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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Filipino community rallies around 137 stranded bus drivers in Dubai; Ople Center seeks immediate probe and suspension of licensed agency involved in their recruitment

In keeping with the spirit of Lent, the "bayanihan" spirit was alive and well in Dubai as Filipinos pitch in canned goods, water, toiletries, and other food items to help 137 bus drivers stranded and looking for jobs after being deployed there by a licensed recruitment agency.

The stranded drivers were overwhelmed by the show of hospitality and generosity by Filipino community leaders who traveled in a convoy on Good Friday and Black Saturday. According to Ares Gutierrez, sub-editor of XPRESS, the Dubai-based paper that broke the story about the stranded bus drivers, most of the victims were confused as to what they should do next.

One of the drivers, Claro Oliver of Rizal province, contacted the Blas F. Ople Policy Center yesterday for help in pursuing justice against their recruiter, CYM International Services, a licensed recruitment agency. The agency promised the Filipino drivers good-paying jobs at Dubai's government transport agency known as Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). Some of the drivers, some of who quit their local jobs despite years of service, have been waiting to be hired by RTA since January of this year. Desperate for food and cash, the stranded drives have resorted to scavenging a dumpsite for scrap food.

Former labor undersecretary Susan Ople, who heads the Blas F. Ople Center, urged the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to immediately investigate and if possible, suspend the said agency and its counterpart in Dubai, Al Toomoh Technical Services. "The sheer number of victims involved constitutes an act of economic sabotage by this licensed agency. We urge immediate action and for the owners of the agency to be barred from leaving the country."

The bus drivers, nearly half of who hail from the province of Bulacan, complained to the Ople Center that their passports were being held by the foreign counterpart of their local agency in Dubai. This prevents them from applying for new jobs. Majority of the victims are professional drivers who have worked for years in reputable transport companies such as Baliuag Transit. The Center said the Philippine Consulate should intervene and obtain the passports of the stranded workers.

The plight of the 137 bus drivers were first exposed by Filipino journalists Jay Hilotin and Ares Gutierrez of Xpress publications based on a tip from a fellow Filipino working at Gulf News. Word quickly spread through e-mail and soon, an assembly time and place were designated to enable Filipinos to join an aid convoy leading to the camp where the bus drivers were staying. A Filipino association of Airsoft aficionados whose game was suspended last Friday, pitched in by giving cash donations.

Aside from lack of food, the drivers were sharing living quarters near the Ajman garbage dumpsite. Their building's electric power is sourced from a generator, giving them only 3 to 4 hours of electricity. The building also has inadequate water supply.

According to the drivers, they paid as much as P150,000 to CYM International Services in exchange for jobs at RTA. Some of the drivers have been staying in Dubai waiting for the promised jobs to come into fruition since January.

Based on interviews with XPRESS, driver Max Sumulong, 34, one of the victims, said last year CYM had offered him a job as a driver for Dh5,200 a month and he had given the agency 10,000 pesos (Dh1,000) as "processing fee".

"The agency had asked each one of us to take out a 150,000-peso (Dh11,418) loan from a lending agency recommended by them and made us sign undated cheques worth 405,000 pesos (about Dh40,000) addressed to a bank and the lending agency, payable in 15 months," he said.

Eliseo Maximo, who has worked for 11 years as a bus driver in Manila, said: "We've been collecting aluminium cans, selling them at Dh4 per kg in Ajman, just to have something to eat."

The stranded bus drivers are hoping that the Philippine Consulate can help them look for jobs in Dubai rather than be sent home. "Their biggest worry is on how they can repay the lending agency. If they come home, whatever they earn as bus drivers won't be enough to pay off their loans and still sustain the needs of their families," Ople explained.

Ople said she is awaiting documents from the bus drivers that would help speed up the POEA's investigation into the alleged illegal recruitment practices of CYM International Services and its counterpart in Dubai. The Filipino community has lent the drivers a photocopy machine so they could consolidate and reproduce all the documents needed to bolster their case.

The former labor undersecretary also hoped that the 137 drivers would be able to meet President Arroyo, Vice-President Noli de Castro and other high-ranking officials in their visit to Dubai.

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