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A mud map of the Philippines

Chris Moriarty
14 July 2011 5 minute readShare
My Business

How long is your commute? In Manila most workers spend four hours a day getting to and from work. And they're the lucky ones, as Chris Moriarty of Flat Planet explains.

For my next blog I want to write about fair pay rates for Filipinos. However, before I do this I need to write about the geography and day-to-day life in the Philippines. This is because it is a country of great diversity – and the pay rates, cost of living, expectations and daily life experience varies significantly from place to place.

Out of a country of close to 100 million, only 20 million live in Manila and of them, probably less than 25 per cent of them have ‘western-style’ jobs that involve regular hours, regular pay packets, annual leave, sick leave entitlements and so on.

There are huge differences across the rest of the archipelago (there are 7106 islands in the Philippines at high tide).

Aside Manila there are two other major metro centres being Cebu and Davao. Each is significantly smaller – Cebu more like Canberra and, while I have not been to Davao, I understand it to be similar in size to Wollongong.

The north region – where Manila is located – is called Luzon. It is easily the most dominant political and cultural region in terms of the Filipino national identity. Tagalog – the official language beside English – is pre-dominantly drawn from the Luzon region, particularly Manila. This is not dissimilar to the situation in China where Mandarin is the official ‘Chinese’ at the expense of other languages such as Cantonese.

South of Luzon, the central region is called Visayas. The ‘capital’ is Cebu. Visayas is a true archipelago with countless islands and its own local language that appears, to my limited ear, more closely aligned to Spanish than is Tagalog. Visayas generally gets the worst of the weather. The people of the Visayas view Manila with the same type of suspicion that, say, West Australians do Canberra; that is to say, they understand the reality and are cooperative and engaged members of the national society, but also kind of think that they could do better and don’t appreciate the Manila focus in national politics.

Visayas is the region discovered by Magellan and is where he met his fate.

Down south, just over 1000kms from Manila, is Mindanao – a huge island about the size of Greece with a scattering of smaller ones. The capital is Davao. Most Mindanaoians are loyal and engaged citizens of the Philippines – many are ‘settlers’ put into Mindanao by earlier Spanish and American administrations and therefore trace their cultural ancestry to Visayas or Luzon.

To the west of Mindanao is a tiny island cluster called the Sulu Archipelago. Up until the early 1800s the Sulu Sultanate was an entirely independent Islamic empire that pre-dated the Spanish arrival in the Philippines (1500s) despite regular attempts by the Spanish to conquer them (eventually successful). The MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) insurgency in the Philippines is centred in this region where the mainly Muslim population still hankers for its independence from the Catholic Philippine majority.

Also, parts of South and Western Mindanao are still more-or-less completely tribal with the associated ‘big man’ politics. This is where several atrocities have occurred such as the journalist massacre.

Most of the travel warnings on various national websites (Australia, USA etc) that discuss kidnappings and terrorism are dealing with the Western part of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. There is currently a significant push for a political settlement to this dispute with Malaysia playing a constructive role as mediator. According to newspaper reports these discussions are proceeding in reasonable good faith. There are quite a few Australian officials in this region actively engaged in observing progress and working to develop the education system with a view to empowering the next generation of Islamic Filipinos to more fully integrate into the economic opportunities on offer within the nation. (Australia is the second largest contributor to the Philippine national education budget behind only the Philippine Government itself.) There are also reports plus talk in various bars about Americans being in this area doing ‘stuff’.

The point to all this is there is no ‘common’ existence for Filipinos. Millions live in condos, have two cars and send their kids to private schools; others live in bamboo huts on the beach in communities of 200 or so, some live in remote mountain villages like the highlands of Papua New Guinea, others live in regional centres, others live in a recovering war zone, surrounded by bandits, fighting for an Islamic state and still more live in normal metropolitan areas in a house and go to work each day using public transport.

Within Manila itself there are about a half dozen CBDs. Manila itself is on the coast and is where most of the government is located. Intramuros, a mediaeval Spanish fort, is still there, is remarkably complete with some ancient cannon still in place in the battlements (well worth a visit).

The main financial district is Makati – once a swamp now the heart of the country. It has dozens of huge skyscrapers, wide boulevards, parks, playgrounds, great shopping, is clean, secure and in every sense a first world metropolis.

Other CBDs include Ortigas, Fort Bonifacio, Quezon City, Alabang and others.

The biggest issue in Manila (aside some slums/squatter camps where people endure terrible poverty) is traffic. There are only two small heavy rail lines – and while trains do run every five minutes it can be impossible to get on-board. Traffic-wise, Manila compares to Sydney in the same way Sydney compares to Dubbo. It can be impossible.

The result is many workers in, say Makati, have to travel two hours or more each way to the office – and Makati is easily the best served CBD in terms of transport (both rail lines converge in Makati). Many CBDs have no rail at all and rely 100 per cent on buses and Jeepneys.

If it rains all hell breaks loose. During the wet season Manila can sometimes get brushed by two typhoons in a week (they normally hit further South in the Visayas). Because of the mountains to the East, there is often little wind. What you do get is very slow moving tropical depressions where a foot of rain might fall in a few hours. If you have 20 million people trying to get to and from work on limited public transport and the roads start to flood you get total gridlock and lots of very wet people. I got stuck a few weeks ago and had to walk home through such a storm. You have to put your mobile phone in a plastic bag as there is nowhere on your body that will stay dry. At least it is not cold.

The bright lights of Manila therefore offer a bitter sweet experience for many Filipinos. In the Provinces (anywhere that is not Manila) young people dream of coming to Manila. When they get here they find a grindingly hard life either in a slum or, if lucky, in a job that requires them to spend four hours or more on public transport each day.

The super lucky end up working for a Western firm. Western firms generally only require their staff to work five days (opposed to six) plus also generally pay quite well.

That said, it is a very exciting time to be working in the Philippines. For all the hardship, most people are aware that life is getting a lot better. The current generation, putting in the long hours and grinding it out are possibly similar to those earlier generations of Australians, Americans and English who did the hard yards three or four generations ago to lift us up to our current standard of living. That is certainly what they believe. There is a sense of sacrifice for future generations mixed with a tangible excitement of being a part of something special.

For my next blog I will talk about the pay rates plus skills and experience levels available in the various labour markets across the Philippines.

Chris Moriarty is the managing director of Flat Planet Pty Ltd and president of Flat Planet Philippines Inc.

A mud map of the Philippines
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Chris Moriarty

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