Monday, April 6, 2020

Faces of Migration and Return: Story 1 - Alvir Catacutan

Fulfilling ALSE Dreams

The past few months have brought a series of calamities to the Philippines. Before 2019 was over, four major earthquakes rocked Mindanao and Typhoon Ursula battered the Visayas. Hopes that 2020 would start on a more positive note have been dashed by the Taal Volcano eruption and the outbreak of COVID-19. The latter has brought much of the world to a stand-still, endangering lives and livelihoods.

As of this writing, we have already heard stories of migrant workers in Hong Kong being let go as expat employers return to their home countries. Travel disruptions also inflict financial hard-ship on migrants workers that are unable to return to their job sites and have to remain in the Philippines indefinitely.

Return and reintegration are considered as the last stages of migration cycle, but how prepared are Filipino migrant workers for this? In times of grim headlines, we will focus on sharing the success stories our Ateneo Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (ALSE) graduates who have returned home for good, started their business and are still running them today.


The story of Alvir Catacutan who worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for seven years gives a glimpse how training and seminars like ALSE could help migrants prepare for their eventual return.
Alvir hails from Manolo Fortich, a first-class municipality in the landlocked province of Bukidnon in Mindanao, where large Del Monte pineapple plantations are located. Throughout his adult life, Alvir has been working for others. He was a supervisor in a big company in Cagayan de Oro City. His department handled the supply chain of their products for the whole Philippine market, including in the food sector. Alvir was contented with his job until the company changed owners and inevitable restructuring of company policy led him to quit his job in August 2009 and decided to work abroad.

Working in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was the closest opportunity he had at that time since his mother worked there for 18 years. He has heard a lot about the city through his mother that he thought he could easily adjust. By March 2010, Alvir was already on his way to Hong Kong, mentally prepared for the challenges and the new kind of life that awaited him. He conditioned his mind that in Hong Kong he was no longer an office supervisor but a simple domestic helper. It turned out that he underestimated the situation.

Male domestic helpers are just a small fraction of the total 213,000 (as of February 2020) Filipino domestic helpers working in Hong Kong. Filipino men in Hong Kong may find work as family drivers, gardeners, musicians, etc., and they tend to receive higher salaries. But as a male domestic helper, it can be a different experience. For two years, he worked as an “all-around house boyin a religious community. He was assigned in the kitchen to help prepare food daily for 150-200 people and clean large pots and pans. He worked for 15 hours a day, six days a week, and he hardly had time to rest. He lost weight because of his strenuous work and it dampened his spirit as the job felt more intolerable as days went by. Indescribably, while his life was at the lowest ebb, Alvir experienced some sort of spiritual awakening, which drew him closer to God. Here, he derived inner strength to overcome all the hardships he encountered.

Alvir changed employers in 2013, but his new job was no better. Aside from doing household chores, he also worked as a warehouse and logistics manager — a fancy job title for a delivery boy. He delivered products weighing 15 kilos per container, on the average 80 containers per delivery, to various clients and locations in Hong Kong.

Joining ALSE

I was in this desperate situation when Louisa Galleto, a good friend who attended LSE 12,    encouraged me to attend the ALSE course in 2013. I was glad I did it because it was the turning point of my life,he said.

LSE became my refuge from arduous daily work and I eagerly looked forward to attend classes every two weeks for six months. I felt my life suddenly had a purpose. I found myself back.
Through financial literacy sessions, Alvir learned how to value his hard-earned money and watched his spending habit carefully. Slowly but surely, he learned how to save. He also became more sociable and interacted with his classmates. His social networks widened, and he forged new friendships.

I have great relationship with my ALSE classmates, my fellow OFWs, specially with my batchmates. Sometimes, I have this urge to perform better during sessions, so I wont let them down.

Alvir joined the core staff later that managed the ALSE course for six months for two consecutive years. It was a memorable experience for him and broadened his knowledge in managing people. He managed the bookkeeping system and trained his assistant. Most of all, he was still eager to listen and learn new things from the same sessions that he already attended before.

I was never late or absent in ALSE classes both as a student and an a member of the core staff, which I am really proud of. ALSE was the highest point in my life while working abroad. It empowered me to reach my full potential, helping me to make my dream within my reach as I prepare for my reintegration. It gave me strength to redeem myself and restored my self-confidence to believe that one day I could make a difference. ALSE helped me defined the kind of life I want to lead,” he said.  Alvir realized that to make the best out of his stay in Hong Kong, he must have a goal in life.

Alvir started planning his business right on his graduation day. He wanted to become an entrepreneur. During his graduation testimony, Alvir said: I know myself. I can be my own boss one day. I can build a solid foundation for my dreams. I can be a man for others.Words that still resonate on his mind and to his classmates who listened to his speech.

Alvir left no stone unturned in planning for his future and finally made a life-changing plan.  During one of his earlier visits to his parent’s hometown and his own birthplace in Pamplona, Negros Oriental, he noticed small parcels of non-productive arable lands owned by his relatives. These are idle lands that the younger generation abandoned as they already lost interest in farming. He saw opportunity in making those lands productive, a skill he also learned from LSE. He negotiated with the owners of the land to rent it for P10,000 per hectare/year for five years. Alvir named his new agri-business as Alambijod Properties Cultivation, 2.6-hectare sugar cane plantation. He hired 16 fieldworkers to maintain the farm.

Alvir was grateful because he received a lot of support from his parents and relatives when he started his business. They ran and managed the start-up phase with the assistance of a close uncle in Pamplona until he could manage the business personally.

Then on April 16, 2017 after working for seven years in Hong Kong and almost three years after he attended ALSE, he was ready to go home for good.

First harvest

Negros Island produces 60% of Philippine sugarcane production. Cases of exploitation of sacadas (sugarcane workers) by large tract hacienderos (landowners) have been well documented. The hacienderos usually dictate the cost of labor, taking advantage of scarcity of jobs in the area. But Alvir had another plan. He wanted to run a profitable farm that also takes care of the welfare of the workers.

The practice in the area is to pay laborers through pakyaw system, a system of hiring a labor group for the performance of a specific work and/or service for a given period. For the specific work/service output, a lump-sum payment is made either through the group leader or divided among the pakyaw workers. Alvir let the workers decide as a group the cost of their labor, and if he thinks it is fair to him as well, they have a deal.  On the average he pays P200 pesos each worker for a four-hour work usually done from 5am to 9 am. He also plans to enroll them with basic benefits such as SSS and PhilHealth in the near future.

His business progressed as planned. He decided to cultivate the land and plant sugarcane as there are two sugar refining mills nearby like the Central Azucarera de Bais Inc (CAB) and Universal Robina Sugar Milling Corporation (URSUMCO), where he can easily sell the sugar and molasses. The sugarcanes grew well, and by February 2018, he had his first harvest.

Alvir considers his good relationship with his workers as a crucial factor in running his farm. He makes them feel that they are part of the business. He shared with the workers his hopes to help them improve their living condition while working for him. He developed camaraderie with the workers and eventually gained their trust. He is happy that he could pay the workers slightly higher than what other neighboring farms usually pay.

I find joy when I am with my workers. Looking at them tilling the land with enthusiasm and sense of responsibility makes me proud of what I am have accomplished so far. I was able to provide them work with fair salary, which I cannot imagine I could ever do it. It is a different feeling than I have while I was still working in Hong Kong. However, I am also aware there's a huge burden of responsibilities on my shoulder,” he said.

While waiting for the sugarcane to be harvested, Alvir also ventured into copra trading in Malitbog, a second-class municipality in the province of Bukidnon. His biggest challenge so far as an entrepreneur is the lack of available and affordable trucking services since there are many competing farms seeking trucking services to haul their products. Hiring a hauling truck is very expensive; it makes up almost 50% of the hauling cost. He hopes that he gets assistance to acquire a truck and a farm tractor. He also started planning coconuts. Continuing education is important for Alvir so he attends various seminars and training whenever he finds the chance to enhance his knowledge.

Chicken joy

Last year, Alvir also helped four mothers start a barbecue business in Pamplona. Applying what he learned from the LSE course, Alvir guided the women during start-up. After a few months, the women were able to buy their own freezer and they also opened a savings account. The business is going well and they hope that this becomes a regular source of income for them. They also plan to become SSS members.

At present, they are already selling Chicken Joy, bought a second-hand motorcycle with sidecar, where they grill the chicken. They are now buying chicken meat and pork by volume to meet demand.

For Alvir, the ALSE course was the best learning experience that happened to him. I learned all the lessons by heart and this is really the training that I always wanted. LSE opened my eyes to the business opportunity we have at home that I did not see before. It has changed the way I look at life and broadened my perspectives. The agri-business that I have started is built around what I have learned in ALSE program, from raising start-up capital (Financial Literacy) to managing people (Leadership) and creating job opportunity to the society (Social Entrepreneurship). I am eager to apply what I learned in ALSE. My way of running the business I believe is very well in line with LSE teachings,he said.

Dream could come true but following ones dreams is usually easier said than done. One should know what it takes to make dream happen. For Alvir, it was through ALSE that he finally found the way to achieve his dream.  Most of all, the program prepared him for his return and integration, and fortunately, it did not take him a long time to fulfil his dream.

LSE is the biggest motivating factor why I went home for good after seven years of working in Hong Kong. Now I am running my own business. I am convinced that sugar cane farming is a profitable business,Alvir said with pride and rightfully so.

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