Filipino Workers Join Burma’s Opening Economy

By Simon Roughneen 6 January 2014

MANILA — New data showing that Philippine workers based in Burma remitted US$150,000 to their homeland in 2013 is perhaps another small signal of Burma’s economic reintegration with the wider world.

The numbers, in the latest Philippine central bank statistics on remittances to the Philippines, show a rise from $0 to $150,000 for August 2013, with Burma joining the 24 Asian countries and dozens of others worldwide where about 10 million Filipinos have moved to work and send money back to families at home.

Money remitted by overseas Filipino workers is worth about 10 percent of the Philippines’ $250 billion economy, with the latest central bank data showing $18 billion worth of remittances for the first 10 months of 2013—numbers that are likely to jump later when money sent back to families affected by the Nov. 8 Typhoon Haiyan—known as Yolanda in the Philippines, where it killed over 6,100 people—is taken into account.

It seems the new Burma data is attributable to a small influx of workers from the Philippines into newly opening sectors of the Burmese economy, such as telecommunications and energy.

“We have noticed an increasing number of migrant workers into Myanmar [Burma], mostly in the telecoms sector, as well as engineers hired by the companies in the oil and gas sector,” Maria Lourdes Salcedo, the deputy ambassador of the Philippines in Burma, told The Irrawaddy, using the official name for Burma. She estimated that about 600 Filipinos are working in Burma at the moment.

To compare the new Burmese figures with those from other countries in the region, the first 10 months of 2013 saw over $1 million in remittances sent back to the Philippines from East Timor, about $8 million from Thailand, $220 million from Malaysia and over $860 million from Singapore.

Both Burma and the Philippines share relatively high levels of emigration, with perhaps 7-10 percent of Burma’s population working abroad, similar to the proportion of overseas workers from the Philippines. In Burma’s case, the bulk of economic migration is to Thailand, as well as Singapore and Malaysia, while overseas Filipino workers are much more far-flung, with significant numbers in Europe, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf as well as North America.

Millions of Burmese, like Filipinos, rely on money sent home by family members working abroad. Remittances to Burma are difficult to quantify, however, with the country’s population statistics awaiting the country’s first census since 1983, which will take place next year. In the past, most remittances to Burma were sent back via informal channels such as the hundi system, though this is changing as international finance companies such as Western Union and MoneyGram spread across Burma and as the country upgrades its banking system.

Andy Hall, international advisor for the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation of Thailand (SERC) and the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), and a longtime advocate for Burmese migrant workers’ rights, said remittances to Burma could be of similar proportions to those sent back to the Philippines.

“Estimated remittance from sources I discussed is $3-5 billion per year in hard cash, one of the largest sources of cash coming into the country,” Hall told The Irrawaddy. Burma’s GDP is estimated at just over $50 billion, and Hall believes remittances to Burma exceed foreign aid outlays.

Though bilateral trade between Burma and the Philippines is small, just over $47 million in 2012, this number is expected to jump in coming years after Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Burma counterpart Thein Sein signed agreements on trade agriculture, energy and information cooperation during Thein Sein’s visit last month.

According to data from Burma’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA), the Philippines has two listed investments in Burma. These are worth $146 million, or 0.33 percent of the total cumulative investment into Burma since 1988, putting the Philippines 15th in the overall list of source countries for investment into Burma. But of those two projects, only one, a joint Filipino-Burmese venture plywood factory in Pegu Division, is still in operation, according to Mya Thuza of DICA. “We are hopeful that there might be more investment from the Philippines in the future,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Maria Lourdes Salcedo said several business delegations from the Philippines had visited Burma in recent months, in sectors such as water and food, with a Burmese franchise of the Jollibee fast-food chain on the cards.

Now Filipinos hoping to travel to Burma can take advantage of a new visa regime, with a 14-day visa-free exemption in place since Saturday for prospective visitors, though there are no direct flights from Manila to Rangoon.

A memorandum of agreement on the visa exemption allows “Filipinos who are holders of ordinary passports visa-free entry to Myanmar for tourism and business purposes,” Aquino said in a joint media briefing with Thein Sein during the latter’s visit to the Philippines last month.