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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Inept POEA: A Bane To OFWs

"A certain combination of incompetence and indifference can cause almost as much suffering as the most acute malevolence." - Bruce Catton

Let's talk about mundane things here, I mean, the Filipino way.  I guess nobody will argue with the consensus that the dreadful  long queues at the POEA grounds that extend to EDSA  even before dawn  is world-renowned. Though office hours officially start at eight in the morning, notice that some personnel maintain their propensities for having much to do with nothing before actually hitting the ground running, on their term, fifteen minutes later. By this time, the breakfast-less and sleep deprived hordes of people are already in their palest. Seriously, a day at this notorious government office is dreaded by all.

If you think  adherence to the famed American time gives you an edge over  third-world behaviors, think again. Labeling them desperate and insane  will not help their cause, because the OFWs falling in line outside of the POEA even before the roster crows are perfectly sane and hardworking citizens who are reluctant recipients of the lethal bureaucracy entrenched in the veins of government officials. 

Jose is just one of the thousands of OFWs that flock to the POEA everyday. His case was no extraordinary. He just needs to secure an Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) because every returning OFW has to have one as a government requirement for them to be allowed to fly back to their work destinations abroad. He complains that  if his company had only given his passport days before his flight for Manila, he could have easily secured his OEC from the Jeddah Consulate and not facing this horrendous ordeal that he is into. With barely an hour of sleep and left with no choice but to confront his ordeal, Jose had to get up already even others could  just be starting  rolling out their blankets. He would insist, he had been doing this already almost a fortnight into his vacation.

At three early morning, breakfast or coffee forgone, he sees himself tugging his red eyes so as not to fall asleep, while one hand grips the handrail over his head and the other clutches his backpack loaded with documents to prove he really is a documented OFW, a vacationing OFW at that, whose misfortune he finds himself in, he swears, he blames on the government's inefficiency and its legendary bureaucracy. He has in fact lost count of the number of times he catches an early tricycle ride on an unholy hour of day to make it early at the POEA grounds, to get in line and hope to get a really nice number -  and failed another time.

While still in Jeddah, he already had itineraries planned for a month's vacation. This time he says, he promised to spend quality time with his family or perhaps a vacation in Baguio. Thinking that he needed to secure his requirements first, on the second day of his arrival, he already found himself in a monstrous queue that others say had formed long before daybreak. Still his only first day at what would later turn out to be a two-week ordeal, and  no dearth of virtues yet, as everybody else goes through similar circumstances.   Queuing up at seven in the morning and your number called out at around three in the afternoon probably is no exciting moment, at least he's already a step closer to the finish line. But once he got there, he was told to renew his passport that will expire three months later. 

For whatever reason, the government that determines the validity of one's passport does not accept a passport to be valid with an active life remaining of still three months. (I guess if you have a return ticket after exactly a month's vacation, and still your passport is over two months valid, I find no reason why an OFW cannot travel back and decides for himself to renew it in the embassy or consulate in the host country where he finds it convenient). The dreadful thing is, even obtaining a form for renewal or passport extension will take another day for which you will be required to come back again, and repeating the same process all over again. Jose complied diligently and after five days his passport was released, its validity already extended. Take note that every compliance of documents or a mere change of counter, one needs to reach deep into his pocket to make people in the government happy.

At long last Jose thought this could be it. This was going to be the final phase of his agony - of getting up at three before dawn and sleepless, taking three separate rides, patiently standing in the queue for hours, and needless to say a growling stomach already trained into submission. He however had the slightest idea that his real ordeal had just started when at the counter he was promptly told that he cannot be issued an OEC because he cannot be considered a Balik-Manggagawa (returning OFW). At first, he thought the woman was not referring to him because he in every sense of the word is a certified legal OFW - that is unless you're faced with a dilemma of either you lack technical merits, and or you are talking to a moron behind a hole. In this case, the POEA has its own set of criteria to determine whether an OFW is legal or documented to be  considered a returning or vacationing OFW.

And how on earth he was refused issuance of OEC? If Jose has with him a valid passport with an exit-reentry visa valid within  45 days appended to it, and a return ticket to Jeddah, then how could the POEA classify him as not a real Balik-Mangagawa? Their contention however is, he had a couple different names written in his passport as his sponsors, which is not the case. They further argued that it is illegal for him to work for a new employer while still under the sponsorship of his first sponsor. And after a drawn-out debate, he was told to proceed to the second floor for assessment of his case, for which he will be asked to provide a contract copy that further stipulates that the employer takes responsibility for the repatriation of the remains of the employee in case he dies in the host country. Okay, before we react simultaneously, this is what the Aquino government wanted to implement to advance the cause of OFWs. Nice try though, not really moronic. This is fine albeit shocking, yet utterly disgusting.

The following reasons prove that POEA has failed to look at the merits of Jose's case:
1. Jose was hired in 2006 by his first sponsor after which he obtained release after a year with no obligation whatsoever to the latter. Please note that Jose had transferred to his second sponsor (a personal friend of his first sponsor) in 2007, therefore making the former his new and legal sponsor as shown in his iqama (residence permit). To educate the stupid and unqualified people of POEA, let me tell you that in Saudi Arabia, it is perfectly legal to transfer sponsorship even for the third time, meaning you can have four different sponsors one after another if you wish to.
2. Jose had already gone on vacation in 2009 under his current sponsor, therefore this is already his second vacation under the same sponsor, in fact his fourth year already under his current sponsor.
3. He has a return ticket to Jeddah and an exit-reentry visa valid within 45 days. That alone supports his cause to be considered a legal OFW.
4. In his 2009 vacation, he secured his OEC from the Jeddah Consulate with no fuss at all and not a bit of change in his status. The only difference is that, people at the Consulate can read and understand Arabic and are well-versed with the Saudi Labor Law. If there's any hint or trace of irregularity, they are the first people to detect it, unlike at the POEA where employees just like to act smart in order to intimidate the OFWs.
5. And if ever the stupid brains behind this stupid game of moronic proportion wanted him to bleed in order for him to furnish them a stupid contract that stipulates some stupid thing, then he could not, because it's impossible. Jose was hired directly from the Philippines under a driver's visa but works in Saudi Arabia as a Visual Merchandising Specialist and getting a good salary that he will never find in his five lifetimes in the Philippines.

So why still refuse to issue an OEC to a documented OFW who has only gone on vacation so that he could take a needed rest and enjoy time with his family? This is crazy because refusal to issue an OEC to a vacationing OFW is tantamount to depriving his entire family a life and a future. Who would have thought that a supposed great vacation turned into nightmare? Literally, I think the poor guy really needed a punching bag! I could see him sobbing his way through a nearby store  and struggling to carry a caseload of beer, and getting tears all over the IKEA sheepskin he brought home, as his stupid tormentors go about with their usual habit  of  feasting on someone else's life in between coffee breaks.

The situation he was in was far from what he had hoped for - a well-planned vacation that turned out to be anything but happy. But for all its worthy cause, and nothing greater than fighting for your family to survive, the will and faith in God will see him through, especially when the very existence of your loved ones is on the line. From great friends - personal and virtual - a network of support came in. Despite the odds seemingly getting slimmer, and depression almost took over, he had not lost sight of his rights and his purpose. 

Before then, however, PEBA volunteers had already initiated some steps to help his cause through its founder Jebee Kenji Solis. And no less than Ms. Susan Ople, the daughter of the great former senator Blas Ople had offered help to convince the POEA that Jose is a documented OFW, and therefore should be allowed to get the OEC. Even Ms. Ople had apprehensions that what they were trying to do was a long shot considering that the new POEA policy re squeezing out a contract from a vacationing OFW should be upheld. (Without the contract, an OFW is deemed illegal.) Jose's cause could have merited him a slot high up in the mountains with the Reds,  it's just that the very entity he was fighting against, is the government that vows to pursue a "straight path" and encourages its citizens to work hard for their family and country. His only transgression though was his failure to get OEC from the Jeddah Consulate that he was left with no choice but to suffer from the stupendous stupidity by the insecure and irrational POEA people.

Though there was no clear cut solution to Jose's problem, the effort of Ms. Ople to speak with one of the big bosses of POEA was nothing short of commendable. His dilemma remained for a brutal two weeks, half-way through his vacation, with no hope in sight. Still, he is not ready to wave a white flag. And who does when you see your family weeping with you? He thought if he will give up easily and not give his last shot, the government will not give him a cent either, for he cannot be classified as displaced, to them he is illegal and therefore should be punished.

And his last recourse - give another try, perhaps his last.  And again he followed the same routine - filled out a form, the same familiar form, except that he made some changes - he wrote the name of his first sponsor as  his current sponsor (which is not the right information since it has been  five years since he had transferred legally).  And voila! They did not question him because he had returned to his first sponsor, therefore he is no longer illegal. Quickly, the most-prized OEC was issued to him to his great relief, as though he won a lottery.  And yes, because he wrote a different name, the wrong name, he suddenly became a legal and documented OFW. Kudos to you morons at the POEA whose understanding of the Saudi Labor Law is  nil! When are you going to realize that your sheer incompetence and ineptitude almost ruined lives of hapless people who feel helpless because you idiots in the bureaucracy do not have the capacity of sound reasoning?

Even the penguins of Antarctica will swear that the human species called OFW  is the milking cow of the 13th most populous country in the world called the Philippines. And despite the superficial accolade accorded them, they are sometimes treated no more than a bunch of annoying  export commodity by people in the government. Some people think that because they work in the government they are there to uphold the system, even if it means the system goes against logic and humanity. Yet, it is utterly incomprehensible to say the least,  how government employees at the POEA can be so stupid and dumb to ignore facts and reason laid down before their noses, and still insist that they are just protecting the dignity and welfare of OFWs even if it means to deprive them of their life and future.

Jose learned his lesson the hard way. Half of his vacation wasted and gone - he did not enjoy a family outing, decided not to celebrate his birthday, did not have time to go out with his wife and daughters - depression got the better of him - all because he thought his family's future fades slowly before his eyes - because the administration he helped campaign to win in Jeddah, "cares" for his welfare and the rest of the OFWs. Jose only had his instinct to trust and of course God. If he did not try the last time, he would have not discovered the art of fooling the fool that refuses reason for fear of being humbled. And so  he lives to tell another day that God's grace is sufficient for those who persevere.

* Jose is a blogger who maintains three blogs including a photo blog that counts some media personalities in the Philippines as its fans. In 2010, he won recognition from PEBA as one of its winners in a photo contest.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Twin Nightmare Called STC And Mobily

"If you happen to come across a slogan from a 'reputed' firm that says they have conquered the world by their technologies and their services, think again, for there is more to it than meets the eye."

And if you happen to be an expatriate living in Saudi Arabia, and you think your life revolves around the internet, and you're feeling extremely grossed-out by the filthy computers at the nearest cafe compounded by a suffocating cigarette smoke that automatically guarantees you a shorter life span, then take comfort in this: You are not alone.

Understandably, the next natural thing to do would follow. My decision to apply for internet connection however, was a milestone so to speak, considering the would-be hefty monthly bill that for me is equivalent to a house and lot's worth in the province. To a person not easily hyped-up by a barrage of notifications on my facebook, two hours at the internet cafe every other day serves up my cause. The downside however, is walking on foot can be likened to a pilgrimage especially when it's sweaty day. All things considered, I chose Saudi Telecom or STC to be my service provider.

I don't know if rumors were true that these telecom companies are charging up extra amount (or they term it as hidden charges) from their subscribers, but as far as I know my monthly bill should only be 274 saudi riyals (choice package) because we rarely use our telephone for local calls. What puzzles me every time is, in less than two months, STC would send me a text containing my latest bill amounting to more than worth of 2-month consumption, which when you do the math is utterly excessive and questionable. I'm sure about it because I keep track of the time gap between the first and latest text messages they send me. I am also prompt in paying up the bill so there's no reason it would be that astronomical. Though I'm a bit worried, we are two people sharing the  bill so it does not bother me that much.

There was hardly a fuss the past two years over billing schemes I call it, but the past couple of weeks we were shocked one morning when our internet connection had already been cut. There's no way they did it for non-payment because the bill was still zero when I called 906. They had not yet sent the latest bill through text, for me to be punished for not paying up promptly. So when I called up 906, I was told to settle my bill first worth 587sr, for which I was totally unaware of. I am sure I paid the last bill 3 weeks before, so why slap me with another bill for another worth of over two months unconsumed subscription? Is it for real? Have the leeches already mutated into human form, that their bloated bellies extend to the deepest pockets of the hapless expatriates handicapped by their inability to speak the local language?

At any rate, you stand to lose the battle if you think you have every right to scream out injustice. You are at the mercies of these gentle scammers. Without much ado, and blood shooting up, we trooped to the nearest bank and  paid 600sr, 13sr more than the bloodsuckers wanted from us. Yet the agony did not end there. Another yet agonizing episode of pleading to the rogue 906 agent to restore the connection for which it took forever. And one final decision I thought could appease me as my patience completely dried out. Enough of the bloodsucking incompetent rogue entities creating havoc to their willing yet reluctant victims. But before I could brag about the bank invoice I'm waving stipulating a supposed gift of 13sr to further advance their avarice, I was slapped again with a disconnection fee of 300sr after opting to cancel my subscription for good. Shocked in horror of a glaring daylight robbery, still we painfully complied to get STC out of our system.

The Mobily, as their slogan shouts, is reputed to have one of the best GSM technologies in the world. Hmmm. Sounds the answer to our ordeal from our oppressor. Finally there comes a better option.

Leaving no doubts in our mind, we tried to purge ourselves of the skeptics in us as we concurred this could be it. The main office on Tahliya Street looks impressive and orderly, more spacious and in a sense world-class. But think again before you actually hit the first step. As we approached the dispensing machine to take our number, a Saudi staff leaning on the machine, with both hands perched on top of it interrupted us and said "What, what, what?" in a rude manner. Obviously he does not speak  English and that's all  he could muster to  assert his authority. We could have understood him but the stare and manner has racial undertone. If he wanted to inquire of our purpose we could have communicated well with him. But whether you agree or not, obviously there's a horrific double-standard going on here. We could have ranted at him and gave him some lectures about proper conduct in public let alone to a customer, rather we opted to zip our mouths and convinced ourselves of him being an imposing lump of blubber privileged to be called a citizen of this country. 

At the sales desk minutes after our number was called out, the staff seemed oblivious of our presence as he  smilingly continues romancing his cellphone despite my barking at him "good afternoon". Even as we double-checked our appearance, whether we looked like stupid and tattered to convince him that we might have landed in a wrong place, I still cannot comprehend why he appeared to be lethargic and too lazy to talk, except if he had shown some signs of a previous night's bout with diarrhea. The caveman emerged finally, caught up in a situation where he had no choice but to face a waiting client. And if I did not start the conversation, he would have not known that we actually wanted to buy their product. So cold and rude, but quick to grab the 500sr note from my hand as payment for a broadband package we were buying. There was no chance to inquire about the product as he obviously was not interested in queries but the cash piling up in his drawer. Except that he nodded his head when I inquired if it is easy to install.

After the modem got rebooted and configured at their Technical Support counter, we were convinced that our patience paid off. We were advised however that it will take 24 to 36 hours before we could be connected to the internet, to our astonishment. When 36 hours became 5 days and after countless calls to their customer care agents in India even at midnight, the problem remained unresolved. No internet because the network coverage was so poor even though we are located at the heart of the civilization. I wonder how they could brag about their world-class technologies despite the evidence of a long queue of customers, either returning their modems for refund or  re-configuring them endlessly to no avail, when the problem is actually the weak coverage especially if your location is at the ground floor of your building.

The madness just would not end as I almost hit the rope. If I went to return the modem it would be as if I gifted them an early Ramadan present as I wouldn't be taking my money back because refund will only be given within 24 hours from the date of purchase. Though they will eloquently educate you of their 24-hour return policy, they will also shamelessly announce to your face that you will get your connection after a period of 24-36 hours which in my case reached up to seven days still without connection. 

Luckily for us, somebody in my area who happens to live on a rooftop bought that piece of crap named Mobily broadband modem but for a much lower price. This is just basics. The glaring misinformation and unprofessional staff all the more aggravated to the headache of those who returned their modems. Not only  twelve or thirteen of us that morning complained, there were many, mostly furious. I mean if this scenario occurs everyday, did it not dawn on them that customers feel cheated and dissatisfied?

If the Mobily people were only keen and professional enough to advise prospective customers that their broadband services only cater to those living close to the skies, there would have been no problems like this. But of course, not every dissatisfied customer will have the balls to confront the scammers, some would actually opt to throw the shit-ly modems away than wasting precious time waiting their numbers to be called out only to confront the staff and get hypertensive. They would however appease you by sending you an SMS informing you that your complaint will be taken cared of within 24 hours yet again - an SOP invariably used to shun an upset customer away.

With the juggernaut stature that they are, both STC and Mobily don't have to fret about the enormous complaints from customers reaching their tables.  If you think their bad services can cause a customer backlash, think again, these humongous Telecom companies in Saudi Arabia have the stranglehold of virtually the entire telecommunication business in the kingdom. And if you think you cannot live another day without checking the notifications in your facebook, then you have to swallow sheepishly the harsh reality confronting your sanity - accept that applying for internet connection is a process fraught with anxiety - re you're being cheated on your bills and on the services you are buying, and making your case means putting on an armor of virtues when dealing with a bunch of slackers that feel pestered when a 'second-class' human being approaches their table.

Truth be told, whining over institutionalized garbage brings no impact or benefit, I should understand by then. This is Saudi Arabia, I should know. And if you happen to come across a slogan from a 'reputed' firm that says they have conquered the world by their technologies, think again, for there is more to it than meets the eye. Or better yet, live with it if you have no choice. Guess what? I do!

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Silay City, Negros Occidental, The Philippines

Some of the photos above courtesy of Arnaldo Arnáiz Díaz

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