Reciprocity: It Should Cut Both Ways

Should we liberalize professional occupations in the country?

I always have to remind freshly arriving compatriots in Australia complaining about certain “discriminating” policies on skills migration of how discriminating the rules are back home in the Philippines.

For instance, if a doctor from the Philippines wishes to practice medicine in Australia, he or she first needs to spend a few years “paying his or her dues” working under the tutelage of a sponsoring hospital and cannot seek employment elsewhere after this period before undergoing certain theoretical and practical tests. Something similar happens for nurses.

These so-called barriers to entry prevent more skilled professionals from coming to countries like Australia. We can call them discriminatory, but consider the rules in the Philippines, where there is an absolute ban on foreign nationals from practicing their profession.

When I gained permanent residency in Australia, I was eligible to work in a state government department although I was not yet a citizen. When I became an Australian citizen, I became eligible to work for the Federal government even though I had maintained my Philippine citizenship. Yet, if I try to work in government in the Philippines, I will first have to renounce my Australian citizenship (which is probably why I have chosen to blog about Philippine affairs instead of actually working in it).

These prohibitions were conceived of by our politicians as a way of protecting and preserving the domestic labour pool from foreign competition because of the large oversupply of skills that existed and still persists today.

Yet these very restrictions might actually prevent many of our countrymen from accessing jobs from abroad being outsourced to the Philippines. When it was written, our present constitution did not take into account the world we would be living in today where technology has allowed business functions such as accounting and law to be practiced across national borders.

The international standards governing these professions make it possible for a lawyer in Delhi to advise clients in New York or for finance professionals in Singapore to do the same. Education and certification of these professionals can also take place across national boundaries now. Ironically, the things that prevent us from signing on to international trade deals to capture a greater chunk of this growing market are the very laws that sought to maximize employment opportunities for our people.

At a time when the pool of college educated unemployed workers is swelling and where the imbalance between graduates supplied by our educational system and the demand for them domestically is rising, our current stock of leaders need to look at re-designing the institutions incorporated in our Constitution. We need as a nation to examine whether they make us well-suited and adapted to the new global environment that we are living in or in fact impede us from excelling.

At the time the nationalist provisions in our Constitution were framed, there was a deep-seated conviction that only an absolute ban would prevent Congress from eroding over time the principles enshrined in it. What we have to realize today is that the very fulfillment of those principles requires us to move away from an absolute ban and towards a regulatory framework that manages the transnational flows of services from human assets just as we have institutions to handle the flow of earnings from financial and intellectual assets.

The very source of our national competitiveness, our human capital, which props up our foreign reserves and domestic economy could become restrained in the future in its ability to compete for thousands of jobs that could be created in the Philippines unless we find a way around such arcane provisions in our legal system.