MANILA, Philippines - Filipinos will play a key role in rebuilding a New Zealand city devastated by earthquakes, an example of growing ties between the two countries to be strengthened when President Aquino visits on Monday.
Aquino will be in New Zealand for two days and will head a group including a large trade delegation and members of the Cabinet.
Trade and business cooperation will be a focus of the visit, with the Philippines targeted by New Zealand as its third-largest market for dairy exports such as milk.
But with New Zealand’s Filipino population growing rapidly, cultural ties are also bringing the two countries closer.
That has been underlined by Filipino tradespeople’s help in getting Christchurch back on its feet.
The city was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in February 2011 which killed 185 people – including 11 Filipinos – and left much of the central city in rubble.
The cost of the rebuild is estimated at $25 billion and will continue for several years.
But with a total population of 4.4 million, there are not enough local tradespeople to get the job done.
Nathanael Mackay, manager of NZ Immigration’s Manila branch, said working visas for the Christchurch rebuild had already been granted to 157 Philippine nationals.
That number will grow as the rebuild intensifies, with New Zealand construction companies visiting the Philippines to recruit workers.
Up to 30,000 workers – local and foreign – will be required during different times of the work.
“The rebuild is expected to create a variety of work opportunities in the Canterbury region, particularly for skilled tradespeople such as painters, carpenters and plasterers,” Mackay said.
The Philippines was a main skilled labor market being targeted by New Zealand employers, the others being Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Mackay said his office had created a website with the relevant information, and stressed work visas needed to be obtained before arriving in New Zealand.
New Zealand Ambassador Reuben Levermore said the Christchurch recovery was just one way the countries were being linked culturally.
He said the Filipino community in New Zealand had almost doubled in size since the last presidential visit in 2007.
“Small numbers in Philippine terms... heading towards 40,000 people – but that’s also heading towards one percent of our population,” he said.
Most of those people were skilled migrants, Levermore said.
The Philippines is currently New Zealand’s fourth-largest source of skilled migrants.
“These are people who are engineers, nurses, IT professionals, and now dairy workers as well. And they have a good reputation,” Levermore said.
His sister has a dairy worker from Mindanao on her farm in New Zealand’s mid-Canterbury region.
“If you live in rural New Zealand, you’re probably not going to know much about the Philippines. But again, it’s that human element.”
Levermore said as people learn more about each other they would do more together – whether in tourism, business, or education.
“Maybe in time New Zealanders might start to think, I’ll go on holiday there. We go to Bali, we go to Vietnam and Thailand.”
Filipinos had proven themselves ideal migrants to New Zealand, Levermore said.
“They speak English, they are very outgoing, friendly people who integrate well. And the fact that most Filipinos are Catholic, means they connect well to our Catholic communities in New Zealand.”
Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang, speaking to The STAR before he flew to New Zealand this week, said those shared values were at the base of the countries’ relationship.
President Aquino’s party will also visit Australia after two days in New Zealand.
“It doesn’t always make it to the headlines, but the ties are deep, they are historical, and they are multi-faceted,” Carandang said.
“We are a Christian-based democracy. And there aren’t many of those in Southeast Asia. We have shared values with Australia and New Zealand.”
Business high on agenda
During the state visit, the Philippines and New Zealand are set to sign a number of agreements to expand business between the countries.
The finalization of the Philippine Dairy Development Program and a Memorandum of Agreement on geothermal energy cooperation are likely to be on the agenda.
Levermore said energy was an example of how New Zealand expertise could benefit the Philippines.
The countries had much in common in terms of energy generation, with both producing hydro and geothermal energy, he said.