Cruising for Stories

Dubai — I thought it would be a breeze to write while on a cruise. After all, the cruise ship itself is named “Costa Favolosa” and our itinerary included port visits to Dubai, Oman, and Abu Dhabi. Seven days at sea – how difficult would it be to open my laptop to write? Very.

A keyboard was the last thing I wanted to see, touch, and tap while on deck, with sea wind as my shawl, and looking yonder where the sky meets water with little boats bobbing up and down like dolphins. The cruise is an annual tradition of the Nacionalista Party led by Senator and Mrs. Manny Villar. Onboard and offshore, the entire cruise was an instantaneous crash course for many of us about life in the Emirates.

There are more than 300 Filipinos working onboard Costa Favolosa. Every single one of them is a walking success story. Maria Plastina, my cabin attendant, hails from Bulacan. She and her husband have been at sea for months, working and saving for the education of their kids. Maria will disembark and return to Manila this March only to board Costa’s newest cruise ship for its maiden voyage in April. This transfer shows how valued Maria’s services are.

I am also proud of Martin, one of the more senior waiters at the ship’s buffet dining area. He bought a lot in Greenwoods, Pasig City and kept saving until he and his wife who also works in Dubai, were able to build their home. His three kids study in an international school. The couple‘s next mission is to put up an Italian restaurant in Manila that Martin himself would manage. Martin told me that his wish is simple – to spare his kids the hard knocks of life that he himself had to go through.

Unfortunately, the global financial crisis has not spared our Costa Favoloso staff. Their salaries, formerly in euros, are now paid out in American dollars representing a steep drop in value. Of course, they signed their contracts out of necessity.

Offshore, two brothers met me at portside in Dubai. Lawrence and Julio Tibayan work in a British-owned company that runs, among several others, a car rental company. Lawrence also works for a mall store that sells branded sunglasses like Oakley. Lawrence was first to work in Dubai before taking in his younger brother. Julio or “Jules” said that the car rental company where he works was tapped to supply cars for the the latest Mission Impossible sequel, “Ghost Protocol”.

I asked Jules if he has a photo of Tom Cruise. No such luck, he said, because the security was quite strict. Still, it was a thrill for our kababayan to see the famous actor up close. “Tom Cruise is short,” he quipped. Both Lawrence and Jules are excellent examples of young OFWs; barely in their thirties, the two have their own places to stay, cars to drive, and jobs to go to.

The two brothers took us around Dubai, with quick stops at Burj Khalifa and Burj Dubai, unorthodox architectural wonders, one of which is said to be the tallest building in the world while the other is a seven-star hotel.

In Oman, we went around Muscat with Labor Attache Ernie Bihis as our guide. While having lunch at a Filipino restaurant aptly named, “Palayok”, the labor attache who has been in the labor department since my father’s time, said that Filipino workers in Oman are highly valued for their work ethic and skills. His number one concern remains the household workers who cross over from Dubai and Abu Dhabi into Oman with tourist visas in search of jobs. Some of them were brought to Muscat by unscrupulous agencies in Abu Dhabi and forced to work for lesser salaries.

Labor Attache Bihis said he already has plans of discussing this grave problem with his counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as with the local agencies in Muscat. Another source of concern is prostitution – something that even he found difficult to believe until a Filipino journalist based in Oman affirmed the information. Once again, this is another dark facet of migration that we do not speak of, but is a growing concern for quite a few of our labor attaches.

Dockside at Abu Dhabi, I met Labor Attache Nas Munder, another old hand at DoLE. Through him, I learned that there are at least 600,000 Filipino workers in the United Arab Emirates, with around 25,000 working as household workers. Yet, that small minority brings to fore the most number of welfare cases due to the highly vulnerable status that is attached to working as a foreign maid in any household. Philippine Ambassador Grace Prinsesa briefed us about embassy’s reintegration project for women through small-scale enterprises.

Going on this cruise through the Emirates enabled this writer to see up close the lives of our seafarers and land-based workers. The places I’ve seen – the mosques and malls, posh hotels and treeless mountains, pale in comparison to the rich harvest of stories that our workers aboard shared with me. To the 300-plus hardworking Filipino crew aboard Costa Favolosa, I dedicate this column. To them, I say, well done and Godspeed. (Send comments to toots.ople@yahoo.com. Follow me on Twitter via www.twitter.com/susanople)

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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