An influx of workers from China into the Philippines could lead to job losses among Filipinos, local politicians said Wednesday while criticizing the government’s apparent inaction over the labor issue.
Congressman Gary Alejano, a perennial critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, called on the government to protect local workers’ rights from a “creeping invasion” of Chinese workers.
“From our territory, food and livelihood from the sea, the Chinese were getting to us,” Alejano said in a statement and through comments to reporters. “It is disappointing that infrastructure projects initially meant to provide jobs for Filipinos are now being exploited by foreigners who bear no allegiance to our flag.”
The controversy arose after the Department of Public Works and Highways disclosed that dozens of Chinese workers were working on at least two China-funded construction projects being built under the Philippine government’s massive infrastructure drive.
The president must apply the law equally and swiftly deport undocumented Chinese nationals, despite threats purportedly issued by Beijing to expel Filipinos working in China, the congressman said.
“In spite of the fact we have a high unemployment rate and that our people are known to be diligent and hardworking, this administration still preferred to ignore these and instead hire Chinese workers,” said Alejano, who is seeking election this year to the Philippine Senate.
Allies of President Duterte control the two houses of Congress, but both allies and opponents have questioned the president’s inaction over the issue.
The labor department has also rejected his argument that expelling illegal Chinese workers from the Philippines could lead to a diplomatic spat, which could affect hundreds of thousands of Filipino expatriates employed in China.
More than 300,000 Filipinos work legally in China and Hong Kong. And in the Philippines, about half of the 169,000 work permits given to foreign nationals during the past three years went to Chinese citizens, Filipino Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told a Senate hearing earlier this month, according to Philippine-based ABS CBN News.
Twice this week, Duterte has rejected suggestions that his government should expel undocumented Chinese workers.
While there were demands from politicians “who want to have Chinese nationals deported, I said, ‘Why will I do that?,’” Duterte said on Sunday.
The next day, Sen. Joel Villanueva was among politicians who were not backing Duterte’s call against deporting illegal Chinese workers out of fear that this could jeopardize the situation of overseas Filipino workers, according to the Manila Bulletin. The senator called for the Philippines to keep enforcing its laws against illegal foreign workers.
“This is a matter of enforcing our own rules and regulations, not just for the protection of jobs for Filipinos but also the protection of the rights of the workers regardless of nationality,” Villanueva told the Bulletin.
On Wednesday, Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo joined the chorus of criticism, saying that protecting Chinese workers here without proper papers was “patently wrong.”
“Because the main goal of the government should be, how can we make our workers return home so they would not be separated from their families,” said Robredo, the political opposition’s de facto head. In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately.
However, according to Duterte’s spokesman, the Chinese ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, had warned him that China would deport Filipinos if Manila moved ahead with expelling Chinese workers.
China could initiate retaliatory measures if the deportation of Chinese workers was done “not in accordance with law” and “if we do it recklessly,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
“In fact, that is what the Chinese ambassador told me during dinner. That if this government will just deport Chinese not in accordance with law, then we will also do the same. That’s tit-for-tat,” Panelo said.
Chinese interests and investments have grown here since Duterte became president three years ago. The president has taken steps to ingratiate his government with China, and has gone so far as distance his country from the United States, the Philippines’ traditional defense ally.
Duterte also appeased China after an international arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, in a case lodged over contending territorial claims in the South China Sea.
During a 2018 state visit to Manila by Chinese President Xi Jinping, China and the Philippines signed 29 vaguely worded bilateral deals.
These included agreements that touched on big-ticket infrastructure projects, which fell under Duterte’s ambitious “build, build, build” infrastructure initiative. The drive includes the building of bridges and highways, as well as the reconstruction of southern Marawi city, which was destroyed during a 2017 siege by Islamic State-linked militants and an ensuing five-month battle with government forces.
More recently, Philippine defense officials said that the Chinese were also eyeing the takeover of a major shipyard located inside a former U.S. naval base at Subic, north of Manila.
Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction of South Korea, which had operated the Subic Bay shipyard, had filed for bankruptcy, and at least two Chinese state-run firms had expressed interest in bidding for the site.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.