The jobs that the times left behind

There are two things that are generally known about Diego Garcia Island – the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean and a strategic US military outpost for its operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

Diego Garcia is the only British territory with no involvement in the affairs of the monarchy, even at the recent mourning and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The reason is clear.

A few decades ago, the British government decided to rid the island of its entire Chagossian population – none allowed to remain – as it secured a long-term lease with the US military. And part of that agreement was that Britain also physically cleared the entire area: homes, cemeteries, public and private structures, and anything built by the original settlers. The period of mourning and eventual funeral of the late Queen was probably felt in the Falkland Islands but not in Diego Garcia. Today’s generations of Chagossians want to return to Diego Garcia forever or just take short trips to visit the remains of their dead, but these fall under the category of impossible dreams since the US military has leased the island.

Under this long-term lease, signed by the British and US military, people from a distant country, the Philippines, stepped in to fill the void left by the Chagossian people. That’s the second fact about the Indian Ocean military outpost: Filipinos dominate civilian jobs there.

Located several thousand miles from the Philippines, Diego Garcia is a household name in many Filipino cities, especially cities in my province of Pampanga. The construction companies that built the US military installations from scratch in the late 1960s and early 1970s hired hundreds of Filipino skilled and semi-skilled workers, most of them Kapampangan construction workers—masons, carpenters, steel workers, and even the laborers. As the Luzon-wide rural electrification program gained momentum in exactly the same period, the first few families able to buy televisions and refrigerators in many of Pampanga’s farming towns—peasant towns that also trained skilled construction workers—were the families of Diego’s expatriate workers Garcia.

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In the barrios then populated by tenant families, the definition of “rich” was applied to the families of Diego Garcia’s builders. I was born and raised in such a barrio. Remember that this was a time before the OFW diaspora became the economic anchor.

US laws passed in the mid-1960s facilitated the immigration of doctors, nurses, and other professionals to the US mainland, with those who met the requirements being granted either immigrant status or citizenship. With immigration laws, the terms of “working for the US” have evolved radically. Filipinos weren’t just recruited on a contract basis to US facilities in far-flung outposts like Diego Garcia or Wake Island, only to be sent home when the employment contract expired.

Not only could Filipino immigrants live and work in the United States forever. Better still, the family reunification clause in the immigration regulations allowed (and still allows) original Filipino professionals to bring family members, including siblings and their siblings’ young children (under the age of 18), to join them in the United States. An expedited route for rapid issuance of green cards to parents and spouses of US citizens was – and still is – included in immigration regulations.

Today, most immigration to the US is driven by Filipino nurses and other health professionals. Nurses and other healthcare professionals in the US are paid decently, but these aren’t really niche jobs. There is one category of immigrants, Filipino STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and finance professionals who receive job sponsorships and move into high-paying jobs in the tech hubs and on Wall Street. First with H1-B visas. Tech jobs before the pandemic were considered “post-first world” jobs because the “campuses” where the tech work was done were free 24/7. Even the pantries next to the laundry areas—yes, there were pantries for technicians doing laundry—offered coffeemakers with dozens of coffee blends from Peru to Sumatra. Tech campuses, crowded with 24/7 free food and drink, largely disappeared with the pandemic’s work-from-home rule.

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But the best lure for these Filipino tech workers moving to campuses in Silicon Valley and elsewhere remains stock options. The vesting round for these stocks is one of the most anticipated rituals in the tech world. The Pinoy tech who gets a pre-IPO or pre-IPO job at these so-called “unicorns” is almost always a big winner post-IPO.

In retrospect, while a source of rural prosperity in the 1960s and early 1970s, Filipino jobs on the island of Diego Garcia have been left behind by time. The jobs are still there – the US military contractors at Diego Garcia still prefer to hire Filipinos as maintenance, warehouse and clerical staff – but they are now the lowest paying US-related jobs. They are also contract jobs that would not result in permanent residency in the United States. Indeed the jobs left by time.

Filipino workers in Diego Garcia have been in the news lately over a base pay dispute, according to an exclusive article in The Washington Post. The Philippine government wants $7.25 an hour for workers, which is the US minimum wage. Kellog Brown Root, known in the US military contract world as KBR, insists on a base wage of $5.25, the standard wage for foreign workers at Diego Garcia and other outlying military facilities. The US military does not want to mediate in the dispute between the KBR and the Philippine government.

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KBR’s Filipino collaborators for the Diego Garcia work are divided on this issue. Some are calling for the Philippine government to push the $7.25 hourly rate. The majority are indifferent, fearing job losses and the poverty that awaits them at home. KBR said Filipino workers are paid much more than $5.25 when you add in other benefits such as food and shelter and medical care.

We do not know how this tariff dispute will end. It is worth recalling the story of the Filipino workers on the island of Diego Garcia, which began more than half a century ago, because it tells us of the changing nature of what “niche jobs” mean. The plum, the most coveted US-related jobs of yore, like the jobs at Diego Garcia, are perhaps the least coveted today. The knowledge society that enabled tech-savvy Filipinos to snag high-paying jobs on US tech campuses, and the knowledge society that enabled financially-savvy Filipinos to snag high-paying jobs on Wall Street, has completely blown the definition of US employment upside down.

Given the strategic importance of this lonely outpost for US military operations, Diego Garcia jobs will be around for Filipinos for decades to come. But without the prestige they had in the years before stock options and “post-First World” jobs that many Filipinos now enjoy on the mainland.

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