“Eating Spinach”:The Taiwanese Working in Philippines Gambling Industry. Part I

Written by William Kung (孔德廉), Translated by Sam Robbins

This article was originally published by The Reporter, you can find the original article here.

Photo Credit: Casino Royale by Leandro Godoi/Flickr, License CC-BY-NC_ND 2.0

I know that making money in the Philippines is never easy. Not only is the money not worth it, but my life is also not worth it either. Many people desperately cross the sea to work here and end up dying here. But gambling will not disappear. Before it does, I’ve just got to take things one day at a time.

“Kuang Dang Kuang Dang” (匡噹匡噹) is the sound made by the collision of a dozen plastic thousand-yuan chips.

Xiaohua (a pseudonym) reached into her bag, trying to use the remaining thousands of Philippine pesos to win back some of her losses, but she quickly gave up. In front of the $5,000 NTD (£130) one-bet baccarat table, the Filipino croupier who served her won three in a row; in 10 minutes, she lost 20,000 pesos (about £300) which is almost the salary the average worker in the Manila metropolitan area makes in a month and a half. After finishing gambling, she returned to her luxurious king-size room, which she had paid 20,000 pesos per night for. The window faced Manila Bay, but she didn’t want to use any use of the luxuries surrounding her. Instead, she turned on the computer and plunged into another world of gambling.

She adjusted the stored value button, contacted customer service, and handled the requests of VIP gamblers. Today is Xiaohua’s day off, but as a mid-to-senior executive of a medium-sized gambling website, she must ensure that the website operates smoothly 24 hours a day. This is because Chinese gamblers can bring more than 100 million yuan (over £11 million) in usable gambling tokens on a single day. “Although my official work time is 10 hours a day, I will do more than 12 hours on average,” Xiaohua said helplessly whilst moving her fingers quickly. Knowing that a journalist from The Reporter had come to Manila for an interview, she asked us to bring a few boxes of sleeping pills* and said that she needed a good night’s sleep.

Xiaohua, who is about to turn 30, worked in the service industries and technology companies after graduating from a private university in Taiwan. However, she found her experience in those jobs leaving something to be desired. In 2018, she saw recruitment information from an online gambling website and decided to head south to the Philippines where she could make an annual salary of $1 million NTD (£26,000) She said: “The company’s benefits are very good. The employee canteen serves five meals a day and there is a free shuttle bus. Working here, my living expenses are less than a penny.” Like Xiaohua, young Taiwanese who are competing to get involved in the online gambling industry in the Philippines are mostly attracted by this type of talent recruitment conditions:

  • Operation supervisor: monthly salary 100,000-150,000 NTD (£2,600-£3,900) more than 5 years of experience and university degree required. 
  • Marketing director, product manager: monthly salary of 90,000 to 120,000 yuan (£2,300-£3,100), polytechnic degree required. 
  • Deputy director of personnel administration: salary negotiable, no experience, university degree required. 

In addition to supervisor positions, there are also many lower-level positions advertised on many online job centres, including text customer service staff, administrative staff, and PHP engineers. The location of these jobs is mainly in Manila. English proficiency is not required. Staff dormitories are provided. It emphasizes check-in with bags, independent single room, gym facilities, a company vehicle, restaurants, and holiday time to return to Taiwan.

The Over 200,000 Foreigners “Eating Spinach” in the Philippines

Ten years ago, Many Chinese, Malaysians, and Indonesians left their hometowns and moved to the Philippines to chase the gold rush triggered by online gambling. In recent years, the latest wave has attracted many Taiwanese. According to statistics from the Philippine Immigration Bureau, in 2018, more than 200,000 Chinese workers applied for work visas, 90% related to online casinos. There are also many Taiwanese living in the Philippines. In 2016, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines issued a message stating “recently, there has been an increasing number of Taiwanese people going to the Philippines to work in the gambling industry, please be wary that risks often outweigh the rewards. Many have had their passports detained.”

From 2016-2019, although the online gambling industry has been operating legally in the Philippines, it is not transparent how many countries it has obtained legal licenses to work in. As the government authorizes the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) to issue licenses, many sub-licenses can be linked under the main license. However, small operators without licenses are almost all unregulated. In March of 2019, PAGCOR Chairman Andrea Domingo pointed out that the number of illegally operating gambling websites that they have wiped out in recent years alone is as high as 30,000. 

In this legal grey zone, it is hard to know exactly how many are working in this industry. The Philippine Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) conducted a survey in March 2019. According to the list of employees submitted by the Philippine Offshore Gambling Operators (POGOs), a total of 76,963 employees were employed; of these, 56,180 were Chinese. The rest are mostly Taiwanese, Indonesian and Thai. Nevertheless, officials also pointed out that this is not a complete list because many gambling operators have not yet provided a list of employees. In addition, the Philippine Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) estimates that more than 130,000 unregistered foreign workers are working in the online gambling industry, and their average monthly salary is more than £1,000. 

The rapid development of the online gambling industry has benefited from the rectification of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In 2016, due to frequent incidents of illegal workers from China, the Philippine government brought the gambling industry that was originally rooted in the underground to the table in one fell swoop, issued a legal license, and allowed gambling companies to spring up like mushrooms. These new companies mainly gather in three places: Makati City, Pasay City and Quezon City. We walked into the financial district known as the “Philippines Wall Street,” where there are 2,000 corporate headquarters and 400 banks as well as thousands of gambling companies. 

Come as a Group, Leave as a Group: The Closed-off and Exclusive Life of the Spinach Eaters

The Chinese and Taiwanese who come to the Philippines often jokingly refer to gambling (博彩 bócǎi) as “spinach” (菠菜 bōcài) and refer to themselves as “spinach eaters.” The tens of thousands of people eating spinach have also formed a unique culture and way of life within the local environment as a survival tactic. 

Walking on the streets of Manila, you can see signs such as “Lanzhou pulled noodles” “Sichuan Hot Pot” or “Dongfanghong” everywhere. Chinese restaurants have begun infiltrating the streets and alleys alongside eye-catching simplified Chinese; Taiwan’s bubble milk tea and Xiaolongbao are also readily available. The delicacies of the hometown comfort the foreign migrant workers.

These spinach eaters do not work in the same way as the white-collar workers sent to the Philippines; they rarely go out alone, and their work and life always follow the motto of “Come as a group, leave as a group.” Under the company’s arrangement, most of them live in hotel-style apartments collectively and take air-conditioned buses to and from work. Once the work is over, they will be sent back to their accommodation to rest. Many supervisors interviewed told us that Manila’s public security is not good and unnecessary risks should be avoided.

A white-collar worker sent to the Philippines for two years and worked in the shipping industry observed that gambling industry workers are actually quite easy to identify. They are “young,” “move in groups” and “somewhat exclusive.” Perhaps it is because they don’t have much experience going abroad, they rarely communicate with locals. There is almost no boundary between their life and work, and company policies restrict their freedom. Also, due to their industry’s nature, they have to guard themselves against the outside world mentally. It is rare to see gambling industry workers on the jeepney, the most common means of transportation used by local office workers, which frequently travel along the streets and charges 8 pesos for a ride (about 12p).

Xiaohua, who works in Manila, never rides a jeepney. Even if she is only 5 minutes away from home, she still books a private car. A few weeks before the interview, her colleague was robbed at knifepoint on the street, and he was stabbed in the stomach. After calling the police, the case could not be solved. The serious gap between the rich and the poor and the corrupt public order cause many in the gambling industry to live in fear. However, she was worried about more than one thing. Xiaohua’s mobile phone has only recently received a few widely circulated “teaching materials.” Pressing the play button, a young man in his early 20s appears, his hands tied behind his back, and he is then beaten with an electric shock baton surrounded by three large men. The young man cried and fell to the ground whilst his colleagues around him stand shocked.

After asking her cautiously, Xiaohua finally revealed that the supervisor tortured the man in the video for privately selling the list of gamblers. In the gambling industry, an industry that requires extreme “loyalty,” his behaviour violated taboos. Some in his position have even lost their lives and become common murder victims lying on the Philippines’ streets.

The limited living environment, the large transactions of money and sometimes the risk of working for illegal companies all serve to deepen the “closedness” of the mind of migrants living down south. In order to survive under such huge pressure, some people choose to accumulate wealth in a short period of time, and some people pay for sex, and some even “relieve pressure by gambling.” Xiaohua is an example of this.

“When I win, I feel lucky. I can win tens of thousands of dollars. When I lose, I don’t feel so happy. When I think about it, it’s just a way of killing time, that money was there to be lost anyway.” In the past two months, she went to physical casinos 6 times and lost more than 100,000 pesos (about £1,500). She doesn’t care that the money she earned by working her life away can disappear so easily because she has other investment plans in her heart, that is, “buying a house,” which is the way almost every Taiwanese who come South plans to make money. 

This is part one of a two-part article, part two can be accessed here

*Please note: Sleeping pill are controlled substances under Taiwanese law which need to be prescribed by a doctor, and relevant certification materials are required when entering and leaving the country to pass customs. The Reporter did not agree to interviewee’s request. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Philippines relations, which was coordinated with help from Shun-Nan Chiang, a PhD candidate in sociology at UCSC. All articles in the special issue can be found here

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