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My Life As OFW in Japan

Rolando Salamanca

ROLANDO SALAMANCA of Lupon, Davao Oriental, construction worker in Japan 1993-2013 as told to J. dela Torre.  Mr Salamanca now lives in the Philippines, unemployed and plans to open a welding shop.

By J. Dela Torre

All that Rolando ever wanted was to get a decent-paying job in Japan, save enough and return to the Philippines after a few years, perhaps go into business with the savings. He ended up going to Japan under illegal circumstances, and was an undocumented worker, hopping from one employer to another, for more than 20 years in a country which prides itself for its efficiency in spotting and weeding out illegal workers. He had outsmarted and eluded Japanese immigration authorities, driving around Japan without a license, for two decades, and would’ve stayed on longer, if it were not for his failing health.

Rolando is originally from Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, but on his teenage years, had been bitten by the adventure bug and found himself seeking his fortune in Cotabato City. A family friend who had just come from Mindanao had told Rolando that his uncle whom he had not seen for years was in Cotabato and was a neighbor of the family friend.

Not being a college graduate, he worked odd jobs both for the private sector and the government in Cotabato, but things didn’t work out for him, so when an opportunity came to move to another place in Mindanao, he didn’t dilly-dally. He packed his bags and took a long bus trip to Lupon, Davao Oriental, where rumors had it that the government was giving away public lands. Having wangled one hectare for himself in Banay-Banay, he set about raising a family in nearby Lupon. He married a lass from Batac, Ilocos Sur, an elementary school teacher. It was his wife who encouraged him to continue his education at the Lupon Junior College, where he reached third year.

Again, the plan misfired. Because of the multiple claimants to the public lands, the case was brought to court and eventually, a settlement was reached, and Rolando ended up with just half a hectare.

Rolando was already on his third year in college when he got wind of a recruitment activity for Japan in Lupon. He decided to grab the opportunity, and managed to put together P200,000 for the placement fee. He discovered later that he was going to use a passport with an assumed name, but he had no choice as he had already committed his money. Not long after, he along with two other young men from Lupon landed at Narita Airport, where they were met by a Filipino who brought them to a house in Narita City. He warned them never to go out of the house, as Japanese immigration officials were on the prowl. Rolando dismissed the warning as he had just arrived. He knew what he had was a visitor’s visa but as far as his limited knowledge of the issue was concerned, he had a right to stay in Japan and to go around at his own leisure. But he kept his counsel.

After two weeks, they received an all-clear signal, and they all fanned out and started to look for work. Rolando found one in a hotel, where he worked as room attendant. The two other guys from Lupon went off to Tokyo and Ibaraki, where they both found jobs as well.

A month later, trouble broke out. He had gone home for the day when he learned that immigration authorities were on their way to escort home some Filipino housemates who had been arrested in their work places, to pack up their things. Rolando was questioned too but he showed his passport to one of the immigration officials. Since the official didn’t know any English, the matter hanged while calls were made to headquarters. Finally, the officials decided to let Rolando go, and bundled off the illegal Filipino workers to detention. Before they boarded the immigration van, the leader of the Filipino group handed the lease contract to the house to Rolando. This meant Rolando was now responsible for the rent and other house expenses. I will have to move, he thought.

When one of the guys from Lupon came home, he learned of the incident and immediately called his boss, who operated a bento-packing business. One thing led to another, and Rolando ended up working for the new employer, packing sushis and other Japanese take-out food into neat plastic containers, ready for delivery to millions of nameless Japanese too busy to cook their own food, or to eat out. They worked there for several weeks, but knowing their visas were due to expire, they decided to go their separate ways.

Rolando found himself in the former municipality of Yokoshiba, which had since merged in 2006 with another municipality to form Yokoshibahikari. There he found an employer who constructed wave-breakers, which looked like giant concrete jackstones, and concrete artificial reefs. After a few months, when business at the new employer slowed down, he transferred at the behest of his employer to another construction company, which produced concrete manhole covers. He was afraid this was another temporary job, but Rolando ended working for two years with this new employer.

When business at the manhole manufacturer workshop went through a temporary shutdown, it was time for Rolando to move on. This time it was a junk-car recycling plant, and his job was the dirtiest and the most dangerous. He burned tires as fuel to melt down aluminum and steel pieces from junked cars, and inhaled smoke from the burning tires 8 hours a day. The heat from the furnace was also unbearable, and even during winter, he had to wear layers of clothing. Even if he washed his work clothes, and wore them again, his skin burned and itched from exposure to aluminum residue in the clothing.

“Parang tinutusok ka ng libo-libong karayom,” was how Rolando described the pain when exposed to the melted aluminum. When he was done for the day, he looked like one of those coal miners with soot all over their faces,with just their eyes and teeth visible.

He didn’t last in the junk yard, and asked a Filipino friend to rescue him. A few weeks later, the friend came under cover of night. Rolando left behind uncollected pay equivalent to 400,000 yen, but he was glad to be out of there.

His next job, his sixth, was another construction firm which made pre-fabricated concrete base for houses and buildings. Work was paid well and plentiful. There was work even on Sundays, and Rolando was just too happy to oblige because he wanted to recover what he had lost at his last employer’s. But as time went on, their salaries began to be delayed. When they investigated, they found their present employer had owed a great deal of money to his past company, and when he engaged in business on his own as a contractor, the bank collected on his collectibles directly from his principals.

Rolando persevered, banking on a Japanese custom that money owed to workers which had accumulated over the year should be paid in whole at the end of the year. He was expecting to be paid 700,000 yen in unpaid wages, just enough to pay for a car he had already ordered. But his employer reneged on his promise and just paid him 160,000 yen. Fortunately, the friend who had bought the car for him because as an illegal worker he couldn’t do it on his own, agreed for Rolando to pay in installments. He tried coming back several times to his employer to collect, but was unsuccessful until the employer ended up in hospital for diabetes.

He went looking for another employer again, this time a club, where he worked as electrician. He felt right at home because there were more than 300 Filipinas employed there as entertainers. But the business didn’t last because the owner was a profligate, spending time in beerhouses, living it up like there was no tomorrow. Before long, the business folded up.

His search for a new employer led him to another construction firm which also made manhole covers. This was where he lost his right thumb. The employer had tried to fix a malfunctioning remote control which controlled the winch which lowered the manhole cover to its packaging, but he had cocked up the repair job, and the controls were reversed. When Rolando had covered the manhole cover with its cloth lining before the 200-kg piece was lowered, the employer who was at the controls, pressed the button to lower the manhole cover. Instead of lowering, the winch rolled the cable up, crushing Rolando’s right thumb.

The surgeon gave Rolando an option: did he want to amputate the crushed thumb, or did he want to save it but without the bone? If he chose the former, he would be entitled to 1,000,000 yen compensation, but if he chose the latter, he will be paid half. He chose the latter, and for the next two months, he reported to the clinic for his physical rehabilitation and medical check-up. The thumb was saved, but it’s just skin and muscle. One month into his rehab, he asked permission to work, and when he got it, even if his wound still hadn’t completely healed, he reported for work. Three months after going back to work, the steel rod inserted inside his thumb to assist in the healing, was removed.

Again, the cyclical nature of the construction business forced his employer to let Rolando go. He looked around once more and found a job with a large construction company specializing in building houses. He didn’t stay long. Then, another employer also in the construction business who turned out to be a heavy gambler, and was not too shy about gambling away his company money, including those for his workers’ wages. The promise of 10,000 yen daily wage, plus free gasoline allowance, was reduced to 7,000. To avoid having to manhandle his employer for his duplicity, Rolando chose to resign.

By a stroke of luck, his former employer who was into house construction called Rolando to come and work for him again because business was booming. There, Rolando spent the next 12 years, burning the candle at both ends, sending money to his family, illegally driving around Japan in the car he was still paying off, and all the while keeping his eyes peeled for places where the Japanese police and immigration officials were rounding up illegal immigrants.

One day, a friend of his from Lupon called him, looking for work. Rolando was happy to recommend him to his employer, who also wanted more Filipino workers in the company. This friend had worked there for three years when, on a hot summer day, he tried to persuade Rolando to give it all up and to return to their families in Lupon for good. Rolando thought about his youngest child who was graduating that year, and he told his friend to go on ahead, and he would follow two years later.

This was a decision he would live to regret, because a few weeks later, he suffered a heat stroke. He was on top of the building they were constructing, hoisting down buckets of mixed concreting material to the ground, when he suddenly felt dizzy, and slumped down. He was brought down and iced water applied on his head and body to lower his temperature. He was revived, and, unbelievably, resumed his work.

Two days later, his condition worsened: he had a constant urge to hydrate his body, and must have drunk 4 liters of water a day. Then, the liquids were no longer coming out as urine. He self-medicated with anti-dehydration tablets. Then, he noticed his feet swelling up: he was retaining water in his body. At night, he was hearing all sorts of sounds, “like a screeching cat behind my head”. He couldn’t get himself to the hospital because he would’ve had to come to terms with the prospect of being arrested. The employer was of no help at all, scared of employing an illegal immigrant. Rolando was despondent, and was certain his days in Japan were over.

Meanwhile, back in Mindanao, Japanese nuns of the Sacred Heart congregation, who frequently visit their counterparts in Kidapawan, had decided to visit a Japanese friend, Mr. Honda, the owner of Nikki-Jin Kai in Davao, an international school where Rolando’s daughter, Michelle, had studied Nihongo. Michelle met them and articulated her desire to be a nun, and to make a long story short, was accepted by the congregation in Japan, where she continued her studies in Yokohama, unbeknownst to Rolando.

When Rolando fell ill, his wife called the congregation nuns to inform them of her husband’s condition. The nuns promised to see Rolando after five days, but the following day, they showed up at Rolando’s house. The nuns have decided to bring Rolando to Yokohama for treatment, which began with a session of acupuncture. When Michelle arrived from school, she was told her father was in one of the congregation’s villas, but to keep his presence a secret lest the Japanese police take the congregation to task for harboring an illegal immigrant. They hugged and cried on each other’s shoulders for a long time. They haven’t seen each other for more than twenty years. They marveled at the serendipity of Rolando getting sick and Michelle becoming part of the congregation, to reunite them after two decades. Rolando was a little wary that Michelle might catch whatever it was which afflicted him, and told Michelle not to get too close physically. Michelle was shocked at how his father looked: his face and his extremities were all bloated.

After several acupuncture sessions, Rolando made it known to the nuns that he wasn’t feeling any better. A decision was taken to bring Rolando to a physician, who spoke quite a bit of Tagalog, because most of his patients were Filipinos in the Yokohama area. After ruling out diseases related to the blood and to the kidneys, the doctor zeroed in on the heart, and then it was found out Rolando had ASD or Atrial Septal Defect, commonly called “hole in the heart”. After the appropriate medicines were injected to him, he let go of five kilos of water in one go.

“Parang hindi na hihinto, Sir,” he smiled sheepishly at his own recollection. Three days later, he came back to the clinic and again the same amount of urine was expelled from his system.

When he felt a little better, he asked permission from the sisters to return to Narita. The sisters refused because they had already decided to repatriate Rolando. He was accompanied by a nun to the immigration office, and the officials there couldn’t believe their ears that Rolando had been working in Japan for the last 20 years, driving without a license for 15 years, and had never been arrested.

“If I had been arrested before, I wouldn’t be here now, would I?” Rolando smirked. Rolando was told to obtain a travel document from the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo.

The nuns spent for everything in relation to Rolando’s repatriation, and per Rolando’s estimate, the congregation had shelled out 1,000,000 yen. He offered to pay part of the cost, but the nuns declined and just held on to his money. A few months later, the nuns visited Rolando in Davao and returned his money.

What has he got to show for his twenty years of working in Japan, constantly in the shadows and always hiding from the authorities, enduring the unfair and illegal treatment of his Japanese employers arising from his illegal status?

“All my six children have completed their college education, Sir,” came Rolando’s quick and unhesitating reply. “The eldest is a drug agent; the second a computer science graduate; then Michelle studying to be a nun in Japan; then another daughter married to a security consultant of a hospital in Davao; then, an HRM graduate; and the youngest, a boy, working at PS Bank.”

He plans to put up a welding shop with the financial assistance from NRCO.

What do you say to OFWs?

“You should manage your money well. Sayang ang mga sakripisyo ninyo kung iwawaldas nio lang sa sugal, babae at iba pang bisyo.”

Any regrets?

“Yes, I’ve left behind uncollected pay amounting to nearly P2 million.”