A Chinese online gambling worker's plight in Manila

AT A GLANCE:

MANILA, Philippines – He’s gay and broke, and his family wants him to marry one of their neighbor’s daughters. Wei, not his real name, has had it with his life in conservative Yunnan, a province in China.

While he graduated from a two-year technical course, there are just not enough opportunities for him.  Life in the province is tough, especially for millennials trying to get a job.

All that was about to change after a quick conversation with an acquaintance.

“A neighbor said he is going to some island away from China and will earn around 14,000 yuan (around $2,000) a month and can get more if I strive harder. Of course I said ‘count me in,’” Wei said.

That "island" was the Philippines.

The recruiter told Wei he would simply take calls and address problems of some wealthy Chinese citizens. 

While the recruiter did not specify in which industry he would be employed, the promised pay and the escape from his province was enough for Wei to say yes.

“I used to work as an assistant for a factory, and pay was very low. There were months that I have no job, the factory called me if I was needed there again,” Wei said.

On top of supporting himself, he is financing the needs of his senior parents and two other siblings – something the government does not know about.

“Back then, couples can only have one child. My mother had two more children after me, so they were given away to relatives,” he said.

While he loved his family, Wei felt there was a world out there waiting to be explored. He said his goodbyes and promised to return home after a couple of years and said he would be sending money each month.

Now, he doesn’t know if he can can ever go back to Yunnan.

Deception upon arrival

In November 2018, Wei, along with several other Chinese nationals, flew to Manila as tourists. 

When asked if he did not find it suspicious that he had no working permits, he said there was no way for it to be processed in China.

“The recruiter said we need to process the work permit in Manila, so we arrived as tourists,” Wei said.

When he settled in Makati, he was told there would be salary deductions for the paperwork. From $2,000, his pay was halved to $1,000 or around P51,000.

It was only after his second week in Manila that he was told he would be working for an online gambling firm.

"I had suspicions that it was gambling-related, but I still went here because I know it’s legal here. Gambling is banned in China." – Wei, Chinese online gambling worker

“I had suspicions that it was gambling-related, but I still went here because I know it’s legal here. Gambling is banned in China,” he said.

Wei’s story is not unique. Alvin Camba, an expert on political economy of Chinese foreign capital, was also able to interview a Chinese worker with a very similar story.

The Chinese worker whom Camba talked to also completed two years in a trade school and had a tough life in China and found opportunity in online gambling. 

According to Camba, there were different options at that time for the Chinese worker: Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines.

The Philippines was the newest destination and offered the highest pay at $2,800 and included lodging, parts of the living expenses, and migration. 

“Me and my co-workers traveled to Guangzhou and took a cheap, low-budget flight to Changi in Singapore. From there, we took a connecting flight to Angeles City in Pampanga. Immigration was rather easy. We were part of a tour group that was processed by the company way before,” the Chinese worker said in a story published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

When the workers got to the country, they also had to give up their passports and were given identification cards instead to use around the city. They also had to apply for a temporary work permit.

Camba also said workers' salaries were drastically slashed. From $2,800, it was reduced to $648 or from P145,000 to just over P33,000.

While the Chinese workers’ salary in online gambling is relatively higher than what most Filipinos earn, the risk alone of working in China’s most unwanted industry tips the scales to their disadvantage.

Working in Manila

Wei said living in Manila has its pros and cons. He is able to afford clothes, eat good food, and afford an iPhone X – considered a status symbol.

While his new financial freedom has perks, work is quite tough.

“We work 6 times a day for 12 hours, which is worse than what I did in China. We are also banned from traveling outside Manila,” Wei said.

He lives in a condominium in Parañaque and shares a room with 4 other Chinese workers. They get shuttled to their office just a few minutes away.

#006400;"> "We work 6 times a day for 12 hours, which is worse than what I did in China. We are also banned from traveling outside Manila." – Wei, Chinese online gambling worker

“I call and chat other Chinese to encourage them to play games. I also show them what available games we have,” he said.

Camba said a typical office consists of small cubicles with around 60 to 70 people. 

A company also does not need to be under one building. For instance, those in customer service sections are often in the buildings where the accommodations for workers are located. App-development sections are often located to the richer parts of Metro Manila, such as Makati City and Bonifacio Global Center.

Camba said working hours were set at around 12 hours a day with only one day off. The salary is fixed, but they earn more through commissions. Deductions are also made if they break rules, such as getting in trouble with the locals or the police, traveling to other provinces or cities outside Metro Manila, or bringing locals to the office.

There are also Filipinos working in online gambling. Jake, not his real name, told Rappler he worked for an unregistered online gambling firm and earned quite well.

“On top of basic salary, workers got as much as P500,000 bonus in a year,” he said.

“Managers can earn over a million in just a month,” he added.

His work is similar to Wei’s, where he scouts for potential gamblers online. 

While pay was good, he was very wary of the legitimacy of the company he was working for.

"It’s a company in Centris [Quezon City] – they say it’s IT, but it’s online gambling." – Jake, former online gambling worker

“It’s a company in Centris [Quezon City] – they say it’s IT [information technology], but it’s online gambling. During my job interview, I can tell the hiring manager was apprehensive to say that they were online gambling,” Jake said.

When told about the questionable working conditions of some Chinese workers, Jake said his colleagues were paid and treated well.

“They have money, but I can’t say for all. I’m not sure what was promised to them was what they were getting. But with all the shady activities, some companies can probably do that to them,” he said.

He left the company just after a couple of months working, and admitted he will be omitting in his resumé his work experience there.

Silver lining

Work has been tough and the pay was unexpected. Wei is only able to breathe during Fridays, where he is able to go out occasionally with his co-workers around the SM Mall of Asia, now dubbed as the Bay Area.

In one of those rare nights, he met a Filipino-Chinese guy who eventually became his boyfriend.

Daryl, not his real name, said the attraction was instant.

“I knew he was not from here. We talked and we just clicked,” Daryl said.

In China, Wei’s parents do not know he is gay. In the Philippines, nobody seemed to care much. For Wei, it was in anonymity here that he found identity.

All the uncertainties and risks he went through being in an unfamiliar country seemed to be all worth it when he found love in Manila.

But the question that still bugs him today: can he still go back home and see his family again?

Nowhere to go

Less cash than expected and more work hours have been bittersweet for Wei.

He wanted to give a better life for his family back home, but it might take him a while to save up, considering the unexpected salary downgrade.

“I thought I could go back to visit after a year, but my pay is not as big as expected, so I don’t know when that will be. I miss my family,” he said.

He also fears being deported and getting arrested.

"I have the right working permits here, but if I leave without telling my company, they might tell the [Chinese] government what I did for work here and will end up in jail." - Wei, Chinese online gambling worker

“I have the right working permits here, but if I leave without telling my company, they might tell the [Chinese] government what I did for work here and will end up in jail,” Wei said.

Daryl was the one who reached out to Rappler and translated the interview. He hopes the government can do something about his boyfriend’s situation.

Lucio Pitlo, an expert on Chinese studies, said that the Chinese government “absolutely hates” gambling.

“I talked to Chinese counterparts and scholars and asked about online gambling, notions about the Chinese stealing jobs, jacking up rental prices, and the consensus is that the Chinese government would want to stop this,” Pitlo said.

For Camba, Chinese workers are trapped in legal loopholes, as gambling is banned in China, but is legal in the Philippines.

“Those that got their passports withheld can’t complain to any government. They can’t go to the Philippine government, and if they go to the Chinese embassy, they can get arrested,” Camba said.

"Those that got their passports withheld can’t complain to any government. They can’t go to the Philippine government, and if they go to the Chinese embassy, they can get arrested." - Alvin Camba, researcher

“There are local interests here, real estate for instance, it is booming. While the Chinese government would want to ask the Philippine government to put an end to this, they just can’t because they can’t intrude,” Camba added.

Racism strikes

As if the working conditions were not enough, the Chinese workers also have to face racism.

“He does not have Facebook and does not understand English, but I think it's better that way so that he can’t see the racism online,” Daryl said.

Wei admitted that he is very aware of the actions of some of his colleagues, but said not all of them are rude.

According to Ivy Ganadillo, Chinese studies professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, mainlanders have long been fending off racist remarks here.

“The common stereotype with the Chinese of course, is being ill-mannered, not behaving well in public, but the stigma actually came first from the Filipino-Chinese community,” Ganadillo said.

"Online gambling has nothing to do with the Chinese government's moves, but there is a misconseption, it gets meshed up with all that." – Lucio Pitlo, academic

She said these stereotypes are harmful and do not take into account the cultural differences and socioeconomic context of the actions of some workers.

Ganadillo said these new migrants are from poor provinces and the actions of some are easily magnified especially on social media.

“I had no problems so far with Filipinos, and as you can see I’m even dating one,” Wei said.

For Pitlo, Filipinos’ judgment had already been clouded by news reports on the West Philippine Sea dispute, as well as China’s aggressive economic expansion. (READ: Carpio calls for South China Sea 'truth movement')

“Online gambling has nothing to do with the Chinese government's moves, but there is a misconception, it gets meshed up with all that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese worker Camba was able to interview hopes for better understanding.

“I wish for better relations between the Philippines and China. We are all honestly trying to survive in this world,” a Chinese worker told PCIJ. – with reports from Janelle Paris/Rappler.com

Ralf Rivas

A sociologist by heart, a journalist by profession. Ralf is Rappler's business reporter, covering macroeconomy, government finance, companies, and agriculture.

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