As thousands of Filipinos leave their homeland each year to work in foreign countries, a growing number of them are now choosing to come to Vietnam. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Linh Phanroy.
At first, Judy Afluen has a pretty typical expat story. She first came to Vietnam as a tourist in 2000, before deciding to move here permanently.
But this is where her story starts to differ from most expats: she is in Vietnam as a means of survival. Afluen was working as a public school teacher in her native Philippines, making about $300 a month, not nearly enough to support herself and her three children in a town about three hours outside of Manila.
On her visit to Vietnam she thought, perhaps, she could make more money here and decided, despite a more expensive cost of living, her chances of getting a well-paying job would be greater than back home.
At first it was difficult for Afluen, and she could only find work as a housekeeper for an Indian family in Phu My Hung, making VND 100,000 a week. After slaving away behind an iron for some time, a Filipina friend who owned a restaurant heard that a Vietnamese customer was looking for a tutor. Afluen applied and got the job. Based on her teaching credentials from the Philippines, she was later hired as a middle school math teacher at an international school in District 2, where she still works. Between her work at the school and private tutoring, the 43 year old now makes nearly $3,000 a month, 10 times what she made back home.
Afluen’s case is indicative of a larger trend in the Philippines. Some call it the ‘Brain Drain’, or the migration of skilled and educated Filipino workers to foreign countries. According to a report by the Philippines Department of Science and Technology, in the last 15 years the number of Filipino science and technology workers leaving their country has jumped by over 150 percent. In 2009, about 25,000 science and technology professionals left the Philippines to work elsewhere. So many Filipinos are choosing to move abroad that the Philippines immigration department has started to limit the amount allowed to leave.
In Vietnam, it’s common to see Filipino maids and nannies advertising their services on expat forums since most can make up to several times more here compared to back home. Go to any quality hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, and you’re also likely to be treated by Filipino nurses. Filipino English teachers and tutors are also common, with the Vietnamese government even recruiting them directly from the Philippines. Right now the Philippines Embassy in Hanoi estimates that there are over 5,000 Filipinos working in Vietnam, and most of them now are educated professionals.
“Most Filipinos in Vietnam occupy or hold high-level managerial and executive positions in leading local and international companies, restaurants, food industry, garments/manufacturing sector, and infrastructure projects and educational institutions,” Philippines Ambassador to Vietnam Jerril Santos wrote me in an email.
But unlike most western expats, many Filipinos come to Vietnam to create better lives for their families, which they often leave behind.
“I have to stay here to make money for my kids,” says Afluen, whose three children are now in Vietnam with her. “I’m only in Vietnam for a job.”
Mario Bagtong is also in Vietnam for the money. He first started working abroad in 1994 in Sri Lanka. Since then he has worked in China and Malaysia, and has been in Vietnam for the last four years working in technical support for the PUMA sportswear company.
Despite spending 18 years abroad, Bagtong says he longs for the Philippines, where his four children live and his wife runs a small shop out of their home.“If I could find a good job, I would go back to the Philippines,” he says.
But the chances of that happening seem to be diminishing further. According to a recent report, unemployment is one of the Philippines’s biggest problems. And this is in a place where many incidences of sectarian violence, both political and religious, occur. Despite the country’s impressive economic growth, the official unemployment rate rose to 7.1 percent in January, with some unofficial estimates putting it closer to 11 percent, the highest in Southeast Asia.
Although most associate living and working abroad for a better life with immigrant populations, Batong says he still sees himself and most Filipinos as expats. “Some Filipinos in Vietnam are defined by their jobs,” he says. “If you are not a supervisor or manager, then many won’t call you an expat. But I can’t assimilate, so I consider myself an expat.”