Pogo workers in their midst: Notes from an ‘invasion’
MANILA, Philippines — Every midnight without fail, a white van unloads five or six Chinese men in front of a convenience store in BF Homes, Parañaque City.
They purchase energy drinks, sandwiches and fruits, and take a short walk to the parking area of a popular coffee shop, where they consume the stuff. They move out after about 10 minutes of loud chatter, leaving their litter behind.
The men are employees of an online casino—“gaming center” is the formal industry term—operating from one of the buildings just outside the village, the one behind tall walls and with glass windows that barely offer a peek into the tech-heavy dealings inside.
They are part of the swelling army of foreigners employed in Pogos, or Philippine offshore gaming operators— a burgeoning business sector that does not make it to the news, except when immigration agents crack down on overstaying aliens or when government officials gripe about how these workers are largely going untaxed.
By the Department of Finance’s latest estimates, Chinese Pogo employees number 100,000-130,000 nationwide.
But for BF residents, the Chinese workers and their nocturnal breaks can be a mild curiosity at best or a growing irritation at worst. While a welcome stimulant to the village economy, the Pogo workers keep to themselves and hardly interact with the locals.
A sense of unease, if not suspicion, is thus keenly felt in many commercial districts and (supposedly strictly) residential areas across the country that now host Pogos and are drawing Chinese outsiders and Filipino observers into unprecedented encounters where cash and goods are exchanged but cultural amity is not.
“David,” one of the nighttime security guards at the BF Homes coffee shop, counts three to four white vans shuttling Chinese workers to and from their Pogo base. (Like the other persons interviewed for this report, David asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons.)
A few months ago, when he was posted at another branch of the coffee shop in neighboring Las Piñas City, he would also notice a convoy of vans lining the driveway of a nearby shopping mall to collect groups of Chinese online casino personnel “at the end of their shift.”
“They would rather drink Red Bull [than coffee],” David notes wryly, having become familiar with the expatriate crowd whose presence he first found merely ubiquitous in Las Piñas but which has now, he says, “invaded” this part of Parañaque.
High-paying but messy
Elsewhere in the city, “Gretchen” has seen how the white vans cause heavy traffic when they form a queue in front of Pearl Plaza, a renovated low-rise near Manila Bay that, she says, hosts a Pogo employing Chinese nationals by the thousands.
Gretchen, who lives and rents out rooms near Pearl Plaza, is not actually complaining, for she has also recognized a new market for her business. But the first few tenants proved to be a headache.
“Two years ago, the [Chinese] workers who stayed with us signed a contract saying they would stay for only one year. But after nine months, I began to have doubts [about their intentions] and asked for their passports; it was also for our protection. But they would only show their IDs,” she recalls.
The tenants eventually moved out without incident, but they left the place reeking. “It took a month to air the rooms out. Ang baho!” Gretchen says.
In nearby Muntinlupa City, another landlady complains that Chinese renters “turned the space into a dormitory,” left a hole in the ceiling and got rid of the dining table, apparently to make room for extra people—more than the four that their contract allowed.
In Pasay City, an apartment owner received a hefty offer from a Chinese group and forthwith served notice to her Filipino tenants that they had to leave immediately.
Doubled, tripled rent
“Glenda,” president of a homeowners’ association, has long observed the phenomenon. “Normally, rent in our neighborhood is P50,000-P70,000 a month. But one homeowner was offered P120,000 a month, and another, P150,000 a month,” she says.
But soon after the windfall came the complaints. Says Glenda: “Some of them would go out to the street in the middle of the night, partying or talking loudly on the phone and waking up the neighbors.
“The rent offered is tempting, but the homeowners who take it end up feeling really sorry. The property is left in a mess. They realize that the money they got was not enough for repairs. Some are just forced to wait out the lease contract.”
Recently, officers of the homeowners’ association raided a Chinese-rented house in Glenda’s enclave in Parañaque and found a row of computers too many for a family, bolstering neighbors’ suspicions that it was being used for illegal gambling. The Chinese tenants were just told to leave.
The raid prompted the homeowners’ association to rewrite its welcome letter to potential lessees. It now states that the houses on offer are “for residential purposes only” and that converting them into a “staff house, boarding house, transient house and/or sub-leasing purposes is strictly prohibited.”
“The condition applies to all potential tenants, whatever nationality. I want it clear that I am not singling out the Chinese. We can refuse even Filipinos,” Glenda says.
Glenda admits to being hesitant when confronting the violators, especially after hearing of a Filipino housemaid making a remark to this effect: “How could you! These Chinese have President Duterte as their friend!”
The annoyances aren’t confined to the homes. Village guards noted that some of the white vans transporting Chinese Pogo workers were sporting gate pass stickers intended only for homeowners’ vehicles. To enter, the vans must have another kind of sticker costing P5,000 each.
“Chinese only” establishments have also become an issue for Philippine authorities, especially after social media buzz that a food court called China Food City in Las Piñas had refused to serve Filipino customers.
The local government and the Department of Trade and Industry later ordered the food court shut down for “discrimination” and for the failure of the food stall owners to register with the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
China Food City remains closed at this writing, but the Inquirer saw other establishments in the area that have front and interior signs in Chinese, catering to Chinese workers from the call centers.
No denying benefits
Still, some locals can’t deny that the Chinese presence has been a boon to small businesses and service providers, like sari-sari stores and the neighborhood laundry women and garbage collectors.
“Our area came alive; that’s one good thing about it,” Gretchen says. “Before, there were no businesses here other than a private hospital, a hotel, and the red-light district. Now there are more establishments with Chinese signs whose owners and employees cater to the foreigners.”
Gretchen also entertains the thought that the Chinese workers — like other expatriates a long way from home — are probably merely trying to cope with loneliness and are keeping to themselves not just because of the language barrier but also because “they don’t want to call attention to themselves and rock the boat.”
“I do take pity on them. Imagine going to a foreign country and not speak the language. And sometimes the locals are hostile toward them [because of the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines],” she says, adding:
“So I tell my staff, ‘Just imagine that they are like our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers). They are doing this for their families back home.’ I don’t take their noise [and other nuisances they cause] personally. I’m more upset by our government’s inaction toward their government’s encroachment [on our territory].”
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