The Philippine Senate’s “Demi Moore”

(This is an excerpt of the article "TELLING THE FILIPINO STORY TO THE WORLD : Both sides now: Senate’s ‘Lazarus,’ ‘Demi Moore’" by Cynthia Balana in today’s issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. You can also see the whole article here: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20101130-306105/Both-sides-now-Senates-Lazarus-Demi-Moore)

The lady fights graft

Long before she became a senator, Miriam Defensor-Santiago swam against the tide during her tenure as commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation (BID), now simply BI.

“Parang mga sagong hinalo (They looked rattled),” was how I described BID employees when they met Miriam on her first day at the bureau.

Miriam came to the BID in January 1988 backed by a short but impressive list of personally handpicked men and women. Some were former RAM boys of the 1986 EDSA Revolution, like Col. Bienvenido Alano, Navy Cmdr. Ruben Domingo, Maj. Wilfredo Pabalan and Maj. Noe Wong.

I was amused at how this 5’2” woman with a lean frame could turn the BID world upside down in her anticorruption campaign. Miriam instantly drew accolades as well as brickbats.

President Cory called Miriam “the brightest spot in my administration” until they parted ways a few years later for many reasons. As a young and idealistic reporter, I found myself practically breathing and living Miriam.

Like other BID employees, I reported for work as early as 8 a.m. The chief honcho was in her office at 7 a.m. I would leave only after Miriam had left. The glass door and windows of the press room, which was adjacent to Miriam’s office, made it easier for me to see her coming in and going out.

Covering her meant you had to be on your toes 24/7. Once, I followed a fuming Miriam, who had confronted an impertinent woman employee. With lightning speed, Miriam pulled the employee’s chair, causing the employee to fall off, before she made a triumphant exit.

Rearranging furniture

A different story, however, reached the media persons who had arrived late for the press briefing. They asked Miriam if it was true she hurled a chair at an employee.

Santiago grinned: “The accurate statement,” she said, “is that I was educating her. She was impudent, and in my educational zeal I may have rearranged the office furniture.”

The newsmen roared with laughter. I actually heard this employee badmouthing Santiago many times to other employees, telling them not to follow their boss.

It was a Page 1 story, but many of my veteran colleagues got it wrong because they were not there when it happened.

A flurry of Page 1 articles and exciting photos about Miriam’s feat in the BID probably earned me a niche in her heart. In her book, “Cutting Edge: The Politics of Reform in the Philippines,” Miriam mentioned my name as one of three young reporters whose help she sought in reversing the culture of corruption in the bureau.

Colorful language

In private, Miriam was the opposite of what people saw on TV. She was sweet and gentle, kind and compassionate, and above all, playful and witty. She enriched my vocabulary with her colorful language and her fondness for wordplay.

Who can forget the stinging phrase “a fungus-faced congressman who needs a lobotomy.” Or “chopping off corrupt BID employees into pieces and feeding them to the sharks in Manila Bay. But the sharks will reject them out of professional courtesy.”

She once described herself as the “Demi Moore of Philippine Politics,” referring to the actress in the Hollywood flick “Ghost,” a big hit at that time. She won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, while at the BID. And she never failed to thank me and other BID reporters for being part of that phase in her professional life.

Miriam was always ready to give in to the “whims” of my editors, who admitted that newspaper sales would zoom each time Miriam was on the front page, whether it was a photo of her at target shooting practice or playing basketball.

I lost track of Miriam after I was transferred to the Senate beat. By then, she had been appointed secretary of agrarian reform. But her nomination was repeatedly bypassed by the Commission on Appointments. She threatened to disappear in the wilderness, but not without a parting shot: “This is goodbye. I will fade into the dark like Batman.”

Unlike the Titanic, Miriam was unsinkable.

One day, I found myself in her house in UP Village. My editor in chief then, Federico Pascual, wanted me to do a story on her again.

Burning sensation

Miriam never disappointed a journalist’s lust for a good story, so I began my Q and A: “So, how does it feel to be slapped in public?” I asked, referring to the rejection of her nomination. She shot back: “Oh it’s a burning sensation coupled with irreconcilable humiliation!”

For the photo shoot, we went to a sports club in Quezon City where a PDI photographer took her pictures. It was a first in Inquirer’s history: a Q and A story and in the centerfold, a huge picture of Miriam, in a one-piece bathing suit, seated by the poolside, hugging her much talked-about “shapely legs.”

The next day, an ecstatic Pascual told me that the Inquirer had to reprint more copies of that issue. Newspaper dealers said all the copies were sold out by noon, and many were still looking for more.

When she was seriously injured in a car crash (which she described as an assassination attempt) in April 1991 before her presidential campaign kicked off in 1992, I was at V. Luna Medical Center in Quezon City and saw her for the first time in extreme pain. Her husband Jun fetched me at her request.

Miriam struggled to smile upon seeing me. She could not move. Her face was black and blue and bore stitches. I called the newsroom to tell them about Miriam’s physical state, and relayed her husband’s request not to write about her in such a state as this could dishearten her supporters.

I ceased being a journalist that day, and simply acted as a friend. What people felt in their moments of suffering mattered most to me than the desire to have another scoop. The news desk respected my decision.

After Miriam was discharged from the hospital, she sent me a beautiful letter, thanking me for “standing by me at the time when I was down and out.”

“I have no brain or bone injuries, but I have severe muscle traumas which are extremely painful. I hope to resume my public appearances by June 1 or so. If you want an exclusive interview after that time, just tell me or Jun,” she wrote.

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MIRIAM FILES MAGNA CARTA FOR CALL CENTER WORKERS

True to her word, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago filed Senate Bill No. 2604, also known as the “Magna Carta for Call Center Workers Act of 2010”, to protect thousands of call center employees in the country.

Santiago last week said that the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry needed more legislative support as reports claimed that the Philippines was on its way to becoming the world’s call center capital in the next few years.

“While the country’s economy owes a lot from the BPO sector, there is a need to balance the legitimate business interests of BPO companies with the labor rights of its employees,” Santiago said.

Her bill seeks to guarantee call center employees the following rights: the right to organize and join labor organizations; the right to a safe and healthy working environment; the right to at least a one hour continuous meal break in the middle of every eight hour shift; the right to privacy; safety for nightshift employees; and the right to be informed of the terms and conditions of their contract.

Santiago said she was concerned about reports that the local BPO industry discourages unions. She cited research conducted in various countries showing the importance of unions in the call center industry.

“The Constitution guarantees all workers to self-organization, collective bargaining and negotiations, and peaceful concerted activities, including the right to strike in accordance with law. BPO companies in the country are not exempt from this constitutional provision and should honor their employees’ rights,” Santiago said.

Santiago also emphasized the need for BPO companies to maintain a safe and healthy working environment, citing reports from both the International Labor Organization and the Department of Labor and Employment of call center agents’ susceptibility to health and occupational hazards, particularly those who work the nightshift. Reports show that they suffer from problems like stress, sleep disorders, fatigue, eye strain, and voice problems.

“These measures protecting call center employees cultivate lower attrition rates and attract more job seekers to the BPO industry, making it stronger and more productive. It therefore is in the interest of the BPO companies themselves to protect their workers who are their most important resource,” Santiago said.

MIRIAM HEEDS DALAI LAMA ON CABINET “CRISIS”

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago said she will heed the advice of the Dalai Lama to observe compassion in deciding whether to invoke her one-person veto in the Commission on Appointments over certain cabinet members.

Santiago said she learned the virtue of compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, after meeting the Dalai Lama last year in Rome, and this November in New Delhi.

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Transcript of interview – 17 November 2010

On Education Sec. Armin Luistro

I don’t have to comply with any procedure in order to impose my one-person veto, because Section 20 of the Rules of the Commission on Appointments provides that any member may move for the suspension of the consideration of any nomination, and immediately the Senate president will simply suspend. So once I file the motion, I don’t even apparently need a second person to second the motion, I don’t have to be subjected to debate by my colleagues. It’s an automatic veto, and it is unconditional. There are no conditions in Section 20. I want to test the extent of Section 20. I am very confident that if this would be raised in the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court will rule as it has always ruled that the internal rules of the legislative branch are already sufficient to itself, that the Supreme Court will not interfere with the rules. Just one person can veto the other 23 members of the Commission.

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MIRIAM: PH WILL BE WORLD’S CALL CENTER CAPITAL

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago lauded reports stating the Philippines is fast overtaking India as the world’s largest BPO industry for voice-based customer support and sales.

Santiago was in India last 4 to 6 November 2010 to attend the Tibet Support Groups Conference and meet with the Dalai Lama. The senator is spearheading the first Tibet Support Group in the Philippines, upon the request of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, India.

While in India, Santiago read reports in Indian newspapers, among them The Economic Times, expressing concern that the Indian call center industry is losing US-based clients in favor of the PH industry.

According to the news reports, PH is expected to post $5.7 billion revenues in voice-based customer support and sales for 2010. This is higher than India’s expected revenues of $5.58 billion this year. Experts also say that the PH $9.5 billion BPO industry will overtake India’s $12.4 billion industry in five years.

PH’s “better affinity with the American culture, lack of competing industries for skilled workforce, and higher tax incentives” are among the top reasons for the unprecedented rise of the country’s BPO industry.

“Curiously, the Senate in the Fifteenth Congress has yet to file any bill for the promotion of the call center industry and the protection of its workforce. I urge my colleagues in both houses of Congress to formulate laws supporting this booming sunshine industry,” Santiago said.

Santiago also said she will file a bill next week to jumpstart legislative support for the BPO industry, especially its workers.

BPO companies in the country enjoy income tax holidays from four to eight years, and a five percent tax rate on gross income after that time period. If situated in IT Parks and eco-zones, these companies also enjoy tax and duty exemption on imported capital equipment.

The boom in the BPO industry in return gives the government more incentives to improve literacy rates, increase students’ proficiency in the English language, and promote information technology education. It has also decreased the rate of unemployment in the past years.

As these companies enjoy these benefits, Santiago stressed that the rights of call center employees should be safeguarded.

“Legislators should study how our laws can adapt to this relatively new industry. Amendments in the Labor Code or an entirely different and separate law should be considered so as to protect the rights of call center agents because of their unique work environment,” Santiago said.

The senator said her office has been receiving complaints alleging rampant and stark labor violations in the call center industry. These include contractualization, union busting, unreasonable metric evaluations, compelled overtime and holiday work, and long working hours, among others. Complaints also noted the high attrition rate in the BPO industry.

“We must balance the legitimate business interests of BPO companies with the labor rights of employees. I have heard that most call center agents do not stay too long in one company either because the work becomes more and more unreasonable every year or there is no professional growth in the company,” Santiago said.