MANILA, Philippines — Foreigners permitted to work in the Philippines dropped for the first time in 11 years last year, but remained elevated as those employed in the controversial offshore gaming industry stayed despite some closures.
The labor department issued 106,610 alien employment permits (AEPs) to foreigners last year, down nearly a third from 158,710 in 2019, government data showed.
The decline was a first since 2009, a year after the global financial crisis, although the scale of drop was larger this time— it was just a 3.02% dip back then— after territories put up travel barriers to stop the deadly coronavirus from spreading.
Whether or not these foreigners holding AEPs indeed entered the country remained unclear. For one, AEPs only allows a foreign national to secure work visas from another agency, the Bureau of Immigration. They are allowed to work while waiting for visas, but would have to leave if ultimately denied application. AEPs are only valid for a year.
In total, the BI issued 30,986 work visas last year, down a bigger 60.1% from year-ago levels. “Number of AEP and Sec. 9(g) work visa may differ,” DOLE said, for various reasons including foreigners “issued AEP did not push through with the application” of a visa.
That AEP issuance sank was expected especially after lockdowns were enforced from March to June and international flights were barred. At the time, Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs), employees of which have been driving AEP take-up in recent years, had also been shutting down before allowing to resume operations in May— while most other local firms were halted.
Of 295 POGO-related firms, 160 were granted license to restart as of December 15 last year. As per labor department data, nearly 67% of POGO employees are foreigners, most of whom are Chinese. 
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese still accounted for the biggest chunk of AEP beneficiaries at 83,796, representing 78.6% of total, although the figure was down 34.2% year-on-year. A far second were Vietnamese with 4,197 AEPs, and third were Japanese with 2,660 AEPs.
Apart from Chinese tourists, the obvious surge in Chinese workers onshore appears to be the only material economic benefit that the Duterte administration got from its friendlier approach to its aggressive neighbor. Yet even the benefits they bring through spending have been far offset by numerous evidence of tax evasion, illegal job search, and even public misdemeanors. 
For the labor department, it has been insisted that foreigners are not out to take away jobs from Filipinos since where they get employed, specific skills like foreign language proficiency are needed. Procedurally, this is ensured by government “labor market tests” to assess if a required skill is not available locally to warrant foreign hiring. 
But for Alan Tanjusay, spokesperson of the Associated Labor Unions – Trade Union Council of the Philippines, a high issuance of AEPs during a crisis year means something is wrong with the current process.
“Last week, the House (of Representatives) and the Senate adopted our proposal that labor market test be improved not just by publication of AEP applicants in national newspapers and social media. But now, additional measure to the labor market test is for local industries identify positions or skills not present in their industry,” he said in a text message.