MANILA -- From cash registers accepting WeChat payments to street corner stalls selling "taho," the number of Chinese workers in the Philippines is growing, sparking a legislative inquiry and a reminder from President Rodrigo Duterte to approach the influx with "caution."
The foreigners, some working in offshore gaming operations, are employed for their Chinese-language skills, something Filipino workers can't match at the moment, officials said.
Roughly half of the 169,000 Alien Employment Permits issued by the Department of Labor and Employment in the last 3 years went to Chinese nationals and a third of which are in support services, including offshore gaming, Labor Sec Silvestre Bello III told a Senate hearing on Feb. 21.
Thousands of Filipinos could be kicked out of China if the Philippines is not careful in handling the influx of Chinese workers, said Duterte, who rebuilt economic and diplomatic ties with Beijing.
"Yung mga Chinese dito, hayaan mo 'yan, nandito magtrabaho hayaan mo. Bakit? We have 300,000 Filipinos in China," he said in a speech on Feb. 23.
(The Chinese who are here for work, let them be. Why? We have 300,000 Filipinos in China.)
"If you think that you are at a loss, you are at a disadvantage because there are so many Chinese nationals working here, remember we have the same equal amount of people of Filipinos who are there working in China," he said.
The alien permits issued by the labor department are different from special working permits from the Bureau of Immigration. Sen. Joel Villanueva, who led the Senate inquiry, said the issuance of permits from the BI could be tainted with fraud.
Some 185,000 special working permits were issued in the last 11 months, said Villanueva.
Bello said his agency had no power to deport workers with BI permits. He said he was consulting with Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra to revoke a DOLE order that gave the BI the power to issue such permits.
"In reality, 'pag may nakita kaming ganyan, hanggang tingin lang kami (if we see something like that, all we can do is look). We have no police authority," he said.
Villanueva said mechanisms should be in place to ensure that Filipinos get hired in emerging industries.
"Sagrado po sa atin ang Section 12, Article 12 of the Constitution that guarantees preference of Filipino labor sa anumang trabaho. Pilipino muna bago dayuhan," he said.
(Section 12, Article 12 of the Constitution is sacred. It guarantees preference for Filipinos in any job. Filipino first before foreigners.)
"Wala ho tayong problema sa pagpasok ng foreign workers sa bansa. Siguruhin lang natin tama 'yung proseso, maayos, hindi mangbubuhos ng taho sa ating kapulisan, hindi mabalitaang nangchop-chop, nanuntok ng Pilipina sa isang bar."
(We have no problem with the entry of foreign workers but they should go through the correct process. They shouldn't splash our policemen with taho, figure in chop-chop incidents or threaten a Filipina at a bar.)
He was referring to a recent incident wherein a Chinese woman working in the Philippines splashed taho or soy bean custard on the face of a policeman.
The woman, a 23-year-old fashion design student, allegedly insisted on entering a train station with her unconsumed drink in spite of a ban on liquids on the train.
Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators, many employing Chinese-speaking foreigners, have begun to change the outsourcing landscape in the country, as its uniformed personnel occupy prime office space and drive up prices in nearby condominiums.
POGOs accounted for 25 percent or 180,000 square meters of total office space deals in Manila from January to June 2018, according to property tracker Colliers.
Revenues were projected to have risen to P6 billion in 2018, nearly double the haul from the previous year, according to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.
The Philippines should be careful not to allow illegal operations to infiltrate POGOs, said Wilson Lee Flores, a Chinese businessman and newspaper columnist.
"Kung over reliant in that market, kung biglang sabihin ng China lahat 'yan huhulihin ko, biglang baka mawala ang market natin. It’s good not to rely too much," he said.
(If the market becomes over-reliant. What if China says I will run after everyone? The market might disappear. It's good not to rely too much.)
POGO areas could end up as "ghost cities" should Xi cut off outsourced operations from the mainland using China's "great firewall," columnist Boo Chanco wrote on the Philippine Star.
Offshore gaming operators need Chinese nationals who can converse with customers in their own language, said Raul Lambino, CEO of the Cagayan Special Economic Zone Authority.
"The problem in gaming is that you don’t speak the language of the other guy that is playing with you," Lambino said when asked why Filipinos are not preferred POGO workers.
"That’s why they have to bring their own people," he said in an interview with ABS-CBN News last November.
Lambino said it was hard to determine the nationality of POGO operators. Companies could be registered in the UK, but the people behind it could be Chinese.
The CEZA chief said he was supporting the crackdown on illegal online gambling, canceling over 200 licenses since assuming office in 2016. Affected operators either moved overseas or sought licenses from PACGOR, he said.
The CEZA, located north of Manila, is working to lure financial technology companies, including blockchain and cryptocurrency exchanges.
"If they come and they know that I have the authority to do so and I find that their business plan is beneficial then they’re welcome but it’s not my priority to invite gaming operators," he said.
Even if only 400 million of the 1.4 billion Chinese population are into gambling for example, that would still be "a very big business," Lambino said.
"It’s going to grow, it’s still a big business. We haven’t scratched the surface yet," Lambino said.
-- reports from Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News