China has offered billions in investment aid to its developing neighbor the Philippines over the past 18 months. It’s paying for railways and weapons to resist rebels, among other things. The two sides are talking about joint undersea oil exploration, too.
But it’s the latest gambit in bilateral relations, which have bloomed under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte despite a continuing maritime sovereignty dispute, that could really foster warmth between the two Asian nations.
The Philippines and China signed an agreement in late April that will allow 300,000 Filipinos travel to China for work. Those workers will include 100,000 English-language teachers, according to this news report.
Promising new labor market
Filipinos depend heavily on work offshore, such as engineering jobs in Saudi Arabia and food service positions in Canada, to earn more money than what employers can offer in the Philippines.
About 2.3 million Overseas Filipino Workers, often dubbed OFWs for short, were working abroad last year. They contributed $2.74 billion last year to the Philippine economy last year, up 7.1% over the 2016 amount, according to this Philippine news report.
Asian markets such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea attract many OFWs for their closeness to home in East Asia. Working in China would appeals to these workers for the same reason. Access to China is sure to help Filipinos find work, says Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila. Their remittances, he adds, contribute to the Philippine economy.
Teaching is a more appealing career option than the tough factory work Filipinos often do in Taiwan, for example, or the food service jobs they take in Canada. That means more money for hopeful family members back home.
China could potentially pay teachers $500 to $1,000 per month, per this website, though it does not say the workers being allowed there now would earn any set amount. Teachers might take home $1,200 per month, this news report says, citing a Philippine official. China also needs musicians and household helpers, it says.
“I think the salary offer is pretty good, probably higher than what they would offer in other countries,” says Eduardo Araral, associate professor in the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
The demand is palpable. School-aged children in China often study English outside regular class hours, while adults sometimes take night or evening classes to advance their careers. Filipinos, though often more comfortable speaking Tagalog or a local dialect such as Cebuano, grow up with English as an official language used widely by the mass media and taught in schools.
Retreat from Kuwait
Middle Eastern countries offer Filipinos some of their best salaries in the world, according to this report. Saudi Arabia is also the biggest OFW employer for the Philippines, with more than 1 million workers. But report after report says employers abuse or mistreat workers to a point where some have tried to run away.
Earlier this week Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made permanent a 3-month-old ban on recruitment from Kuwait. Manila announced the ban after the January death of a household maid working in the Middle Eastern country. The ban will hold until the two countries sign a new agreement on “terms and conditions of employment.” the presidential office website says.
Thousands of the 252,000 Filipinos already in Kuwait had returned to the Philippines shortly after the upset in January, perhaps on Duterte’s advice.
Language and culture barriers
Younger Filipinos keen to learn Chinese or those who have picked up Cantonese from working in Hong Kong might form a first wave of China-bound OFWs. Cantonese is useful in southern parts of mainland China, although Mandarin is more widely spoken throughout the rest of the country. “Because there are a lot of Filipino teachers working as household helpers in Hong Kong, they might already know the language there,” Araral says.
Those without Mandarin skills and a grasp of Chinese culture might find the work harder. In Taiwan, which is ethnically Chinese, language barriers and lifestyle differences stop many Filipinos from mixing with the Taiwanese.
But workers are likely to brave language and cultural barriers as the labor market remains tough at home. Unemployment was 5.7% last year, continuing to push people offshore for work.
For their part, the Philippines might also accept 3.9 million Chinese or other foreign workers for domestic infrastructure construction projects. The projects fall under Duterte’s $169 billion infrastructure expansion drive. It’s unclear whether China wants those people hired to reciprocate for opening its borders to Filipino workers, but an influx of foreign labor would take coveted local jobs away from Filipinos, University of the Philippines Diliman political science professor Maria Ela Atienza says.
“It will not be very popular, because our unemployment and underemployment in the Philippines are very high,” she says. “That’s why people risk working abroad even if there are risks abroad.”