`Passport' to career disappoints

Interns: Most struggle to make ends meet as they stick with the `management' training. For others, the situation is unbearable.

April 26, 2002|By Willoughby Mariano and Walter F. Roche Jr.

ORLANDO, Fla. - On a warm February evening at a time-share resort's "casino night," guests and their children placed bets at a roulette wheel manned by a slight, cheery-looking young man from Thailand.

The money was fake, the children were not really gambling and Kittpong Rojvoraporn, 25, was not as happy as he looked.

Since July, Rojvoraporn has worked five- and six-day weeks at a job arranged by American Hospitality Academy, but he makes so little money - a $300 monthly stipend, the equivalent of $1.67 an hour - that his parents in Bangkok send him at least $100 a month to buy food and other necessities, he said.

Rojvoraporn and other AHA interns are allowed no vacation, according to company rules, and must work an extra day for each one they miss because of illness. They can be fired for revealing information to unauthorized people, having a "negative attitude" or showing "disinterest in the success" of the academy, according to written company policy.

"I came because I wanted a learning experience," said Rojvoraporn, who holds a master's in business administration from Bangkok's Mahidol University.

Before AHA lured him to America with promises to be his "passport" to a career in the glamorous hotel and resort management industry, he was an export department manager at a family company that sells tin cans.

Now, as part of his "management" training, Rojvoraporn works extra hours so tourists and their children can pretend to gamble at the Sheraton Vistana Resort.

Across the room, a man and woman placed bets with fake money at a blackjack table as their two well-dressed girls strained on tiptoes to see above the green felt. To Rojvoraporn's right, a tall window with more than 60 panes of glass opened onto a broad swimming pool bathed in lamplight.

A woman pushed a stroller and sipped beer from a bottle. Children splashed at a fountain where water fell like a cascade of pearls.

"I'm so tired," Rojvoraporn said. "I have to smile. I'm always smiling. But I'm tired of smiling.

"They just get money from us," he said of AHA. "It's not fair."

In another area of Orlando, wedged between Interstate 4 and Sea World, Rojvoraporn and other interns live in a sprawling complex of 20 nearly indistinguishable apartment buildings. Typically, four interns occupy a two-bedroom apartment, very similar to the way college students live in a dorm.

An AHA "quality of life" supervisor and a handful of managers keep careful watch on them.

For one intern, Princess Ayson, 21, circumstances had become unbearable by February. She spent her days at the Westgate Vacation Villas. At night, she shared an apartment with other interns with whom she seldom socialized.

Ayson - a graduate of Trinity College in Quezon City, Philippines - had arrived in late December hoping to gain management experience that would enable her to run a hotel. But she discovered that her training had little, if anything, to do with management.

"A high school kid can work here," Ayson said of her work at the resort. She described one task: helping guests weave dream catchers, a Native American object that hangs like a small web over a child's cradle. Legend says it captures the child's good dreams so they may enter her soul.

Like Rojvoraporn, Ayson found it impossible to live on her pay. Her mother, an unemployed singer, was unable to send money to help, and Ayson had to spend most of the extra money she brought on blankets and toiletries.

So, Ayson decided to leave with the help of some Filipino friends living in the United States. But an AHA official discovered her plan and sought to thwart it. While Ayson was gone, the official entered her apartment and locked her bedroom door, according to another intern.

Ayson didn't have a key. Her clothes, suitcases, passport and travel documents were inside.

So when her friends arrived, they had to pick the lock. They loaded all her possessions into the back of a van in 30 minutes, pausing briefly to wonder whether AHA officials would trace the license plate and follow them.

Ayson told a reporter who witnessed the scene that she was not scared. She was too glad to be leaving.

"I don't care what they think, I don't care what they do, because I know that they can't do anything to me," she said as she left through a darkened walkway. As she spoke, she eyed neighboring apartments, and her pace quickened.

Today, Ayson is living with relatives, unemployed, in violation of her visa, and thinking about returning to the Philippines.

According to AHA founder and president Cindi Reiman, whose company collected thousands of dollars in fees from Ayson, Rojvoraporn and the resorts where they worked, they should have stayed home.

"The kids that gripe about us are the ones that came over here for the wrong reasons," Reiman said.

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