As RP mining booms, gov't losing experts to private firms

by CARMELA FONBUENA, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at Sep 26 2008 07:52 PM | Updated as of Sep 27 2008 03:58 AM

The government is fast losing its mining experts to private companies that offer very lucrative salaries. This endangers the government’s crucial monitoring capacity at a time when mining activities—both legal and illegal—are proliferating because of soaring metal prices.

Data show that mining investments grew exponentially since the revitalization of the mining industry in 2004. From US$140 million in 2004, it grew almost five times to $605 million in 2007. Based on MGB’s projections, investments will shoot up to $1.8 billion in 2009 and to $4.1 billion in 2010.

Inversely, the staffing of the government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) has been declining during the same period. The MGB is in charge of the administration and disposition of country’s mineral lands and mineral resources.

“Every month, we’re losing people. We have a shortage of experts because most of our people moved to private companies. They are paid three to four times higher than what they’re getting in government,” MGB’s chief geologist Antonio Apostol Jr. told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak.

“We were thinking that they (foreign firms) will bring in their experts. But they hired the locals. Probably, it’s because the local experts are familiar with the local situation,” Apostol added.

    Mining Investments                      Unfilled Positions in the MGB Staff
2008 US$ 892.0 M (projection)                               149
2007 US$ 605.0 M 149
2006 US$ 191.4 M 125
2005 US$ 461.3 M  78
2004 US$ 139.5 M 78

Sources:MGB (investments), DBM (staffing)

Out of 78 key positions in MGB for geologists, Apostol said only 32 are currently filled. The others have either retired or resigned.

In 2003, MGB had 24 mining experts with doctorate degrees. Now, there are only four. “We’ve lost their ten to twenty years of experience. They’re not very easy to replace,” Apostol said.

But who can blame them for moving?

“It’s really difficult financially,” Apostol said.

The government cannot compete with the private companies. At entry level in government, a fresh graduate can get a monthly salary of P17,000. In a local private company, one can get P50,000 for the same position. Abroad, it’s P100,000.

For experts with doctorate degrees, the MGB offers a measly P24,000. In a local private company, they get P150,000.

What is left with MGB are the inexperienced fresh graduates and those who are nearing retirement. But after one or two years of experience, the fresh graduates become attractive to private companies.

Unperformed Functions

What’s the effect of the exodus?

“That makes approving and regulating mining in the Philippines more challenging,” said former environment department undersecretary Antonio La Vina, when we asked him of the impact.

Apostol admitted that the lack of needed experts delays the resolution of many mining cases filed before the agency.

But so far, Apostol maintained that the MGB is still able to perform its priority tasks. They have experts manning the crucial offices nationwide, he said.

However, it has reached the point that in the CARAGA (Agusan, Surigao, Dinagat Island provinces) region in Mindanao, for instance, what used to be a team of 12 experts overseeing the mineral-rich territory has been decimated to just one. Only the chief geologist remained.

Apostol thinks that the only reason they haven’t pirated him yet is because the mining companies know that operations will stop if there’s no one in government to certify their permits.

If MGB had enough experts, Apostol said one of the things they should be doing is “modeling landslides” to study them and come up with the best engineering intervention when it actually happens.

But out of MGB’s four remaining experts with doctorate degrees, only one is a structural geologist and he is currently in charge of the geohazard mapping.

“There’s no time at all for the conduct of research,” Apostol said.

By law, there should be a mining regulatory board in each of the 78 provinces in the Philippines. In reality, some provinces cannot create one because there are no people to staff them, Apostol said. “No one will man the offices,” Apostol said.

If not a geologist, the expert has to be metallurgist or a mining engineer.

Under the Local Government Code, the respective Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB) has the mandate to oversee small-scale mining. Data available on the MGB website show that as of December 2007, it issued 1,260 small-scale mining permits contractors and cooperatives nationwide.

With the mining boom, some large-scale mining companies have circumvented the law by securing small-scale temporary mining permits from the local government units (LGUs) while they await their long term permits from the national government. This new trend has caused several problems for the MGB.

“There are several functions that are not performed or are not prioritized. There should be strict monitoring of the small-scale miners but there’s not enough experts to do that,” said Lazaro Ramos of MGB’s mining technology division. He is overseeing the data on small-scale mining nationwide.

How FM gov't kept mining experts

A similar situation happened to the mining industry in the seventies, when there was also a boom in the industry.

But back then, the government was able to keep its experts. President Ferdinand Marcos issued an executive order that effectively doubled the salaries of the government mining experts.

The monthly salary of an experienced geologist then was P800 a month. Because of Marcos’s executive order, they were given an additional incentive allowance of P780 a month. It prevented the exodus of government experts. (That executive order has been superceded by newer laws and is no longer valid.)

To prevent the present exodus, the MGB is asking President Arroyo to execute the same executive order. “That will make our salaries competitive. It will still be less, but not far,” Apostol said.

While there is a ten percent proposed salary increase in 2009, it will take long before the salaries can catch up with the private companies.

The MGB is also asking the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to exempt the agency from the “freeze hiring” because of the government rationalization plan for the bureaucracy. “But this may only become academic. There’s no one to hire,” Apostol said.

While the MGB is currently allowed to hire contractual workers to fill the vacant positions, they were able to find three experts willing to work for the government.

Geology, Metallurgy, and Mining Engineering are not famous college courses. This year, only 55 took the Geologist Licensure Examination and only 36 passed. Only 33 took the mining engineering board exam and 23 passed.

By comparison, there were 3,263 takers of the civil engineering board exam and 1,342 passed.

MGB is still asking for both measures—the executive order and the exemption from the salary standardization law--in order to help solve the manpower shortage.

“We want DBM to give us a go signal so that anytime there’s someone available to hire, we can hire him,” Apostol said.