Migrant Tales - Kwento ni NB (Dead Man Walking)
Dead Man Walking
[ Note from Your Loyal Batchmate / Schoolmate / Kabayan : could've written this sooner, but there would've been no happy ending. ]
For the second time in 16 months, I was Dead Man Walking.
Apologies for the drama, but for all intents and purposes, I no longer belong among the people I walk, for the simple purpose that I had lost my right to stay in The Land of Milk & Honey. ( Not any particular place, actually, just any environment where your desired future becomes more distinct and reachable. )
* * * * *
A DEPRESSION cum recession is never so treacherous as when an incumbent or sitting government defends itself for it, or looks around for excuses and scapegoats to deflect attention from itself.
As you may guess, migrants and and temporary workers are an easy target, once the local populace looks for the usual suspects for their lack of disposable income.
Just as a First World country welcomes its migrants, expats and seasonal workers in times of plenty ( as productive additions to its evolving workforce ), it sees them in hard times as pabigat, liability & usurpers of their natural resources. Namely, their right to the life to which they are accustomed, viz comfy homes, a pair of cars, and sturdy paychecks.
By way of explanation. . .
Like many citizens of the Third World, we set up camp via the time-tested and honored manner: the back door. This was the visit / tourist visa, then found a reason for overstaying legally. In my case, a helpful brother who'd been here the last 14 years produced for us the precious job offer that produced a work permit.
Welcome Noel, you accidental migrant you !
Unluckily, my employer ran into hard times as well and went bankrupt a few months into our new job. Redemption came in the form of another company looking for someone to train from the ground up, no skills necessary, just someone willing to learn, take instructions without question, and work for minimum wage.
Not that I had much choice, and it sounded good to me.
Well, stranger things have been known to happen, but the job kept us from leaving here. We learned the ropes, improved our work ethic, and allowed us to send home much needed foreign exchange in the meantime.
We were also able to start the first of a series of qualifying exams that would certify us in our trade, assuming we passed of course.
Eerily, early this year, the country began to suffer from one of its worst unemployment droughts in history, no doubt an aftershock produced by the worldwide economic downturn. Also, various industries the country relied on were taking a turn for the worse, the dairy industry not being the least .
The media wasn't much help, either. Headlines like Nine Filipinos Retained in New Plymouth While Locals Made Redundant were both race-insensitive and inaccurate, and only served to unfairly cast us in a (more) negative light. Was it our fault if we reported to work unfailingly, on time and volunteered for overtime work whenever? Sure, it made them (everyone else) look bad, but hey, don't know bout you, but I could certainly use the extra money. On the other hand, locals never thought twice about taking time off, weren't always tardy but sometimes cut it close when giving notice they were coming late, and were always on the lookout for a better job. Didn't look very good against the spectrometer of job loyalty.
Too, the usual 45 working day lead time for applying for a new work permit / visa no longer applied, not only because there were lots and lots more refugees reaching the gates of the palace, but also because each application was being scrutinized as new, never mind that you'd been working here a year or more, back to zero lahat. The waiting time to clear your papers now stretched to three, maybe four agonizing months.
I didn't want to rush the ops manager into producing an endorsement letter and supplementary form (where the employer provides additional information about your work details, something you can't furnish without being self serving) as he was presiding over, in no sequential order : potential redundancies , major repairs (the machinery was reliable but needed constant maintenance), visitors from the main office (we were sort of in the boondocks) and swiping business away from competitors. A work permit renewal, I thought, didn't rank high on a list like that, but I reminded him just the same. I couldn't blame him if the letter, a pro forma one actually, wasn't prepared till around two weeks later, but it was two weeks that was lost forever.
Then came the long wait. A total of five weeks passed before we were told, in a phone conversation ritual we held daily (Please, has my case been allocated to a case officer? Well, may I know when it will?) that Client Number 27948091 (that's me) had been assigned to an Immigration Officer, whose name I was familiar with, that person having handled a few Filipino applications here.
The ritual, however, didn't stop, in fact in only became more purposeful and frenetic as I was not only chasing a deadline ( I committed to attend my folks' 50th wedding anniv June ), I also didn't want a gap between the expiry of my old permit, and the issuance (if I was lucky) of a new one.
Turned out that that was the LEAST of my problems.
I would have found out later rather than sooner (by mail), but my persistence brought me the needed information first hand:
In light of the current (economic) situation, and the fact that your position doesn't meet the minimum Skill Level 6, I honestly feel your job should be given to a (local) citizen, and therefore I cannot issue you the work permit you seek.
In those few words, as I said, I became Dead Man Walking. Frankly, throughout the 11+ months I was bundying in and out, I hardly gave a thought to working anywhere else, at the same time I hadn't been able to save a cent. The case officer's words came out in slo-mo, like an audio tape slowing down. I was hearing them, but belief was temporarily suspended. Life as I currently knew it was over.
She said that of course, I could still appeal or ask for a reconsideration, but not only was the issue pretty cut-and-dried, lots of Filipinos being in the same boat, there was also the trip back home, for which I hadn't been able to save. I should start worrying about that daw.
At this point, I must admit that from time to time, especially during my first long wait for a work permit, I took on casual jobs that were in the gray area of semi-legal, to keep body and soul together. Working in the same environment wasn't anything new for me, but for how long could I do the same?
First, I planned what I would do when I got home, where the prospects weren't many : my last jobs were in a law firm, a multi-national and finally a call center, where the dead end moods associated with the job / s became deader and deader. For my colleagues, mostly career lifers (in the first two gigs) and people half my age (in the last, who called me dad and tatay ) who were just happy with a job, the situation / s was OK, but for me, 40something and no easily marketable skills, how could you stay perky? Being an accidental migrant was the thing that saved me from an even more uncertain retirement, but obviously I didn't realize how lucky I was to stay here.
And now I was being asked to leave.
Back to the casual and semi-legal, I subscribed to the view that there is honor in hard work, and I joined the ranks of the day-to-day conscripts while waiting for good news from the case officer. Chinese takeaway, fruit stalls, weekend markets, whose exact locations will remain a secret forever locked away in my heart, were my sometime employers practical enough to take in manpower at a sidelong glance at my gaunt desperation, and Asian enough to look the other way when time came to ask for (any) documentation. We do after all come from the same continent, Comrade ? Hard-earned cash at day's end, no questions asked, just stay scarce when anyone gets too nosy.
A lifejacket came a few days later (although at the time we didn't know it yet) in the form of a brief email from our main office HR Advisor, who asked us: didn't you know that your item (position) has always been Skill Level 6, anywhere on either state (the skill level assessment scheme binds two countries) ? And why didn't u cite in your form that you took the first 2 exams of the Certification Course?
But I hadn't passed them yet, I feebly protested.
Well, start acting like you have! And winked at me she did, electronically of course.
It was too late by then, sadly. The manager of our out-of-the-way post had no choice but to cut me loose, as my Wapa (what a Kapampangan friend called his Work Permit) had finally expired. He had already cut me some slack by way of "neglecting" to attend to office matters the first 72 hours, but the risk was, like an infected boil, accumulating more pus by the day : a hefty fine, and censure on the firm (if I was discovered) hung above all our heads like Damocles' Sword.
With a heavy heart, I left midday with my knapsack carrying my safety gear, hi-viz jacket and workboots out of the factory, probably for the last time. Sad smiles and words of encouragement (we'll be waitin' for ya mate) was my sparse menu for the day, as I had little appetite to see what lay ahead.
But feeling sorry for myself were not items on my forced agenda, as I had an urgent email to write to the immigration officer. I had the required Skill Level, and (wink-wink) sat the exams on my way to certification. Wala pa lang nga results, though it was a real start.
** ** ** **
12 HOURS before the 6th of June (the olds' anniversary), when I had officially reached Day 8 of becoming a McDonalds bum, the e-mail came.
"Please collect your passport here asap Noel, as I am issuing a work permit and you will need a work visa if you want to go home soon? "
OMG. From down-in-the-dumps with aimless wanderings scheduled for the day, I instantly morphed into a Tasmanian devil with a jillion-and-one things to do without a clue on what to do first.
But what had just transpired?
The case officer obviously had on her own reconsidered, owing to the sterling advice our HR person had offered and the fact that I had already embarked on steps to qualify myself towards certification.
Just as obviously, me awa pa rin ang Diyos as she could've have just thrown my paper in the rubbish bin and consigned my fate to those of scores and scores of other nameless migrants sent back home as it was of course the politically expedient thing to do.
Just to show that not every bureaucrat was of the cold-hearted, clinical type, she told me :
It's not the easiest thing to do, take away a person's job as this sometimes has the effect of changing the lives of many more people back home (Top 10 Understatements for 2009 yan, Ate ! ) But all factors considered, and admitting that it is not that easy to train someone for a semi-skilled job like yours, and hoping that you will continue to work towards certification, consider yourself welcomed back to our country.
If I could kiss a government officer over - the - counter, I would have, just that protocol might not allow it.
** ** ** **
6 hours later, after last-minute confirmations, rushed goodbyes and listings of pabilin, I was sleeping on plastic benches in the cavernous waiting area of the airport, which, if you can believe it, was closed (as in doors locked and windows shuttered) between 11 pm and 4 am... not enough flights to keep it open ( I told you it was a small town ) . I was on my way to join 4 bros, 3 kids, and 4 nieces and nephews and catch the tail-end of my folks' 50th, which probably won't be celebrated in as grand a fashion till the 75th, a good quarter-century away.
From Dead Man Walking I was granted a reprieve, a new lease on Life if you may. Given all the sad news about recession related lay-offs, retrenchments, redundancies and closures of businesses, this was one scary tale that ended happily . At least for me, and not a local who might have, in his dreams , applied for my job.
Not for this makulit na Pinoy.
Thanks for giving me the time of day, everyone, and don't ever give up hope.
PostScript. Salamat sa Diyos, we passed the
first 2 exams. Kudos to Ross C, Rey G and Juanito C, and all
other compatriots who aced their exams with flying colors ! Mabuhay