Travails of an OFW (Part 1)
By ACC Delen
I am writing this while in a quarantine facility in Shanghai, China. Before images of sparsely furnished rooms painted with institutional grey and windows protected by thick iron rods start crowding your mind, let me stop you right there. I am currently ensconced in a relatively new hotel that’s twice the size of condominium units being sold in the Philippines. It’s furnished with a very comfortable king sized bed, an Ikea inspired study table that doubles as both dining and work table came with a lavander upholstered chair, a Nordic style bench to one side, and finally, right in the middle of one wall is a flat screen T.V that any sports bar would be happy to have. So, I’m lucky. Right? Well…yes and no.
For one, I literally had to go through the eye of a needle to get here. As an Overseas Filipino Worker who has spent more than a decade living and working abroad, I’ve already created a life outside of the country. It was a life that was not only interrupted but was in danger of disappearing like a puff of smoke due to the pandemic. My two-week holiday back in January turned into almost 8 months, when China closed its borders in late March. It was a move that left hundreds of OFWs like myself stranded in the Philippines, many of whom with no income, dwindling savings, and mounting expenses.
You could thus imagine my relief at going back and picking up the pieces of my life and to some extent, beginning anew. But, if I thought that getting my visa and undergoing two CoVid-19 swab tests even before I saw the doors of Terminal 1 at Ninoy Aquino International Airport were the hardest parts of this journey, I was woefully mistaken because…
The Man at Counter 23/24
He’s a small, older man, lean and dark skinned. His uniform hung loosely on his thin frame. He was not physically intimidating in any shape or form but behind the glass cage of counter 23/24, he held the power to hold someone back or at least make them feel nervous despite themselves. I know, because that was how he made me feel on the night of September 11, 2020.
On that fateful night, I was on my way back to Shanghai on one of the few flights going to China. I was already nervous as it is because of the stringent requirements for flying out of the country. One has to present a negative CoVid-19 swab test result together with a certified health declaration form from the Chinese Embassy, all within 72 hours of your scheduled flight. Considering the number of tests being done as well as applicants for certification, there is no guarantee of being able to do all of these within the given time frame. On top of it all, flight tickets literally cost an arm and a leg. It is therefore not hard to imagine the stress I was under, even before the appointed flight date.
So there I was, mentally and physically exhausted, presenting my boarding pass, passport with my visa on it, as well as my Overseas Employment Contract exemption which in reality are the only ones necessary at that point, when this man in counter 23/24 started asking questions as to whether I am going back to the same employer and looking for my employment contract when in fact, I had already furnished him with documents that clearly stated that I was employed by the same company and is going back to the same employer.
I would like to think he was just doing his job but his condescending tone and refusal to listen to my explanations made me suspect something. This is a power trip!
Letting me cool my heels as he looked for something on his computer while scribbling on a piece of paper, he made me go back to the POEA counter where I already was given a certification to get another document stating that I have an OEC exemption. Suppressing my frustration, I went back and was assisted by the POEA personnel. I was walking back to counter 23/24 when the small man suddenly appeared at my elbow, directing me to the now empty counter 23/24 when I could have gone to other manned counters that were not serving passengers. Was he perhaps afraid that I would go to another counter? I don’t know.
So this man goes back into his cubicle and resumes asking me the same questions about my employment status. All this time, he had the documents provided by my employer to show that I am indeed an employee of the said company…THE SAME documents that were submitted to the Chinese Embassy…THE VERY SAME documents that I was granted a visa for! In the meantime, my co-worker who has the same set of documents and visa as I, already passed immigration and was patiently waiting for me beyond the x-ray machines.
Finally, the man from counter 23/24 stands up dramatically then tells me he has to pass me over to someone to be interviewed, stressing that the decision is out of his hands and that his shift would soon end. I looked at him straight in the eyes and said, “No problem.” Upon which he got my boarding pass and led me to the side where I was given a form to accomplish. As I was filling up the form, I could hear him talking to the immigration officer assigned to interview me. I could clearly hear the latter stating, “She has an OEC so what is the problem?” To which the man from counter 23/24 insisted that I did not have an employment contract authenticated by the Philippine Embassy.
IF I was a newly hired employee, then yes, an authenticated employment contract is necessary. However, I am not! I have been with the same employer since 2015! I gritted my teeth to prevent myself from interrupting.
The man from counter 23/24 then came back to me and told me I will be interviewed and that again, he is ending his shift. I just nodded then watched him walk away, stopping to talk to a younger man who has just taken over his counter. Despite my anxiety, I was so glad to see the back of him!
Come interview time, the interviewer asked why I had an M (business) visa. When I explained that with the uncertainty of the border opening in China, the embassy has granted longer visas for returning employees so that there will be more time to work out residence permits once we get back to the Middle Kingdom, he simply wrote something on a piece of paper that the POEA counter had to accomplish one last time. Apparently, my OEC exemption did not show up on his computer. Once done, the interviewer personally escorted me to one of the counters to get my boarding pass then made sure I got through to the waiting area. Everything was a blur. Only when I was 35,000 feet above Philippine air space was I able to breathe a sigh of relief.
So why am I writing this narrative? For only one simple reason…as a warning that despite the touted improvements in the Philippine Immigration Department, there still are some people who haven’t gotten the memo like the man from counter 23/24.
Again, I’d like to think that he was doing his job and being vigilant. Yet, why did he have to keep repeating that his shift is about to finish…that once handed over to the interviewing officer, the situation is out of his hands? WHY??? Was he angling for something? I certainly would not like to think so. However, with the documents I have presented that clearly showed that I am employed by the same employer, documents that passed the strict scrutiny of the country that was my ultimate destination, he still insisted on asking for a document that is redundant considering the situation. What am I to think? In fact, why did he follow me after asking me to go to another counter for another certification?
1001 questions continue to dog me even after this event on September 11. I’ve escaped the clutches of this man with the help of another who clearly has more common sense and no hidden agenda. Who’s to say the next person would be as fortunate? Again, this is not to say that the personnel at NAIA Terminal 1 could not be trusted. Far from it. EXCEPT for the small, dark man who’s I’D I can’t even recognize as he kept moving it about, everyone was helpful. Nevertheless, it is my fervent hope that things would REALLY improve. Not only with personnel but with the system as a whole.
After all, the fact remains that the biggest export of the Philippines is its Overseas Filipino Workers and that a huge chunk of the government’s revenue come from remittances from OFWs like myself. So why make life any more difficult for us?**