DISPATCHES FROM THE PHILIPPINES
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
co-owner of Hawaii Home Interiors, grew his business via ties in the Philippines and other Asian countries.
Filipinos share in economic benefits
MANILA » By far, the largest trade relationship between Hawaii and the Philippines involves remittances, the money Filipino immigrants send back to their relatives here.
The government estimates overseas Filipinos -- from maids to construction workers to nurses and doctors -- send back $12 billion a year from around the world, an important part of the economy.
Star-Bulletin reporter Craig Gima is on assignment in the Philippines, where Gov. Linda Lingle is leading an official visit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Filipino immigration to Hawaii.
It is difficult to get an accurate count of how much money is sent from Hawaii, but most estimates are that it is more than $100 million a year.
But it is not just money that Filipino immigrants send back.
On a recent flight from Honolulu, there were more cardboard "balikbayan" boxes than suitcases on the baggage carousel. Balikbayan is the term for people born in the Philippines who have returned from overseas.
The boxes are filled with clothing, food and other goods to be distributed back in the provinces from where Hawaii's Filipino immigrants come.
Tons of goods, much of it purchased in Hawaii, fill shipping containers on freighters bound for the Philippines every month.
"Hawaii is the Spam capitol of the United States because of the Filipinos," said Jorge Disuanco, an accountant and print shop owner, who also runs a remittance business.
"Whenever there's a sale on Spam, I buy two cases," he said. About 20 percent of the containers that go back to the Philippines are filled with Spam, he estimated.
Disuanco said his remittance business sends back about $21 million a year to the Philippines. He has just a fraction of the business, along with about eight other companies and banks.
He uses computer technology to assure customers that their relatives are getting the money, setting up a Web camera link with the Philippines so that people in Honolulu can see their relatives actually getting the cash.
Business between Hawaii and the Philippines involves more than just remittances and balikbayan boxes.
In Manila this week, the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii sponsored a trade fair and seminar hoping to generate investment and trade between Hawaii and the Philippines.
It was at such a trade fair that Honolulu accountant Steven Callo made contacts who have helped him grow his practice.
Callo now outsources basic bookkeeping to a Filipino company, e-mailing checks and ledger information to the Philippines. Accountants here balance the books at a lower cost than if it was done in Hawaii, with the information then e-mailed back to Callo.
Callo said because he can do the work cheaper, his business has grown, enabling him to hire an additional employee. He is also looking into branching out into outsourcing medical transcription, another area where Philippine companies are picking up business.
Former Hawaii Fil-Am Courier co-publisher Armand Busmente now lives in the Philippines, where he has a graphics business with six employees. Busmente's business mostly involves Philippines companies, but because of computer technology he can solicit graphics work in the United States and do the job for less than half the cost.
High-speed Internet connections and telecommunications infrastructure make it possible, Busmente said. Most people also speak English.
In the United States, Busmente said, graphic artists earn $15 to $25 an hour. Here, "it's $15 a day."
He designs the Fil-Am Courier's layout from his office in Quezon City in metropolitan Manila. Stories, ads and photos are e-mailed to him, and he returns the finished pages, also by e-mail.
Still, some see a threat to Hawaii jobs from the Philippines.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano tried encouraging call centers to set up in Hawaii, but the state could not compete with lower wages in places like India and the Philippines.
The call center business here is booming. Entire office buildings are being built in areas around Manila specifically for call centers and other businesses seeking to outsource jobs to the Philippines.
Yet others see opportunity and the chance to bring Hawaii into the forefront of a globalized world.
"Traffic flow of ideas and people and money from our islands to the Philippines is beneficial to the state," said University of Hawaii professor Tung Bui, an expert on globalization. He sees those relationships as investments that eventually will help Hawaii's economy to grow.
Virgil Adonis, a former Hawaii Filipino Chamber of Commerce president, said he tells businesses in the Philippines to start their expansion in Hawaii because there are many Filipinos in the state and then move on to the U.S. mainland. "It's like taking your first step to the whole United States," he said.
For the most part, though, trade between Hawaii and the Philippines still involves the import and export of goods, said Callo, the incoming president of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce in Honolulu.
Joe Berardy* and his wife, Suzi, started off with a retail store in Waikiki. Then, through a trade mission, they were able to find manufacturers in the Philippines, China and throughout Asia for their Hawaiian-style furniture, quilts and crafts. They now have 12 full-time employees and 10 salespeople, Baradi said.
"If you're serious about business in a big way, you have to go to the Orient," he said. "We (Hawaii) will never compete as a manufacturing economy."
For Hawaii-based architecture firm Wimberly Alison Tom & Goo, the Philippines is a growth market for their specialty of resort development.
"We see it on the upswing," said WATG Director Jim Freeman. The company is working on the Shangri La Boracay Island, a 220-room luxury resort under construction at a private beach on the island. Construction costs are estimated at $76 million.
Part of the reason tourism is booming on the island is because, unlike Hawaii, there are no visa restrictions for Koreans and Chinese tourists, Freeman said. "The U.S. is missing out on a large tourism market in China," he said.
WATG also hopes to get into the market for time-share and condominium resort properties, which are also seeing a boom as overseas Filipinos and foreign nationals buy retirement or vacation homes in the Philippines.
Freeman said his company's growth in Asia and the Pacific has been helped by Hawaii's ethnic diversity.
"That's been an advantage to us," he said, "It helps if you have staff that are from that country and speak the language. That always helps smooth things over and builds a level of confidence."