July 3, 2014 12:00 am JST

The drive of Filipino migrants is a big part of the country's recent success

MINORU SATAKE, Nikkei staff writer

Japanese shipper Nippon Yusen founded a college for sailors in the Philippines in 2007 to train future crew members.

MANILA -- Glenn Escalera, a 32-year-old Filipino engineer, recalls standing on the deck of a massive freighter, sailing under a pitch-dark sky off the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden. As the ship moved through the pirate-infested waters, he thought of his wife and children at home and prayed. "In my life at sea around the world over a decade, that was the time I was most frightened," he says.

     Escalera was born on the southern island of Mindanao. After graduating from college on Iloilo Island, he joined a Greek shipping company, having heard that sailors make big money. He works at sea for 10 months at a stretch, then comes home for one to four months. Passing two certification exams earned him a promotion and a pay raise to $3,400 per month. He recently bought a large parcel of land in his hometown to build a house on. Other people working at a call center in Manila for $150-300 a month would not be able to do that, to say nothing of slinging burgers at Jollibee -- a popular fast-food chain-- for less than $2 an hour.

On the move

Filipinos are known for traveling far and wide to work. As an official language, English is widely spoken in the archipelago and its people are generally skilled with other languages. Including permanent residents, 10.48 million Filipinos lived overseas in 2012, up 42% in the past decade, according to government statistics. The number of sailors, at 360,000, nearly doubled.

     Because English is the lingua franca at sea, commercial freight companies naturally look to the Philippines, where there are plenty of English-speakers eager for work. Japanese shipper Nippon Yusen (NYK) founded a college for sailors in the Philippines in 2007 to train future crew members. In 2013, it spent 2 billion yen ($19.7 million) to expand facilities and enrollment capacity by 50% to 180 students. NYK also sends former ship captains to the Philippines every year in search of skilled recruits.

     Over 70% of NYK's sailors are Filipino. Starting pay, at $2,500 a month, is fairly high for an entry-level job. This year, the company hired a Filipino to captain an liquefied-natural gas carrier, a highly skilled position that requires much experience. Captains can earn as much as $10,000 a month.

We want you

Filipino workers are in high demand worldwide. The government of Germany, which, like Japan, is struggling to care for an aging population, signed an agreement with the Philippines in March 2013 to promote employment of Filipino health care workers in the European country. The U.S. hosts many Filipino nurses and doctors, and the executive chef of the White House is Filipino. Japan hires far fewer Filipino nurses and caregivers because most Japanese do not speak English.

     Filipinos have long ventured abroad for work. In 1974, the government started the Overseas Employment Program to export surplus labor. The program was supposed to be temporary, but soon became an indispensable means of propping up the economy. While it is true that many Filipinos toil overseas for low pay in low-skill jobs, things are changing. Demand for highly trained English-speakers is opening up opportunities for skilled professionals, engineers and corporate managers, to name a few.

     Lately, more Filipinos are working in the Middle East. Fully 10% of the 9.2 million people in the United Arab Emirates are Filipino. Raphael Baldivino, 25, who tends bar in a passenger lounge at Abu Dhabi International Airport, sends $100 to $200 to his parents every month. "It's natural to give back to my parents for what they did to raise me. With so many friends here, I never get lonely," he says.

     Down on the boarding ramp, two porters speak in Tagalog, the main indigenous language of the Philippines. Many duty-free shop clerks, hotel receptionists and airline ground staff are Filipino. The airport could not function without them.

     One can find Filipinos higher up the ladder as well. Kumi Fujisawa, president of Japanese think tank SophiaBank, visits the Middle East every year. She says Filipino women often hold managerial positions in Saudi companies.