MANILA – For the past 5 years, Alan Petil, 36, has been working as a construction worker, enduring the Philippines’ intense outdoor heat and humidity.
He earns roughly P4,000 a week depending on a project, which is relatively small for someone on a tough job with long hours under the hot sun, not to mention enduring workplace hazards. He hopes for higher pay, but he thinks he could only get this by toiling overseas.
"Nasa isip ko, balak ko mag-abroad. Parang mas maganda kita do’n eh kaysa dito," said Petil, father of a preschooler.
(I was thinking of working abroad. I think there is better pay there compared here.)
If Petil and other skilled workers like him opt to work abroad for better pay, that would be part of the continuing blow on the country’s construction sector.
According to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), around 800,000 to 1 million skilled workers in the field of construction, architecture, and engineering are needed to address a labor shortage amid the country’s construction boom.
The Bureau of Local Employment (BLE) has anticipated the huge shortage since 2013, even before the Duterte government’s "Build, Build, Build" program, which seeks to accelerate infrastructure spending and develop industries.
DOLE identified engineer and construction worker occupations as cross-cutting, in-demand and hard-to-fill until 2022 or perhaps beyond.
An occupation can be classified as both in-demand and hard-to-fill when advertised or posted recurrently by industries and the recruitment process takes a certain period of time to hire a suitable individual.
Based on PhilJobNet data covering the period of January to April 2019, there are 2,003 vacancies nationwide for engineers and construction workers. Majority of the vacancies are in Region VII (Central Visayas), Metro Manila and the Cordillera Administrative Region.
While he grew up in the Philippines, Filipino-Japanese Kazuhiro Yoshinaga, 25, has been working in Chiba, Japan for 7 years now. He said he worked overseas because of the lack of job offerings with a decent salary in the Philippines for someone like him who did not finish college.
"Worth it naman ’yung kita, ’yung bayad sapat sa effort," he said of his earnings in a Japanese construction firm.
(The salary is worth it, the payment for the effort is just enough.)
He added: "Okay na okay ’yung policies, may mga benefits; walang end of contract, ’pag tinaggal ka sa work, ikaw pa babayaran."
(The policies are really okay, there are benefits; there is no end of contract, you will even get compensation when you are terminated.)
BLE Director Dominique Rubia-Tutay admitted that competing with agencies abroad is challenging.
"When you talk of overseas, there is a higher wage and then in terms of giving dignity, the work in the construction sector there is highly dignified," she said. "Hindi sila ’yung overworked (They are not overworked)."
Based on the 2016 Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry, the average annual compensation for an employee of a construction firm is P221,943 or about P745 per day.
The highest average annual compensation is in civil engineering projects amounting to P447,657 per employee or abour P1,500 per day. The lowest compensation is in building completion and finishing work with P133,894 or P450 per day per worker.
Amid the apparent dearth in qualified local skilled workers, labor groups have expressed alarm over the entry of Chinese manual laborers in the country, saying they were taking on jobs that should have been given to Filipinos.
Slowdown of demand
The government is now eyeing a resolution that would minimize the deployment of construction workers abroad by 90 percent to meet the urgent need locally.
But for recruitment and migration expert Emmanuel Geslani, the demand abroad, specifically in the Middle East, has been slowing down for years.
"It’s not the same anymore," he said. "In 2014, the crude oil prices went down to $30. So everything stops. Most of the construction workers had to go home because their projects were not being paid by the government, while some of them are still staying, waiting for salaries. So construction in the Middle East is not that heavy anymore because up to now, they have not recovered from the loss of their income due to low crude oil prices."
The construction sector in European countries and Japan may emerge as new markets for skilled laborers, Geslani said.
Tutay said the government has to ensure first that the country has enough supply of construction workers and engineers before deploying them abroad.
"This is not curtailing the rights of the workers or whatever. What we are saying is, if we’re giving intervention to produce the right number of workers for the sector, then the policy should include, let's say, we will not allow them to work abroad for a year or two. That is the track that we’re looking at," she said.
ACTS-Overseas Filipino Workers group is pushing for a P900 daily wage for local construction workers to avert the labor shortage due to migration.
DOLE, along with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and the Department of Public Works and Highways are now discussing a plan to fast track skills training to address the shortage of local construction workers.