CALIFORNIA, United States?It is both good news and bad news that overseas Filipino workers remitted about $16.4 billion to the Philippine economy in 2008, an increase of 13.4 percent over the previous year despite the downturn in the global economy. Directly or indirectly, 85 million Filipinos in the Philippines depend on the remittances of the estimated 9 million OFWs.
This dependence on overseas remittances affects every aspect of Philippine society including the conduct of its foreign policy as demonstrated by the dispute over a rocky outcrop of islands scattered over a 100,000-square-mile area in the South China Sea?with a combined total land area of just one square mile?known as the Spratly Islands. Ownership of the islands is contested by six neighboring countries but none more fiercely than by China and the Philippines.
Because the islands are believed to contain massive reserves of oil and gas, the Philippine Navy regularly patrols the waters, especially in the area known as the Scarborough Shoal which is closest to the Philippines. In 2001, a Philippine Navy patrol boarded Chinese fishing vessels that were found in the Shoal area, confiscating their catch which reportedly included endangered giant clams, precious corals, and boxes of illegal fishing equipment such as electrical blasting caps, time fuses, dynamite sticks, and cyanide.
The incident prompted the Chinese government to reprimand the Philippines for taking action against the Chinese fishermen while the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China over the frequent incursion of Chinese fishing boats over its claimed territorial waters which, the government claimed, constituted a "strong challenge to Philippine sovereignty."
These exchanges of protests and reprimands have occurred with regularity over the years but gained a new level of controversy when a noted Hong Kong columnist named Chip Tsao, a former British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reporter, called the Philippines a ?nation of servants? in his regular column which appeared in HK Magazine on March 27, 2009.
In his politically incorrect column entitled ?The War At Home,? Tsao wrote that the Chinese can tolerate insults from the Russians and the Japanese but ?hold on, even the Filipinos? Manila has just claimed sovereignty over the scattered rocks in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands, complete with a blatant threat from its Congress to send gunboats to the South China Sea to defend the islands from China if necessary. This is beyond reproach. The reason: There are more than 130,000 Filipina maids working as $3,580-a-month cheap labor in Hong Kong. As a nation of servants, you don?t flex your muscles at your master, from whom you earn most of your bread and butter.?
Tsao wrote that after learning of the threat from the Philippine Congress, he ?summoned Louisa, my domestic assistant who holds a degree in international politics from the University of Manila, hung a map on the wall, and gave her a harsh lecture. I sternly warned her that if she wants her wages increased next year, she had better tell every one of her compatriots in Statue Square on Sunday that the entirety of the Spratly Islands belongs to China."
If war ever broke out between China and the Philippines, Tsao wrote that he would have to fire Louisa and ?send her straight home, because I would not risk the crime of treason for sponsoring an enemy of the state by paying her to wash my toilet and clean my windows 16 hours a day. With that money, she would pay taxes to her government, and they would fund a navy to invade our motherland and deeply hurt my feelings.?
While the Philippines may have the United States military to back it, Tsao wrote, ?we have a hostage in each of our homes in the Mid-Levels or higher.? Tsao reported that his friends have already ordered their Filipino maids to shout ?China? whenever they hear the word Spratly mentioned.
The cheap shot from Chip Tsao ignited a firestorm of protests from the Philippine government and from the Filipinos in Hong Kong who staged a rally on April 5 in Statue Square to denounce Tsao, distributing statement signed by over 150 HK Filipino organizations and prominent individuals expressing their disgust with Tsao's article.
While Tsao quickly issued an apology, HK Magazine initially defended Tsao?s column claiming that the article was satirical in nature and could be read ?in different ways.? But as the protests grew louder, a new statement was released: ?The publisher and editors of HK Magazine wish to apologize unreservedly for any offense that may have been caused by Chip Tsao?s column dated March 27.?
Despite the apologies, Filipino migrant groups filed racial discrimination complaints against Tsao and HK magazine with the HK Equal Opportunities Commission, and asked the Hong Kong Press Council to sanction Tsao and his publisher for violating basic journalism ethics.
Dolores Balladares, the president of one of the complaining groups, the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, told Cher Jimenez, a Filipina journalist in HK and Yuchengco media fellow at the University of San Francisco, that the Philippine government's ?aggressive labor export policy? bears responsibility for making Filipinos all over the world ?vulnerable to class discrimination.? More than one million Filipinos have left the Philippines since 2006 to work as OFWs.
Rorie Fajardo, project coordinator of the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, elaborated on Balladares?s point, telling Jimenez, that ?because the majority of OFWs are low cost competitors for lower end jobs, they are now being exposed to more racial prejudice as the global economic downturn pushes up unemployment rates and financial desperation across the globe.?
If the Philippine government is unable or unwilling to fight for the rights of OFWs, then it is the responsibility of the overseas Filipino community to do so. This issue will be covered at the 6th Global Filipino Networking Convention on October 9-11, 2009 at the Waterfront Hotel in Cebu City (6thglobalcebu.com).