.

As a jeepney driver plying the route from Pacita Complex in San Pedro, Laguna to Alabang in Muntinlupa City, Crisostomo must be on the road for 12-13 hours a day to earn for his family.

Bawal po kaming magkasakit, kasi walang kakainin ang pamilya namin [We can’t afford to get sick or else, our families will starve],” said Crisostomo.

Jeepneys are the famous symbol of the Philippines’ mode of transportation since post-World War II but those behind the so-called King of the Road live like paupers because their daily earnings can barely feed them for a day.

Crisostomo, who has been on his job in the last 16 years, said his daily income of from P400 to P1,000 may be just enough for the needs of his family. But when he or any member of his family gets sick, they must borrow money from relatives and friends. He only uses one jeepney unit and when this bogs down, he also has to borrow money from friends and neighbors so he can bring food on the table.

The number of those in the vulnerable employment sector— those who don't have decent employment, social security, health benefits, etc. —reached 14.9 million, or 42.6%, of the 35-million actively employed, or salary and waged people in 2009.

The father of 5 complains about frequent joint pains, particularly in the legs and feet. He suffers from lingering coughs and back aches because he has to bear dry and cold weather in long hours of driving.

As most of them have to stay on the road for long hours, jeepney drivers suffer from work-related ailments such as gall bladder stones, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, as well as ulcer and arthritis.

But since they lack the necessary social protection such as health insurance, as well as medical benefits available to regular workers, jeepney drivers do not go to hospitals or medical clinics for checkup and treatment, as such would eat into their meager income.

Roberto Parro, 25, puts it matter-of-factly: “If we spend for our medical needs, there will be no more money left to feed for our families,” he said, adding, “nagtitiis na lang [we just have to bear with our sickness].”

Vulnerable sectors

Jeepney drivers in the Philippines belong to the vulnerable employment sector who do not have social protection like health insurance, medical benefits and unemployment insurance given to wage earners and regular salary workers.

The Land Transportation Office (LTO) counts 153,260 registered jeepneys nationwide from January to August 2010, of which 38,282 are in Metro Manila. There are also 17,082 public-utility buses nationwide, of which 5,365 are in Metro Manila.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines vulnerable employment as the sum of own-account workers and contributing family workers. They are less likely to have formal work arrangements and lack elements associated with decent employment such as social security, health benefits and recourse to social dialogue or effective collective bargaining mechanisms.

In the Philippines, the number of those in the vulnerable employment sector reached 14.9 million in 2009, or 42.6%, of the 35-million total of salary and wage-earning people, based on figures of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

The ILO also considers working poor people under the vulnerable employment sector. It defines the working poor as those employed persons living in a household whose members are estimated to be below the national poverty threshold.

The working poor people are those who earn less than $2 a day, not enough to lift themselves out of poverty. In the Philippines, they comprise more than 30%, or 9 million, of the total 35 million actively employed, or salary and waged people in 2009.

Vulnerable employment has been used by the ILO as a proxy name to the informal economy sector to emphasize the very poor quality of jobs and no representation to social platforms for engagements.

The ILO said the global financial crisis in 2008 deepened the concern over the social impacts of globalization. It urged governments to take measures, particularly support to the vulnerable workers like youth and women. It argued that governments need to create decent jobs through effective labor-market policies as well as productive investments to achieve a sustainable economic growth.

The ILO warned in January last year that the global financial crisis is expected to have an adverse impact on developing countries where an estimated 200 million workers could be pushed into extreme poverty.

As a middle-income country and heavily dependent on the remittances of some 8 million Filipino workers abroad, the Philippines takes pride in having been relatively resilient amid the global financial turmoil.

Vulnerable employment has been used by the ILO as a proxy name to the informal economy sector to emphasize the very poor quality of jobs and no representation to social platforms for engagements.

With the record increase of remittances from Filipino migrant workers reaching more than $19 billion in 2009 and an average gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6%in the last 5 years, there seems to be nothing to worry about.

But the situation is not the same for Flora Acebedo, an unskilled vendor of pearl accessories in Puerto Galera beach resorts in Mindoro Oriental.

Catching her breath while she treads on huge rocks that divide White Tamaraw beaches, the silver-haired woman, who never knew her age because she did not have a birth certificate, complained she has not sold any item.

Wala pa ’kong maisaing kaya tingnan ko sa kabila kung may maibenta. [I don’t have money yet to buy rice for our lunch, I will try if I can sell these items on the other beach].”

At 45, Rowena Asuncion had to resort to offering massage services on the beach for P200 an hour, braiding girls’ hair for P150, and stitching nylon accessories from P5 to P50 to feed five children. Her husband, a boatman, accompanies tourists on island hopping.

The couple used to work as rice farmers but were forced to work on White Beach because they became heavily indebted to the farm owner as their wages were never enough to feed the family.

Rowena’s dilemma was similar to that of Flora’s. On the day she was interviewed, she had been walking on the beach for more than three hours and no one had availed of her services. At around 4 p.m., she finally got a customer for massage and earlier on, somebody bought a personalized nylon bracelet which she stitched for more than an hour, bringing her total earnings to P250 for that day.

Many jobs, not enough skilled workers

ILO director in the Philippines Lawrence Jeff said there are a lot of jobs available in the country but there are not enough skilled workers to fill up the needs, prompting unskilled ones to be absorbed by the vulnerable employment sector like Rowena, Flora and the two jeepney drivers.

Among the unexplored industries that badly needed skilled workers, Johnson said, are agribusiness, animation, medical transcription, and hotel and restaurant management. The country also needs more call-center agents but there are more business-process outsourcing (BPO) engineers and accountants in the labor market.

He said the biggest challenge for the Philippine government is to address the current and future labor-market demands and create a labor market that matches the skills requirement of industries.

Johnson said the weakening social-dialogue mechanism in the Philippines, just like in many countries, has contributed to the mismatch of skills and work available in the country.

“Social dialogue is a critical mechanism” to boost productivity and employment growth, said Johnson. “The government should set the stage for an effective social-dialogue mechanism between employers and workers’ organizations to address the mismatch.”

Government intervention is crucial in “trying to get people to decent employment,” as many occupations are available in the Philippines’ labor market. He echoed President Aquino’s inaugural speech: “going for jobs abroad should be an option and not a necessity.”

The lingering impact of the global financial crisis, he warned, could aggravate the problem of the increasing numbers of the vulnerably employed.

Globally, there are 3 billion economically active people or those salary and wage workers, but those in the vulnerable employment sector account for half of the employed people, or 1.5 billion, which is more alarming than the current 210-million globally unemployed people.

At least 80% of those in vulnerable employment live in the poor provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The labor-market trend at the global level is also reflected in the Philippines. Those in the vulnerable employment sector continue to increase from 13.5 million in 2004 to 14.9 million in 2009. The number of working poor reached 8.9 million in 2006 from 7.9 million in 2003.

The lingering conflict in Mindanao that has caused hundreds of thousands of people there to live in dire conditions has swelled the ranks of people in the vulnerable employment sector.

At least 80% of those in vulnerable employment live in the poor provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The ILO also noted a continuing rise in vulnerable employment in the agriculture-based provinces of Bicol, as well as Mindoro Occidental, Mindoro Oriental and Marinduque.

The ILO Employment Policy Convention 122 adopted by ILO members in 1964 is one of the 8 core ILO Conventions that promote decent work, which is critical in reducing incidence of poverty and hunger, and a means to meet sustainable growth.

On January 13, 1976, the Philippines ratified the convention which emphasizes the need to implement an effective employment policy as a means to achieve economic growth and development.

The treaty, in effect ensures that there is job for those qualified and seeking for it. It also guarantees that the work is productive and there is freedom of choice for each worker to maximize his skills.

The treaty also intends to address the growing number of workers in the vulnerable employment sector, particularly in developing countries like the Philippines.

Philippine framework

As part of its commitment to Convention 122, the Philippines implemented a unified policy framework for 2004-2010 aimed at creating a decent and productive employment for every Filipino worker. The policy aims to address lingering poverty and hunger by creating 6 million to10 million jobs within six years.

In 2008 the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations asked the Philippine government how its targeted economic growth will produce decent jobs, considering the magnitude of the informal economy in the country.

Article 2 of the ILO Convention indicates that a signatory can decide on the measures, within a coordinated social and economic policy to achieve the goals indicated in Article 1 that seeks to design a policy that promotes full, productive and freely chosen employment.

The ILO Committee of Experts asked the government to describe measures taken to collect and analyze statistical and other data concerning the size and distribution of the labor force, the nature and extent of unemployment and underemployment and trends, as a basis for deciding on measures of employment policy.

In its response, the Philippine government cited the Labor Force Survey (LFS) being conducted quarterly by the National Statistics Office. The LFS provides statistical information such as economic structure, Filipino overseas, overseas employment and investments and employment opportunities.

The government also cited the DOLE’s Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics (BLES) as another source of statistical information in drafting employment policy. BLES conducts national surveys on labor and employment being sourced from business companies.

Manila’s report to ILO

In its report to the ILO Committee, the government aired concern that the trend in employment was lagging behind economic growth.

Data showed that from 2004-2007, the country suffered from the so-called jobless growth where the GDP grew at an average annual growth rate of above 6%, but the average annual growth in employment lagged behind at 2%.

But the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) said the average GDP growth rate from 2004 to 2009 was 4.4%.

“Underemployment is a more serious problem than unemployment as it affects one in every five Filipinos and cuts across age and sex groupings,” said the DOLE in its reply to the ILO Committee of Experts.

The DOLE also noted that underemployment is more prevalent in less developed regions where the farm sector and self-employment predominates.

With the rising number of BPO companies in the country, the DOLE cited a 4.1% increase in the service sector and a modest 2.5% increase in industry employment in 2007; but it noted marginal growth at 0.6% in the combined agriculture, fishery and forestry sector.

With a 2.9% growth in the wage and salary employment sector, the DOLE said jobs were created for 474,000 individuals in 2006.

Scourge of underemployment

Meanwhile, underemployment remains the country’s weakness in the labor-market policy approach.

From 2004 to 2006, underemployment rate rose from 17.6% to 22.7% or by 682,000 to 7,467,000 individuals.

The ILO explained that the informal or the vulnerable employment sector comprises an important part of the economy and the labor market.

In countries with high rates of population growth or urbanization, the vulnerable sector tends to absorb the expanding labor force particularly in urban areas.

As population growth outpaces the capacity of industry to absorb new labor, urban unemployment and rural underemployment are compounded.

“Informal-sector employment is a necessary survival strategy in countries that lack social safety nets, such as unemployment insurance, or where wages especially in the public sector and pensions are low,” said the ILO report on Key Indicators of the Labor Market.

Statistics from the Labor department showed that from 2004-2009, the number of wage and salary workers rose from 31.6 million to 35 million. But in the same period, the number of those in vulnerable employment also rose from 13.5 million to 14.9 million.

The working poverty rate in the Philippines also increased by 3.1%, between 2003 and 2006, from 7.9 million to 8.9 million.

Director Nicon Fameronag, head of the Communications Division of the DOLE, said the country’s high population growth rate at 2.36% every year puts a heavy pressure on a deficit-stricken government.

Population growth should not be a problem, he said, if the government had enough resources to provide more people with public services, employment and housing. “But in a country where the budget is already stretched and where poverty is high to begin with, population growth becomes a major issue,” said Fameronag in an interview at the DOLE office in Manila.

He asserted that, “rapid population growth hinders development” for two interrelated reasons: First, it reduces growth in per-capita incomes—and thus savings, cutting the funds available for investment in productive capacity.

“This underinvestment in turn reduces overall economic growth and prospects for poverty reduction.”

Second, as population growth outpaces the capacity of industry to absorb new labor, urban unemployment and rural underemployment are compounded.

The worsening concern over more people joining the vulnerable employment sector may be addressed through an effective employment policy that will provide sustainable and productive jobs for farmers and farm workers.

ILO explained that poverty as a policy issue overlaps with the informal or vulnerable employment sector. “There is a link [although not a perfect correlation] between informal employment and being poor.”

In the Philippines, majority of the vulnerably employed are in three regions whose people suffer from abject poverty and the source of livelihood is agriculture: the ARMM, Bicol and 4-B or Mimaropa (which stands for Mindoro Oriental and Occidental, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan).

Neda official Dennis Arroyo said a third of the poor are in agriculture. At least 33% of the population, or 4 million families in the Philippines, live under less than a dollar a day, according to the Neda.

But the growth areas are driven by the services and industry sectors that require highly educated and skilled people and more investments.

The worsening concern over more people joining the vulnerable employment sector may be addressed through an effective employment policy that will provide sustainable and productive jobs for farmers and farm workers.

According to Director Fameronag, the Labor department has been implementing a number of interventions to retrain and retool people in the vulnerable-employment sector to boost their skills and knowledge and facilitate their entry into formal employment.

A number of programs are also being implemented to provide livelihood assistance to the working poor so they can start up their small businesses.

Five years since they left the farm in a remote and rebel-infested town of Mamburao in Mindoro, Rowena went through a series of skills training by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda). Although trained to provide services like body massage, hair-braiding and stitching nylon-made beach accessories, Rowena’s life did not improve and her family remains quite poor because she does not have a stable income as well as the benefits associated with formal employment.

Recognizing these and other trends, the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda engages governments to adopt an employment policy that pushes economic growth while generating sustainable, productive and freely chosen employment.

Decent work goals reflect the aspirations of people for better opportunity and income; recognition of their rights, as well as family stability and personal development.

Expert groups at the 2005 review meeting of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals have developed a new target that integrates the goal of eradicating poverty and hunger with providing productive and decent employment.

Under the MDG target 1 that eradicates extreme poverty and hunger, governments need to achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all.

The MDG “target 1B” directly addresses the rising number of those in vulnerable employment and working poor sectors as part of eradicating poverty and hunger.

Millions of those in the vulnerable employment sector like Rowena and Arthur, meanwhile, face each day with determination to earn a decent income for their families even to the detriment of their health.

Decent work goals reflect the aspirations of people for better opportunity and income; recognition of their rights, as well as family stability and personal development.

They face uncertain futures and keep working hard without social benefits, as well as health and medical insurance. Most of them are seen as eyesores—particularly those pushing carts and rickety vending machines in busy streets and in the corners of high-rise buildings.

In the case of the thousands who earn a living plying the streets of Manila with the improvised tricycles called kuliglig, last week’s violent dispersal by policemen, that left two people dead, reflects the perils of those in trades that have been tagged illegal. One ex-convict, shouting at the top of his voice, told a TV reporter driving a kuliglig was his last shot at a decent job, and warned authorities they were driving people back to a life of crime.

Maliit ang tingin ng tao sa’min [people look down on us],” said Rowena sadly. She said most tourists, both local and foreign, would usually shoo her and her fellow workers at the beach when they offer massage and hair-braiding services.

Rejection is just the first tragedy. Around the globe, billions of people like Rowena live on the edge each day, because the margins are never flexible enough to let them in.