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Filipino Migrant Workers Gain New Rights - 2004-03-09


Nearly eight million Filipino migrant workers will be allowed to vote and run for public office for the first time in the Philippines' May elections.

In Hong Kong's Central district on Sundays, the soaring skyscrapers stand empty, but the streets below ring with songs and laughter. The songs come from women who do the housework and care for children every day in thousands of Hong Kong homes.

More than 100,000 Filipinos are working in Hong Kong on special permits, mainly as housekeepers, baby-sitters, drivers and gardeners. Most are women, and they typically spend just a fraction of their $470 monthly salary on themselves. The rest is sent back home where wages are lower and jobs harder to come by.

In spite of her long hours as a domestic worker, Connie Bragas-Regalado has made time to run for a seat in the Philippine Congress in May's election. She represents the Migrante party - named after the overseas workers it represents. "The overseas absentee voting law allows us to vote and of course to be voted [for]," she says. "And this is where the migrant workers decided to form a party - to actively participate in the 2004 election."

Nearly half of the migrant workers from the Philippines are women living in places such as Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Some work in relatively well-paid jobs in restaurants or as nurses and teachers. But many work as domestic servants, often enduring long hours, cramped living quarters, and abusive employers.

Even in Hong Kong, which has laws to protect migrant workers, there are abuses. Newspapers here frequently carry stories of domestic helpers being beaten, sexually abused, or cheated of their pay.

Like many of her peers, Ms. Bragas-Regalado feels that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has ignored the problems migrant workers face. When a Hong Kong tax imposed last year effectively slashed the maids' pay, President Arroyo issued only a brief statement against the move.

Ms. Bragas-Regalado's party led thousand of maids in protests on the Hong Kong streets. "The Migrante party has already declared that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is not an option," she says. "We don't cast any vote for Arroyo."

But Ms. Bragas-Regalado has not aligned herself with other presidential candidates, including Fernando Poe Junior, a movie star now entering politics. Mr. Poe is seen in many opinion polls as the front-runner in the presidential election.

She says that not endorsing a presidential candidate has its drawbacks as it could hurt her chances for a congressional seat. "Actually it's really very hard… first we don't have money, we only have our families," says Ms. Bragas-Regalado. "And in the Philippines the politics work on money and guns, and the administration candidates, they already have the money of the government."

This is the first time overseas Filipino workers are being allowed to vote in elections back home. But of the eight million Filipinos working overseas, only about 300,000 are registered to vote. Some migrants complain their government did not promote voter registration at its embassies. Others say the small number of registered voters indicates voter apathy or that migrants are difficult to contact.

A third of the registered migrant voters live in Hong Kong, and Ms. Bragas-Regalado hopes to garner their support as well as the support from their families in the Philippines.

Money sent home from migrants makes up at least five percent of the Philippines' gross national product. Some academics predict the migrant vote will affect the future of Philippines politics, because of the group's economic strength.

Carolin Hau, a political scientist at Japan's Kyoto University, says that migrants are often the primary money earners in their families and will vote with more confidence and independence. She also predicts voting overseas will not be marred by corruption as it can be in the Philippines. "Politicians have to take into serious consideration the overseas Filipino workers because their voting patterns will be influence by people back home but I would also say that most likely it will be much harder for politicians to coerce [voters]," she says.

Ms. Hau says the overseas vote also could be used as a benchmark of how certain regions or provinces vote when there is no manipulation. She notes that the major contenders in the presidential elections have done little to woo migrants. But on one Sunday in Hong Kong's Central district it is clear that at least one candidate has attracted plenty of attention.

Brother Eddie Villaneuva, a Christian religious leader, promises a sense of belonging though his prayer groups as well as better representation back home.

One migrant explains why she wants Brother Eddie to be president. "We want to have a righteous leader as we pray through the Brother Eddie, she says. "He was so concerned about the Filipino workers especially their treatment, so I want to vote for him."

Brother Eddie is not likely to win the election. But his influence on the migrant voters in Hong Kong may provide insight into migrant voter habits in future elections.

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