28 days later – essential (worker) but alone


lunch room sign

[ a shoutout and digital applause from this space to our selfless health workers who sacrifice their time, energy and safety for all our medically compromised. We can’t thank you enough! ]

IT’S NOT REALLY 28 days yet, only the 6th day as of this writing, but going by a post-apocalyptic zombie movie of the same name, living as an OFW in New Zealand in very unique and unusual circumstances for 28 days, I thought of using the movie title as my own.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared CoVID19 Alert Level 4 last Wednesday, meaning, in summary, that all non-essential industries and professions would cease operating or working, people would practice social distancing of two meters, and as much as possible and observing only strict exceptions, every household in this country of 4.5 million would stay within their household bubble for the next 28 days or 4 weeks.

I’m not a health worker, caregiver, IT or telecoms worker or a supermarket staff, but I work in an essential industry. The most I can tell you is that I work in the food manufacturing industry, and common sense dictates that the country cannot survive long without food. Thus, I have continued work as normal and have so far done my part in this national, actually global emergency, the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, which you’ve heard enough about.

[ Just so there’s no misunderstanding, people are allowed to take short walks and even runs or use their bicycles outside their homes, under the warning that everyone must observe strict social distancing every time another human being is encountered. Hopefully no one abuses or misuses this privilege, for now, in the face of all risk, public health and welfare takes priority over everything else, including the right to move around. ]

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I’ve done the following more than once before, but not altogether in one week : I’ve worked alone in a shift (but not alone in the site), worked extra hours for someone who couldn’t come to work; and worked on a Saturday. All were due to various unrelated reasons, but really, indirectly, connected to the pandemic.

My shift partner had a family matter to attend to and so had to ask me if I could carry on alone (I could, with a little difficulty); someone who was working after my shift couldn’t come to work because his scheduled driving test was postponed (as were all driving tests in New Zealand during the lockdown); and finally, extra orders for our product meant that extra production time was needed, and so the workweek was abruptly extended to Saturday. Guess who drew the short straw? Yes boss, your loyal kabayan Noel.

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I can’t complain though. I get paid overtime, I keep working when all others in non-essential industries receive a drastically reduced wage subsidy from both their employers and government, if at all, and I’m secure in my job for the next 28 days, in fact production is at an all-time high. We can’t keep up with orders and trucks can’t pick up and deliver our product fast enough.

The changes are obvious though. Where before we were discouraged from working alone, as I said above, it’s now almost commonplace that we’ll be ask to mind the machines and factory without seeing another person almost throughout the shift. Safe enough, but when there are factory issues we can’t take the regular 15-minute breaks every two hours. But it’s a small sacrifice when the factory can’t stop; it has to run 24/7 to fill the orders and requirements of all the supermarkets throughout the Lower North Island.

I carry with myself a letter written by the Managing Director of our Company, stating that because I work in an essential industry producing a commodity essential to the daily lives of millions of New Zealanders, interfering with my work would be considered harassment. My work would be the equivalent of the work of the frontliners and special workers back home in the Philippines.

Indeed, on my way to my night shift, seeing any another vehicle bearing what I assume would be essential workers is quite rare, practically none.

The week before, every time I spoke to a colleague I was admonished by the acting site manager (our site manager was stranded in Christchurch by the lockdown) to strictly observe the required 2-meter distancing, avoid face-to-face communication and not to overfill the lunchroom (see above announcement in pic). We don’t even talk with the supervisor face-to-face anymore; he calls or talks to us through our Bluetooth earmuffs (pic below) :

bluetooth earmuffs

Ultimately, although there is another person on this shift with me, I am responsible for half of the entire factory and I stay on my half alone for most of the eight hours. I monitor the steady running of the machines, make sure they do what they’re told, and I don’t see or talk to another soul the rest of the shift. Just as well, for health and safety reasons.

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Production continues indefinitely as long as there were people available and overtime work was accepted. Unless it was for medical reasons, leave wasn’t practical — where would you go and what would you do? Everything was closed down, no public transport, and the airport was closed to all but the most essential travel.

The bottom line was quickly formed in my mind. The lockdown is a shutdown. The only solution against the virus spreading was people keeping to themselves. I and my colleagues in the essential industries are the few exceptions, needed to keep people fed and comfortable in this unprecedented time.

As a Pinoy and as a migrant, this is my chance to prove my worth. Simply and decisively,  I must do as I’m told, and do what I’ve always done: work, work and work. Work until the limit of my capacity, and perhaps beyond. In that way, I do my share as a productive member of the land of my hosts. I can do no more, and no less.

Mabuhay po tayong lahat, pangalagaan po natin ang kalusugan ng buong mag-anak!

Thanks for reading!

ginigisa ng kabayan sa sariling mantika (when your countryman fries you in your own juices or oil)


Cannibalsstock_Cannibals_34640741[back home we have a saying: ginigisa sa sariling mantika; literally, being fried in your own juices or oils, when your own resources are used to take advantage of you. Doubly worse when a supposed friend or ally, your own countryman or compatriot, does the dirty deed. Thanks for reading, stay safe everyone!]

NAIVELY PERHAPS, I’VE ALWAYS been faithful to the notion of the good nature of the Filipino overseas. Sociable, team-oriented, friendly, ready to help, all embodied in our beloved term bayanihan

…and above all honest and decent. Or at least, fair.

Even when I hear about how kabayan (countrymen) take advantage of fellow kabayan in our major population centers in New Zealand, I usually dismiss this as a unique, embarrassing one-off or outlier behavior of misguided Pinoys.

That was till recently when a new flatmate of ours recounted how, regularly and as part of everyday life, Filipinos and even those he trusted took advantage of him, overcharged him and never looked out for his welfare.

Dodong* was a late and unexpected addition to our household. The previous occupant, an architecture student going to Weltec suddenly changed her mind and decided to leave last week to study medicine back home in Colombia. So Mahal and I didn’t expect a new room aspirant, much less a Filipino, to ask around for it (we put up an ad just in case, but got a reply within 24 hours) so soon. Seemed that he answered an advertiser (also Filipino) who declined because they needed a female flattie.

He asked our rate (market rate), declared he would take the room sight unseen, and would move in the same day. Wow, my maybahay (wife) told herself mentally, no one does that, told Dodong there was a bond and advance, which the kabayan accepted without batting an eyelash. He moved in with his tools and bed linen later that day.

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First chance I got, I asked Dodong, who I found out had been working on short-term projects as a carpenter the last five years in Dunedin, Christchurch and now Wellington. I believe in the wisdom of settling board and lodging as soon as possible, but why didn’t he shop around?

This was what he told me: with another carpenter he paid $160 a week each to share a room, definitely above market rates (nearly double) but because the agent herself procured the room, he had little choice but to comply.

Worse, barely a month after he moved in, the agent decided that there was enough room for two more Pinoys and the two-to-a-room became four-to-a-room, without even notice or a sori ha? from the agent. And the best (worst) part? The $160 rent obligation didn’t change, he had to continue paying the same.

The most incredible part of this OFW horror story wasn’t any of the details above but the fact that Dodong wouldn’t have left if not for two things:  first, that being on night shift, Dodong had to wait until one of the two new occupants woke up and gave him a decent space to snuggle in (!), and second, even on the days he slept nights, at least one of his three roomies had a severe snoring problem, and that, to him was the final straw. Wow.

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I wish I could tell you that this was an outrage to Dodong, but to him it was no worse than his work experience in Christchurch: there were 12 of them in the house, and four to a room was quite common during his Christchurch gig. Everything was in-your-face, no privacy at all, and although there was never a lonely moment, he didn’t miss it.

Lastly, something odd struck me with Dodong’s length of stay in New Zealand. Five years! No plans to make it permanent? As in permanent residence? After all, he was contributing to the engine of growth of Aotearoa, had a squeaky clean record, paid his taxes, and of course, always went to work as a skilled worker.

Dili man, Dodong told me. He never considered any status other than guest worker / work visa, as no one ever told him he might be eligible, and that his day consisted only of getting to work , doing the work, and getting home to work. He never thought he might be welcome in New Zealand.

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The common denominator in all these, kabayan? You don’t need to be a genius to guess it, and I’m guessing you have: He has, and has always had, a Filipino agent, and moreover a Filipino organizing his stay whenever he moves from project to project. The faces and places may change, but the system remains the same.

Squeeze the last drop out of your kabayan, and if he or she never complains, so much the better.

God bless you Dodong, you suffer in silence, but the laws of karma and the universe will never change.

Thank you for reading, mabuhay!

*not his real name.

oras nang tumigil ng pagyoyosi kabayan


THERE’S NOTHING NEW  that I can say now that you haven’t heard before. Because you’ve heard it so often I won’t even repeat it, just my personal experience and how it relates to others in my situation kabayan:

MGA NASAYANG NA PANAHON, HINAYANG SA KAYAMANANG DI MAEENJOY. Most OFWs and migrants finally wise up and quit smoking later in life, during in middle age. When you’re young and beautiful, you think you’re bulletproof and live forever, which of course isn’t true.

Now when you’re a smoker and at the same time an OFW or migrant two things are going to happen in your middle age (50 – 65 years old ish) whether or not you quit : first, you’ll start to enjoy the things you worked hard for, savings, mortgage and retirement. Second, partly because of the natural processes of aging and partly because of the years and years of exposure to tobacco suffered by your lungs, your body begins to break down, both with weakened lung function, weakened heart, and as a result, a vastly diminished lifestyle.

May these two factors (enjoyment of your life’s work and the inevitability of suffering from smoking) coexist? Maybe, for a short while. But logic, the laws of health and common sense will take over before long.

Sayang naman. Maganda ang tanawin. Nakaiwas ka sa init ng Inang Bayan. And tragically, now that you have the time and resources to enjoy life, you can’t, because you have to devote all your money to medicines and doctor’s bills.

THE UNSEEN EFFECT TO THE FAMILY. If something happens to you and you die, you leave a family looking forward to making up for your half-a-lifetime of absence (if you’re an OFW) and now unprepared for a life without you. You cultivate resentment and bitterness because you may have provided and prepared fo a financially secure life, but you neglected your own health in the process, leading to disastrous and tragic results.

HABANG BUHAY, MAY PAG-ASA. But all is not lost. There is hope. You just need to quit smoking NOW, and reap the benefits, whether you’re an aspiring OFW, or already overseas, or already a migrant. 24 hours after your stop smoking, your heart rate and blood pressure begin to normalize. A few days after you stop, your dental health improves. (please check above for the full summary) Every step of the way, good things happen to the quitter, as long as he has the intention and will to stop. By the way, this is true whether or not you are an OFW or migrant or anything.

Long ago, I started smoking and I did for 24 years. I regret ever starting, but I can’t undo that. I quit 12 years ago, and that, I don’t regret. I hope you can join me kabayan (or friends of kabayan).

Huwag mong sayangin ang mga pinaghirapan mo kabayan. Itigil na ang pagyoyosi, today and right now.

Thanks for reading!