Wednesday, September 30, 2015

NO MORE 'SUBSTITUTION' UAE announces labor reforms to protect foreign workers

ABU DHABI - The United Arab Emirates, a business hub long dependent on guest workers from Asia, announced labour reforms on Tuesday to protect foreign workers, who rights groups say are often abused by employers and prevented from changing jobs.
The trade, energy and investment powerhouse is one of several Gulf Arab states whose treatment of foreign workers has been criticized repeatedly by campaign groups demanding the repeal of what they consider oppressive labour laws.
Much of this concern is focused on a sponsorship system known as "kafala" that most Gulf states enforce on foreign workers. It not only regulates entry and residence, but also requires they seek permission from employers to change jobs.
Labour Minister Saqr Ghobash said that from January 2016 the UAE would take steps which, when completed, would get rid of "all the practices that were associated with kafala".
He outlined steps strengthening the right to change employer and preventing "involuntary labour" by lodging the workers' contracts with the labour ministry rather than with the employers, who currently hold the documents.
"The worker cannot, under any circumstances, be made to, or otherwise be compelled, to remain in an employment relation," a ministry statement said.
Lower wages
A reorganisation of labour contracts would also stop so-called "substitution", where foreign workers sign one contract before they leave their home country and are compelled to renegotiate lower wages when they arrive in the Gulf.
Guest workers do many of the dirty and dangerous jobs in the region, from construction to the oil industry, transport and services. They account for nearly half of the roughly 50 million population of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and about 4.5 million of the nine million UAE population.
Most blue-collar workers in Gulf Arab states are hired on contract from countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, many of whom have come to the Middle East to escape poverty in their home country.
Typically employed on low wages, workers are usually housed in camps with basic facilities on the outskirts of cities.
In many Gulf Arab states, passports of guest workers are held by the sponsor for the duration of their contracts. Although this is banned in the UAE, the practice survives.
Asked if reforms on wider issues of labour abuse were in the pipeline, Ghobash replied there was no country that stopped improving its labour situation, but the process took time.
Nicholas McGeehan, UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the move against contract substitution "is a huge improvement and something we would fully support and applaud" and it was "good to see" the UAE feeling the need to reform.
But he said many steps did not appear particularly new or ground-breaking, and rights groups wanted evidence of change. Reuters

Pinoys abroad ask Comelec to reconsider plan to de-list 160,000 overseas voters

Several Filipino organizations abroad have asked the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to reconsider its plan to de-list some 160,000 overseas Filipino voters who failed to vote in the 2010 and 2013 elections.

In the five-page petition, the groups cited several reasons why Filipino overseas absentee voters failed to vote in the last two elections, among them pressing security concerns and highly-mobile occupations. Some, they said, live or work in areas that are far from the polling places.

"The very fact that they registered to vote should be appreciated — which means that they have not forgotten their homeland and wish to still be involved in choosing the country's leaders," the petitioners said.

The Comelec last August said registered overseas absentee voters who failed to vote in the last two consecutive elections are likely to be delisted, and are scheduled for deactivation by the Resident Election Registration Boards.

Section 13 of the Overseas Voting Act provides that the COMELEC shall deactivate and remove the registration records of any person, who did not vote in two consecutive national elections.

But according to the petitioners — which included the Global Filipino Diaspora Council (GFDC), US Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG), European Network of Filipino Diaspora (ENFID), Middle East Network of Filipino Diaspora (MENFID) — overseas Filipinos must be given consideration for their billion-dollar contribution to the Philippine economy.

"A country like the Philippines should do everything to give a leeway for its citizens to participate in democratic exercises and not penalize those who failed to vote twice by depriving them of their suffrage rights," they said.

They added that the Comelec's plan would be detrimental to its goal to have more overseas absentee voters to participate in the 2016 elections.

"COMELEC destroys its own overseas voters registering campaign goals and those of the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and CFO (Commission on Filipino Overseas) and those of many private individuals and civic organizations when it is so ready to summarily disenfranchise thousands already registered," the groups stated.

Comelec spokesperson James Jimenez has yet to respond to GMA News Online's inquiries while Chairman Andres Bautista could not be reached for comment. Rie Takumi/KBK, GMA News

45 more Pinoys repatriated from Libya –DFA

A group of 45 Filipino health professionals based in central and western regions of Libya safely arrived in Manila on Tuesday after they were evacuated from strife-torn Libya, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

The 45 were escorted by personnel from the Philippine Embassy in Tripoli through the Ras Jdir border and were flown back home through Tunisia after availing of the embassy's repatriation program, the DFA said.

They arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 at 4:35 p.m. on Tuesday.

Libya was placed under Crisis Alert Level 4 (Mandatory Repatriation) in July 2014 due to the "extremely unstable" situation there following months of political turmoil.

The latest batch brought the total number of Filipino repatriates from Libya to 5,461.

The DFA, meanwhile, urged the remaining 3,093 Filipinos in Libya to arrange their repatriation with the embassy in Tripoli as soon as possible due to the ongoing security crisis that claimed some Filipinos in the past.

Two Filipino sailors were injured in an airstrike on a Greek vessel in Libya last January, while four Filipinos were abducted by armed men off an oil field in Central Libya in March.

Also in March, a Filipino was killed in a spate of bombing incidents in Zawiya that left three other OFWs injured. —Rie Takumi/KBK, GMA News

Solon seeks to increase tax exemption on balikbayan boxes to $2,000

A lawmaker has filed a measure seeking to raise the tax and customs duties exemption of balikbayan boxes from US$500 to US$2,000.
House Bill 6156 filed by AGAP party-list Rep. Nicanor Briones calls for the amendment of the National Internal Revenue Code (NIRC) and the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines to raise the exemption of OFWs balikbayan boxes and personal effects from tax and custom duties.
Under the measure, the personal effects of OFWs and other returning Filipino migrants or residents abroad whose value does not exceed P100,000 will also be exempt from customs duties and taxes.
The bill provides that the values for exemption of balikbayan boxes’ contents should be adjusted accordingly every six years following its passage using the Consumer Price Index as published by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
Briones, chairman of the House of Representatives committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, was prompted to file the measure after the Bureau of Customs drew flak for its plan of random inspection of balikbayan boxes, with the end goal of collecting more taxes. The directive was eventually scrapped.
In seeking the bill’s passage, Briones said OFWs consider balikbayan boxes as “symbolic of their love” because these are packed with “simple items” they picked for their families and loved ones, such as household items, books, and soap.
“And now even these small, simple gestures of love has come under the radar of the BOC,” he said.
HB 6156 has been referred to the Ways and Means committee for further deliberation. —ALG, GMA News

$400 minimum wage for Pinoy helpers in Malaysia must be adhered to –PHL envoy

Employers in Malaysia must adhere to the $400 minimum wage for Filipino domestic helpers regardless of the exchange rate, according to Philippine Ambassador Eduardo Malaya.

"It will be unfair for our mothers and daughters to earn less here [in Malaysia]. The minimum wage for Philippine domestic workers is fixed at US$400 per month everywhere," The Star quoted Malaya in a report on Tuesday.

Malaya made the statement in light of the Malaysian ringgit's decline in value against most major currencies except for the British pound sterling.

Malaya stated last May that Filipino domestic helpers would actually benefit from ringgit's depreciation as their salaries are "reflected in US dollars" and therefore would allow them to get higher salaries.

“Previously, Malaysian employers paid RM1,200. Now they have to fork over RM1,700,” Malaya said.

He said his office sent a reminder to all employment agencies in Malaysia to enforce the minimum wage rule in the employment contracts of overseas Filipino workers. Rie Takumi/KBK, GMA News

Pinay rape victim in Saudi Arabia undergoes brain operation

A Filipina underwent operation last week in Saudi Arabia to remove the blood clot in her brain that she sustained after she was allegedly raped.

report on Arab News on Tuesday said the victim — 25 years old and from Kabuntalan, Maguindanao, based on her passport — was brought to the hospital by Red Crescent. She was reportedly first brought by her employer to the Saudi Social Welfare Agency (SWA).

According to Migrante-Middle East, the victim was brought by her employer to SWA on September 19.

Migrante-Middle East spokesperson Francis Dungca told GMA News Online that the OFW was lucid enough during her arrival at the facility that she was able to relay a few details about her condition.

Photo courtesy of Migrante-Middle East

"Ang sabi sa amin ng kasamahan namin sa Social Welfare Agency ng Saudi, pinakain daw siya ng silicon at clay ng kanyang employer. Matapos ang ilang araw, hindi na siya nakakatayo, hindi na makapagsalita, hindi na rin makausap ng normal," he said.

The OFW supposedly fell unconscious before she was able to identify who had sexually abused her.

According to Dungca, the victim was also able to tell SWA authorities that she was actually 17 years old, contrary to the information stated on her passport.

"Pinepeke nila yung kanilang mga pasaporte. Nakahawak na ako ng limang kaso na ganito. Ang common [trait] nila is galing lahat from Mindanao," he said.

Dungca said the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Saudi Arabia could easily trace back the victim's employer due to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency's database of licensed agencies deploying Filipino workers abroad. Rie Takumi/KBK, GMA News

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wildfires push Californians to high-risk insurance market

LOS ANGELES  - There are lots of reasons people live in California's Modjeska Canyon.
Nestled against the mountains and abutting the Cleveland National Forest, the area has abundant wildlife and access to nature, yet is just a 20 minute drive from larger Orange County communities.
But the things that make Modjeska appealing have also made homes there and in other wildfire-prone parts of California increasingly difficult to insure.
In the last decade, major wildfires in California - and losses in the billions of dollars - have led some big insurance companies to stop writing homeowners policies for many of the nearly 2 million households that are considered at high risk of fire.

Allstate Corp, for instance, in 2007 stopped writing new homeowners policies in the Golden State altogether. Others, like Farmers Insurance and State Farm, have become more discriminating about the areas they will insure homes.
Californians who can't find insurance in the traditional market can purchase limited fire coverage from a state-established consortium of insurance companies.
Yet data shows that many homeowners who have been denied coverage by standard insurers are not flocking to the state plan, which is both more costly and far less comprehensive than traditional homeowners' policies. Rather, they are increasingly signing up for specialty policies provided by companies best known for insuring unusual risks such as major construction projects, kidnapping or rare art collections. Such policies are still expensive, but offer more coverage than the state plan.
Bonnie Smith, a landscape designer who has lived in Modjeska Canyon since 1981, said the availability of traditional homeowners insurance plans tightened after a 2007 fire destroyed several homes in the canyon.
"People that move in here have a heck of a time getting insurance," she said.
Allstate canceled Smith's $1400-a-year homeowners policy in 2012, and Smith considers herself lucky that she was able to find a $2100 policy with Lexington Insurance, the specialty insurance arm of AIG.
And she isn't the only one. Thousands of Californians in hilly, forested areas have also signed up for such policies in recent years with companies like Lexington, Lloyd's of London, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co unit Scottsdale Insurance Company and Foremost, a unit of The Farmers Exchanges. So-called surplus line insurers wrote 23,120 homeowners policies in California in 2014, a 91 percent increase from the 12,097 written just two years earlier, according to the Surplus Line Association of California.
"In the past two years it's really taken off, and most of that is really driven by the fires," said Andy Fletcher, an insurance broker with Scottish American in Sacramento who connects insurance agents with surplus line homeowners policies.
Fletcher writes about 2500 policies a year, he said, and expects that to climb above 3000 next year after the latest wildfires in Northern California, which destroyed hundreds of homes. About 80 percent of the policies he writes are for homes in high fire areas, he said, adding that they probably cost about twice as much as a standard policy.
Surplus line insurance is meant for higher risks, and insurance brokers must show that they cannot get coverage for their clients in the standard market before they can get a specialty policy.
The companies that offer those policies must be approved by the California Department of Insurance, but their rates are not regulated like those of traditional insurers.
"I have some concerns that the main line insurers are justifying their exit from some areas by the fact that there is a surplus lines market," said Erin Ryan, principal consultant for the state's Senate Insurance Committee. "If we see substantial growth in the surplus lines market then there is something wrong. It's meant to be for unusual situations and unusual risk. Not for your basic homeowners insurance."
Part of the attraction of specialty policies is they offer more coverage than the state-sponsored program, known as the California FAIR plan. The FAIR plan offers a basic plan that covers fire and will only insure up to $1.5 million for a structure and its contents. That means people have to look elsewhere for other coverage that would normally be included in a standard homeowner's policy, such as liability for accidents or injury.
The number of policies under the FAIR plan has been flat for the last two years. And nearly 80 percent of the FAIR plan's 126,000 policies are in urban areas with no wildfire exposure, according to Anneliese Jivan, president of FAIR.
"I'm pretty certain that some of the policies are being picked up by the non-admitted carriers," Jivan said. "They are not coming to us."
Randy Ballinger, a retiree who owns a 900-square-foot A-frame house in the Southern California mountain community of Running Springs, said he didn't even consider the FAIR plan because he heard it was expensive. So when Farmers rejected him, he ended up with a $1200-a-year policy with Foremost.
Ballinger pays slightly less to insure a far larger three-bedroom rental property in a lower-risk part of town with Farmers.
Traditional insurers acknowledge that they are reluctant to insure in some fire-prone areas. "As much of the industry has done, we continue to evaluate wildfire exposure and risk," said Trent Frager, a spokesman for Farmers Insurance.
For property owners, that can mean fewer choices and higher prices. "It's killer," Ballinger said. "I just want to ignore how much I'm paying and be glad I have it."    Reuters

All-Pinay group 4th Power advances to next challenge in ‘X Factor UK’

All-Filipino girl group 4th Power has advanced to the next stage in "The X Factor UK" after another high-octane performance Sunday night.

In the second audition round at Bootcamp, the four sisters — Mylene, Celina, Irene and Almira Cercado, aged 19-27 — took on David Guetta’s hit "Titanium," earning them positive responses from the judges.

"That’s an audition," said host Olly Murs.

Judge Simon Cowell said that the performance "wasn’t as strong as their" two other auditions, but quicly added that he would love to work with them.

The video of 4th Power's first audition where they performed Jessie J’s hit "Bang Bang" has gone viral and has amassed over 15 million views on shows official YouTube channel in the last four weeks.

4th Power now moves on to the Six Chair Challenge that starts next week where they will compete with 14 other acts in the Group category.  

The Six Chair Challenge will whittle down each category, Girls, Overs, Boys, and Groups, to just six acts each.

Although not shown in Sunday’s episode, another Filipino, Neneth Lyons, the 37-year-old full-time mum from Chelmsford, also made it to the Six Chair Challenge as part of the Overs category.  She competes with 16 other acts in the category. —KBK, GMA News 

Mentorship program between NYC and young Fil-Ams explored in meeting

Consul General Mario de Leon (center) with Maria Torres-Springer, Gianlucca Galleto of EDC’s International Affairs, Ledy Almadin of the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce New York, and Consul Felipe Carino. The FilAm photo

Consul General Mario L. De Leon, Jr. on September 11 made a diplomatic visit to the office of Maria Torres-Springer, who was recently named president of New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

Torres-Springer is the first woman — and first Filipino American — to be appointed to lead the EDC, which serves as the economic arm of the city. The agency is responsible for promoting economic sectors of interest to the city as well as supporting innovation and increasing economic activity.

De Leon said that the Consulate General is working with and through the Philippine-American Chamber of Commerce to support the growth of Fil-Am small businesses.

He would like to see, he said, the promotion of Fil-Am small businesses and their increased access to technology and innovation. He believes that Filipinos can derive “immense benefit in navigating and accessing services that support small and medium-sized businesses in NYC.”

Torres-Springer stated that Mayor Bill de Blasio administration’s thrust is to promote inclusive economic growth, and that EDC is tasked with a target of 200,000 affordable housing for residents.

She said the EDC is supportive of technological innovation, applied sciences, engineering, and real estate, as she cited Cornell Tech as an example of an institution that is combining and harnessing technology, academic and real estate sectors for a single purpose.

De Leon suggested that NYC and his office enter into cooperation in the academic sector where younger generation FilAms involved in IT innovation can access training and educational opportunities in the City.

He said a “mentorship program guided by NYC academic institutions, can help institutionalize learning and innovation in the Filipino community.”

He further said that potential cooperation between NYC and the Philippines may include exchange of experiences and experts in public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects and government real estate redevelopment.

De Blasio appointed Torres-Springer in June as the first woman to lead EDC, the agency that will focus on positioning NYC as capital of innovation, tech and advanced manufacturing to help businesses grow.

She was previously the commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services.

“Maria has a proven track record opening doors for New Yorkers and working closely with businesses to grow our economy,” said De Blasio in a statement. “We are proud to have her lead EDC. Maria will focus on growing vital sectors in our economy, and preparing New Yorkers to seize those opportunities so they can be a part of our economic success story.”

As commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services, Torres-Springer has focused the agency’s work around creating good jobs, stronger businesses, and a fairer economy, according to a statement.

Under Torres-Springer’s leadership, SBS launched Small Business First, a collaboration among city agencies to change the way government interacts with small businesses and improve the city’s regulatory environment. Also during her short term, the city launched Women Entrepreneurs NYC (WE NYC) that seeks to expand the economic potential of women entrepreneurs across the five boroughs.

Before being appointed commissioner of SBS, Torres-Springer served as the executive vice president and chief of staff at the EDC. She has also served at the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development & Rebuilding as a Senior Policy Advisor and as the Chief Operating Officer of Friends of the Highline.

Torres-Springer received a B.A. in Ethics, Politics and Economics from Yale University and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters. —The FilAm

Video shows how UK visa is just five steps away for Pinoys

In order to reassure first time visitors to the United Kingdom that the visa process is straightforward, UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) has launched a new video explaining each step of the process – from filling out the form online, giving fingerprints at the visa application center, to receiving the visa.

"Our visa system is designed to make it as straightforward as possible for visitors to apply for their visas," British Ambassador to the Philippines Asif Ahmad said in a statement Monday. "The launch of this video is a further example of the improvements we are making to the visa service to make it quicker and easier for Filipino visitors to apply for a UK visa."

As of June 2015, the UKVI has issued 34,381 visit visas to Filipino nationals, a 15-percent increase on the previous 12 months, British Embassy records show.

Meanwhile, as of June 2015, the UK issued 57,275 visas to Filipino nationals, a 14-percent increase on the previous year.

"We already get around 34,000 Filipino visitors to the UK every year. And we want to see even more," Ahmad said.

The UK has two Visa Application Centers in the Philippines located in Makati City and Cebu. The British Embassy said it continues to make improvements to make the service more user-friendly, the embassy said.

In February, UKVI introduced an optional 24-hour super priority visa service for customers who want a decision within a single working day.

Other options for interested applicants are as follows:

-- An optional priority visa service which places an application to the front of the queue. The British Embassy said it aims to process priority applications within three to five working days.

-- A prime time service in Manila for customers who require an appointment outside of usual business hours.

-- A passport pass-back service which enables customers to retain their passport while their visa is being processed.

The British Embassy noted that 90 percent of visa applications were successful.

"During the same period the average processing time for a non-settlement visa was seven days," it said. —KBK, GMA News 

Monday, September 28, 2015

PhilHealth Showcases Innovations in Services and Benefits

September 10, 2015

PhilHealth Taps PLDT Alpha Enterprise to Enhance Existing Communication Links

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