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The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 359-370

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Exporting People: The Philippines and Contract Labor in Palau

Dean Alegado and Gerard Finin

Long before reified notions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands gained acceptance, seafaring peoples traveled and traded across areas that are today seen as bounded regional configurations. Interpretations of "differentness" were by no means tantamount to contemporary notions of "foreign." The emergence of colonial regimes, nation states, wage labor, and plantation agriculture has for well over a century contributed to the movement of "settler" populations to numerous Pacific islands (Denoon 1997). During the nineteenth century, for example, marine produce such as turtleshell and bĂȘche-de-mer was collected from Micronesia by ships based in Manila, where trade with China flourished. Ship crews composed of "manilamen" as well as individuals from other parts of Asia and the Pacific regularly visited Micronesian islands including Palau, and in several instances assisted western traders in establishing land-based operations for curing and commercial agricultural production (Hezel 1983). While the presence of Filipino contract workers in Palau today may be seen as a continuation of these linkages, or yet another wave of Asian migration into the Pacific region (Connell 1990), a number of distinctive elements are present in the contemporary movement of Filipinos to Koror and beyond. These distinctive characteristics raise important public policy issues as Palau looks toward the future.

To a far greater extent than any other independent Pacific Island nation, Palau has explicitly embraced the notion that "guest workers" are a critical ingredient of its national economic and social development strategy. Unlike other Pacific islands with significant populations of Asian ancestry such as Fiji and Hawai'i, the overwhelming majority of Filipinos in Palau were born and raised in the Philippines, giving rise to a seemingly plural society marked by largely separate communities within the same [End Page 359] political unit (Furnivall 1948). The growing presence of foreign laborers, together with Palau's free association status allowing its own citizens free entry to live and work in the United States, has created an anomalous situation for the Palauan labor force. Despite a rapidly expanding economy since gaining independence in 1994, narrow employment opportunities, changing conceptions of work, and comparatively low wages are providing weak incentives for many young Palauans to remain in Palau and enter the private-sector labor market. 1 Some believe that more than 50 percent of the private-sector labor force is currently composed of non-Palauan workers (PEDP 1994, 80-83). 2 Of the approximately six thousand non-Palauan workers in Palau, over 75 percent are from the nearby Philippines, suggesting an increasing level of dependency on guest workers that is unknown to other Pacific Island nations. 3 To better understand these distinctive characteristics of contemporary Palauan society, it is useful to examine in broad terms the origins of Filipino migration to Palau, as well as how Palau is situated in the Philippines' labor-export industry and the global economy more generally.


The Philippines celebrated its independence from American colonial rule in 1946 at nearly the same time as Palau became part of the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. However, this common historical linkage to the United States is overshadowed by very different resource endowments and colonial histories. For example, the presence of natural resources such as gold and a land area that could support large-scale plantation-style agriculture made the Philippines important to world export markets. In contrast, Palau's attractiveness in recent years as an international tourist destination is largely attributable to its small size, lack of industrial development, and unspoiled natural beauty. The postindependence decision to make Asian-led tourism the engine of Palau's economic growth during the 1990s has resulted in both a construction boom fueled by foreign capital and a burgeoning service sector composed primarily of Filipino contract workers, who number over 4,500 in a population of some 18,000 (Bank of Hawaii 1997, 4).

Filipino contract workers have been present in Palau for more than thirty years...


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