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The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 349-358

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Palauans and Guest Workers: An Opinion Paper

Sandra S Pierantozzi

Ever since Captain Wilson was shipwrecked on Ulong Reef foreigners have continued to visit the islands of Palau for one purpose or another. The most recent influx of foreigners to Palau has consisted of guest workers. The 1995 census put the number of guest workers and their dependents at 4,717, and Labor Office statistics showed 5,171 as of April 1998 (CoPopChi 1997, 1). With a total population of slightly over 17,225 in 1995, this represents an appreciable portion of Palau's residents (Anastacio 1998).

The large and growing number of guest workers in Palau is raising a great deal of concern among indigenous Palauans, who for the most part are beginning to feel crowded and alienated in their own islands. It also raises a range of important issues that must be addressed if Palau is to get a grip on its long-run economic and political development. Nevertheless, indigenous Palauans are cognizant of the advantages of a large workforce, some of which are discussed here.

Palau is following a trend in infrastructure development experienced first in Guam and more recently in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. This construction boom, fueled by an expanding tourism industry, has been made possible by the availability of cheap labor from the nearby Philippines. An inspection of local contractors would show a labor force consisting mainly of Filipino workers in all construction trades, from skilled workers in masonry, carpentry, electrical, and plumbing all the way down to unskilled laborers. This has brought about a rapid growth in high-rise buildings, such as the Palasia Hotel and the West Ben Franklin Store, which did not exist until recently.

Asians recruited to fish Palau's waters have also contributed to economic growth. Palau's tuna industry was launched in the 1960s with the [End Page 349] establishment of the Van Camp Seafood Company, a tuna-receiving factory. Today several companies compete for the tuna catch, including Palau International Traders Incorporated, Palau Micronesian Industrial Corporation, Kuniyoshi Fishing Company, and some smaller companies. These companies are responsible for bringing in fishermen from Okinawa and Korea, and lately from the People's Republic of China, to fish and to export fresh tuna to sashimi markets in Japan. While the larger share of Palau's fishing revenue has been from direct licensing fees and fish export taxes, indirect revenues have come from the fishermen's consumption of rice, vegetables and fruits, meat and chicken, liquor and cigarettes, and other commodities purchased locally, as well as taxes on wages and salaries.

The importation of domestic helpers has contributed to the growing number of Palauan women joining the workforce and augmenting family incomes. Domestic helpers have come mostly from the Philippines to do housekeeping chores, cooking, baby-sitting, and other domestic work, freeing Palauan women to pursue individual careers and become financially independent. Garment factory workers help to expand Palau's meager exports, while tailors and dressmakers meet some of the clothing needs of the local population.

Nurses brought in from Fiji and guest physicians have helped meet Palau's health-care needs. Accountants and technicians from the Philippines have made sound contributions to private-sector businesses. Guest workers in the teaching profession fill local shortages of teachers of sciences and mathematics. Professionals from the United States include attorneys in government positions and private practice, as well as judges. Expatriate scientists help Palauans protect and conserve their fragile environment and natural resources. Volunteers from the United States, Australia, and Japan have also contributed to Palau's development in different areas of growth.

The influx of guest workers to Palau has introduced a diversity of culture, ethnicity, language, and ways of life. Over the years the Palauan language has undergone changes, making it even richer and broader through infusions of Spanish, German, Japanese, English, Tagalog, and even Italian words to describe new experiences. It is not uncommon to hear Palauan songs whose lyrics have foreign overtones. Even the local cuisine has grown...


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