‘Utang’: Why Hong Kong’s DH fall into debt traps

‘Utang’: Why Hong Kong’s DH fall into debt traps
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Filipina domestic helpers enjoy their day off on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Central. Local charity EnrichHK estimates 51 percent of domestic helpers in the territory have loans ranging from HK$ 1,000 to more than HK$ 10,000, based on a survey they made in 2015.

 

“Precious” has been working in Hong Kong as a domestic helper for two years now. In July of 2016, she was forced to make a loan of HK$ 13,000 because of two emergencies. Back home, in the southern Philippines’ city of Pagadian, her husband’s body was numbing, and her only child’s blood platelets were dropping rapidly due to Dengue virus. She doesn’t have immediate cash for their hospitalization and borrowing money from credit companies was the only solution she could think of.  Today, after nine months of budgeting HK$ 1,585 every month from her salary, she’s about to finish paying her loan. She is thinking of borrowing money again to build their own house in the Philippines.

 

“Trina,” another Filipina domestic helper in Hong Kong for 13 years now, also made a loan last year for her sister’s placement fee in Canada. She borrowed HK$ 40,000, payable within 18 months with monthly interest of 1.69 percent. Majority of her HK$ 4,500 salary every month goes to loan payment, and the rest is sent to her family in the Philippines. She said she just need HK$ 30 every Sunday when she goes to church. She’s living in her employer’s flat and food is provided.

“Maria’s” case is different. She did not intend to borrow money, but in 2014, out of debt-of-gratitude to another domestic helper who financially helped her before, she agreed to vouch for her when the latter borrowed HK$ 40,000 to a Filipina moneylender. Soon her friend left Hong Kong for Russia, leaving Maria the responsibility of paying. She was not able to pay the moneylender, as she was also paying a personal loan in the Philippines at the same time. The amount loaned spiked to HK$ 100,000 due to non-payment and accumulation of interest. She was harassed, threatened, and intimidated. She sought help from the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong and the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW). Her case remains unresolved up to now.

The stories of Precious, Trina, and Maria are just microcosms of the growing concern of hundreds of thousands of migrant domestic helpers in Hong Kong – debt. Enrich HK, a local charity promoting economic empowerment of migrant domestic workers, estimates 51 percent of helpers in Hong Kong struggle with debt, and the numbers continue to rise as more migrant workers arrive each year to work in Hong Kong.

In some cases, helpers have exhausted all possible sources of loans to pay for other outstanding loans, and debts pile one after another, and they hardly make the ends meet, thus loans accumulate interests beyond their capacity to pay. These give the loan sharks chance to harass and intimidate the helpers and their employers to force payment, leading to eventual termination of the helpers’ contracts, depression, and sometimes suicide.

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An advertisement of a lending company appearing in the front page of mid-April 2017 issue of The Sun, a newspaper catering to the Filipino population in Hong Kong.

The Root Cause of Helpers’ Debts

According to MFMW’s General Manager Cynthia Abdon – Tellez, domestic helpers get buried in debt because they are already in debt even before coming to Hong Kong.

“Although the Philippine government scrapped the placement or agency fees in December 2006 for outgoing Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), they mandated that helpers should undergo skills and language training and other seminars prior to their employment. These trainings, conducted by placement agencies, do not have ceiling prices for training rates and can range from PHP 5,000 to PHP 100,000 (HK$ 800 – 16,000). Where will they get that amount?” said Tellez.

Historically, according to her, moneylenders started to mushroom during the mid-1980s when Philippine Pres. Ferdinand Marcos made a force remittance order to all land-based OFWs to help the ailing economy of the country. Migrant workers were obliged to remit 50 percent of their monthly salary to their families back home through some specific banks in the Philippines, and failure to comply means non-renewal of their passports. Passports during that time expire every two years. Some OFWs thought it would be easy to make a one-time payment before their contracts end, only to find out it was a struggle to produce the amount required by the Philippine government for them to renew their passports and contracts. Thus, they resorted to moneylenders.

Cynthia Tellez
Cynthia Abdon – Tellez (left), general manager of Mission for Migrant Workers, and Tynna Mendoza (right), program manager of EnrichHK, said helpers get buried in debt because they are already in debt prior to their arrival in Hong Kong. Employment agencies charge exorbitant placement fees disguised as registration or training fees and taken as a form of fraudulent personal loans before helpers are deployed. 

More loan sharks proliferated in the succeeding years when placement agencies charged exorbitant placement fees to Filipinas seeking greener pastures in Hong Kong.

“They have their way to toy around our law,” said Tellez, referring to placement agencies’ tactics to extract more money from unsuspecting applicants to Hong Kong.

“They would lure the applicants to faster processing of applications but would ask for additional payment, say PHP 30,000. If the applicant does not have money at that moment, they would offer loans from partner moneylenders, but would force the applicant to open a checking account and issue post-dated blank checks,” she added.

The employment agency and its partner financing firm are the ones who decide what to write in the check.

Bounced check, or checks issued without enough funds on the specified date, is estafa, a criminal case in the Philippines.

Sometimes, helpers incur loan without their knowledge.

“When they (domestic helpers) leave the Philippines, or Indonesia, recruitment agencies promise them that everything has been taken care of, only to find out that they have been charged when they reach Hong Kong. It is considered as loan,” said Tynna Mendoza, program manager of Enrich HK.

Tellez also said that around 80 percent of the total salary of domestic helpers are paid to conniving moneylenders and employment agencies, leaving nothing to send to their family back home.

 

MFMW agency fees

According to the recruitment ordinance in HK, the maximum commission by the recruitment agencies that can be collected from workers is 10% of the first month’s wage upon successful deployment.  Currently, this is HK$431.

                However, employment agencies would charge the domestic workers in other names like registration fees or training fees. This practice, though widespread, is plainly illegal.

                This problem is compounded by debt bondage. These fees usually take the form of fraudulent “personal loans” by the worker but are taken as payment by the agencies. The deceptive practice tends to evade the Hong Kong cap on agency commissions but result in workers paying 5 –7 months of their salaries. – MFMW Service Report 2016

 

 

 

 

“There are a lot of moneylenders around them here in Hong Kong, both legal and illegal. Domestic helpers usually turn to these companies and individuals so they can send some money in the Philippines. Some illegal moneylenders, like what was reported last month, ask for the helpers’ passports before they can be granted loans,” she added.

On March 12 – 13, 2017, Hong Kong’s Organized Crime and Triad Bureau arrested a local couple and eight Filipina maids for charging illicit interests to money lent to domestic helpers. Authorities confiscated some 242 passports, work contracts, and other evidences.

The Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong prohibits Filipino citizens from using their passports as loan collaterals and deactivates the travel document if used.

 

Easy Money, Difficult Consequences

When Precious borrowed money from a registered credit company in Hong Kong for the hospitalization of her husband and child, her loan was approved instantly.

“At first I was hesitant to make a loan because I heard stories about other domestic helpers who got into trouble because of unpaid loans,” said the 27-year-old former-nurse-turned-domestic-helper.

But her need was urgent, and she can’t find other ways to save the lives of her family so she applied for a HK$ 13,000 loan from a financing company. She was asked to submit a photocopy of her employment contract, her passport and Hong Kong ID, her address and telephone number in the Philippines and in Hong Kong, and the telephone number of her employer.

The financing company made an overseas call to the Philippines to verify the telephone number she had given.

“I know one domestic helper here in Hong Kong. She went back to the Philippines while she still has existing loan in Hong Kong. I heard the financing company sent representatives to the Philippines and she was reported to NBI (National Bureau of Investigation). They made a way for her to pay her balance in Philippine Peso,” Precious shared.

Her employers do not know that she has incurred a loan here in Hong Kong. They made it clear from the start that they don’t want her getting indebted to anyone.

“Sometimes, when I am checking my e-mail account, they (employers) would peek and ask where the message comes from. Good thing, I pay the lending company on time so I don’t get notices from them,” she said.

Trina also went to the same process as Precious. The former pre-school teacher was required to submit identification documents and address and contact number in the Philippines. And like Precious, her employers do not know that she availed a HK$ 40,000 loan because they oppose the practice and do not want trouble if she won’t be able to pay.

Although it is relatively easy to avail large-amount loans from moneylenders in Hong Kong, the consequences may be devastating if the loaned amount won’t be paid.

When Maria agreed to help her friend borrow money to a Filipina moneylender she knows, she agreed to surrender her passport as loan collateral. She also agreed to use her name as borrower because the financier doesn’t know the friend personally. When her friend left for Russia without a word, the lender ran after Maria. The harassment and intimidation traumatized her, and when she realized that her husband is having an affair with her best friend back in the Philippines, she almost took her life.

“Good thing, I still have a little sanity left then. I turned everything to God. I was ready to face the consequences then. I thought I will be brought to jail,” Maria recalled.

Upon consultation with the priest of her church, she demanded her passport back, which the financier complied. She said the financier cannot bring her to court because the former charged interest more than what Hong Kong law allows.

According to Ms. Tellez, Hong Kong allows lenders to charge up to 60 percent of the principal amount depending on the capacity of the borrower to pay. Illegal financiers, like Maria’s lender, who charge excessive interests are afraid to file cases in small-claims tribunal because they themselves are violating the law. But harassment and intimidation never stop.

The Philippine Consulate promised Maria that they will run after her friend through embassy connections in Russia.

“My biggest mistake is I trusted a wrong person. I learned my lessons now, never trust anyone no matter how friendly they are to you,” she said.

 

Financial Management and Education Advocacy

Charity foundation Enrich HK saw the need for financial management training and education of migrant workers.

“Our founders saw a trend among domestic helpers in Hong Kong that, for the longest time they are working here, they have a hard time saving money, or at least stabilize their finances, and when they go back to the Philippines after years of working, there are no improvements in their financial status,” said Mendoza.

Enrich started teaching basic financial management literacy such as budgeting and saving, and eventually ventured to business courses and a full program that address the whole financial life of their clients. They call it Financial and Empowerment Education Program.

Mendoza said they also teach the domestic helpers how to properly communicate with their families back home so they won’t be tempted to give in to the requests of their loved ones.

“Some helpers borrow money to show off when they go back the Philippines, and I can’t blame them for that. Hong Kong has a lot of temptations. What we do is we remind them of their goals when they decided to work here,” she said.

They also help domestic helpers who have problems with their debts.

“If legal intervention is needed, we usually refer them to MFMW or HELP (Help for Domestic Helpers), but we do sit down with them and help them assess the problem. In a way, that educates them.”

Mendoza said if a domestic helper is planning to make a loan, she should ask herself if it is necessary and if she has the capacity to pay. Should a helper be entangled with difficulty of paying multiple debts, Mendoza suggests they should pay the one which charges the biggest interest first.

When asked about her idea of ending the cycle of indebtedness among migrant workers in Hong Kong, Mendoza believes that strong law enforcement and regulations on sources of exploitative charges would reduce the cases significantly.

“If the sending country and the host country would have institutional partnerships and hold trainings on financial literacy and management, it would help a lot in alleviating this pressing problem among domestic helpers,” she concluded.

 

*’Utang’ or ‘Hutang’ is the Filipino and Bahasa Indonesia’s word for debt.

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SepAnx

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It’s official. I’m going home exactly a month from now. After almost nine months of studying abroad, I am finally going back, equipped with more knowledge, which I am eager to share to my students, and a degree that would cement my tenure in my home university.

My stay away from home was a roller-coaster ride. I missed my father’s babang-luksa, All Saints’ and Souls’ Days, celebrated Christmas, New Year, and birthday away from my closest relatives, and even missed eating Filipino food regularly. I spoke English most of the time, and looked forward to every Sunday when I can speak my mother tongue with other Filipinos in the church. Then I met a lot of friends. Chinese, Indonesians, Indian, Malaysian, Dutch, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and some acquaintances from Germany, Czech Republic, United States, and Australia. We ate together, climbed peaks, barbecued meat and marshmallows by the beach, played games, helped each other in course requirements, and so on.

My Dutch friend is my best friend. I don’t know why despite our age gap, we simply clicked with each other. Maybe because we are both strangers in the land of dimsums and dumplings, and we share a lot of common likes and dislikes. I never had a real best friend in my adult life until I met him. I have thousands of friends but nobody gave much importance as he did.

I remember when we first went out of town, in Cheung Chau Island, he taught me how to loosen up and take life easily. And he was kind enough to remind me again not to think of what could have been when I did not see my name in the list of top MAIJS students later. From time to time, he would ask if I am around and if I would like to have lunch or dinner with him, or to play table tennis in the Undergraduate Halls if it is free. I would cook Filipino food in his hall’s kitchen and my head grows bigger with his praises. And when his mom sent a package of Dutch cheese to Hong Kong, he generously shared it with us.

One time, we went to Lantau Peak, Hong Kong’s highest mountain and one of the most difficult trails. I told him to go ahead as the other two friends were very fast. I took my own pace, which delayed my descend for 45 minutes. And while the two other friends left when they reached the end, he patiently waited for me.

Sure, we had our share of misunderstanding. We would argue about our ideas on political matters, and one time, I made a stupid mistake which angered him, but I was forgiven the next day.

In the Philippines, my friends always desert me. Whenever I ask them out, they would always say they are busy, or they’re with their girlfriends/boyfriends, or they’re out of town. Others got married and priorities changed. And I was left alone, wondering why friends come and go.

In thirty days, I will say goodbye to my second home. Part of me wants to leave, but another part wants to stay. But I have no choice. I have obligations to face when I come back to the Philippines. I need to make a return service to my university for two years, in exchange of my scholarship here in Hong Kong.

My heart is breaking when I think of leaving my best friend. I know that the possibility of seeing each other again is so slim. If I could just twist my fate, I will choose to be where he is. Maybe the day before my flight will be the last time we will see each other in this lifetime. Maybe it’s true that some good things never last.

I am not ready.

Europe-based org shares crowdfunding journalism insights

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Jaroslav Valuch, project leader of Press Start crowdfunding platform, shares tips on how to start a crowdfunding journalism campaign to HKBU students during the TPG European study tour last Jan. 3, 2017 in Prague, Czech Republic.
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Jeremy Druker, Exec. Director and Editor-in-Chief of Transitions Online shared his good and bad experiences in crowdfunding journalism, and the lessons he learned from it.
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HKBU students visiting the websites of Press Start and TOL.

Wendy Funes is from Honduras, one of the most dangerous places in Central America to be a journalist. She does not speak English, and her network of friends and connections is not big. She does not have bank account either.  But she is very passionate in doing investigative journalism. In fact, she even faked her death once to prove that getting important documents such as death certificate is very easy in her country. She needed funds for her investigative work, and she had a hard time getting benefactors from crowdfunding websites because she lacked “appeal.”

Funes and her like is what Press Start works for. Per its website, Press Start is a crowdfunding platform designed specifically to support journalists where the press cannot report freely and it aims to revolutionize the way independent journalism is funded in the developing world and countries in transition.

In a talk co-organized by Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) School of Communication and Transitions Online (TOL), a Europe-based non-profit organization, TOL Executive Director Jeremy Druker and Press Start Project Leader Jaroslav Valuch shared their experiences and lessons learned in crowdfunding journalism to the Taught Postgraduates student-participants of Europe study tour in Prague, Czech Republic last Jan. 3, 2017.

Druker said that journalists from Third World countries usually don’t enjoy the same privilege the American journalists have in terms of crowdfunding, particularly in United States-based platforms, as donors prefer the latter because they already have solid base of networks. Institutions, such as Press Start, also get low donation throughput because benefactors think they already have money to finance projects.

“Individuals receive funds more easily compared to institutions because they have ‘face’ and donors easily trust them,” he said.

Valuch, on the other hand, shared some tips on how to become successful with crowdfunding journalism projects, and how to sustain it after the launch.

Both speakers said that the month before the launch is the most crucial as project proponents need to beef up their marketing and promotion skills to ensure the success of the campaign. They suggested that donors, particularly those who personally know the beneficiaries, should put at least 20 percent of the fund needed to steer more donations. And unlike other crowdfunding platforms, Press Start augments finances from their general fund to beneficiaries who fell short of target amount.

The speakers said the success of their campaign gave independent journalists from countries where media is oppressed the chance to be heard by the rest of the world and contribute to the development of the society.

In the end of the talk, the guests encouraged the HKBU students to spread awareness of their advocacy when they go back home and find journalists who can be helped by the crowdfunding platform.

As for Funes, she was able to raise the $1,120 fund needed through Press Start to write the story about the alleged cover-up of local officials on the series of gang rapes of young women.

The Migrant Workers’ Plight

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Janet Pancho-Gupta opened her solo watercolor painting exhibit at the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong last Nov. 27, 2016. Gupta worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong in year 2000. She was sexually abused by her employer and after a dramatic court fight, she won the case.

 

The smell of food lingered in the small carpeted room as two ladies arranged the sandwiches and drinks in the table opposite the door. The door, decorated with golden sinamay, a ribbon made of abaca fibers, led to a small hallway that serves as registration area before the open space where around 15 watercolor paintings hanged on the wall. A middle-aged woman was in the middle of the room, entertaining two early guests. They were heard speaking in English, code-switching to Tagalog at some point. She was explaining her invitation to put up photo exhibit in Singapore next year. After few minutes, five more guests arrived. She cheerfully greeted and welcomed them. A little later, the ceremonial opening of her solo painting exhibit commenced at the 14th floor of the United Center building in Admiralty, in the exhibition area of the Consulate of the Republic of the Philippines

The lady is Janet Pancho – Gupta, a rising Filipina painter and photographer and formerly an abused Hong Kong domestic helper. Traces of her dark past are hidden behind her thick eyeglasses. Her paintings revealed the longing for freedom from the past. Sixteen years ago, she ran away from her Chinese employer who sexually abused her. She roamed the streets of Hong Kong, sought the help of the Philippine consulate, asked favors from other domestic helpers, until she found home at Bethune House. The Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) assisted her until she won the case against the employer. It took few more years before she became ready to share her story and served as inspiration to other Filipina domestic helpers in the territory.

Gupta’s case is only one of the few success stories of abused migrant workers who fought and won the battle against their abusive employers. And although her victory may have inspired others who have the same ordeal, majority of them opted to drop their cases and keep silent. Despite the increasing number of injustices and maltreatment to Filipina domestic helpers, a lot of young women are still lured to go to Hong Kong to become modern-day slaves.

According to the Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the number of Filipina domestic helpers rose from 133, 761 in 2010 to 177,619 in 20151. They comprise around half of the total number of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. South China Morning Post reported than since 1970s, foreign domestic workers have been employed to address the shortage of full-time live-in helpers in Hong Kong2.

The history of domestic helper migration can be traced back in 1974, when then Philippine Pres. Ferdinand Marcos encouraged labor export to solve the nation’s unemployment and accounts deficit, gaining from workers’ remittances from abroad (de Guzman, 2003)3. It was also the height of economic activities in Hong Kong, which during that time is a colony of United Kingdom. The “Open Door” policy of Deng Xiaoping got Hong Kong into money making businesses, and it started the booming of the territory4. Since then, Hong Kong became a sought-after place for domestic helpers.

In the late 1980s, there have been abuses on migrant workers which were widely-publicized. Former Pres. Corazon Aquino banned the deployment of domestic helpers to “protect women migrants from abuse and exploitation in foreign countries where they work,” but it was criticized by different Non-Government Organization activists, as it promoted illegal migration and has violated the constitutional rights of workers to travel and find gainful employment5.

In 1995, Flor Contemplacion, a domestic helper in Singapore was sentenced to death after the Singaporean court found her guilty of killing fellow domestic helper Delia Maga and her employer’s three-year old son. The government of then Pres. Fidel Ramos, passed the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 after Contemplacion’s execution6.

The succeeding administrations asked the migrant workers to “stay put abroad and continue to send their dollar remittances until the Philippine economy stabilizes7.” Unfortunately, the situation back home only permits abuses and exploitation not just from foreign employers but also from recruitment agencies which charge placement fees more than what’s allowed by the law.

According to Cynthia Tellez, general manager of MFMW, the root cause of abuses to Filipina domestic helpers is the flawed policies of Hong Kong on migrant workers.

cynthia-tellez
Cynthia Tellez led the campaign “Voices of Women to end Violence Against Women (VOW to end VAW)” last Dec. 4, 2016 at the St. John’s Cathedral grounds. She is the general manager of Mission for Migrant Workers, a non-profit, church-related organization advocating welfare of migrant workers.

“It would be great if contracts (of domestic helpers) are based on employment ordinance. Because if that is the case, they will be considered like local workers. But the Hong Kong Immigration came out with many restricting policies. For more than ten years, we saw that it is a fight between the Labor Department and Immigration Department. It is a silent fight of who should take charge of migrant workers,” said Tellez.

“Originally, contracts in the 1980s were taken cared by the Labor Department, but the Immigration Department said that they (migrant workers) are aliens, and should be under Immigration Bureau’s jurisdiction. Immigration won. They are now more concerned with how to restrict the entry of foreign workers in Hong Kong rather than their general welfare.”

She said that the policies of the Immigration Bureau are vague and discriminatory.

Tellez also added that because of the immigration policies, abused domestic helpers opt to keep silent and swallow their pride.

“Are you going to complain? Because if you do, even if it is just a petty complaint, your contract might be terminated [by your employers]. You don’t want that to happen. Unfortunately, majority of our fellowmen still think like that. It doesn’t matter if they suffer, as long as they are employed. Better than going home empty-handed.”

She also said that abused domestic helpers sometime do not want to cooperate and they cannot force them since they are guided by free will.

Tellez said that situation will be the same in the next five years unless the government of the Philippines act favorably for migrant workers. She believes the Philippine government can solve the problems of labor migration if the officials would have political will to change the situation.

“It hurts to know that parents see their children whom they toiled to get college education end up as domestic helpers. Nobody dreamed of becoming a domestic helper,” she said.

“I look forward to that day when Filipinos won’t need to go abroad and enslave themselves just give their children the future they deserve,” she concluded.

 

 

1http://www.censtatd.gov.hk/hkstat/sub/gender/labour_force/

2http://www.scmp.com/topics/foreign-domestic-workers-hong-kong

3, 5, 6, 7https://kyotoreview.org/issue-4/overseas-filipino-workers-labor-circulation-in-southeast-asia-and-the-mismanagement-of-overseas-migration-programs/

4http://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/hong-kong/history#282206

 

The Tower of Faith and Passion

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Parishioners “kiss” the hand of Fr. Dwight Dela Torre after the Sunday mass at St. John’s Cathedral in Central, Hong Kong.

It was hot and humid Sunday afternoon of November when bells began ringing in a sing-song manner in St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong. Parishioners, mostly women in their 20s who are busy chatting in Tagalog and Visayan languages, started to occupy the few remaining seats in the pew. Six middle-aged women wearing “volunteer” IDs ushered newcomers to vacant seats and distributed missals printed in green bond papers. A group of around forty women, all dressed in white cassock with red hood, started to form a line at the entrance of the church. The leader carries a long brass cross, while two others carrying huge and thick candles positioned themselves on her sides.

A man emerged from the sacristy. He was wearing green vestment with a red chi rho embroidery, a superimposition of the letters P and X which means Christ in Greek. As he walked down the aisle of the cathedral to the formation near the entrance, some women reached for his hand and placed it in their forehead. He cheerfully responded to their kind acts, asking how they are or their relatives, remembering them with their first or nick names.

The church organ started to play a joyous melody. The leader lifted the brass cross and started walking towards the altar. Behind her is the priest, the man in the green vestment, carrying a bible. The rest of the women who are all choir members followed them in two lines. The Aglipayan mass has begun in the Gothic-style century-old cathedral in Central.

The celebrant is Reverend Father Dwight Q. Dela Torre. His family name is a Spanish phrase which means “of the tower,” which aptly describes his position as the Philippine Independent Church’s first Chaplain of the Mission for Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, like a beacon that guides the sea of distressed Filipino workers in a land far away from home.

Fr. Dela Torre was born in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental province in southern Philippines sixty years ago. After finishing his Associate in Arts and Bachelors in Theology degrees from St. Andrews Theological Seminary in Quezon City in 1978, he was ordained as a priest of the Philippine Independent Church, popularly known as Aglipayan, a catholic denomination independent from Rome. He finished his Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 1994 from Trinity University of Asia, formerly Trinity College of Quezon City.

After his ordination, he was assigned to different parishes all over the country from the town of Alubilid in Misamis Oriental and Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao, to Bacoor, Cavite in the island of Luzon before becoming the Executive Assistant to the Obispo Maximo or Supreme Bishop, the highest leader of the Church.

When the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) was organized in 1981, General Manager Cynthia Abdon – Tellez said she handpicked Fr. Dela Torre to lead the congregation because she has high regards for him. At that time, a member of the clergy is needed to substantiate the mission’s presence in Hong Kong. Thus, in 1994, Fr. Dela Torre started his new job as the Chaplain of Filipino Christians in Hong Kong and eventually, of the Mission for Migrant Workers, including Indonesians and other nationalities.

Church and Personal Mission

“The problem with many Filipinos is they easily forgive,” said Fr. Dela Torre in between sipping soup from a bowl of Chinese noodle and checking his iPhone for incoming messages. He was wearing a light blue polo-barong, the short-sleeved variation of the Philippines’ national shirt for men, commonly worn in offices and schools. His clerical collar gives him the aura of dignity and respect.

“So even if their employers wronged them, did not give what is due them, they tend to forgive them (employers) easily. They always think it is better to keep their jobs even if there is injustice than to see their families starving back home,” he continued in Tagalog language as he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin from the cozy restaurant below Cheung Kong Center in Central.

Parallel to his church’s character, Fr. Dela Torre is a fighter for the oppressed. It has been his advocacy to seek justice for the abused, maltreated, wrongly-accused, and physically-assaulted migrant workers in Hong Kong. The Aglipayan church, founded by activist Isabelo Delos Reyes in 1902, has a reputation of being radical. Fr. Dela Torre believes that he advances the causes of the church if he stands for truth and seek justice.

“I will not be true to my ministry and the history of the church [if I will let people suffer],” he said

“Once there was a group of 40 airport construction workers,” he shared. “They signed a contract with the agency, and they are receiving a fairly big salary for their work. But what they received is less than what was stipulated in their contract. We found out that the agency deducts certain percentage from their wage, which, if you will compute, will amount to large amount of money too.”

“These are the kinds of cases we lobby in arbitration courts here in Hong Kong,” he said.

Since the start of the mission, Fr. Dela Torre and his team have helped more than 34,000 cases of migrant workers, ranging from petty issues such as accusation of theft, to more serious ones like sexual harassment and rape. In an average, the center handles around 1,000 cases per year. Their services include person-to-person, social media, and telephone counseling, giving shelters for displaced workers, giving advices for labor and immigration-related problems, and pastoral care and religious services.

He has only four fulltime staff and more than 30 volunteers in the center, mostly other migrants that the mission has helped, and students from some prominent Hong Kong universities.

The Grumpy Priest

“He gets irritated easily,” Virginia Castro, a parishioner for 17 years, said while laughing. “When you are given a task, and you did not accomplish it on time, expect that you will be verbally reprimanded.”

She shares the same opinion with MFMW’s Tellez and Esperanza San Diego, a university professor in the Philippines.

“He becomes grouchy if the client is not transparent,” said Tellez, referring to the abused migrant workers they are helping who do not reveal all the facts of their cases.

In his sermons during masses, Fr. Dela Torre would usually seize the opportunity to lecture parishioners on proper decorum while inside the church, reminding people not to leave when the mass is not yet over.

“I have known Dwight since our college days. He’s a perfectionist and gets irritated when he can’t accomplish his goals, but it is also easy to pacify him,” said San Diego in a phone interview from the Philippines. She also said that despite his grumpy attitude, Fr. Dela Torre is very caring, intelligent, and a supportive friend.

Castro also confirmed Fr. Dela Torre’s kind nature. She said the priest is very easy to approach when one needs something, be it financial or spiritual advice.

And while many would be intimidated with the authoritative nature of Fr. Dela Torre, Tellez said he is friendly and a lot of people are surprised to find out that they can exchange jokes with him.

Retirement Plans

“Do I look old?” he jokingly asked while brushing his short white hair with his hand. “Maybe I should also trim this and have my hair dyed,” referring to his white stubbles prominent with his brown complexion.

When he has spare time, he would spend it watching Youtube videos of Simon and Garfunkle, Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Taylor, and Jim Croce. He is also fond of reading books of John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Lee Child, and David Baldachi.

Fr. Dela Torre is married to Estella, who is currently in the Philippines. They have no children.

He plans to retire by the age of 65, and if his health would permit, he would serve parishes in the Philippines and probably teach in the seminary.

“In few years, I will retire. But as long as I am here, I will fight for the cause of migrant workers,” he said.

“As long as there are more windows in POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Agency) than the number of lawyers fighting for our oppressed migrant workers, as long as there are illegal recruiters who benefit from the injustices done to others, and as long as there are no just-paid work in the Philippines, there will be forced migration, prone to abuses and exploitation.”

“Migrants should stand up for their rights,” he concluded.

Pulitzer winners inspire HKBU students

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Telling the truth and making change are the unified message of seven Pulitzer Prize winners to hundreds of Communication and Journalism students of Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) during the 7th Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop (PPWW)opening ceremonies and public forum held on Oct. 25, 2016 at Shaw Campus’ WLB103 Conference Hall.

The theme for this year’s workshop is Bearing Witnesses: The Reporting of Human Triumphs and Failings.

Robin McDowell, Esther Htusan, George Rodrigue, Prof. William Snyder, Susan Snyder, Kristen Graham, and Ben Solomon, who all received Pulitzer Prizes in different categories, encouraged the students to work hard and expose inequality and abuses and make positive impression to intended audiences.

“Journalism is a serious profession that you have potentially profound impact on the lives of the people by telling the truth, or by failing to tell the truth,” explained Rodrigue who twice won the Pulitzer for his reports on discrimination in government – subsidized housing in 1986, and in 1994 for uncovering abuses against women.

“Maybe someone sitting in this audience someday will win the Pulitzer. All you have to do is to have the desire to make a difference and work really hard to expose injustices and to tell the stories of everyday people,” added Graham who, together with Susan, won the 2012 Public Service Award for their report on violence in schools.

McDowell and Htusan won the 2016 Pulitzer for Public Service for their investigative report on labor malpractices in the seas of Southeast Asia which led to justice and reforms. William has won the Pulitzer four times since 1989 for photography and explanatory journalism. Solomon, who works for the New York Times, bagged the 2015 International Reporting award for their stories on Ebola outbreak in Africa.

Students and faculty members were given the chance to interact with the speakers after the opening ceremonies. When asked about their personal safety and preparations before covering stories, the winners willingly shared their experiences to the audience.

“To be a good journalist, you have to be dedicated. You have to be sympathetic to people, and that is very important,” said Htusan.

The seven guests will stay in HKBU for the next three days and deliver talks and lectures as part of the biennial PPWW. The event is organized by HKBU’s School of Communication and this year’s workshop is sponsored by HKBU Strategic Development Fund. It aims to broaden the vision of journalists and enhance the quality of journalism education in Hong Kong and Greater China region.

The Pulitzer Prizes are the highest accolade bestowed on journalists in United States. Named after Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian – American journalist and publisher, the award covers major fields of journalism. It is celebrating its centennial this year.

Voters praise Clinton’s pro-poor economic plans

Democrat presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton gained praises from US citizens for her pro-poor economic proposals in the first leg of the three-part presidential debate held last Monday night, September 26, 2016, at Hofstra University in New York.

Clinton bared her plan of building an economy for everyone by creating new jobs with good salary, boosting small and medium enterprises, raising the national minimum wage, pushing for equal pay for women, and obliging the wealthy to pay higher share of taxes should she win the November 8 elections.

Filipino expatriate Felix Talabis of Springfield, Virginia said Clinton’s plans were on point, particularly mentioning the plan of lowering interest rates of educational loans of students who graduated a decade ago but still paying for their tuition until now.

He said she was able to directly say what the people want to hear and she gives a clear direction of where she wants to bring the country.

“She has been consistent in her work for legal rights and healthcare of children and underprivileged Americans. Clinton’s plan for middle class – centered economic growth is far more likely to succeed and independent experts do not expect it will damage the economy in the same way as his (Trump) plan,” added Herbert Donovan, a Japan-based educator from Westchester County, New York. He will vote from Tokyo through absentee voting system.

Contrary to their reaction to Clinton’s speech, Talabis and Donovan denounced Republican candidate Donald Trump’s economic plan, saying that his program of reducing taxes of big companies to stop them from leaving US will just benefit him and other wealthy individuals. Donovan, who votes in the same county as Clinton, commented that Trump’s business “success” seems to be ‘an illusion based on clever manipulation of bankruptcy law and aggressive unethical practices.’

On the other hand, Joey San Andres, a registered voter of Las Vegas, Nevada, said that both proposals have economic benefits, but Americans should not only focus on proposals but also on how well they think the presidential candidates can implement and execute their programs once elected to office.

San Andres’ view is shared by Thomas Lee Gwynn of Tarrant county, Texas. “Neither Hillary or Trump’s tax plan would stand up to the test if it stands alone. It will be a combination of tax plan, job creation, forcing companies to keep work here in America instead of elsewhere, and taxing commodities coming from companies on America that make their products overseas,” he said.

Clinton and Trump met face-to-face in the first of the three-part presidential debate televised worldwide last Monday night. Issues on jobs, economic programs, birther, and racism were discussed by the two presidential candidates with opposing views.

In the opinion poll of CNN, Clinton was highly favored by American televiewers with 62% rate while Trump got only 27%. Time.com poll, on the other hand, said the Republican candidate outnumbered his opponent with 52% to 48%, after more than 1.3 million votes were cast.

The second presidential debate will happen on October 9, 2016 at the Washington University of St. Louis, Missouri while the last installment will be on October 19, 2016 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.