BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN—They pay much, much less for gas, and get subsidies from the government. But they don’t have a night life.
For the 21,000 Filipinos, there are trade-offs for the “privileges” they enjoy in this rich oil state on the northern coast of Borneo, a two-hour flight from Manila.
The 5,765-square-kilometer Brunei looks a lot like a developed countryside city with a lot of green. Traffic is seamless on landscaped roads, where motorists can race at expressway speed and buildings are constructed far apart. The streets are clean.
In downtown Bandar Seri Begawan, instead of gleaming malls, there is a cluster of old shops.
“There are only two malls here,” a young Bruneian said apologetically while driving a Malacañang media officer in a sleek Toyota Camry through the rain-drenched streets of the capital on Thursday night to his hotel. He said Bruneians hit the sack by 9 p.m.
“It’s quiet here. There’s no violence. There’s no traffic, and there’s no night life to speak of,” said Philippine Ambassador to Brunei Nestor Ochoa. “You watch movies. Otherwise it’s a home-to-workplace routine. That’s the kind of life we have here. Very simple,” he said. “On weekends, people would rather rest.”
Brunei is a predominantly Muslim sultanate rich in oil and gas with a population of more than 400,000. Forbes lists Brunei as the world’s fifth-richest country with a per capita gross domestic product of $50,500.
The sultanate’s laws prohibit public sale and consumption of alcohol, but non-Muslim visitors are allowed to bring in limited amounts for private consumption.
Otherwise, the Filipinos working here are “very fortunate,” Ochoa said.
“While their pay is not that high, they don’t have to pay taxes. The subsidized rice is very cheap. The gas is very cheap, only 51 cents per liter, or P17 per liter. The food is cheap here. You don’t have to spend much,” he told reporters at the Philippine Embassy in the capital’s Diplomatic Enclave on Wednesday.
Of the Filipinos working here, more than a 10th are nurses, doctors, engineers; nearly a fourth are domestic helpers, family drivers and gardeners; and the rest are waiters and waitresses.
Bruneians are so impressed with the work ethic of the multitasking Filipinos that even Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah employs many Filipinos in his palace.
Even foreign executives fly to the capital in the hope of recruiting Filipinos for their businesses abroad, Ochoa said.
“They are dependable, skilled, very professional. They’re always smiling. That’s why they keep on recruiting nurses. They prefer Filipino nurses. They could easily adapt to the language and, of course, our tender loving care image is always there,” he said.
Jojo Hernandez, 48, a waiter who rose from the ranks to become manager of the Bruneian-owned Fratini’s Restaurant, said around 100 Filipinos were working under him in Brunei.
“[The] majority of the staff are Filipinos. Our boss trusts the Filipinos much,” he said in an interview at Fratini’s-owned RMS Restaurant on the edge of the Brunei River in the capital’s so-called Water Village, dubbed the Venice of the East.
In Fratini’s chain of restaurants in Brunei, Filipino waiters earn Brunei $1,500 to B$1,800 a month, or P48,000 to P57,600. A Fratini’s restaurant is set to open in Makati City before yearend.
When the two-day 22nd Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was in full swing on Wednesday and Thursday, the venue—the palatial Prime Minister’s Office—was crawling with Filipino workers.
Not all happy
Still, there are semiskilled workers who complain of not being paid for the extra hours they work.
A Filipino utility worker from the northern province of Pangasinan said he planned to fly back home after his contract expires so he could apply for work elsewhere where he could get a better pay than his current B$500 or P16,000.
“We work hard, but it’s a pittance we’re getting,” he said.
Complaints of overworking without just compensation among Filipinos are “normal,” Ochoa said. To address these, the ambassador claimed that the embassy would invite the employers or recruitment agents over to settle the matter with the worker.
In his two years as ambassador, Ochoa said he had received only two complaints of physical abuse from Filipinos against expatriates. “The Bruneians are very kind,” he said.