Without batting an eyelash, Budget Secretary Ben Diokno told ANC’s Cathy Yang in a forum last week that the Duterte government was “open to importing foreign labor”. Specifically, the government intends to hire low-skilled workers from China for China-financed infrastructure projects around the Philippines.
This planned hiring of low-skilled construction workers from China, while the millions of unemployed Filipinos are ignored by Chinese contractors, is an obnoxiously irresponsible move that the nation will experience from the Duterte administration’s economic managers, perhaps more cruel than the shooting to death of drug suspects, principally poor individuals without access to the courts.
At the outset, Diokno could have been more forthright in his declaration last week. He said the government was “open to importing labor from Pakistan or India” to rush the construction of around 75 major infrastructure projects.
But Diokno failed to mention that in China-financed infrastructure projects, the Chinese government usually includes in government-to-government deals a provision for the hiring of Chinese workers. This was the template in China-funded infrastructure projects in Africa—wherever Chinese contractors laid down highways or railways, Chinatowns instantly cropped up along the project sites, according to studies conducted by scholars. These Chinatowns got their provisions from China so the host communities failed to benefit from their presence.
If this labor importation strategy is pursued, any major economic benefits from the government’s envisioned P8-trillion “build, build, build” infrastructure scheme will go to Chinese companies and individuals. This is because China’s official development assistance (ODA) funds are released by the Export-Import Bank of China not to the governments of recipient countries but to Chinese contractors that are pre-selected also by the China Eximbank, not through biddings conducted by the recipient governments. With Chinese workers also becoming part of the equation, the Filipino people will be left with crumbs in any ODA-funded undertaking.
Late last May, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian discovered from Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez that during the visit of President Duterte to Beijing last October, the Philippine economic managers agreed on an arrangement whereby the China Eximbank will pre-select contractors from China in the implementation of China-financed projects. Did they also agree as early as October to allow Chinese workers to be exported to the Philippines?
Filipino labor supply
Diokno’s declaration that there will not be enough supply of Filipino labor for the “build, build, build” infrastructure program does not wash. Calculations from government statistics show that as of April this year, there were over 2.44 million unemployed Filipinos around the archipelago. Of this total, more than 1.92 million are aged 15-34 years and about 1.56 million of the total are males, most of them most likely capable of working in construction sites.
Additionally, also as of last April, there were a total of 6.47 million underemployed individuals—they have jobs but would like to do more because they want to earn more or because they work for only less than 40 hours in a week in their present work. More than 1.27 million of these underemployed are in the industry sector, which includes construction and manufacturing industries.
The government statistics show that there is a large pool of Filipino labor not currently employed but capable of doing work in the planned “build, build, build” program. If they are not ready for construction work now, the state-run Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) has trainors for this purpose.
And don’t forget the millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) now toiling in a myriad of construction sites around the world. Many of them are aching to go back home if there are jobs available for them. The “build, build, build” program is a most timely opportunity to woo OFWs back home.
There are more than 10.5 million Filipinos overseas (including migrants' children) in 221 countries and territories across the globe. Official statistics from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration indicate that more than 50,000 OFWs are employed in construction and construction-related work, not including many others who hold managerial or supervisory positions. Skills acquired by OFWs while working abroad can be useful in the implementation of the “build, build, build” projects.
Instead of kowtowing to Chinese contractors’ demand that they bring in their own construction workers, the Duterte government’s economic managers must first look at what is available at home and then negotiate with the Chinese. In Africa where China ODA flowed in a big way, most countries felt helpless in agreeing to the provision on Chinese workers, but government officials in three countries insisted on the hiring of local workers and got their wish.
Diokno and company should look for inspiration from Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania when dealing with ODA negotiators from the China Eximbank on the projects’ labor component. Diokno and company owe their jobs to the Filipino people, not the Chinese workers.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.