Monday, February 7, 2011

Time ticks for OFWs in cash-strapped Saipan

SAN JOSE, Saipan – Time is ticking at a frantic pace toward November for most of Filipino workers here whose umbrella permits will expire by that time, unless they secure regular jobs or the US government grants them improved immigration status.

This November, the two-year umbrella permit which allows foreign nationals to work in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) will expire and foreign workers may thus be deported.

The umbrella permit scheme was aimed at cushioning the CNMI economy from the dire effects of the global economic crisis, following the repatriation of some 10,000 garments workers as factories started to fold since 2006.

To this day, the US territory’s economy continues to struggle.

Diego Gomez, 43, left his manpower agency business in the Philippines to work in the CNMI in 2004, only to find himself years later doing menial jobs like selling downloaded movies and music, selling fish by the roadside, cutting bush, and buying and selling used items.

This is a nightmare [for me]. Nung nasa Pilipinas pa ako, akala ko magandang magtrabaho sa abroad. Hindi pala. Pero ‘di ako basta-basta makakauwi kasi ‘di pa malaki ang naiipon ko para sa asawa at mga anak ko (When I was in the Philippines, I though it would be good to work abroad. It turns out I was wrong. But I cannot just go back because I have not yet saved enough for my family," Gomez told GMA News Online in an interview, as he was selling downloaded movies and music at a weekend flea market in the CNMI’s capital island of Saipan.

Collapse of garment industry

Gomez is just one of thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in the CNMI who have lost their regular jobs when this US territory’s economy began shrinking to its lowest level in decades with the collapse of the garment industry in 2009 and continued decline in tourist arrivals.

But many OFWs like Gomez, who do not have regular jobs or no jobs at all, have learned to thrive in a depressed economy, even if it means cleaning somebody else’s house or clearing gardens.

Napasubo na ako. Ayaw ko namang umuwi habang ‘di pa ako nakakaipon ng malaki-laki kaya titiisin ko na lang ang hirap dito. Kung magbibigay ang US Congress ng improved status para sa mga foreign workers, malaking bonus ‘yun para sa akin (I was left with no choice. I din’t want to go home just yet without having saved enough, so I’ll just have to endure the difficulties here. If the US Congress will grant foreign workers an improved status, that would be a big bonus for me)," he said.

Rudy Francisco, 51, has also been without a regular job in Saipan since 2006. He used to be a security guard.

Like many others, he makes money doing part-time jobs that include maintenance work, buying and selling household items, and unloading cargo from shipping containers.

Francisco, however, will likely have to leave the CNMI because of a pending case filed in a US court against his former employer over unpaid wages. He also has an umbrella permit which expires November 2011.

To date, he has yet to collect some $25,000 in back wages from his first employer that hired him from the Philippines in 1992.

He said if the CNMI or US government forces him to leave the CNMI when his umbrella permit expires, he will start a protest in front of the US Embassy in Manila until he is paid the money he work hard for in the past.

May utang sila sa akin na mga $25,000. Kapag nakuha ko ang pera na pinaghirapan ko, uuwi na ako (They owe me some $25,000. When I get the money I worked hard for, I will go home)," he said.

While many OFWs stayed in the CNMI, a considerable number have either gone back home or worked somewhere else like in the US mainland, Canada, or Dubai.

Worker population also shrinks

As the CNMI economy shrunk so did the foreign worker population — now less than 15,000 from a peak of some 40,000.

Most of the remaining foreign workers now in the CNMI are Filipinos — estimated at 10,000. Records from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas show there were some 17,500 Filipinos in the CNMI as of December 2009, including a little over 1,200 having permanent resident status. The rest are OFWs.

The territory’s gross revenue plunged from a peak of $2.6 billion in 1997 to a historic low of $1.552 billion in 2009.

Tourism, the only industry left in the CNMI, dropped from a record 736,117 tourist arrivals in 1996 to 353,956 visitors in 2009.

In 2005, garment factories which used to employ some 25,000 foreign workers mostly from China and the Philippines started closing one by one — the first ones going like thieves in the night, leaving thousands of workers stranded, wages unpaid, and without jobs.

To get by, some of the former garment workers worked the streets collecting soda cans to sell to recycling centers. Some of them were forced to work as household help.

Economy goes from bad to worse

Pinina Cambronel of Occidental Mindoro was among the thousands of foreign workers who lost their jobs in the garment industry.

Just like Cambronel, 48, those who remained in the CNMI after the garment industry died shifted to other jobs. But the economy had gone from bad to worse. One by one jobs even outside the garment industry started to fold.

Cambronel came to Saipan on Feb. 20, 1990 to sew for one of the biggest garment factories at the time. She sewed clothes for global brands such as Gap, Limited, Liz Claiborne, and Abercrombie & Fitch.

On Dec. 31, 2004, the World Trade Organization lifted the quota restrictions on garment products entering the United States, weakening the CNMI’s competitiveness because other countries like China, where wages are much lower, have also been afforded the same privileges.

When the second garment factory she worked for closed in 2007, Cambronel worked as a cook/helper at a small restaurant. Unfortunately, that restaurant closed in 2010. She had since accepted part-time jobs cleaning other people’s houses and selling used household stuff.

Kung di lang dahil sa anak ko, uuwi na ako sa Pilipinas. Pero 18 years old pa lang siya (If it were not for my son, I would have gone home to the Philippines. He’s only 18 years old)," Cambronel said.

Improved immigration status

She, like many foreigners in the CNMI, is waiting for an improved immigration status that the US Congress could give long-time foreign workers in the territory.

It is this reward for a decade of working in the CNMI that is forcing her family to live through rough times. She, her partner, and their son live in a one-room affair for $100 a month.

The US Department of the Interior, which oversees US territories, has recommended to the US Congress that status of foreign workers who have been legally in the CNMI for at least five years be reclassified under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Should the US Congress act on the recommendations, foreign workers could find themselves becoming a US citizen outright, or getting a permanent resident status or “green card" leading to citizenship, or a status similar to those granted to people of Freely Associated States (FAS). FAS citizens can freely live, work and study in the US and its territories.

CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan said there’s no telling when the US Congress will act on the Interior Department’s recommendation, if at all.

This early, the CNMI Senate plans to propose that the US Congress grant FAS status to eligible foreign workers.

Disenfranchising local workers

But CNMI Gov. Benigno Fitial is opposed to this, saying foreign workers were brought into the CNMI to work, not to get permanent immigration status.

He said once foreign workers are granted any improved status, local CNMI workers will be disenfranchised. He said he’s willing to extend the umbrella permits of foreign workers whose skills could not be matched by the local labor pool.

Leonila Hipolito, 58, said going back home to the Philippines could be much tougher than surviving in the CNMI.

Matanda na rin ako. Mahirap makahanap ng trabaho sa atin. Kakaumpisa ko lang uling magtrabaho (I’m old. It’s hard to find a job back home. I just got another job)," she said.

Hipolito came to Saipan in 1989 to sew for global brands. When the garment factory closed in 2005, she took on the job of a barbecue stand cook. Alas, even that barbecue stand was gobbled up by the territory’s sagging economy leaving her jobless.

She then tried part-time jobs cleaning other people’s house three days a week

With her husband able to hold on to his job, they were able to make ends meet.

She has one child in Saipan and five children in the Philippines, most of them are no longer minors and have their own jobs.

"Sana mabigyan ako ng status ng federal government para mas madaling makahanap ng trabaho (I hope I would be given a status by the federal government so it would be easier to find a job)," she said. — JMA/VS, GMANews.TV

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