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Dispelling the myth of a Chinese workers’ invasion

March 23, 2019

CHINESE workers are not stealing valuable construction jobs from Filipino workers, despite the popular perception that they are, said Assistant Finance Secretary Antonio Joselito Lambino 2nd on Wednesday. He was trying to allay fears of a “Chinese invasion” of Philippine infrastructure projects, particularly those being funded by loans or grants from China.

Lambino pointed out that only 173 Chinese workers are employed under the two major China-backed projects currently underway, and they are all filling highly technical positions. Yes, there are others, such as the 85 Chinese engineering personnel who are working on the $62.09-million Chico River Pump project in Northern Luzon, while 88 more are working on the Estrella-Pantaleon and Binondo-Intramuros bridge projects. Construction of these bridges are funded by Chinese grants amounting to $290.8 million.

If the much-anticipated New Centennial Water Project-Kaliwa Dam gets underway, the situation would be similar: A workforce comprising a relative handful of Chinese technical personnel, and several hundred local workers.

The fears that Chinese workers are stealing jobs that should be done by Filipino workers have an understandable basis. Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd disclosed earlier that about half, or approximately 85,000, of the foreign worker permits issued by the Department of Labor and Employment over the last three years were given to Chinese workers. A “sizeable number” of those, however, were for workers in the offshore gaming industry, Bello said. The ongoing dispute over Chinese encroachment in the West Philippine Sea also fuels the perception that the Chinese are gradually overrunning the country’s labor sector.

Even though the source of the perception is understandable, it is simply not justified. The Finance Department’s data is reliable evidence to the contrary, and it is in line with extensive research that shows the Chinese, as a rule, do not export large numbers of workers for their overseas projects.

A seven-year study presented at the 6th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation conference in 2015 showed that contrary to the same fears among African countries – and repeated uncritically by US and European politicians – the vast majority of workers in Chinese companies or projects in Africa were local workers. The study’s two authors, Dr. Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Dr. Yan Hairong from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, surveyed 650 Chinese firms across Africa, and found that between 80 and 95 percent of the workforce were natives. In countries where the proportion of Chinese workers was on the high end of that range, such as Angola, it was attributed to a lack of local skilled workers. Angola endured a 27-year civil war, which drove many of its educated citizens out of the country.

The researchers concluded that, any other considerations aside, employing local workers for projects or in the local operations of Chinese businesses was a simple matter of practicality. It costs much less to hire local workers than to import Chinese employees from their home country.

The same conditions apparently apply here in the Philippines, as the Finance Department’s data indicates. Chinese workers are simply filling gaps in available skills.

That does raise an issue that our own labor policies should address, however. There is no reason why Filipinos should not or cannot acquire the technical skills being supplied by China, or any other country. The opportunity for skills and technology transfer offered by foreign investment should be maximized at all times, so that Filipinos are able to fill the available jobs in increasing numbers. It is the responsibility of the Labor Department and other relevant agencies to ensure that not only is foreign employment limited to absolute necessity, but that it provides added value to our own workforce.

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