In her office in this hectic part of Manila, Connie Regalado paints signs for a rally the following day. Her latest cause: calling on the government to do more for overseas Filipino workers who are losing their jobs due to the global economic slump.
A couple days earlier, she and other activists went to the airport to pick up 82 such workers, who flew from Taiwan at their own expense. They'd been axed from semiconductor-factory and other low-end jobs, victims of downsizing. The government was also at the airport, boasting of "one-stop shop" services for the workers, inviting them to the presidential palace, even offering them an appearance on a TV game show.
Ms. Regalado wasn't impressed. "It's a sham," said Regalado. "The 'one-stop shop' services aren't even palliative measures. There's no comprehensive plan to address the problem."
That no-nonsense approach has guided Regalado over nearly two decades of activism. Cynical yet committed to social justice, Regalado has dedicated much of her adult career to improving the working conditions, political voice, and basic rights of overseas Filipino workers.
Such workers make up more than 10 percent of the country's 96 million population, with 4 million Filipinos on contracts abroad, another 4 million with immigrant status, and more than 2 million more working undocumented in the United States, Malaysia, and elsewhere, according to Regalado. Last year these workers remitted some $15 billion to the Philippines – about 10 percent of the country's total economic output.
Filipinos go abroad in such great numbers out of necessity. Men leave wives and children behind to take construction work in the Middle East or join fishing-boat crews. Women leave behind husbands and children to work as maids in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.
Regalado has been there. In 1983, she was a maid for two years in Singapore. In 1991, she left two children with her parents to become a domestic worker in Hong Kong. There she saw how exploitative bosses and unfair government polices push such workers around.
In Hong Kong, they fought back. Regalado and others blocked the government – three times – from cutting domestic workers' pay, which was already at minimum wage. They also persuaded the Filipino consulate to provide services on Sundays, the only day off for many domestic workers. They stopped a proposal that would have allowed an employer to fire a foreign maid if she got pregnant.
Regalado has been a key player in effecting much more far-reaching change. When she first went to work in Singapore and Hong Kong, overseas Filipino workers had no voting rights.
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.
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."