BEIJING: President Rodrigo Duterte wasn’t joking when he said that our OFWs may soon look to China as an alternative job market to the “notorious” Middle East destinations preferred by our migrant workers. Senior Chinese officials I recently met with told me that President Xi Jinping was very keen on strengthening the relations between China and the Philippines, particularly on labor matters.
It was at the recent Boao Forum in Hainan, China—the Asian counterpart of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—that the seeds of labor cooperation were planted. During the forum, President Duterte and President Xi witnessed the signing of a “Memorandum of Understanding on the Employment of Filipino Teachers of English Language in China” by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd and Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua.
I was told there is a big requirement for English teachers in China right now, mainly driven by the high demand from its growing and affluent middle class whose children are looking to study or work abroad. Informally, many Filipinos are already teaching English to Chinese nationals via online tutorials. In fact, our English tutors are quite popular in China not only because they are equally good but also because they charge much less (per hour) than American or British instructors.
Apparently, English education is China is quite costly. Many Chinese universities have taken to hiring highly paid (i.e. expensive) American and British teachers for their English language courses or classes. Even so, the demand for English teachers outstrips the supply, especially with many Chinese universities now offering four-year bachelor’s degree courses in English such as Business English, English Language, etc.
There is also an increasing number of English-taught programs in Chinese universities, ranging from esoteric majors like Fluid Mechanics and Material Sciences to the more elementary courses like English Literature. Eager to meet this burgeoning demand, many Chinese universities are keen on bringing more English-proficient expatriate teachers into their workforce, Filipinos included.
The demand from urban Chinese is so huge that a global English language company is expanding to China’s second- and third-tier cities by setting up 40 new learning centers in the next few years. This comes as the frequency of English being spoken during daily work has risen from 70 percent to 90 percent, based on a survey conducted by the company.
According to Chinese officials, with the memorandum of understanding (MOU), it will be the first time that teachers from a country whose native tongue isn’t English are going to be allowed to teach English in China. And in order to ease the entry of Filipino teachers, the Chinese government is waiving the requirement that foreign tutors should have at least two years experience in their field of work. If this English teachers program can be implemented successfully, it will pave the way for other types of Filipino workers—nurses, caregivers, domestic helpers, cooks, etc.—to enter the Chinese job market.
Given China’s aging population and the lack of workers who can speak fluent English, there is a big opportunity for our OFWs to work in China, with a higher pay and better working conditions than in the Middle East.
This is why putting in place a policy framework for Filipinos to legally work in China, starting with Filipino English teachers, is a big step forward. It will not only help stem the influx of illegal migrant workers but also allow our OFWs to enjoy the protection and safeguards accorded to accredited expatriate workers.
Although no exact figures were given, I was told there are at least a thousand Filipinos working in China, some of them in the business sector as computer engineers, programmers, interior designers, graphic artists, etc. Of the 13,000 expatriate workers in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese authorities say only 3.8 percent (or around 500) are Filipinos.
There are also quite a number of OFWs working illegally as domestic helpers and nannies in China. I’m told most, if not all, of these domestic workers and nannies were OFWs recruited abroad and entered China through third countries like Malaysia and Hong Kong.
“In many of Beijing’s high-end residential communities, Filipino maids are frequently seen working illegally. The employment of these workers has become a fact on the mainland,” according to Miao Lu, secretary general of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization (CCG) think tank.
Longtime Filipino expatriates in China say many wealthy Chinese families desire the same lifestyle as their Hong Kong compatriots who have English-speaking nannies taking care of, and tutoring, their children. And they’re reportedly willing to pay top dollar to get them. In Shanghai, for instance, where expatriates are legally allowed to hire domestics, a Filipino household worker usually earns 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (or P65,000) a month—almost double the HK$4,210 minimum salary for a domestic worker in Hong Kong.
The possibility of English-speaking Filipino domestics working in China being paid as much as $1,250 a month, has already triggered some panic among middle-income families in Hong Kong and Singapore, who fear a mass exodus of OFWs from their cities.
The MOU on English teachers comes at a very opportune time since China has started to ease the restrictions on expatriate workers. From three work categories – high-end workers, professional staff, and general foreign workers – China will now only have a single category for all expatriate workers, to be governed by the same rules and regulations.
Forging and expanding its labor agreement with China augurs well not only for the country but also for many Filipinos seeking to work abroad. Of course, this was only made possible by President Duterte’s independent foreign policy, and his approach to deepening bilateral cooperation on less contentious matters, such as labor and trade.