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New welfare officer says her heart is with workers

04 June 2018

By Vir B. Lumicao

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration’s newest welfare officer in Hong Kong may have been destined to serve the working class.

Virsie B. Tamayao, a 57-year-old social worker by profession who hails from Cagayan province, says this predilection began after she graduated from St Paul’s University in Tuguegarao in 1982.

“My heart is with the workers. Ever since I’ve worked, first with farmers, then with workers, and now with OFWs,” Tamayao told The SUN in an interview on May 24. It was her first day on the job, having flown in from Manila the night before to take up her post at the OWWA Hong Kong office.
Virsie B. Tamayao

By noon, Tamayao had spoken to about a dozen OFWs who made inquiries or brought up problems about their employers. Other workers went to the OWWA office on 16th floor of Mass Mutual Tower for wage, severance or long service pay computations.

Once, at the beginning of the interview, she took a call from an OFW and patiently listened for about 5 minutes to the worker’s woes, before tactfully telling her to go to the Hong Kong Labour Department.

Tamayao’s job path has seen her dealing with workers from the beginning. She first worked for the National Irrigation Administration regional office where her daily routine was talking with farmers. Then she became a community organizer of farmers for some time.

In 1999, Tamayao joined the OWWA Region 2 office in Tuguegarao as a social worker. She would later be promoted to community development officer, assigned overseas twice – to Abu Dhabi in 2005-2007 and later to Seoul, South Korea, in 2013 – before returning to the same office as overseas workers welfare officer.

Tamayao told the SUN that before coming to Hong Kong, she went through immersion in the home office where she was briefed on the usual OFW problems in Hong Kong and the kind of assistance the workers here needed.

Worker situations vary from place to place, she acknowledged, citing the difficult conditions in Abu Dhabi where the OFWs are mostly domestic workers, and the better lot of OFWs in Korea simply because they are in higher job categories.

“Previous welfare officers here, such as Mila Peña, say that Hong Kong is totally different because problems are easier to settle than in the Middle East, as the workers are covered by labor laws and employers are easier to talk to,” Tamayao said.

But she said she has yet to see for herself the real picture and can only make the comparison after her tour of duty.

For Hong Kong-based OFWs, Tamayao says she will follow what she did in Korea, that of pursuing existing programs that prepare the workers for reintegration once they decide to return home. These programs include training in financial management, employable skills, livelihood projects, and businesses that will enable the workers and their families to sustain their daily needs.

But she said the preparations do not just involve the workers: it must also encompass the workers’ family members. So, while the mother or father is working abroad, OWWA operatives reach out to their families to teach them about their responsibilities.

“Ang reintegration ay hindi lang sa OFW nakatuon kung hindi maging sa pamilya niya para mintindihan nila na uuwi rin ang OFW pagdating ng panahon,” Tamayao said.

The spouse must know how to manage the money and save, while the children must finish their studies so the hard-earned money is not wasted.

Tamayao is married to a social worker who is now retired and will join her shortly in Hong Kong.
Their four children are now professionals, two of whom are OFWs. The eldest is a nurse working in the Middle East, the second is a lawyer of the Public Attorneys Office, the third is a seaman, and the youngest has just earned his diploma in international studies.

For the next three years, the presence of Tamayao in Hong Kong should provide comfort to the city’s growing army of OFWs.

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