February 25, 2007

Mobile phones not just for sending money, group shows

MANILA–Two Filipino workers need immediate assistance within 24 hours, Riyadh-based operators of a six-month old mobile phone helpline service system revealed.

According to a Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-based group of overseas Filipino workers, some 250.2 OFWs have sent short messages via their wireless handheld telephones and required direct intervention or assistance.

“Since its launching last February 14, our archives show us an average of four to six SOS messages a day just for KSA alone—minus those walk-in calls from all over the region,” an electronic mail from advocacy group Pusong Mamon Task Force said June 24.

This means that within 130 days, a total of 780 messages have been received by the SOS SMS [short message system] Hotline System of PMTF and the nongovernment group Center for Migrant Advocacy Philippines.

PMTF said that 60 percent of these SOS messages required “para-legal counselling on various labor and welfare problems, 25 percent require [d] direct intervention or assistance, while the remaining are plain queries on various government services.”

This means that some 468 messages sent to the system were about labor- and welfare-related issues, 195 were cries for help, and 117 were requests for information on government services.

“Let us give OWWA/DFA [Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration/Department of Foreign Affairs] the real stuff in terms of archived data requiring 24/7 attention,” wrote PMTF executive Rashid Fabricante.

Fabricante is asking for a “full-blown propagation campaign or an outreach program to distribute SOS cards/info to all departing and on site OFWs and their dependents.”

He cited that the information should include “all the hotline GSM numbers and fax of ranking [foreign affairs] officials per respective region to enable OFWs [to] follow-up their cases after providing them the first level of assistance.”

“From that time on, our database will contain [a] significant [number] of critical messages that will compel above line agencies to adopt” a memorandum of agreement, Fabricante added.

Such tall order indeed, to think that the project only began over a dinner of chili shrimps, sweet and sour pork, and yang chow rice nearly two years ago.

Poll vault

IT WAS for a reunion dinner for Riyadh-based OFW Vic Barrazona when the concept of an SMS network was conceived.

Barrazona, however, initially envisioned the system as a way to make the polling and registration of OFWs easier, especially in view of the dismal showing of the sector during the 2004 presidential elections despite the passage of the Absentee Voting Law.

“Through polling, we could find out the real stand of the OFW on several issues and through registration, the authorities would be able to pinpoint the exact location of each and every OFW who left the country, documented or undocumented,” Barrazona said.

“Never again would an undocumented OFW remain invisible as almost 100 percent of Filipinos abroad owned a cell[ular] phone,” he added.

Indeed, because of lesser costs, the mobile handheld phone has replaced fixed lines as means of communication between an estimated 8 million Filipinos in nearly 190 countries and their families, relatives, and friends in the Philippines.

According to research group ACNielsen, cellular phone ownership has reached almost 60 percent of the population this year from just above 30 percent six years ago.

“In the Philippines, which has had more mobile than fixed telephone subscribers since 2000, mobile subscribers continue to multiply. By the end of 2005, the country had about 40 million mobile subscribers—six times more than in 2000,” According to the World Bank’s 2006 “Global Trends and Policies in Information and Communications for Development.”

The Bank’s study cited that the country in 2004 had 387 mobile subscribers for every 1,000 people, shooting up from just 84 six years ago.

hat figure is higher than the average population of mobile subscribers in the East Asia and Pacific region (248 for every 1,000 people) and for the lower-middle income group (255).

Two years ago, Barrazona saw the SOS function as a mere corollary to the two other functions of polling and registration of OFWs for the absentee voting.

Little did he know it would later become the number one function, side by side sending remittances offered by the country’s two major telecommunications firms last year.

While the latter was lauded by monetary officials as having slashed remittance fees by half, Barrazona’s year-old idea remained unattractive to gain financial support from foreign affairs officials.


BARRAZONA said he broached the idea to executives at the Philippine Embassy and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Riyadh.

“Efforts went nowhere,” Barrazona, who was excited about the simple registration function of the SMS system, added.

CMAP’s Ellene Sana added that the government already installed SMS systems, e.g., for complaints on airport services, but these were rendered ineffective by the lack of funds.

Still, this did not deter Barrazona who tapped not only CMAP but several like-minded individuals like Joseph Henry Espiritu who worked with him at the Saudi Telecommunications Co.

“He is the lone brain of the software codes; the indefatigable programmer of the software components of the system. He continuously improves the system including developing a web-based components for online access of the SOS messages logs,” Barrazona said.

He also called in Roberto Soriano, a database administrator with the Manila-based NGO Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD).

According to Barrazona, Soriano provided the systems facilities, software installation, operation and maintenance of hardware components, and security, among others.

Soriano also put up a website related to this project, Barrazona added. “My role is more on project administration.”

Sana sought sponsors for operational budget—money was raised to buy a modem in Singapore—as well as led to taking actions from the Philippines’ end on the SOS messages received.

Up to now, the four meet via teleconference to fine-tune the system, making sure it runs properly and adding innovations to keep the system user-friendly.

Sana said that since 90 percent of the SOS messages originate from the Middle East, most of these go to Fabricante’s mobile unit.

Initially, Sana received these messages but she has since stopped doing so as most of these arrive at night, when she’s already sleeping. Riyadh is five hours earlier than Manila.

Despite the absence of monetary support from government, Sana said the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (OUMWA) also receives SOS messages.

CMA has already signed an obligatory memorandum of agreement with OUMWA although one with the OWWA still has to be made.

This is deemed the more important recipient since it is the OFWs welfare agency, Sana added.

She spoke to OFW Journalism Consortium months before some 30,000 Filipinos were trapped in the fierce fighting between Israel and Hizbollah guerillas in Lebanon.

Fabricante has cited the need to present to OWWA and the DFA the actual communication expenses that the CMAP and Pusong Mamon TF incurred “in attending to all these SOS messages and maintaining the system.”

“[It] will give them an idea how much capital outlay is needed to maintain such a system before they can say they don’t have the manpower and logistics to adopt such a worthy project,” Fabricante added.

[Reach SOS SMS Helpline via typing “SOS” on a mobile handheld phone and send to: +63 9209 OFW SOS or +63 9209 639 767. Check with the local telecommunications provider for charges and service availability.]

Julie Javellana-Santos, (OFW Journalism Consortium, Inc.)

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