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Difference Maker

Filipina activist boosts overseas workers

Connie Regalado prods officials to do more for workers hit hard by the global financial crisis.

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That changed in 2003, thanks to the activism of Regalado and others, with the passage of the Overseas Voting Act. For the 2004 elections, activists also organized the Migrante Sectoral Party and tapped Regalado as its chairwoman. In elections the following year, the results – in terms of the law and the party – were disappointing. Only 370,000 overseas Filipino workers registered to vote, with just over half of those voting. Regalado's party failed to win a seat.

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But passing a law was just the beginning, she says. Now they need to push the government to better implement it. They need to make it easier for Filipinos abroad to register and cast their ballots. She cited the example of a Filipino construction worker in Saudi Arabia, who now must take leave and travel 500 miles to register to vote.

She's optimistic, too, about her party. Regalado's eyes brighten when she talks about expanding its base. Finally, she says, once-disenfranchised migrant workers have their own political voice.

"For a long time, politicians pretended to bring our voice inside Congress," she says. "Even if we didn't win one seat [in 2004], it was a breakthrough for us to be recognized as the one, legitimate group that can fight for the issues of migrant workers."

Her party will have another shot in 2010. In the meantime, Regalado wants to amend the basic law on overseas workers' rights. Another issue: services for overseas workers are currently paid for by a 10 billion peso ($205 million) fund, consisting of $25 payments from overseas workers, which they are charged when they sign a contract. Regalado says the funds should come from the government. "We don't have any illusions that legislation is a solution to these problems," she says. "But it can give temporary relief to migrant workers."

Regalado cut her teeth in student activism at university in Cebu, organizing and attending rallies and study sessions before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Later she was a government social worker in Mindanao, but quit in frustration after witnessing corruption from "the top down to the bottom."

Instead, Regalado organized female laborers at the Dole Pineapple plantation. That experience carried over easily to Hong Kong, where her work began as outreach through the Roman Catholic church. In Hong Kong, too, she wasn't afraid to work, at times, from inside the system. She accepted a three-year term representing Filipinos on Hong Kong's Committee on the Promotion of Racial Harmony from 2002 to 2004.

Still, she seems most comfortable in an outsider's role, calling governments to account in her soft, measured voice. At present, she's focused on laid-off workers. Her group estimates some 1 million overseas Filipinos will lose their jobs in 2009 and 2010. In Taiwan alone, some 11,550 will likely be dismissed this year.

When laid-off workers at the airport asked her if they should play along with the government, Regalado's response was telling. "I said, 'I think it's good. Go, and list down their promises, and then later we can go to them and say, "Where are your promises now?" 'And we can expose their commitment."