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Voices of 160 Casino Workers
« on: March 16, 2008, 04:50:36 AM »

RENO, NV — About 160 contract workers from the Philippines have arrived in this “biggest little city in the world” to work at one of the most modern casino hotels in the area.  Those “kababayan” are, in all likelihood, representative of what overseas employers in the U.S. look for: some education, working knowledge of English; young, energetic, can follow instructions and more. They were hired to perform jobs as room cleaning aides and kitchen helpers through agencies that recruit Filipinos for overseas work.

The contract workers have clear-cut contracts: “may” work 32 hours a week at $8-$9 per hour and “possible” overtime. They came in two batches, one in October and another in December of 2007, and their contracts run through July this year. With winter descending on them, they did not have appropriate clothin nor did they have minimum housing necessities. Their contract indicated: employer “will assist in locating housing for employee.”

Not everyone works “32 hours a week,” so whatever was anticipated as ‘income’ is not a given. Accordingly, they were informed that the job is ‘seasonal’ and that seasonal changes determine the number of hotel guests, hence the number of rooms that require cleaning and the nature of kitchen work are dependent on the information initially given to them:

At least, provisions of the workers’ contract have been upheld. Not one has complained about working conditions. Of the 160 workers, more than 60 percent are college graduates; the rest are at least high school grads with work experience. They are young. Their ages run from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties; there are more women than men in the group.

The new casino employees are housed in two-bedroom apartments within walking distance from their place of work where there are eight to a unit. Since the apartments are unfurnished, they have no recourse but sleep on the floor although some kind FilAms have given them pieces of furniture, not bedroom furniture.

When asked how they came to Reno, the reply was “through employment agencies.” They had to qualify, go through physical exams and were interviewed in terms of the future employer’s requirements for those seeking the stipulated work assignment(s). Their common problem is how to pay back their indebtedness to the agencies.

This writer was informed that the minimum amount owed by each worker from their recruiting agency is at least $4,000 which includes the agency’s recruiting fee and round-trip fare all payable “as soon as possible.” It doesn’t need a rocket scientist to figure out what will be left for the individual contract signer, even if the 32-hour work week is followed, at $8-$9 per hour; there are taxes withheld, housing costs to share, food and living expenses not to omit meeting their everyday needs.
Realistically, their personal immediate requisites, which could not be postponed, focused on how to face the near freezing temperatures. Word spread around about their predicament.
Foremost among those who literally gave much of themselves are Gigi (Pareno) and Charles (Chuck) Swezey. Gigi, a member of one of Dumaguete City’s (Visayas) highly respected families in educational and professional circles, has rendered what can easily be called ‘over and above the call of duty.’ She and her husband, Chuck, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, have defined what it means to rally to what can possibly be done for the workers. They did not need any prodding. They understood what it meant to find a large group of workers who found the biting cold of winter so alien to them. The couple rushed to give them blankets, sweaters, jackets, snow boots and similar items to fend off the cold. Gigi started contacting her circle of friends, sent e-mail messages to anyone who would respond as fast as they could. As president of the Silliman University Alumni Association, Gigi has spearheaded groups that espoused charitable causes, hence lending another encore via her helping hand seemed to be second nature to her, thanks to her supportive husband.

The one ray of hope open to the contract workers lies in what opportunities they could avail of while in the country; their employer allows them to further their skills outside their work schedules. They are tied to their contract and they cannot be employed elsewhere because the contract has made it specific that the employees have but one employer on record. Any violation would be deemed illegal.

Chris Thomas, a Filipino American information technology manager, heard about the workers’ plight. He volunteered to meet with them in several batches and has encouraged them to go for the schooling they can have in Reno. Almost everyone among the 160 workers listened to Thomas’ counseling; some have enrolled for courses to enable them to be Certified Nursing Assistants (CAN) at the local community colleges. Should they be allowed to remain further in the States, and receive the required license of that assistantship, they will then have a “brighter future,” Thomas averred. He likewise warned them not to do anything “illegal,” i.e., “jumping ship,” because such an act would subject them to the status of “undocumented aliens.”
One of the contract workers who comes from Palawan, Reuel B.D. has two degrees, bachelor of science in theology and received his medical degree from one school of medicine in Manila. Articulate and bright, he is the group’s leader. He has started to show the way by listening to Thomas’ advice to enroll for a CNA, which can be attained in a few months. Another, a technology-trained worker, Albert Joseph J. who has a bachelor’s degree in business  administration, has shown interest in becoming a CNA. Two others have expressed interest in pursuing the CNA route:  Mary Jain V., a journalism graduate from Centro Escolar University, and Mary Grace G., who has two college degrees, one in elementary education.
When interviewed, the employees narrated how they “get along” with their co-workers from various racial groups and find it amusing because some of their counterparts are “learning English” from them.

There are very positive reactions from the employees. They are grateful to the FilAms who responded to them in their hour of need particularly when the temperatures were in the very low digits, which they were unprepared for. They chorused how delighted they were by their initial experiences with the snow, a virtual sign they said, that they are truly in America. The workers spoke ‘very confidentially,’ not wishing to give their full names for obvious reasons. A few stated that they have relatives in the U.S. and Canada who would be “disappointed” to learn that despite their college schooling, they accepted to be employed as casino workers. It was touching when they described their pangs of loneliness away from home and their loved ones particularly during the holiday season.

When asked what led them to Reno, their answer was identical: they referred to the economy in the Philippines where even if they had sought work and were more than willing to do what they could, they “couldn’t land any job.” They expressed a sense of hope and optimism that the kind of schooling and training as described by Chris Thomas would be the kind of assistance needed to allow them to stay if they so “qualify.”

This writer is highly impressed by the warm and generous response from FilAms who did not hesitate to lend their help. May their following increase!


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