Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cruising with OFWs

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

I used to think that the thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were seamen worked mostly on cargo ships. But some years back when I went on a Mediterranean cruise with friends, I realized that these luxury vessels that offered fun, relaxation and cultural experiences sailed on the sweat of our OFWs.

For almost two weeks now, OFWs have been in the news after the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground and keeled over off the coast of Italy on Jan. 13. The ship carried 4,229 tourists from different countries and hundreds of crew members, 229 of them Filipinos, both men and women.

As of last count the number of dead and missing was less than 40, none of them Filipino. The Filipino crew’s courage and dedication will long live in the memory of many survivors whom our OFWs assisted during those terrifying times.

This happening made me recall my own personal experiences with OFWs aboard a cruise ship. I thought that trip was going to be pure relaxation for me but when I saw the countless Filipinos who worked on the ship, I donned my journalist’s hat in between land tours and fun activities on board. I interviewed dozens of OFWs as well as the ship’s officers. Months later, the maiden issue of the Inquirer’s Global Nation section ran my story and photos.

Our OFWs indeed ruled the roost in that cruise ship because of their sheer number and also because of their skills, talent, dependability and graciousness. I was told that Filipinos comprised about 60 percent of the 853-strong crew.

From boiler room to ballroom, from stage to spa, from poolside to pantry, from bar to fine dining. From the belly of the luxury ship to the topmost deck where one could see forever and behold the azure sea and sky of the Mediterranean.

I don’t know if the figures have changed, but in 2005 $1.7 billion of the total $10.8 billion remitted by OFWs came from sea-based OFWs. The number of Filipino seafarers working abroad then was about 250,000 or approximately 20 percent of the world’s total.

The rise in the number of Filipino seamen could be attributed to the inclusion of the Philippines in the International Maritime Organization’s “White List” of 72 accredited countries. Being on the list meant a country continuously complied with the standards required of seamen.

A good number of our sea-based OFWs work on cruise ships. These luxury liners cater to vacation-bound, fun-loving, adventure-seeking humans who work hard and play hard, or who just want to be out of reach and listen to the music of the ocean.

Our ship sailed from Barcelona and back and stopped in several key places on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The OFWs working on board were there to help make good things happen. The job is demanding as cruises involve service, hospitality, food, fun, travel, safety and, most of all, people.

I met and interviewed chefs, food servers, spa attendants, bartenders, violinists, guitarists, singers, band members, photographers, engineers. They spoke about their work, earnings and dreams for their families. Eager to please, they even offered to cook for us Filipino dishes not on the menu. They served them to us in the formal dining hall while other nationals cast curious looks on our table.

Homesick as they were, the Filipino crew kept abreast of happenings in the Philippines by printing a daily news digest culled from the Web.

From some of them I did get to know details about the case of a passenger (one of a honeymooning couple) who vanished into the sea while we were sleeping. I fancied myself as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote.” Was it suicide, murder or an accident? (Several years later, when the case was featured on the “Oprah” show, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “I was there when it happened!”)

The American cruise director had only good words for the Filipinos. “They are so talented and they learn very quickly,” he said. “They’re great workers.”

The debonair Greek ship captain, a seasoned sea voyager for 33 years, told me that he had been working with Filipinos since the 1980s. He said: “They get along well with other nationalities. They are very educated and they are a happy lot.”

Whether it was instructing on wine tasting, giving beauty massages, serving at formal dinners, making omelets at the breakfast buffet, playing music, snapping photos amid the Greek ruins, ensuring security and swiping cards at entry and exit points, disposing of garbage or keeping staterooms clean, Filipino seamen and women were doing their best. I thought, why not a Filipino guest chaplain or even a morgue attendant?

The least seen but perhaps the most important because they made the ship sail the distances were those who worked in the belly of the ship or the engine room. Our lives were in their hands. I was allowed to descend to the hard hat area where I met some of the Filipino engineers who were a cheerful lot.

Life for the OFWs on board these cruise ships is surely not problem-free, as life anywhere is not. Are the OFWs on these so-called floating four-star, five-star hotels better off than those in cargo ships and oil tankers? What lies beyond those glittering nights and sunny days at sea? What awaits them in their homeland?

A question I couldn’t help asking: Don’t they feel resentful when they see food and drink flowing endlessly, people having so much fun and spending money for this kind of voyage, while they, the OFWs, work hard to keep these tourists thrilled? And while they pine for home?

“Oh no,” said a food server without a tinge of resentment. “Many of these passengers have worked hard, too. And because of them we have our jobs. Someday we, too, could enjoy something like this.” #

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pestano appeared to healing priest

The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Jan. 12 banner story: “Pestaño case not suicide but murder” (by Lelia B. Salaverria). The lead paragraph: “Agreeing with the parents of Navy Ensign Philip Pestaño that he did not kill himself 16 years ago, the Office of the Ombudsman reversed itself and filed murder charges against 10 Navy officers in the Sandiganbayan yesterday and ordered their dismissal for grave misconduct….

“The 24-year-old Pestaño was found dead in his cabin aboard the BRP Bacolod City on Sept. 27, 1995, shortly before the ship was to dock at the Philippine Navy headquarters in Manila. He had a bullet wound in the head.”

In 1995 I was assigned to explore the suicide angle while another reporter was to do the murder angle. I remember then Navy Capt. Alex Pama (now Navy commodore) come to the Inquirer to explain why it was suicide. After the story came out, a sister of Pestaño wrote to convince me to think otherwise even though the front page was quite balanced—two stories on two angles. I just happened to be assigned to do the suicide angle.
Fast forward 16 years later: For the Halloween issue of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, I wrote a long feature story (“He sees dead people and they confess to him,” November 2011) about Fr. Efren “Momoy” Borromeo of the Society of Our Lady of the Trinity and who is known as a “healing priest.” This was not your usual ghost story and Father Borromeo is not so ordinary. He has the God-given gift of healing the sick and seeing souls, usually at 3 a.m. He revealed that the souls of those who perished in the 2009 Ampatuan massacre had appeared to him. In 1995 Pestaño’s spirit had also come to tell him that he was murdered.
Father Borromeo is finishing his doctorate in cosmic anthropology and ably articulates his experiences in psycho-spiritual terms. Among the papers he shared with me were a collage of his eidetic insights and the account of lawyer Felipe Pestaño on his dead son’s meeting with the priest and the family’s pursuit for justice. Excerpts from “A Crime that Cries to Heaven”:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

PCIJ: Justices, Ombudsman, House defy SALN law

In one of the eight articles of impeachment against Chief Justice Renato Corona, the 188 members of the House of Representatives who signed the complaint censured him for refusing to disclose his statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN). But according to the records of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), in securing SALNs since 2006, “the sorry picture that emerges is one of rank non-compliance—or creative defiance of the law—not just by the justices of the Supreme Court from 1992, but also by the members of the 15th Congress, the executives of the constitutional commissions, the Office of the Vice President, and the star-rank officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, among others.”

The PCIJ’s latest report, written by executive director Malou Mangahas (with research and reporting by Karol Anne M. Ilagan), looks at patterns of non-compliance by public officials. Provisions in the Constitution and anti-graft laws require the full and prompt disclosure of their SALN.
Not that Corona should not be impeached. But members of the House, as the PCIJ report shows, could well be guilty of the same omission and culpable of violating the Constitution and anti-graft laws. A case of the pot calling the kettle black.
According to Mangahas, the PCIJ’s records from 2006 to December 2011 reveal a pattern of non-disclosure of SALNs by senior officials from all the branches of the government, except for the Senate. She gives due credit to the Senate which she describes as “most exemplary in its compliance with the law.” She adds that the Senate has consistently disclosed copies of the asset records of all its members over the last decades, including the asset records of those who will now sit as judges in Corona’s impeachment trial.

First on the PCIJ’s list of public officials who continue to defy the SALN law is Conchita Carpio-Morales, a retired associate justice whom President Aquino appointed ombudsman in July 2011. Writes Mangahas: “Her office has rebuffed an omnibus request that the PCIJ filed in September 2011 to secure the SALNs of officials that many agencies had denied since 2006.

“Carpio-Morales’ office to this day also insists on the rule that SALN requests have to be subscribed and sworn to before a prosecutor of the Ombudsman’s Office, according to a controversial memorandum circular issued by her impeached predecessor Merceditas Gutierrez.”

If failure or refusal to disclose one’s SALN is now an impeachable offense, then Carpio-Morales and a whole caboodle of government officials deserve not only censure but the boot. According to the PCIJ, 185 of the 188 members of the 15th Congress who filed the impeachment case against Corona have not disclosed their SALNs.

The PCIJ reports that thus far, only two of the 282 members of the 15th Congress have actually disclosed copies of their 2010 SALN upon request: Mohammed Hussein P. Pangandaman (Lanao del Sur) and Maximo B. Rodriguez Jr. (PL-Abante Mindanao). They are not among the 188 signatories to the impeachment complaint that the House submitted to the Senate impeachment court.

“Creative defiance” is how the PCIJ calls the way House members avoided RA 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials which requires public disclosure of SALNs. How creative? you ask. The House merely issued summaries of the House members’ net worth.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cities be warned, prepare

Local government officials, citizens’ groups and NGOs in four Philippine cities should thank the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines and BPI Foundation for undertaking research and publishing “Business Risk Assessment and the Management of Climate Change Impact.” It is subtitled “Vulnerability Assessment of Four Philippine Cities.”
The four cities are Baguio, Cebu, Davao and Iloilo. The words “risk” and “vulnerability” should turn the elected local officials of these cities into boy scouts and girl scouts (if they are not already) and make them swear by the motto “Be Prepared.” They should hit the ground running as early as now. But first, they should have the information.
Lazy local executives elsewhere who have seen the aftermath of Tropical Storm “Sendong” should be pressured to do some physical and mental aerobics by the riverbanks, lakeshores and mountain tops. Reading the WWF-BPI study is also a good start. The reading-challenged could practice some humility and seek explanations from the experts who are more than willing to share what they know, help them gather data and assess their vulnerability.

The WWF-BPI study begins with a national overview. It then takes on “an in-depth, city-specific view” and presents the methodology that was used, the scope of the assessment, analyses, scenario-building, adaptive capacity and integration and assessment. The study takes note of each city’s “socio-economic sensitivity”—its population, housing, source of income, educational facilities, businesses, water supply and even crime solution efficiency. It attempts “to look 30 years into the future” and encourages “out-of-the-box” thinking.

Here are excerpts from the WWF-BPI assessments per city. (You can ask for a soft copy of the study by sending an e-mail to kkp@wwf.org.ph.)

At barely 57 sq. km, Baguio City is the smallest and most densely populated city covered by this study. In the scoring process, it also emerged as the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. All historical records confirm that Baguio City has the highest rainfall in the country, and climate trends indicate that this is likely to get worse. From a climate point of view, the management of urbanization trends and watersheds as well as Baguio’s population growth will play roles in defining the continued viability of this city’s economy.