Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Beijing Tuesday for a four-day state visit, during which time his business delegation of 400 business leaders are expected to clinch deals with the Chinese government and Chinese enterprises in areas including construction, tourism, agriculture, electric power and high-speed rails.
Besides demand from the Philippines, China seems to have expectations as well, for instance, a demand to employ Filipino women working as domestic helpers, with the hope that both countries would be willing to ease policies to allow for the legal employment of Filipino domestic workers.
Currently, laws and regulations in China do not allow for the hiring of foreign people in domestic service, but in recent years the influx of illegally working Filipino maids has surpassed 100,000, which is still far behind the actual demand, according to unconfirmed data.
There are several reasons behind this phenomenon.
First, hiring foreign maids signifies a higher social status for some Chinese people. In addition, the quality of Filipino household helpers is generally better than domestic helpers, as the Filipino workers are required to graduate with a college degree if they want to work overseas, and normally can speak English. They are also required to receive training for household work. It is "killing two birds with one stone" for a Chinese family with a Filipino domestic helper that can also teach their children English.
Meanwhile, local domestic helpers are frequently criticized for various reasons, which makes them less competitive than Filipino ones. Local domestic helpers' growth of annual income has far outpaced that of other industries. They also enjoy the benefit of living and eating in the employers' homes at the expense of their employers. Moreover, local helpers are less well-educated than Filipinos, less professional, but earn more.
Furthermore, introducing Filipino maids could help China's economic and social development in the long run as more Chinese females would be able to spend less time and effort on chores and looking after children or elderly relatives, and focus more on their work. In China, the contribution from women to the GDP is increasingly getting closer to 50 percent. In this regard, elevating the productivity of the female workforce could help the continued and healthy development of the Chinese economy.
Even if Chinese women don't spend their extra time on their jobs, but on consumption instead, it will still be likely to boost the economic performance. This is because on the global level, professional women tend to have greater spending power than men and in households, women often make more of the purchasing decisions.
In my opinion, introducing Filipino maids into China could enhance mutual understanding of both countries, and help establish a firm premise for future cooperation.
Currently only a selected number of foreigners and families from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan in a few cities can hire foreign housekeepers. A pilot program should be launched to extend the practice to China's first-tier cities, provincial capitals and certain major cities, while a three-year time limit can be set to review the feasibility of the policy for further consideration.
Undoubtedly, there will be some problems if China does do so.
First, the number of Filipinos working overseas as domestic workers is likely to decrease. In the 1970s, the country began to send labor overseas due to the country's high domestic unemployment rate and poor domestic economic conditions. According to Forbes in August, Filipinos who work overseas sent back $28.5 billion in personal remittances, accounting for one tenth of the Philippines' GDP.
But in recent years, as the country's economic circumstances have become better, many Filipino maids are reluctant to work overseas. Those who are willing to work as foreign domestic helpers tend to choose Middle Eastern countries, Canada and European countries with shorter working hours and higher incomes.
Second, cultural differences could get in the way. Filipino maids are mostly English-speaking, and this could be a difficulty for many Chinese households as they would be required to have a strong English-speaking ability. Additionally, the eating habits for Filipinos are not much in line with those in many Chinese households.
Third, opening job positions to foreign domestic helpers will pose a challenge for policymakers, as housekeeping is a non-technical service. China has its own problem of excess labor supply.
Allowing foreign housekeepers into China would impact our own housekeeping industry and trigger social issues. But China's housekeeping industry could still be affected even if the country does not lift the policy, given that more Filipino maids would still enter China through illegal channels.
Facing these positives and negatives, a balanced solution that takes various opinions into consideration is needed. The author is the chief economist of China Silk Road iValley Research Institute, a Guangzhou-based think email@example.com