By ALICE GREGORIO-NICOLAS
Twenty-five out of 35 Filipino workers employed by Alfasi, a Melbourne based international group of companies servicing the construction and engineering industries, are currently busy working on the wheel structure of the $100 million Southern Star Observation Wheel, Melbourne’s biggest ferris wheel. Ten of these Filipinos are welders, while 15 belong to the company’s Drafting Department. The detailers (draftsmen) do the drawings of the wheel structure which are then forwarded to the shop for production.
The ferris wheel was set-up next to Dockland as part of its tourist attraction. Early last year, the much publicised shutting down of the 40-storey high observation wheel made headlines due to structural problems. Melbourne’s summer heatwave had expedite inherent problems with the structure.
Engineers from Australia, Japan and Britain are working round-the-clock to produce a whole new wheel. “We’re doing just the wheel here. The column is still the same, we are only replacing the wheel structure,” says Merrill DeGee, Fabrication Shop Manager of Alfasi Steel Constructions which specialises in structural steel fabrication and erection, glass and facade design and construction, shop detail drafting and construction equipment. Aside from Australia, it has branches in Singapore, Thailand and Qatar. DeGee manages around 65 workers in the Dandenong, Melbourne branch.
He clarifies that although Alfasi did the previous wheel which eventually was declared faulty by independent engineers, they simply followed the specifications given to them. “We were paid for that. We followed what were requested from us. It’s more the responsibility of the designers and engineers, not us. This time they wanted a thicker one. If they were not happy with our previous performance, they wouldn’t let us do this wheel replacement,” he noted. Merril is happy to be part of this historical landmark just when they did the whole extension of the Dockland stadium, the extension of the MCG, the Souther Cross Stadium and the Brisbane International Airport. At the moment they are finishing the Singapore casino where they do parts here in Australia and ship the finished products to Singapore. The company is also finishing the Doha Airport spearheaded by an Alfasi company there. They need to finish 70 tunnels for the airport.
Filipino workers are hardworking
DeGee finds the Filipino workers working with Alfasi in Dandenong very dependable. “They are very good, hardworking guys. They work very well. No problems really,” he told The Philippine Times in an interview. DeGee would normally visit the Philippines to do the final leg of interview when they hire new staff. Recently, for example, he visited the Philippines to interview and test 11 welders. Seeing them face-to-face and actually testing their welding skills by showing them drawing plans is one process he needs to do. He has been with Alfasi for 26 years now in its 29 years of existence and his first job was fabricator and welder as well so he knows by heart how to select a good candidate. By showing a drawing plan to a prospective Filipino applicant and asks questions, he can quickly gauge the skill of that person.
Asked if the company is willing to hire more Filipino workers given the current positive experience they have with Filipino workers, DeGee smiled and gave a positive response. He admits managing this whole project is not that difficult. “Managing the people is a bit hard. Some might act difficult. Not so much with Filipino workers. Filipinos get on with their jobs. But some workers they act like kids. It’s the people really not the job itself,” he relates, adding whenever he is not happy with the work, he let his people know.
Recently, Alfasi absorbed six Filipino welders from a Melbourne company which went liquidated. There were also two more Filipino welders the company hired after a Queensland company shut down. So what is it with Filipino workers that the company like about? “They are very keen to carry on with their jobs with minimum fuss,” DeGee quips, adding Filipinos hired by Alfasi are generally soft-natured individuals. They seldom complain and would do their job with minimum supervision.
Helping other Filipino workers
Filipino welder, Arnold Javier has been with Alfasi for four years now. He first came to Australia on a tourist visa but his initial intention was to look for a job. While looking for work, he chanced upon Alfasi and applied. He told them he was a tourist but was interested to join the company. The company was at that time doing the MCG and Southern Cross Station. He was interviewed and had an actual testing. He passed the two tests with flying colours and luckily was offered the job. “I did not finish my three-month visa. After only one month, I went back to the Philippines and waited for the company’s response to my application. After three weeks of waiting, I finally got my visa,” relates Arnold. He must have been so determined to find a work in Australia or he convinced and impressed the company but this same route might not come this easy to other tourist visa holders.
To help his other co-Filipino workers, Arnold acts as the unofficial “Ambassador” between DeGee and his kababayans. Despite being industrious workers, Arnold admits some of his kababayans have limited English. If there’s an extremely important information De Gee wants communicated, he would tell Arnold and explain to him what he wanted to be done. Then Arnold, in Filipino language, would translate it to them. This way, any misunderstanding and complications are prevented and instructions followed to the letter. This system, Arnold, said is effective and works well for them. The informal arrangement benefits DeGee and the Filipino workers. Arnold and DeGee are currently classmates at TAFE for a Welding Supervisor’s course.
Arnold can vouch that Filipino workers in Alfasi are generally very good workers. “Only if they really, really need something they will approach Merril. Even if you don’t watch them, they will work on their own. Others might be on the lookout for the boss then pretend to work . With Filipino workers, they just do their work so they do not have to worry if the boss is at their back,” Arnold relates.
He agrees that welders are in demand in Australia. He is happy that Filipino welders are finding their own niche and are in fact creating a good impression among Australian companies because of their work attitude. The Philippine government, he said, should take the cue. “The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) is the umbrella body of all training centres for welders. I taught there for one year and I know the quality of trainees it is producing. Some government officials want to close down TESDA. For them it’s a waste of money and resources but what they do not see is the need to remove corrupt people from their positions. It is important to remove these corrupt people and put deserving individuals. Because when you remove TESDA, it would only lead to another avenue for corruption. I suggest the government should just develop and improve the training and focus on the assessment,” he explains. He said TESDA is on the right track but needs beefing up in terms of funding, training and assessment
Life in Australia
There are three things happening in Arnold’s life that he is currently happy about: his work, his family and his dream house at Cranbourne set to finish this December. These are the blessings before his eyes from his dedication and hardwork, working Monday to Saturday. Sunday for him is sacred being a day for the Lord and his family. After a year of working with Alfasi, Arnold sponsored his family. They seem to have integrated quite well with the Australian way of life. “I tell my kids, the definition of life is here in Australia. You don’t need to think about your future. As long as you work hard and know your priorities,” he said.
Years from now, what Arnold does for Alfasi and its Southern Star Observation Wheel will form part of Australian history and the wheel becoming an Australian tourism icon. How does it feel being part of such an historical project? “Of course I feel proud. I want to show how good the Filipinos are. This is not an ordinary project. We are part of history here, especially in my case because not all of us in this company are given the chance to work on this wheel project. So I feel honoured,” he said.
The Philippine Times was able to meet the Filipino staff at the kitchen while they were having their lunch break. They were enjoying little stories and partaking of their packed lunch. One was having rice and fish with coconut cream. They seem to be a happy bunch and value their work very much. The core of everything they do is of course providing a good life for their families. And the smiles and the eyes of Arnold and his fellow Filipino workmates reveal that indeed they find Australia as their second home. They are in fact doing their own small contribution to what would become Australia’s exciting tourist attraction and entertainment provider- – the Southern Star Observation Wheel.