Duterte's veto leaves thousands of BI workers scrambling for money
MANILA, Philippines – Twenty-seven-year-old Tony, not his real name, applied with the Bureau of Immigration (BI) in early 2016 for contractual secretarial work in one of the departments. He used to be a supervisor in Kuwait but wanted to stay in the Philippines for good.
"Siyempre mas gugustuhin ko nang sa Pilipinas na lang, kahit contractual, baka magkaroon din eventually ng opening (para sa permanent), kahit hindi ganun kalaki sa Kuwait, baka kaya," Tony told Rappler in a telephone interview. He requests that his identity be concealed for fear of losing his job amid the crisis that has shaken the bureau.
(Of course I preferred to just stay here in the Philippines even though it's a contractual job. I thought then that time will come that I will be regularized, so despite a smaller salary than what I received in Kuwait, maybe I could manage.)
Tony earned P25,000 a month in his job but since January this year, his salary has been slashed to half and he has not been getting it on time.
The last time he received his salary in full was in December, for the work rendered in November. He didn't get anything in December and January. In February, he received only P12,000 for work rendered in December, and the same amount this month for the work rendered in January.
"Humihiram muna ako ngayon sa mga kabarkada ko, sa mga katrabaho ko dati sa abroad (I borrow money from my friends, from my former colleagues abroad to get by)," Tony said.
Same goes for Sherwin, also not his real name, who has been with the BI for 5 years. His average income as a contractual worker was P21,000 a month, but the last salary he received belatedly for two paydays was only P10,000 each. Like Tony, he has not gotten his salary for February yet.
He has two children in the province and rents an apartment in Manila.
"'Yung upa ko this month asawa ko na ang nagbayad. Naiisip ko na po ngayon mag resign. Gagastos ako sa trabaho tapos wala na akong naibibigay sa asawa ko," Sherwin told Rappler.
(My wife had to pay for my rent this month. I'm now considering resigning because I spend to go to work but I can't give money to my wife.)
There are around 960 BI contractual workers, including Tony and Sherwin, who have had to suffer slashed salaries since December. But even regular employees are not spared.
Around 1,600 of the BI's regular workforce or 80% belong to salary grades 1 to 11, or those who earn from P6,000 to P13,000 monthly. Frontliners such as personnel in the headquarters' customer service desks and immigration officers in the airport belong to this group.
In 1988, when the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago was BI commissioner, she instituted a scheme to augment workers' salaries. She introduced the express lane service at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the profits from which became the source of funds that increased a worker's pay to up to P30,000 to P50,000 a month.
The augmentation came in the form of overtime pay and bonuses.
Because of Santiago's scheme, low salary grade workers received competitive pay and all was well until last December.
When President Rodrigo Duterte passed the 2017 national budget, he vetoed, among others, the provision which allowed the use of express lane charges to augment the salaries of BI personnel.
Duterte said then: "Without a separate substantive law as legal basis, the collected fees from the express lane charges should now be deposited as income to the General Fund."
It's because of this that the BI is struggling to pay its contractual workers, and the regular workers have had to go back to receiving only their basic pay.
Gregorio Sadiasa, head of the employees' union BUKLOD-CID, told Rappler that there is low morale in the bureau.
"Talagang super na-demoralize kami, para kaming mga...wala kaming mapagkukunan ng pambayad ng pang araw-araw. 'Yung mag-anak namin hindi na namin mapapapasok sa eskwelahan," Sadiasa said.
(We are really demoralized, we no longer have a source for our daily expenses. We cannot afford to send our children to school.)
BI Personnel Chief Grifton Medina confirmed to Rappler that there have been 26 resignations from January to March this year, compared to only 5 resignations in the same period last year.
But what is more alarming, Medina said, is the indication that there could be so many more to come.
"Ang alarming dun ay ang spike with those asking for certificate of employment (COE). Para mag apply sa iba, lalo kapag nakita nilang wala na talagang express (as source of funds)," Medina told Rappler in a phone interview.
(What's alarming is the spike in those asking for a certificate of employment (COE). The number has tripled – they are now applying for other jobs, more so if they see that we will not likely get the funds back from express lane charges.)
Medina said 177 workers have requested for their COEs.
As of February, 1,759 workers have also filed for sick leaves.
"Bakit biglang nagsi-sick leave? 'Yung iba dahil wala na ngang pamasahe, kung meron kang family at P13,000 na lang ang take home mo at umuupa ka, the only remedy nila is to file a sick leave," Medina said.
(They are suddenly filing for sick leaves because they can no longer afford to commute to work. If you have a family and you're only taking home P13,000 and you have to pay rent, you really don't have any choice than take a sick leave.)
Last February, immigration officers (IOs) stationed at the airport began skipping work, with as many as 15 absences in one day which resulted in long lines at NAIA.
In an earlier interview, BI spokesperson Antonette Mangrobang said that since March, the number of absences have been "within regular operational limits."
"Ang term natin kinakaya, minamanage namin, humahaba lang 'yung pila. Manageable pa rin naman, kasi inencourage na 'yung mga IO, pumunta pa si Commissioner (Jaime Morente) sa airport para sabihing maging pasensyoso muna," Medina said.
(We're getting by, we're trying to manage it, the lines get long sometimes but it's manageable. We are encouraging our IOs, even Commissioner Jaime Morente went to the airport to ask for their patience.)
"Natural iiwan nila 'yung trabaho kasi napaka risky nung trabaho namin, hazardous siya, may mga shifting pa kami sa gabi," Medina said, recalling an incident some years back when an immigration officer tried to bar from boarding a plane an individual who was on the immigration lookout bulletin.
(Of course they would leave the job because it's so risky, it's a hazardous job especially that we have night shifts.)
The lookout bulletin is tricky business. A lookout order requires IOs to monitor the movement of individuals on the list and alert authorities when they leave the country. Technically, IOs cannot stop anyone on the list from leaving.
But much is left to the IO's discretion especially when the individual is high-profile, as in the case of Wally Sombero, a key witness in the controversial bribery scandal involving high-ranking BI officials. Senator Richard Gordon grilled the BI then for easily allowing Sombero to leave the country.
According to Medina, the individual who was apprehended by an IO years back filed a P20-million lawsuit.
"Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Madedemanda ka ng 20 million and [for] what? For P13,000? Hindi siya commensurate," Medina said.
(Damned if you do, damned if you don't. You get slapped with a P20 million lawsuit and for what? For P13,000? It's not commensurate.)
"Ang dami na nga nung demand ng work, lapitin pa kami ng reklamo. Ako minsan wala akong kapalitan kaya ako hindi na ako lumalabas para kumain, kumakain na ako sa desk ko pero magrereklamo na dapat walang noon break. Pero paano naman po 'yun di ba)," Sherwin said.
(Ours is a very demanding job, and we are prone to complaints. Sometimes I am left alone to man my desk that I cannot go outside to have my lunch, so I take my lunch to my desk but customers complain that there shouldn't be a noon break. But how can I eat?)
What's being done?
Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente issued an internal memorandum to his employees assuring them of the actions being taken to address the problem.
"The Secretary of Justice and the Commissioner have been exerting all legal remedy for the restoration of OT pay from the express lane funds in coordination with the DBM (Department of Budget and Management). Up until the issue will be ruled on with finality, only then will we rest the case. For the meantime, I encourage everyone to focus on our job and be patient," Morente wrote in his memo.
The workers' union has sent a letter appealing to Duterte.
Part of that letter read: "Our dear President, without your help about 1,000 of us or 40% of our workforce will automatically lose our jobs and will join the unemployed sector of our country. With a very meager pay, the rest of us will wallow in poverty."
The union added: "Our airports, border crossing stations in the south, field offices and subports nationwide will be undermanned, or worse, unmanned....Because of these dangerous consequences, our national security might be compromised."
Response from executive
Before Rappler interviewed him on Friday night, March 18, Medina was in a meeting with officials from the DBM, still discussing possible remedies to the crisis.
"Walang latest, ang nangyari lang is the usual, na hinihintay pa rin namin 'yung final solution from the Office of the President (OP)," Medina said.
(No update yet, what happened in the meeting was just the usual, that we're still waiting for a final solution from the Office of the President.)
Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno told Rappler in a text message that they are doing everything they can in the meantime.
"As I said there is an appropriation in the 2017 budget for the overtime pay of BI personnel. We have assured them as early as January 2017 that we will act on all requests, within one week, for creation of positions for purposes of regularizing COS (contract of service) and JO (job order) personnel subject to compliance with existing Civil Service requirements," Diokno said.
Diokno was referring to the upgrade of confidential agents to COS and JO. Tony and Sherwin used to be confidential agents who are now COS and JO, but as they have narrated, it has not solved their financial problems.
As for the new overtime pay for regular workers, Medina said it is still insufficient because the provision states that the fee must not exceed 50% of the worker's monthly salary.
Erickson Balmes, Justice Undersecretary for Immigration, told Rappler that several meetings are being held with officials from the Department of Budget and Management, BI, and OP to come up with a "win-win" arrangement. BI is under the Department of Justice (DOJ).
"We are doing our best to help our BI employees. Be that as it may, we will support the President's final decision on this matter," Balmes said.
New law needed
Medina said that their present crisis only highlights the need for an update in the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940.
"Ang mga attorney namin na salary grade 16 ang basic pay ay P24,000. Ang luma na kasi ng batas namin, dapat may modernization, pero habang wala pa sana may transition," Medina said.
(Our lawyers in salary grade 16 are only earning a basic pay of P24,000. Our law is so outdated, there ought to be a modernization law, but while there is none, at least there should be a transition.)
The proposed Philippine Immigration Act of 2013 is still pending in Congress.
In the meantime, the BI has provided a shuttle service for its employees to help with commuting expenses. The workers' union has also instituted a loaning system to provide financial assistance to the workers.
Tony and Sherwin continue to report for work because they remain optimistic in the government.
"'Di ba sabi pa nga ni President Duterte wala nang contractual (Didn't President Duterte promise there would be no more contractual workers)?" Tony said. (READ: 'Legal' contractualization still allowed in new DOLE order)
Tony said he is getting by but is worried for further expenses as he is sending his younger sibling to college. He said that if left with no choice, he might just go back abroad.
"Nasasayangan ako sa opportunity ko sa abroad kasi pinalagpas ko. Kasi iniisip ko pangmatagalan na ito dapat eh hindi ko na kailangang mangibang bansa. Pero ngayon nasasabi kong kung alam ko lang sana bumalik na lang sana ako," Tony said.
(I let a good overseas opportunity pass, because I hoped that this job would be long term, that I no longer have to leave my country. But with what's happening, I'm thinking I should have really just left.) – with reports from Camille Elemia / Rappler.com