Thursday, December 03, 2009

Jobs for Filipinos at Papua New Guinea LNG project



IN 1974 and in the years that followed, Philippine Airlines and Qantas chartered flights brought to Port Moresby several hundreds of Filipino professionals and highly-skilled workers.

They were recruited by the colonial government of Australia the previous year after it determined that the growing economy of Papua New Guinea needed better skills and expertise to help sustain the needs of the local industries and to run the various units in the national government.

To prepare the country for eventual independence from Australia that was to take place on September 16, 1975, the administration launched a massive recruitment exercise targeting Filipino workers.

They were chosen over other Asian nationals for their English proficiency and inherent patience and ability to adapt to the local culture.

The first batch was made of 136 professionals, technicians, teachers, professors, architects, surveyors, fishery experts and agriculturists who set foot on PNG on May 10, 1974. 

They were either posted in various government units along with their white counterparts or taught elementary and vocational courses to the youths across the country.

Lacking in expertise and skills and the needed manpower to operate the various sectors of its infant business, trade, commerce and various other industries, and to streamline the functioning of government bureaucracies, PNG looked to the Philippines for manpower help.

Having done this, the nation was not disappointed. And it wanted more of them to come and help build the economy.

Most of the professional Filipinos excelled in their line of expertise; a number made their name in banking, commerce and industry; others became the spawn from which learning sprouted like mushrooms among the youths in various levels of education.

With PNG becoming their second home, most of the Pinoys stayed put till past retirement.

This group was considered the first-ever from an Asian country to become expatriate workers here in Papua New Guinea.

Many more Filipinos in several batches followed – this time, all recruited by the first PNG government – during the initial years of the country’s nationhood.

My father, a diesel-gasoline engine expert, came in 1977, along with a big group of new recruits that included educators, technical and highly skilled workers, agriculturists, vocational teachers, accountants, administrators and managers.

The economy was beginning to grow and there was no homegrown expertise yet available to fill up various jobs. Again, the only readily-available manpower during those days could be found in the Philippines. So, the stream of in-bound Filipinos did not stop. And they still do these days.

It was thought earlier that it would only be a temporary affair, a stopgap measure to fill an urgent need. But the proponents of Philippine hiring were dead wrong. And outsourcing from this country has become a convenient and fortunate habit.

When PNG’s pioneering oil refinery at Napa-Napa just outside Port Moresby finally took off a few years ago, it had, and it has until now, many of Filipinos working in its various sectors – many of them pirated en masse from two to three rival oil refineries back in the Philippines.

The Napa-Napa refinery had no other place from which to outsource manpower but Manila. It had no option. Without them, operations could not start. Oil refining, a process that gives added value to crude oil, is a new thing in the country, and therefore, the needed local manpower has remained nonexistent.

With PNG’s massive resource development project like the liquefied natural gas (LNG) now on the horizon, the likelihood of another “Filipino invasion” is becoming imminent

Already, the Philippine Ambassador to PNG, Madam Shirley Ho-Vicario, has been in talks with at least three big job recruitment companies based in Port Moresby to facilitate the hiring of Filipinos and their deployment in the LNG project. And she’s also urging them to hire more Filipinos for the project.

One of them, the JDA Wokman of Port Moresby, has already requested the Philippine Embassy in Port Moresby to help it outsource expatriate workers through the Philippine Overseas Employment Authority (POEA), a government agency charged with the deployment of Filipinos for overseas jobs, and certain Manila-based private recruitment companies.

JDA Wokman business development manager Peter Garnsey told this writer that the Filipinos are an “attractive option” for deployment.

“They could make up the bulk of the more than 10,000 expatriate workers projected to be required by the project during its 30-yar lifespan,” he said.

However, Mr Garnsey would not be able to know the exact number of workers to hire from Manila until ExxonMobil and the project contractors have determined the actual manpower needs.

“But we are looking at a few thousands from the Philippines alone for deployment during the entire life of the project,” Mr Garnsey said.

In a formal letter to Madam Ho-Vicario, Mr Garnsey enumerated “reasons we believe the Filipino workers will be the desired expatriate workforce for the PNG LNG project:

1.    Superior English language skills

2.    They interface well with PNG Nationals;

3.    Filipino Workers are considered to have good work ethics;

4.    The skills/training of Filipino workers is considered to be superior; and

5.    Ease of travel between PNG and the Philippines

The two other recruitment companies are also looking to the Philippines for professionals and highly-skilled technical workers numbering a few thousands -- a ballpark figure that was mentioned during their initial talks with the Philippine Ambassador.

Full-blast hiring of engineers of various specializations, specialized mechanics, pipe layers, feeders, heavy equipment operators, fabrication specialists, accountants, administrative staff and many more could begin in April next year.

The ExxonMobil LNG project is expected to operate for at least 30 years.

It is feared that this projected “invasion” of Filipino workers and those from other Asian countries might cause “paper fatigue” at the PNG Labor Department and Immigration Department, which are right now bogged down by manpower lack.

A tsunami of applications for work permits and working visas could come crashing onto their respective counters. Not to mention those requests for working documents from the other sectors of the industry such as the nickel/cobalt and the tuna processing zone projects in Madang province. Their combined manpower requirement from overseas could go beyond 20,000.

Orly Alvarez, one of the Pinoy expatriates who came to Port Moresby in 1974 with the first batch, told this writer recently: “I’m not surprised if the LNG project would outsource from the Philippines … LNG is a new thing here in PNG and there are no local workers to do the job.

“It’s actually a repeat of what happened in 1974 when the first batch of Filipinos came here because there was nobody to do the job for the Government …” says Alvarez, who was then a 29-year-old mechanical engineer. Currently, he is the Transport Director at the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.

“It can’t be helped,” says Commerce and Industry Minister Gabriel Kapris of the hiring plan.

He told me in one of our recent chats: “Ever since, we’ve been reliant on the Filipinos to do some vital jobs for us … it has become a habit, an easy way out to meet manpower needs … but the Government is now trying to do something to correct this.”

Was it lack of foresight on the part of successive governments?

Until today, it has miserably failed to train local workforce to man the nation’s resources development program such as the LNG, which is now on its fast-track phase, with the second one coming up.

Not to mention the upcoming tuna processing zone known as the Pacific Marine Industrial Zone (PMIZ) in Madang province, which is expected to outsource more than 20,000 highly-skilled Asian workers – expectedly several of them Filipinos -- to man the operations of at least seven tuna canning plants along with local workforce.

For years, the PNG government has been crowing about the nation’s rich gas and oil resources and its plan to have them fully developed, and thus become a big dollar earner for the economy. But it never included in its agenda the training of home-grown workforce to man the industry.

Is the PNG Government conveniently relegating this responsibility to countries like the Philippines?

Out of desperate necessity, the Philippine government has established a systematic technical education and skills and development program in which hundreds of new proficient workers are produced every six months in regional centers.

They are not for local employment as there are no jobs available. This is because the country’s various industries have failed to generate enough jobs to cater to excess manpower, maybe because of not-so-good economic climate.

Since there is an abundance of qualified workers but not enough jobs for all of them, the only option is to bring the expertise overseas where good paying jobs are available, particularly in the Middle East, Canada, Europe, Asia, America and PNG, which is now the new Mecca for Filipino workers.

At any given time, there are at least 10 million Filipinos overseas, who last year, sent home US$16.43 billion – an amount that handily shored up the Philippine economy. During the first nine months of this year, OFWs sent a total of US$12.83 billion, up 4.2% from the same period last year.

The Philippine government has succeeded in keeping them perennially overseas by failing to encourage the country’s business and industry to create enough jobs for them back home.

That’s why the reliance on its millions of OFWs for national survival has become the Arroyo government’s major economic strategy, and called OFWs “national heroes”.

Early this year, Madam Ho-Vicario told Prime Minister Michael Somare about the Philippines’ skills development scheme which is run by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), a government-sponsored program.

When Sir Michael visited the Philippines last May, he and the Ambassador toured TESDA facilities at its Metro Manila headquarters in Taguig City. Impressed by the way the skills training scheme is being carried out through the use of latest facilities, the Prime Minister vowed to have it replicated here in PNG.

Likewise, Mr Garnsey went to Manila last September to establish a tie-up with local recruitment agencies and to see for himself how TESDA develops new skilled workers and how it validates skill proficiencies that would meet the needs of the PNG LNG project.

Seeing how things were done at TESDA, he was convinced he came to the right place.

ExxonMobil, the mother company of the PNG LNG operator Esso Highlands, intends to carry out its own skills training program for qualified locals. This is a part of its national content development to cater to various jobs that would be offered to Papua New Guinean workforce.

But the magnitude of the manpower requirement at the gas fields, at the head office and at the processing plants is just too staggering to imagine that whatever skilled workforce ExxonMobil could produce would not be enough. In fact, it could only be a drop in the bucket.

For one thing, the LNG project owners cannot jeopardize its operational timetable by not having the necessary workforce in place to man every unit of the facility. And it cannot wait for such home-grown manpower to be developed and honed until it is up to industry standards.

They have commitments to deliver billion dollars worth of LNG to its various clients overseas – Japan and China, being the biggest buyers -- at a specific time. And the bottom line to fulfilling these commitments boils down to one basic element: manpower to support the entire production system with efficiency and precession.

That’s why the gas project has tapped the three big recruitment agencies in Port Moresby for its manpower needs. And these agents are almost certain most of those workers will come from the Philippines.

Barring unforeseen events, there’s no reason why this could not happen.

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  3. Anonymous10:49 AM

    Hi everyone!

    This is Imee. I hope you can help me find events (including dates and event title or even websites) in Papua New Guinea where in Filipinos attends to. Our company may participate on that events. By the way we are food-related company.

    Thanks a lot!

  4. Anonymous1:02 AM

    I've just been reading the comments to this blog and I certainly didn't notice any superior English language skills. I believe that most Papua New Guineans can at least write English better than Flips. Give jobs to PNG's first.