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Toilers Who Know No Boundaries


IN October, a young Filipina maid in the United Arab Emirates barely escaped execution for killing her employer after he raped her. Jayne Quilim, a Filipina maid in Hong Kong, says the girl's headline-grabbing story could almost be her own.

It's been almost a decade since Mrs. Quilim fled to Hong Kong to support her three children and escape an unhappy marriage in the Philippines.

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Since then, she has been sexually abused by an employer, physically threatened by another, denied back pay by one boss, and lost her eldest son in a fight back home.

''I came here to help my children. I thought I could stand all these troubles with my employers because my children are my inspiration,'' she says, choking back tears. ''But I should have stayed with my son. My children have grown up without me, and there is something lacking. I couldn't have done [much] for them without these sacrifices. But the sacrifices have been so high.''

Quilim and tens of thousands of other Filipinos are part of a tide of foreign workers stoking the engines of growth across Asia and the Middle East. Driven overseas by poverty and dreams of decent housing and education for their children, Asian laborers have filled a desperate need for a cheap, skilled work force in many boom economies.

In fast-growing Asia, the number of workers on the move is swelling. In the Philippines, the government estimates that more than 4 million Filipinos work abroad. The figure may actually be 6 million, analysts say. That would mean 9 percent of Filipinos are employed overseas.

Tiny Hong Kong has 137,000 Philippine workers, most of them cooking, cleaning house, and caring for children as domestics for the colony's affluent Chinese and expatriates. Elsewhere abroad, Filipinos do construction work, serve aboard ships, staff hospitals, and entertain in big hotels.

Labor-short Malaysia is home to almost 1 million foreign workers. Singapore and Japan, where the cost of local labor has steadily risen, have almost 300,000 overseas laborers each. South Korea and Taiwan both have about 50,000.

For the first time, Thailand is sending hundreds of thousands to work on the booming infrastructure projects in the region, some of the world's largest. Even Vietnam, which after decades of war and Communist isolation is joining the region's capitalist mainstream, is now sending workers to Taiwan.

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Such a workers' wave has produced a flow of economically important cash back home. Although some economists contend that money from overseas workers has a limited impact because it's not channeled into productive investment, others contend it significantly improves the livelihood, education, and health care of many families.

Sending cash home

In the Philippines, whose economy is just starting to revive after a long stagnation, overseas workers send back almost $3 billion yearly, according to an official estimate that probably far understates the real amount. In other poor countries, like India and Bangladesh, sums sent home by labor migrants account for significant percentages of total foreign earnings.

Working overseas has not been without pain or danger. Last year, Singapore hanged a Filipina maid for murdering another domestic. This year, the case of Sara Balabagan, the maid in the United Arab Emirates, has highlighted the plight of migrant workers. A Muslim teenager from the southern Philippines, Ms. Balabagan was convicted of stabbing her employer to death after he raped her.

Her death sentence was commuted after the presidents of the Philippines and United Arab Emirates intervened, and her family agreed to pay more than $40,000 in compensation. Still, she was sentenced to receive 100 lashes to teach her a ''lesson.''

Western analysts say influxes of legal and illegal foreign laborers often stir latent ethnic rivalries and tensions. In Malaysia, where the government presides over a tense ethnic balance among Malays, Chinese, and Indians, labor migration has become entangled in the politics of the majority of Malays. Both Malaysia and Singapore are moving to impose tighter controls on foreign laborers.

In Taiwan, authorities fret about the fast-growing ranks of illegal workers.

The island's prosperity has prompted many Taiwanese to relinquish unsavory jobs, building a demand for cheap, unskilled labor. The government struggles to control the flood of workers from South and Southeast Asia.

Confronting a slowing economy and rising unemployment, as factory jobs shift over the border into China, Hong Kong has seen a growing public uproar over the presence of tens of thousands of overseas workers. The British government, which will turn over the colony to China in 1997, is under pressure from labor unions to curb labor migration.

''I am not advocating class confrontation in Hong Kong,'' says independent trade union leader Leung Yiu-chung, an elected member of the colony's Legislative Council. ''But the employers are sometimes too indifferent to the plight of the workers, especially those squeezed out in the sunset industries.''

China's overseas workers

Ironically, China, the world's most populous nation with 1.2 billion people, still cuts a relatively low profile in the international labor market. Still, more than 225,000 Chinese work under contract abroad, double the number just three years ago.

With unemployment in China expected to skyrocket among rural and city workers, overseas labor markets will be a key safety valve, analysts say. By the turn of the century, the Labor Ministry estimates China could have 270 million people looking for work in the countryside and cities, out of a total population of 1.3 billion. Under the old socialist system, China guaranteed workers lifetime employment. But as it has turned to a market economy, Beijing has encouraged state-owned companies to cut unneeded jobs.

For years, China insisted on controlling people's movements overseas. Now under pressure to employ an army of jobless, the government is promoting labor migration overseas.

Li Rongming, an official in the ministry of foreign trade and economic cooperation, forecasts that the value of China's overseas labor will top $7.5 billion in 1995, up from $5 billion last year. Sixty percent of Chinese workers remain in Asia, with Hong Kong alone employing one-fifth of the total overseas work force, the government says.

Labor exporter to the world?

China is also trying to increase its labor force in Japan and South Korea, as well as in the Middle East, including Israel and especially Iraq. ''We are expanding the number of Chinese mainland technicians and experts being sent to Hong Kong this year, and mainland companies will take an active part in the construction of the new Hong Kong airport,'' says Mr. Li. ''We will also seek to join in post-war construction in the Gulf region and revive our business there.''

Worried about being swamped by China's masses, Asian neighbors and Western countries hope Beijing will retain tight control over its foreign workers. As illegal immigration to the United States and elsewhere has accelerated in recent years, many countries have cooled to China's overtures about overseas labor arrangements. Living in the shadow of the mainland giant, Taiwan still repatriates illegal Chinese migrants. As a political weapon, China during times of tension has refused to accept returnees from Taiwan.

With a vast border with China, Russia also worries about China's labor surplus.

During the last five years, as relations between the two giant neighbors have markedly improved and border trade thrived, contract labor in Russia rose. Then, overwhelmed by the number of Chinese crossing the border legally and illegally, Russia moved to tighten access and crimped the flow of laborers during the last two years. In 1994, the number of workers and the value of their contracts dropped by half. The slump is continuing this year as the two sides negotiate the issue.

''This is why we are so anxious that the Chinese economy continues to grow rapidly,'' says a Russian diplomat. ''If China is absorbing these workers, they won't be coming to Russia.''

Hong Kong also has long been a net importer of labor. But unemployment that has risen from about 2 percent in 1994 to more than 3 percent, the highest in 11 years, is creating a groundswell of concern among Hong Kong workers, many themselves migrants from the Chinese mainland in the 1950s and '60s.

Hong Kong investors have shifted factories and jobs to the mainland in search of cheaper labor, leaving a growing army of jobless unable to find work in the colony's weakening service economy. Service jobs are following the manufacturing positions into China.

As Hong Kong's nascent democracy has taken shape, labor union leaders have increasingly demanded more protection of workers' rights and limits on foreign laborers. Although the British government has pledged to lower the immigration quota for foreign workers and to boost spending to create more jobs, labor leaders say it is not doing enough.

In the meantime, overseas workers in Hong Kong say they can see the writing on the wall and already are planning for 1997. Many expect that after the turnover, lower-level jobs available to outsiders will go to mainland Chinese before other Asians.

Come-home trend

In the Philippines, sentiment is growing for overseas workers to come home. That follows the pattern in Taiwan, where engineers and scientists are returning from the United States to launch new technology companies, and in India, where software engineers trained in the US are coming home to start their own firms.

Connie Bragas-Regalado, an organizer of Filipino workers in Hong Kong, has worked in the colony for 10 years as a domestic and secretary while her husband, an accountant, worked in Saudi Arabia. As 1997 approaches, the former teacher and mother of two plans to return to the Philippines to finish her master's degree and go into counseling.

''We have no guarantees. Our future is not really certain here'' in Hong Kong, she says. ''Going abroad is not a genuine solution to the problem of unemployment in the Philippines. The government has to stop treating people like a commodity and help us to stay home.''

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