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Fri, Dec 26, 2008 - Page 10 News List

Jobless Philippine workers head home

AFP , ANGONO, PHILIPPINES

Last-minute shoppers are reflected in the side of an escalator in a Macy’s department store at Tysons Corner Center, a mall in suburban Washington, on Wednesday in McLean, Virginia. Retailers, fearing the weakest holiday shopping season since 1969, have slashed prices on items at stores across the country. 

PHOTO: AFP

Americans were already defaulting on home payments when Gertrudes Capili mortgaged her modest farm near Manila to help send her two granddaughters to Taiwan.

There they worked in a factory making microchips for appliances sold to a US consumer market on the verge of collapse.

Little did the 90-year-old grandmother know that the US subprime meltdown and subsequent financial crisis would come home to roost in Angono, a lakeshore town east of Manila where she lives with a daughter and two granddaughters in a cramped 34m2 plywood and sheet iron home.

A nearby river often overflows and floods the ground floor in the rain, and the warped furniture, bought with the granddaughters’ earnings, has to be replaced every year.

“Huge debts and a splitting headache,” 24-year-old Bernadette Cortas said when asked what she earned from her stint at the ASE semiconductor factory near Taipei, which serves electronics giants such as Motorola and Epson.

Both she and her cousin Cristina de Borja now wear horn-rimmed glasses, the result of working long hours in front of tiny circuit boards.

Just eight months after the cousins got their jobs, which netted them about NT$20,000 (US$600) a month after food and lodging expenses, they were shipped back home along with 103 other Filipinos as the company cut staff amid plunging global electronics demand.

Cortas would be an apt poster child of the Philippine economic diaspora.

Once a giggly, leggy teenage schoolgirl, she is now a college dropout who had worked in a fast food restaurant to put herself through high school.

The oldest of five children of an unemployed bus driver who lives with another woman, Cortas single-handedly fed, housed and put her siblings through school.

Her mother works as a maid in Saudi Arabia but has a new boyfriend and no longer gives money to the family, Cortas said. When Cortas lost her job the siblings also had to quit school.

Jobless, penniless and deep in debt, she is staring down a bleak Christmas, unable to pay back the 50,000-peso (US$1,048) loan she and de Borja had secured with grandma’s 2,000m2 farm as collateral.

The loan only covered part of their “job placement fees” of 85,000 pesos each which was mainly paid for by commercial money lenders that charge interest rates of 2 percent a month.

Cortas does not even have money to go home to Rosario town south of Manila for Christmas and is temporarily staying at her grandmother’s.

Their desperation has seen them line up overnight outside a Manila television station last weekend for a game show that offered a house and 1 million pesos in prizes.

Both missed out because “they appeared to favor domestic helpers,” de Borja said.

The cousins are just two among some 8 million Filipinos — 10 percent of the population — who have joined an economic diaspora.

The government says several hundred “overseas Filipino workers” have lost their jobs because of the global crisis, which the International Labor Organization has warned could see as many as 20 million people put out of work by the end of next year.

The two cousins have filed a suit to get a refund of part of their placement fee, which had guaranteed them contracts for two years in Taiwan.

While no one can be jailed in the Philippines for failing to pay a debt, they need to repay the loans to avoid becoming blacklisted by labor recruiters.

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