The country’s construction companies opposed to relaxing a law that will enable foreigners to participate in local projects, have welcomed the support of lawmakers who are pushing for further regulation aimed to protect Filipino contractors, particularly the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
“This support by our legislators is very crucial especially in these difficult times when the very survival of the MSMEs in the construction sector is being threatened by the adverse impact of the pandemic. And with the entry of foreign companies under the guise of levelling the playing field, it will hasten the death of many small local players reeling from the economic slump,” said Engineer Wilfredo Hilao Guerzon Jr. of Davao-based FGM Builders Resources & Development Corp.
In a recent budget hearing in the Senate, the issue of potential displacement of over 4 million workers in the construction sector was brought to light after Majority Floor Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri sought the firm commitment of Public Works Secretary Mark Villar to back a legislation he will file to limit the participation of foreign firms in local infrastructure projects.
According to Zubiri, his constituents in Bukidnon and Cagayan De Oro have brought to his attention their serious concerns on moves to ease the rule to allow more foreign contractors to compete with local companies for projects in view of a Supreme Court ruling that voided nationality restrictions on construction companies and effectively opened the doors to foreigners.
Solicitor General Jose Calida, representing the Philippine Contractors Association Board, has filed a motion for reconsideration with the high court to reverse its ruling, arguing that the limitations on foreign participation in the contracting business must be retained in order to protect the interests of Filipino contractors and workers.
“We have so much manpower here, especially now that the pandemic has displaced so many people from previous jobs. There are also large numbers of displaced OFWs coming home and seeking employment,” Zubiri said.
“My fear is that if we continue to allow foreign contractors to participate in and implement DPWH (Department of Public Works and Highways) projects, whether small or large, they will bring in foreign workers, and not hire locally,” the Mindanaoan senator said. “We must prioritize Filipinos for employment over foreign workers.”
According to Zubiri, he is amenable to allowing non-Filipino companies to engage in government infrastructure projects that are worth P2 billion and above, and are highly technical needing foreign intervention and expertise.
In the same public hearing which tackled the 2021 budget of the DPWH, Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan emphasized the need to preserve the existing jobs and reserve the work to be created to Filipinos, following the admission of DPWH Undersecretary Emil Sadain that nearly 50 percent of the workforce in two China-funded projects—the Estrella-Pantaleon bridge in Makati and the Binondo-Intramuros bridge in Manila—is comprised of Chinese workers.
“The construction industry has registered the largest increase in unemployment in the second quarter of this year, that’s almost 30 percent drop in employment,” Pangilinan said. “COVID-19 is the game changer, and we also have to change our way of dealing with these ODA (Official Development Assistance) contracts and pushing for and fighting for Filipino employment. Unahin natin yung ating mga kababayan.”
As early as August, meanwhile, Senator Joel Villanueva has emphasized the need to implement the “Filipino First” policy in hiring to ensure that local workers are prioritized under an amendment he has been pushing to amend the Labor Code.
“We hope our lawmakers will take a closer look at the plight of Filipino contractors and workers before changing the law. Do not deprive us of opportunities in our own country in favor of foreigners,” said Guerzon.