by Stella Ruth O. Gonzales, originally appeared here
I am now a full-fledged OFW. I share a common bond with thousands of overseas Filipino workers who had no choice but to get an exit clearance from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and, in the process, experienced what would possibly be one of our worst encounters with government bureaucracy.
I was told it was necessary to get a clearance because I already had a work visa stamped on my passport. Without the clearance, I was going to be stopped and questioned by airport immigration.
I did not care that the clearance would exempt me from the travel tax and the airport terminal fee. All I wanted was to be spared unnecessary stress at Philippine immigration on my flight out.
I had no idea that the process of getting this slip of paper—just a receipt actually of payment of one’s POEA, Owwa (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) and PhilHealth fees—would be an agonizing experience.
Or that it would take me three days.
I arrived at the POEA main office just before 6:30 a.m. I came prepared. I had all the necessary documents with me, including photocopies and extra ID pictures. I anticipated a line, but since it was still early I thought I would be able to finish most of the process in just two hours—despite the slow bureaucratic process.
I approached a guard to inquire where I should fall in line. He gave me a number and told me to come back the next day. No, I said, there must be a mistake, I’m here to just get a referral form for my medical exam and a schedule for the pre-orientation departure seminar (PDOS).
“Yes,” he said patiently as he pointed to about 120 people sitting on plastic chairs at the first-floor lobby. “Those people there were here last week and got their numbers last week. You will have to wait for your turn tomorrow.”
I asked if I could just go ahead and have a medical exam to save time. He said no, the staff on the second floor will give you a slip which you’re supposed to give to an accredited clinic. Are you sure? I persisted.
Yes, he was. And I would find out later that that, indeed, was the process. But it was a step that some applicants wisely chose to ignore anyway.
Excitement in the air
The next day, I was back at the POEA, still early. When I showed the guard my number, he asked me to sit on one of the chairs. You will be called later, I was told. It was almost 8 a.m. when our group was finally told to go upstairs. All the counters were closed. Of course, it was not yet 8 a.m. after all.
At 10 minutes past 8, one counter finally opened. You could sense excitement in the air. After about five more minutes, one staff member made an announcement. We were supposed to place our documents in one folder—and we could use those she left on top of the counter.
After several more minutes, the other counters started opening. But I would find out that this did not mean people would start working. That would take several minutes more.
The wait took forever. When it was finally my turn, I was asked for my contract. The first, and only, question the staff member asked me was: “Will your employer repatriate your remains if you die abroad? Do you understand what I mean by that?”
I wanted to pretend I was stupid; I wanted to ask her to explain what she meant.
Earlier, an applicant seated beside me in the waiting area told me the POEA requires employers to spend for the repatriation of the remains of their dead Filipino employee. If that is not specified in the contract, the POEA tells applicants to ask their employers to put an addendum and only then will their exit clearance applications be approved.
The applicant beside me said she had been returning to the POEA for several days because she had to add that in her contract.
Only one question
Still, it surprised me that it was the only question asked of me by the POEA staff. Here I was, employed by one of the world’s biggest news organizations with a very nice benefits package stated in the contract, yet the POEA could only concentrate on one thing: Will the Philippine government have to send my remains home?
Is there an epidemic abroad that I didn’t know of? Are OFWs dropping like flies that the main concern of the government is who will have to shoulder the cost of repatriating our remains?
After convincing the staff member that yes, repatriation is part of my contract, I was given a schedule for the seminar. But that could be done only on another day because, in my case, it was only held in the morning. Which meant I had to go back to the POEA office because the seminar for that day was already over.
In the meantime, I decided I should have my medical exam. I chose one near the POEA.
Shades of Divisoria
At the clinic, I was told that I had to pay P2,800. When I wavered—because they told me I could not get the results on the same day as I had wanted—the receptionist said, OK, I’ll give you a discount. I felt I was in Divisoria haggling over a shirt.
I decided to go to a clinic in Manila because it promised same-day results. I never expected a thorough medical checkup from these clinics, but at the very least I expected to be treated with dignity.
They took a blood sample from my arm, but the cotton they used was dry and did not have alcohol. I must have picked up some blood-transmitted disease as a result.
Searching for haemorrhoids
I was told to go inside a cubicle where a female physician was to give me a physical exam. She told me to lift my shirt and bra and then proceeded to press one—just one—finger on one—just one—part of my breast, yes, just one breast, and then she said: OK. Apparently I had no breast cancer.
She asked me to pull down my pants and underwear and to bend—and from a distance of about one meter, she looked to see whether I had hemorrhoids. How an OFW’s job could be affected by hemorrhoids, I will never know.
Then I was told to take a psychological test. The Philippines would not want to send insane people abroad, would they? It was an IQ test. A really difficult one. Something that took my coapplicants an hour to finish. Was everyone there going to work abroad as a scientist?
And then we were given another sheet of paper and told to write our answers to three questions—the answers were supposed to be at least five sentences. They wanted to know why we wanted to work abroad. Duh. They wanted to know the biggest accomplishment in our lives. What?
Surviving the ECG
It was almost 5 p.m. and I was getting anxious waiting for the results of the medical exam (or maybe I was worried I wouldn’t pass the essay exam because I did not say that I wanted to work abroad because I needed to earn more money).
Finally, the results came. But wait, they supposedly found something “irregular” in my ECG (electrocardiogram). I had to pay an additional P50 so I could have some papers notarized.
I wanted to scream but stopped myself lest they say I was crazy and should not be allowed to leave the Philippines. I have had about four ECGs in the past two years and had a Holter monitor attached to my body for 24 hours so my doctor could check for irregular heartbeat. She never found a problem, yet on this particular instance, the old ECG machine of the clinic spotted something unusual?
But, like a dutiful OFW, I did not speak up and just paid the P50 so I could just go home. With the P50, my final medical result had no indication of any irregularity in my ECG and I was cleared for work.
A free ordeal
I decided I needed a break from further aggravation and so I gave myself a few days before I went back to the POEA to process my application.
Three hours of my Day Three at the POEA was spent at the seminar. They boasted that it was a free seminar. Were they actually expecting us to pay for government service? I braced myself for what would surely be an hour of lecture on what the rights and duties are of OFWs.
What I was not prepared for were the additional talk at the start and end of the lecture—from representatives of a bank and a telecoms company who spoke about their products. It was like watching a Manny Pacquiao fight on free TV in the Philippines where you had no choice but to bear the commercials.
The seminar had some very important points that any OFW would benefit from. The lecturer told us not to act as drug mules and scared us with statistics about Filipinos abroad who were executed.
But he also wasted our time by discussing his trip to the province the previous weekend, and the beauty pageant on TV the previous night. “Who was your candidate?” he asked one of the OFWs. When she could not give a ready answer, he said: “I liked the first runner-up. I think she gave the best answer to the question.” Then he proceeded to tell us what the contestant’s answer was.
He was trying to liven up his lecture with stories, but everybody was pressed for time. Some of the applicants had to go to the Owwa office for additional requirements. But no one could leave without the precious PDOS certificate. We were trapped.
Value of timeM
The lecturer reminded us about how our employers abroad put a premium on time. “Time is gold,” said the lecturer, who arrived 15 minutes late, and ended his talk 20 minutes beyond the allocated time. So much for time being precious.
He also talked about how haughty many OFWs have become after working abroad. “They’re so arrogant when they come to the Philippines, but what is their job abroad? They just wipe other people’s behinds,” he told us. “They look down on us public servants and tell us that they pay for our salaries, as if we owe them something.”
I wanted to tell him that public servants do owe citizens something, and that is public service. But like other OFWs who did not want trouble, I kept silent.
Lunch break feature
When I was finally able to get my PDOS clearance, I ran to the POEA staff member who was going to take a look at my documents. It took more than an hour for them to check the contract (the same one they had previously checked), initial it and check their database whether my employer was on the blacklist.
I was told to have my fees assessed, but the entire staff were about to take their lunch break. When I tried to ask the female staff member at the counter whether it would be possible for her to spare a few minutes to assess my fees, she glared at me. Oh, sorry, the POEA staff must be very hungry.
The counters closed at exactly 12 p.m. They opened at 15 minutes past 1. Maybe they were followers of this guy who went to the waiting area during the break and started preaching about God. It seemed to me that he was a permanent lunch break feature there—I just wished they turned on the TV so we OFWs could watch “Eat Bulaga.”
I stood in line for two hours to have my fees assessed and pay P6,340.75. I felt sorry for the other OFWs who did not bring money. They had to come back another day.
Some, who looked like they just arrived in the country and were only in the Philippines for a few days, asked if they could pay in euros because that was all the money they had. “Go change your money at the bank downstairs,” the woman at the counter told them coldly.
In all my time at the POEA, there was a group of people I preferred to deal with—the security guards.
The guards were on their posts on time. Unlike the POEA staff members who worked unsmilingly and who would sometimes answer questions sarcastically, the guards were extremely patient and never raised their voices. They were the most helpful of all the people there.
In my mind, they were the saving grace of the POEA.
During my three days at the POEA, many of us OFWs kept mumbling about how inefficient the “system” was and how nobody seemed to care that employees did not start work on time and how some of the staff were so smug.
A woman seated beside me said it was why she hoped the Philippines would become a “kingdom” where things get done quickly; democracy does not work in this country, she said.
Another said she would write a long complaint and put it in the suggestion box—she never did. I watched her and she just left after getting her exit clearance.
I would like to think that I was just too dizzy from the heat and hunger to speak out and complain aloud. But I guess I had become like most helpless OFWs—I kept silent.
By the way, my exit clearance was not checked by immigration officers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport when I left the country last month.
(Editor’s note: The writer, who formerly headed the Inquirer News Service, now works as an editor at Financial Times in London.)