THERE are two things that are generally known about Diego Garcia island — the biggest island in the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean and a strategic military outpost for the US for its Middle East, South Asian and African operations.
Diego Garcia is the only British territory with zero participation in the affairs of the monarchy, even in the recent mourning and funeral for Queen Elizabeth 2nd. The reason is clear.
Several decades back, the British government decided to clear out the island of its entire Chagossian population — not one was allowed to stay — as it entered a long leasehold agreement with the US military. And part of that agreement was for Britain to also clear out the whole area physically: homes, cemeteries, public and private structures, and everything that was built by the original settlers. The period of mourning and the eventual burial of the late queen was probably felt in the Falklands but not in Diego Garcia. The current generations of Chagossians want to return to Diego Garcia for good, or just undertake quick trips to visit what remained of their dead, but these fall under the category of impossible dreams, with the US military's lease on the island.
Under that long leasehold agreement signed by the British and the US military, people from a faraway country, the Philippines, stepped in to fill the void left by the Chagossian population. That is the second fact about the military outpost in the Indian Ocean: Filipinos dominate the civilian jobs there.
Diego Garcia, several thousand miles away from the Philippines, is a household name in many Philippine towns, towns in my province of Pampanga in particular. The contractors that built the military facilities for the US from scratch hired hundreds of Filipino skilled and semi-skilled workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of them Kapampangan construction workers — masons, carpenters, steelmen and even the peons. As the Luzon-wide electrification program for the rural areas gained momentum in precisely that same period, the first few families that were able to buy television sets and refrigerators in many farming towns of Pampanga — farming towns that trained skilled construction workers on the side — were the families of the Diego Garcia overseas workers.
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In the barrios populated by sharecropping families then, the definition of "rich" was applied to the families of the Diego Garcia construction workers. I was born and raised in one such barrio. Remember this was a period before the OFW diaspora became the economic anchor.
The US laws passed in the mid-1960s facilitated the immigration of doctors, nurses and other professionals into the US mainland, with the grant of either immigrant status or citizenship to those who met the requirements. With the immigration laws, the terms of engagement of "working for the US" radically evolved. Filipinos were not just recruited to work for US facilities in far-flung outposts such as Diego Garcia or Wake Island on a contractual basis, to be sent home after the lapse of the work contract.
The Filipino immigrants could not only live and work in the US for good. Better yet, the family reunification clause in the immigration rules allowed (and still allows) the original Filipino professionals to bring in family members, including siblings and the young (below 18 years) children of their siblings, into the US. A fast-track route for the speedy grant of green cards to parents and spouses of US citizens was — and still is — in the immigration rules.
Today, most of immigration to the US is driven by Filipino nurses and other health care professionals. Nurses and other health workers in the US get decent pay, but these are not really niche jobs. There is a category of immigrants, Filipino STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and finance professionals, who get job sponsorships and move into high-paying jobs at the technology hubs and Wall Street. Initially on H1-B visas. Tech jobs, pre-pandemic, were considered as "post-First World" jobs because everything was free 24/7 at the "campuses" where the tech work was done. Even the pantries adjacent to the laundry areas — yes, there were pantries for tech workers doing laundry — provided for coffee makers with dozens of coffee blends from Peru to Sumatra. The tech campuses overstocked with free food and drinks 24/7 mostly disappeared with the pandemic's work-from-home arrangement.
But the best lure for these Filipino tech workers moving into the campuses in Silicon Valley and elsewhere remains the stock options. The vesting rounds for these stocks is one of the most anticipated rituals in the technology world. The Pinoy tech worker who lands a job at those so-called "unicorns" pre-IPO, or before the initial public offering, is almost always a big winner after the public listing.
In retrospect, the Filipino jobs at Diego Garcia island, while a source of rural prosperity in the 1960s and early 1970s, have been left behind by the times. The jobs are still there — the US military contractors at Diego Garcia still prefer to hire Filipinos as maintenance, warehousing and clerical crews — but they are now the lowest-paying US-related jobs. They are also contractual jobs that would not lead to a permanent stay in the US. Indeed the jobs that the times have left behind.
The Filipino workers in Diego Garcia have been in the news lately because of a dispute over basic pay, according to an exclusive story by the Washington Post. The Philippine government wants $7.25 hourly for the workers, at par with the minimum US wage. Kellog Brown Root, known in the US military contracting world as KBR, insists on a basic wage of $5.25, the standard pay for overseas workers at Diego Garcia and other remote military facilities. The US military does not want to mediate in the dispute between the KBR and the Philippine government.
The Filipino hires of KBR for the Diego Garcia work are of two minds over the issue. A few want the Philippine government to press the issue on the $7.25 hourly rate. The majority are indifferent, fearing a loss of jobs and the poverty that awaits them back home. KBR said if you factor in the other benefits such as food and lodging and medical care, the Filipino workers get much more than $5.25.
We don't know how this wage dispute will end. The story of the Filipino workers on Diego Garcia Island that started more than half a century ago, is worth recalling because it tells us about the shifting nature of what "niche jobs" means. The plum, most-sought-after US-related jobs of yesteryears, like the jobs at Diego Garcia, may be the least desired today. The knowledge society that enabled Filipinos skilled in technology to land high-paying jobs in the US tech campuses, and the knowledge society that enabled Filipinos skilled in finance to land high-paying jobs on Wall Street, has totally upended the definition of US employment.
The Diego Garcia jobs for Filipinos will still be there for decades given the strategic importance of that lonely outpost to US military operations. But without the prestige they had in the years before stock options and "post-First World" jobs that many Filipinos now enjoy in the mainland.