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Whiz kid tapped to upgrade POLO’s system

25 July 2019

By Daisy CL Mandap
Growing up in HK, Deverall dreamt of giving back to the migrant community here. Polaris has made the dream happen.

A 23-year-old tech whiz is set to revolutionize a 13-year-old system that the Philippine Overseas Labor Office has been using to gather data on workers, blacklist abusive employers, and monitor the performance of recruitment agencies.

Jaime Diaz Deverall, who just graduated from the elite Stanford University in California with a degree in computer science, magna cum laude, is the chief executive officer of Polaris Tools Limited, which was chosen in March this year to upgrade Polo’s computer system.

But Deverall, who is half-Australian, half-Filipino, and whose mother Benjie comes from the same prominent family as former Miss Universe Gloria Diaz, is not just any techie, but is a smart young man with a heart.
Having spent the first 13 years of his life in Hong Kong, he says he decided to come back to give back to the migrant community.

Bolotin helped create the software
“We had yayas while growing up, and I heard a lot of stories from them about the difficulties faced by migrant workers,” he said.

This claim is not difficult to believe. With his impressive academic credentials and engaging personality, Deverall could easily land a plum job in Silicon Valley, America’s tech heartland.

Instead, he decided to return to protest-wracked Hong Kong, eager to launch the system he says will greatly streamline Polo’s operations, and as a consequence, benefit the nearly 220,000 Filipino migrants who work here.
Fired by this vision, he managed to convince a fellow Stanford graduate, Jonah Bolotin to join him in the venture by taking him around Central one Sunday, and pointing out to him the throngs of women who could benefit from their work.

Deverall says he first saw an opportunity to lend his expertise to the community after he was introduced to Hong Kong University principal lecturer David Bishop sometime last year.

Bishop told him of Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre’s request for proposals to introduce a new system, and he immediately grabbed the chance to fulfill his lifelong advocacy. He and Bolotin teamed up with Bishop’s Migrasia Global Solution in drawing up the bid for a new system.
In January this year, Deverall’s group was asked to present its proposal before a panel composed of four Polo officials led by Dela Torre, and an agency representative. 

Within days, Polaris was declared the winner, besting four other contenders, including the existing systems provider, EmployEasy. The contract between Polo and Polaris was signed two months later.

Bishop served as the link to Polo
As part of its undertaking, Polaris installed 10 computers early this month at Polo, along with three routers meant to speed up the office’s internet service ahead of the installation of the new system by September this year.

All the hardware came at no cost to Polo, along with the technology and the software that took Deverall and Bolotin six months to develop, and are still fine-tuning before its expected delivery date.

And yet, despite the distinct advantage of having a new, more efficient and cost-free system that will help Polo provide speedy and efficient service to its clients, some employment agencies have opposed the project.

A letter sent to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III earlier this week supposedly by a “Group of HK agencies seeking for justice,” alleged that Labatt dela Torre had awarded the contract to Polaris without public bidding.

Deverall is quick to dismiss this allegation, pointing out that Polaris had put in a proposal, then joined four other pre-selected groups in making a presentation to the Polo panel before the contract was awarded to them.

“We won it fair and square,” he says. “As Labatt Jolly said, we won it because we were the only ones with an actual system built.”

In the anonymous letter to Bello, Bishop’s participation in Polaris was questioned, as he is well known in the industry as the founder of Fair Employment Agency, which prides itself as the first “ethical recruitment agency” in Hong Kong.

To counter this, Deverall showed papers filed with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry showing Bishop had resigned from both FEA and FEA Foundation in February and May last year, long before Polaris made the bid for the Polo system.

Even the installation of the free computers and routers in Polo was turned into a big issue by the unknown agency operators, who accused Deverall and his team of tampering with the system.

What really happened, says Deverall, was that he and his team had gone to Polo at about 7:30 that morning to install the new hardware, when a woman started screaming at them to get out, accusing them of intruding. The woman turned out to be a former staff member of an agency that was closed down late last year by the Employment Agencies Administration for serious violations of the industry’s Code of Practice.

Lyndsay Ernst of Migrasia signs contract for Polaris and Labatt Jolly dela Torre for Polo. Welfare Office Marivic Clarin looks on

In the contract it signed with Polo, Polaris is described as a social enterprise whose primary goal “is to create effective and efficient software and data solution for stakeholders involved in the employment of overseas workers in Hong Kong.”

Deverall sees the new system as a win-win project not just for Polo and the workers, but also for the agencies.

“We are going to create a lot more efficiency for Polo, but also for the agencies,” he vows.

The software will allow Polo to keep track of all the Filipino workers who come to Hong Kong, including their past work history and personal details. Employers who are put on the watch list will also appear in the system for easy tracking.

For Polo it will mean faster processing of work contracts, having information available at the touch of a button, and being able to set up an effective system of merits and demerits for employment agencies.

Agencies, on the other hand, will be able to submit bulk applications for contract verification, and pay the fee online in one go. The faster processing of work contracts should also benefit them.

After initial consultations with some agencies, Deverall says his team has seen other ways to create more values for the agencies, like helping them track the visa status of their recruits with the Immigration Department. Once the visa is released, the agency is alerted via email.

Deverall says, “They won’t have to pay a worker an hour each day just to do this.”

He adds he is keen to hold more meetings with the agencies to help make the system work better for them, too. During this process, he says Polaris plans not to charge the agencies for its services yet, as there also is a need to come up with a more equitable fee system for them.

Like with the previous system installed by EmployEasy, Polo will not pay for its use of the system. In addition, it will get to keep ownership of all data, while Polaris gets to keep the source code and copyright for the system. Polo will also have prior approval of the fees that Polaris will charge the agencies.

However, Polaris will be doing far more than EmployEasy, which was used, at best, by agencies in applying for contract processing with Polo. The additional services it promised back in 2006, like keeping track of workers and employers, were never delivered.

For Deverall, Polaris is the fulfillment of a dream that started back when he was still in grade 8 at Canadian International School, when he delivered an impassioned plea for migrant protection that won for him the top prize in a speech competition.

 “I told my Hong Kong classmate, please I know all of you have helpers, some of you treat them right, some of you don’t. I just want you to know there are some laws that discriminate against them.”

He then readily ticks off the same laws he mentioned then, like the one that restricts migrant workers’ stay in Hong Kong to only 14 days after they are fired from their jobs, and not being allowed to obtain permanent residency.

The dream lives on, and Deverall is not about to let agencies with dubious motives take it away from him, especially now that it is within grasp.
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