Are migrant workers stealing from the locals?

clip_image001Letters from Port Moresby (4), by Alfredo P. Hernandez


A NATIVE of Solomon Islands in the Pacific, but now based in Brisbane, Australia, has reacted to an item in this space titled “Is Port Moresby a ‘murder capital’ of the world?” (January 8, 2009/

He said: “Port Moresby may be one of the murder capitals of the world, but it’s a source of immense wealth for Asians and other foreigners at the expense of the local people …”

Being a former journalist who worked with the lone daily newspaper here in Papua New Guinea during 80s and later, with newswire agency Australian Associated Press (AAP), and notably becoming a member of parliament in his island country after wearing himself out in the journalism profession, the Solomon guy is well-read and knew what he was talking about.

But of course, since his perception has been clouded with bias towards outsiders (expatriates) who are now deeply-rooted in PNG with their numbers growing by the hundreds every year, he could have overlooked some vital points about the whole business of migration.

Replying to his email briefly, I simply said: “Had outsiders not discovered Papua AND New Guinea (during the early days beginning 1888, this country was still two separate entities which were just merged later by colonizers for political expediency), thus remaining undiscovered as virgin jungles and awesome wilderness up to these days, how do you think this country would look these days? I tell you – wilderness and jungles.”

The truth is Port Moresby would remain just a minor shipping port visited by small vessels of not much valuable cargos and whose building structures would only be confined around the vicinity of the wharf not bigger than two football fields. Its immediate vicinity would be those barren and treeless hills spreading out to hundreds of kilometers from where the Port Moresby harbor waters touch on the shore.

If those intrepid Australian gold prospectors did not venture into the deep wilderness in the late 20s as they chased gold nuggets and snaking gold veins for signs of bigger deposits, and the oil hunters that included Aussie outback man and later Hollywood star Errol Flynn did not pursue their hunch that the black gold was just somewhere sleeping a kilometer or so under the ground, the country’s oil and gold region would have remained an oasis of wasted resources.

Many individual tribal clans would have remained an island of their own from the rest of the 800 or so other tribal groupings, believing that they were the only people inhabiting this part of the world, until one day when they would discover to see on the other side of their jungle territory another human being who did not look like wild animal but did not look their looks either. Well, the fellow happened to belong to another group previously unknown to them, who also thought his clan was the only living creature in this part of world.

And if ever migrants from Asia and elsewhere happened by in PNG during the early 70s and started populating its every nook and cranny, the blame should be put on the Australian colonizers/administrators who wanted to put some productive life in this country. Because with Aussies and natives alone populating this land, PNG could have been a boring, dry place to be in.

But of course, the colonizers very well knew that with most Aussies alone running this country’s affairs in government and economy (actually most of them came from Australia’s outback, with not much education and expertise who loved to drink the Philippines’ San Miguel beer everyday at the stroke of 4 in the afternoon), while the locals traded/sold sweet potatoes, yams, taro roots, betelnuts and fish to each other, this land had no chance of moving on economically.

It was for this reason that the colonial administration felt that PNG would not be ready for eventual independence from Australia unless the locals get some basic education in alphabet and numbers, learn basic skills and personal hygiene as well as the art of interacting with people from outside world. Translation: PNG needed expatriates with skills and know-how.

So, just a year or two prior to the planned granting of independence to PNG on September 1975, the colonial government launched a massive job hunt, of all places, in the Philippines, recruiting teachers, doctors, nurses, vocational instructors, managers, accountants, mechanics, technicians, surveyors, architects, welders, agriculturists, banking and administrative staff, and so on and so forth. They – 136 of them — left Manila on a chartered Qantas airline (my late father Jimmy, a mechanic, was with this batch).

They were the first batch of schooled and trained individuals who manned the wheels of the PNG’s commerce and industry, with most of them remaining in the country until retirement.

Then, the second wave of Pinoy invasion followed soon after PNG gained independence on September 16, 1975. This time, the recruitment was carried out by the PNG government as it wanted more Filipino teachers, vocational instructors to teach in newly-established schools along with tradesmen of various skills. More skilled workers, technicians and professionals followed and their stream has been flowing on even up to these days.

So, it is obvious that a number of the country’s home-grown professionals who are now either in government or private business were first educated under Filipino teachers.

With many levels of PNG bureaucracy being manned by Filipinos and so its trade, commerce and industry, the country’s economy began to move on significantly, signaling to the outside world that it was now ready to deal with it in all aspects of trade and commerce.

This means that investors from various Asian countries, notably Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, China, Taiwan, India and the Philippines among many others, began looking towards this direction, knowing fully-well that it could now do some serious business with Papua New Guineans with respects to its natural resources, trade and commerce.

This was because they knew that the usual tiresome processes of opening up business here and subsequently doing the import-export aftermath of such enterprise would be very well handled by government bureaucracy, thanks to its many Filipino managers.

With every new business concern being set up in the country, there came a new batch of foreign/migrant workers needed to fill up the jobs needed to run such an enterprise. The PNG government never argued against this simply because it knew the country’s men and women did not have the expertise, the know-how, the skills and the right attitude towards work.

Don’t forget that its young men and women as well as children in many urban centers and villages were just beginning to experience the real pursuit of formal knowledge through the classrooms run by Filipino teachers.

It was unfortunate that while business houses of all shapes, sizes and scales were rising all over the country after their foreign owners saw the great potential for economic development, almost all of the country’s workforce would not have a chance to snatch a gainful employment with such establishments.

The reason: Businesses required the skill, education, training, expertise and a lot more to run their businesses, things that the locals did not have in the first place.

With no employable skills, how could such companies take them in for sustainable wage-giving jobs? With this reality, they would remain in the streets looking for some livelihood that could only be obtained in the so-called “informal sector”, a counterpart of the Philippines’ “underground economy” – selling buai (local name for betelnuts), used clothing, native handicraft, cheap China-made goodies from CDs, VCDs and more. Statistics showed that 95 per cent of the country’s 6 million or so population derives income from the informal sector, with most of them of hand-to-mouth existence.

While it is true that expatriates from 17 countries – Australians, Malaysians, Indians, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Chinese, among others – are living off PNG’s wealth, they are doing so but never at the expense of the local people.

Just because they remitted a bulk of their incomes to their families, it did not mean that they were stealing from the locals; in fact, remitting money to families back home is an ordinary function of trade and commerce as it involved the banking system and from this, banks are also generating substantial revenues.

First of all, expatriates had worked for the money and they really worked hard for it. They earned it honestly. There’s no foreign employer here or elsewhere worth his salt that would just pay them good money for a lousy job.

And come to think of this: While expatriates are so-called “crowding out” many Papua New Guineans on job opportunities that should have been theirs but did not due to their unfortunate built-in inadequacies, they are also one of the reasons while the local economy is thriving.

The estimated 20,000 or so expatriates here from 17 countries (7,000 or so are Filipinos) are themselves engine of economic activity that creates jobs for the local people. Granting that each expatriate spent K400 on food and other supplies every month, this boiled down easily to K8 million (Php131 million) being circulated back to the local economy, or K96 million (Php1.15 billion) annually.

Because of the expatriates, local trading business – from tucker shops (variety stores) to supermarkets – are able to expand their operations and hire new workers for regular fortnightly wages (15-30 paydays), who, for the first time, would be joining the ranks of those who regularly spend on food and other personal and household items.

When an expatriate buys his gasoline, he pays local taxes which in turn go to the coffers of the government. He pays income tax every month and the same goes to the coffers of the government. With increased tax collection, the government is able to pay for various services to the people – from health facilities to classrooms and road network. Or maybe create new jobs for the local guys.

Because of expatriates, there’s now a construction boom all over Port Moresby and in Lae, the country’s second city. Most of the structures that are currently rising all over the country are nothing but apartments and flats to cater to expatriates’ growing housing and accommodation needs.

With more and more new units being put up, more and more skilled and unskilled local labor are being required, which could only mean that they are now earning regular wages for the duration of the construction projects that would last from three months to one year.

New structures like buildings and housing accommodation would certainly need building materials that have to be sourced from the local hardware stores. The more buildings being put up, the more sales these stores make thus boosting their revenue, which ultimately end up to new investment prospects such as store expansion that would again create new jobs for local labor.

When these hardware stores import their building materials, they pay customs tax and other related import expenses – revenues that end up in government coffers.

About two years ago, the city’s appliance and home furnishing stores began expanding their area as well as their product lines, mostly imported from Australia, Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea. They had prepared for the influx of more migrant workers, mostly from Asia who are potential market for their goods. And notably, all of them now operate on weekends, something unheard of 15 years ago, to cash in on weekend expatriate and local shoppers.

But of course, with the improving local economy, many Papua New Guineans, particularly the educated ones who found work in both government and private sectors, have also benefited from the windfall; this has enabled them to buy things that they had never thought of buying before.

So, in short, the mere presence of expatriate communities in PNG should be another reason why the economy is alive. For all you know the supermarkets in Port Moresby and in key urban centers around the country have been purposely set up because there’s a built-in, sustainable market – the expatriates.

Consumption of the grassroots alone won’t keep the stores running profitably as they could only afford to pay for an item or two, usually a bag of cheap rice and cheap canned tuna or sardines, tea and small pack of sugar.

A rising multi-million kina shopping city in Port Moresby will obviously cater mainly to the growing number of expatriates, with new ones being drawn in by the coming US$10 billion liquefied natural gas project (LNG) of ExxonMobil just outside Port Moresby and the US$1.3 billion Chinese-owned nickel projects in Madang province, some 45 minutes flight from the capital city. Likewise, these two projects would create thousands of temporary and permanent jobs for local labor. And just imagine the spin offs that would be created – from transport and food catering services to supplies of fresh foods and materials – promising new jobs for those who don’t have yet.

One simple point I am trying to drive at is that: Natural resources like gold, oil, NLG, nickel, marine resources and timber would have no value if they remain underground, untouched, and in the ocean, swimming freely, and in the forest soaring their mighty height. They are just like money which becomes valuable only if you can transact with it or spend it.

If there is no expatriate capital to bring them out into the light, whatever natural wealth PNG has would just remain a book entry in the financial statements, and would never benefit the people, who incidentally, own such wealth since they are nestled in their traditional lands.

Ninety-seven per cent of the country’s land which happened to host gold, oil, LNG, nickel and timber and more, belong to traditional landowning families. But how come, 90% of them are poor, with a bigger number living below poverty line, when they are supposed to be one of the richest in the world?

The answer is that they have remained unexploited/undeveloped and exploitation/development could only come true with expatriate company’s capital.

Remove the expatriates from PNG as well as those expatriate companies, how do you think the economy would fare?

Some 15 years ago, one longtime expatriate executive from Kuala Lumpur told me: Remove the expats in PNG and in just two days, everything grinds to a halt. “That’s why we are here to keep the economy running …”

Frankly, this sorry, nasty perception remains true these days.


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