Conferido talks on delay in caregiver deployment

Interview by Benigno D. Tutor, Jr.

Philippine Labor Attache Reydeluz D. Conferido has been through the most tumultuous time in his Tokyo stint, arduously trying to shore up the country’s employment niche in Japan’s entertainment industry since he assumed his post on November 1, 2004.

conferido_pt.JPG Labor Attache Reydeluz D. Conferido reminds us that other countries will not sit still while the Philippine Senate drags its heels on the bilateral free trade agreement with Japan allowing a limited number of Filipino nurses and caregivers.

However, Japan finally enforced its Action Plan on Anti-Human Trafficking through a revised Immigration Law passed in March 2005, which effectively halted the deployment of Filipino entertainers to Japan by the end of that year. For the entire 2006, not more than 5,000 Filipinos have been allowed to Japan to work as entertainers.

With the signing of Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) on September 9, 2006, Conferido had hoped to usher in a new era for Philippine labor deployment, focusing on the more high-end caregivers and nurses. But the process of unhinging this frontier is stalled at the Senate, whose approval is needed for the first 400 nurses and 600 caregivers to be allowed to Japan.

Conferido recently gave Philippines Today an updated picture of the situation.

Q1: How do you foresee the vote in the Senate on the Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) to go?

R: Lately, the dynamics in our Philippine legislature have shown so many twists and turns that it would be foolhardy for anyone to boast that he could read everything definitively. However, as a believer in our democratic institutions, I am optimistic that however the dynamics flow, our legislators would ultimately vote on the basis of what they see as in the best interest of our country and in accordance with the light that God gives them.

Q2: What are specific items in the JPEPA are problematic for the Senate?

R: From what we could read in the newspapers and according to those who have attended some of the public hearings that the Senate has conducted on JPEPA, the questions that have been posed against the ratification of the JPEPA are based on the erroneous perception that the JPEPA – because it provided zero tariff to certain products that may be considered waste – could be used as justification to dump toxic waste products from Japan to the Philippines, and the feeling by certain sectors that the concessions and gains in agricultural trade did not turn in favor of the Philippines.

There are also sentiments that JPEPA negotiations should have linked the treatment of our entertainers in the discussion of the movement of natural persons.

The issue on toxic waste does not have a strong ground because JPEPA recognizes the right of the parties to enforce their respective environmental laws in relation to the import and export of products. Thus, the Philippines has the right to deny acceptance of any importation that violates our environmental laws. Moreover, JPEPA upholds the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and Their Disposal. Thus, the parties cannot ignore the environmental safeguards guaranteed by that convention just because of JPEPA.

On the issue of the fairness of the outcome of negotiations in the agriculture sector, I am not an expert on this matter so I will not dare comment on it. However, what I know is that the lead agencies in the various negotiation areas conducted extensive consultations with the affected sectors and negotiated on the basis of the inputs they have managed to secure from those consultations.

As in most cases, negotiations do not always result 100 percent on what we want to achieve. They involve a process of give and take that takes into account not only present day interests but also of long term views. Sometimes you make concessions in the short term so you could achieve better results in the long haul.

As regards the entertainers, the parties have agreed that the issues involving them are separate matters that are better dealt outside of JPEPA.

Q3: What happens if the Senate votes the JPEPA down?

R: This is a highly theoretical question. But should this happen, our political framework provides that the agreement could not be effective. Thus, the parties have the option to re-negotiate or to adopt a stand still option. But I believe that our legislators would take into account the hard work and good faith invested by negotiators of both countries to come up with the agreement, the imprimatur of the countries’ leaders, and the future relationship of the Philippines and Japan.

Q4: I heard that after JPEPA was signed on September 9, 2006, other Southeast Asian countries have followed suit, demanding that their health care workers be given access to Japan as well. How does this development affect us?

R: This is expected. Actually, Japan had earlier proposed a framework economic partnership agreement with the whole of ASEAN. The bilateral negotiation initiatives have been pursued because the multilateral process of trade liberalization has suffered some setbacks. But it would be difficult to turn the world around away from globalization and further trade liberalization. It is just like a rush of tide that finds various means to seek its level, in the process going around various hurdles.

And with globalization and information technology revolution, information spreads around fast, nothing is hidden, and all concerned are free to utilize those information to pursue their respective interests.

This means that our government and all concerned have to realize that others will not stand still if we do. Others will pursue their interests and compete with us. Thus, we have to act fast on our interests and utilize agreements to our advantage. We have to understand our advantages and leverages and use them to protect our cause. We could also use those information to invoke fairness from among those with whom we deal. We should make them realize that like them our people receive information from all over the world and will take the best opportunities presented to them.

Q5: Many health care operators in Japan are undermanned and are in haste to hire foreign health workers. What should we tell them about the present status?

R: We have to make them understand that our country, just like their country, is a democracy that must observe certain processes to make international treaties effective. We must assure them that the government is doing its best to win approval of the Senate for the agreement as soon as possible. But we must also inform them why our health care workers are worth the wait. We should likewise advise them to install the necessary support mechanisms to make the proposed partnership work best to our mutual advantage when it is actually implemented. For example, the training on language and culture would be extremely essential for the delivery of excellent service. Thus, we should work together to make sure that our candidates get the best language and culture training support. It is also not easy to live in Japan, given its very high cost of living. We should thus give prospective Japanese employers useful suggestions on how our workers could manage to live more economically in this country.

Q6: Why is so much focus placed on nurses and caregivers, which are subject to quota, when there are categories of profession (IT, engineers, teachers, etc.) that are not subject to such quotas?

R: The apparent disproportionate attention is probably due to the attention given to the subject by media, occasioned precisely by the consideration of the JPEPA as a media event, and the considerable attention that the Japanese gives to the issue of their ageing society.

However, we in the Philippine government have been orienting our people to the many other needs for labor market complementation facing the Japanese society, occasioned by the start of the retirement of baby boomers, the changing role preferences of young Japanese, and the ever-expanding quest of Japan for technological development.

Actually, we have more significant presence in the maritime industry in Japan than in other industries, as we provide 70 percent of its seafarers navigating international waters. Our engineers and other professionals have also made in-roads in Japan’s mainstream high technology-oriented industries. The quest of Japan to further enhance its international competitiveness and to prepare its young people to do international business dealings would soon make learning English – which is the acknowledged international language for business, inevitable and compulsory. Thus, it is really up to our people to equip themselves to take advantage of the information and opportunities we are providing them.

Q7: What are the prospects of Japan re-admitting the entertainers anytime soon?

R: Japan has not closed the door to professional performers and entertainers. It is cracking down on activities not allowed among foreign entertainers by the Japanese Immigration Law and involvement of criminal syndicates in the entertainment industry. The issue that the Philippines has on the new policy is the non-recognition of the performance experiences that Filipino entertainers gained in Japan. We believe that this is unfair as it presumes, without due process and determination, that the time spent by Filipino entertainers in Japan as entertainers were all spent in violation of Japanese laws. We are working to develop a more transparent system that would demonstrate the unquestionable capability of Filipino entertainers so that their time in Japan could be given due credit. We are also encouraging Japanese connected to the entertainment industry to give opportunities to Filipino entertainers in the higher end of the industry spectrum. We hope to regain the fame for which the Filipino entertainers were originally recognized in Japan.

Q8: How does the horizon look for Filipino labor deployment to Japan this year?

R: The Secretary of Labor and Employment emphasized during our recent Philippine Overseas Labor Officers’ conference in Manila that beginning this year our marketing efforts should emphasize pursuing higher end opportunities for our people to provide alternative employment opportunities away from vulnerable occupations. This means that we should probably look more for quality, rather than quantity of deployment. I have talked to a lot of people on this subject, and many of them agreed that this is a good direction to take. Many said that the Filipino have what it takes to succeed in better jobs, so we should encourage them to go for higher aspirations. At the same time, however, we should also take concrete measures to ensure that our people are equipped with the right skills to succeed in this more competitive world. Thus, the ultimate answer to your question of how the horizon for labor deployment to Japan will look like this year is – it is all up to us! We all have to work harder and smarter together so that the future will be brighter for all of us.