MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - If there are so many Chinese workers here, it's probably because Filipinos have gone abroad and are not available to take those jobs.
This was the stupefying utterance by presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo recently, when asked about the influx of illegal Chinese workers in the country.
Panelo was responding to former president Benigno Aquino III's question at a book launch last week: "How many thousands of Chinese workers are here who are taking jobs that should be for Filipinos?"
Before Aquino raised the matter, the ubiquitous presence of Chinese nationals in the metropolitan landscape had been the talk of the town in the past two years.
Last month, the Senate labour committee chaired by Senator Joel Villanueva set out a formal inquiry, and the initial findings were disturbing to say the least.
The most startling revelation was that government officials do not even have accurate figures on illegal Chinese workers in the country, and how many of them are in jobs that, by mandate of the Constitution, should be for Filipinos.
Foreigners are allowed to work in jobs that require highly specialised skills and where no Filipinos are deemed competent to do.
There must be a certification to this effect, which will prompt the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) to issue an alien employment permit (AEP) for the foreign worker.
The committee found out that as many as 119,000 Chinese nationals who came to the country as tourists were able to gain temporary employment by skirting labour regulations.
Many of these Chinese tourists, mostly from mainland China, were able to obtain special working permits (SWPs) from the Bureau of Immigration, which allowed them to work in online gaming operations or casinos in Metro Manila, Clark, Subic, Cagayan and Cagayan de Oro.
A labour official explained that the SWPs were issued without the benefit of an AEP because the nature of the employment was temporary, lasting from three to six months, during which the status of the Chinese worker remains as tourist.
Villanueva scored the "glaring" discrepancy in the figures cited by the different agencies.
"Your records show you are issuing few (AEPs), but there's a flood of (Chinese workers) and from their numbers, it's clear there are illegal workers," he stressed.
The Dole said close to 116,000 foreigners were issued AEPs since 2015, about 52,000 of which went to Chinese workers.
The AEPs given to Chinese nationals also jumped from 28,300 in 2015 to 42,000 in 2016 and 45,000 in 2017, or during the first two years of the Chinese-friendly Duterte administration.
But data from the tourism and foreign affairs departments showed around 3.3 million Chinese tourists entered the country from 2016 to 2018 alone.
Senators and experts figure there could be as many as 200,000 to 400,000 Chinese workers competing with Filipinos in construction, mining, entertainment and other jobs, a slap in the face of official statistics putting the number of unemployed Filipinos at 2.3 million as of December 2018.
Yet officials could not say exactly how many Chinese tourists were able to convert their visas to AEPs or SWPs.
"We don't have the exact figures" was the common reply to these questions.
The hearing also revealed that four different agencies issue different visas, a bureaucratic dysfunction that has allowed the circumvention of labour rules and the proliferation of illegal workers.
The Chinese influx has not only upended the local job market; it has also jacked up prices of condominium rentals in the Manila Bay area by as much as 62 per cent.
Such is the demand for Chinese housing that a real estate agent's post looking for 400 condo units for 3,300 Chinese workers in Muntinlupa City went viral, noted Villanueva.
Senator Grace Poe noted, meanwhile, that with the Chinese able to buy entire floors of condominiums, a superficial market demand is created that puts the Filipino average wage earner at a disadvantage.
The issue of corruption naturally had to crop up.
Some immigration agents are charging P5,000 (S$129.8) to expedite a work permit without issuing receipts, according to Villanueva, who added that he was surprised to find so many Chinese citizens during a recent visit to SM Mall of Asia.
"I thought I was in China," he said.
The Senate is on the right track in pursuing this investigation, no matter if it goes against the administration's pro-China stance and its guesswork-ruled governance.
The country must know: How many Chinese workers are now in the Philippines, what is the status of their stay, and what exactly do they do here?
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.