Foreign Workers, Domestic Help

by Ben Carter

At night in Palau, Japanese businessmen sing karaoke. They go to bars where Filipina and Chinese women and girls serve them drinks. The businessmen laugh; they are rich. The girls laugh; they are paid to laugh. A skirted girl sits on a man’s lap, he rubs his hand on her thigh. Later, he will pay the owner of the bar and take the girl back to his hotel room.

Nancy learned English by listening to a “English for Businessmen” cassette. I never asked Nancy whether this is true, but it has to be.

“Nancy, can you hem these pants? The cuff is dragging.”

“It is really no problem!” This is Nancy’s enthusiastic mantra. Nancy has rehearsed it in front of mirrors. Nancy’s smile is simultaneously practiced and genuine.

I met Nancy near the end of our year in Palau. We had heard that the tailors from the Philippines on the island did amazing work and were incredibly affordable.

“Go see Nancy,” we kept hearing.

So, one day after work Erin and I drove over to Dress X-Press after getting another recommendation for Nancy from one of the Supreme Court justices Erin worked for. Two things were immediately obvious when we entered the shop:

1) Nancy was a man.

2) Nancy really, really loved his job.

He set about showing us rolls of fabric, examining the shirts and dresses we had brought as templates for future shirts and dresses.

“Do you think you can copy this pattern?”

“It’s really no problem!”

The shop was not Nancy’s. By law, nothing in Palau is ever owned by anyone other than a Palauan. That includes businesses and land. So, Nancy worked for a Palauan who actually owned the shop. I never asked how much Nancy got paid, whether he got a commission. I never asked him how long he had been in Palau, whether his employer had ever exploited the enormous power advantage she enjoyed in the relationship: Nancy depended on the Palauan employer to renew his work visa and his ability to stay in Palau. How incurious.

A lot of work gets done in Palau by foreign workers. The men working on the gym’s roof as I drove home from work–the ones that were there on my way to work ten hours earlier–are Filipino. The women doing the laundry by hand are Filipina. The guys on the roadside digging drainage canals, pouring the concrete that would line those canals are Bangladeshi, Chinese, and Filipino. Of the 20,000 people in Palau, about 6,000 are foreign workers. While we lived there, we were two among that number, though admittedly practicing law is not the typical work of foreign workers in Palau. Cutting hair, fixing cars, construction, food service, housekeeping–these are what foreign workers are for.

We paid Lori, a Filipina who used to be a nurse in South Africa, $20 bucks to come over once a week and do laundry and clean the house. She spent the entire day there. Palauans chastised us: this was an exorbitant amount of money to pay a DH, “domestic help”. We paid Nur similarly to occasionally “sweep” the yard. Sweeping the yard meant mowing the grass by hand with a machete. Our yard was not small.

Palauans are smart. They have figured out that the amount of money that people in Palau are willing to pay for a service is greater than the amount they would need to pay a foreign worker to do the work. The difference is theirs.

This is not to say that Palauans themselves are not hard workers, but rather to say that you won’t see a Palauan doing work they can pay someone less to do for them. That’s not laziness, that’s economics. Rich people don’t mow their own lawns, hang their Christmas lights–they hire that job out. And the fact is that Palauans are relatively rich[1] compared with their Filipino and Bangladeshi neighbors.

That the market supports this labor arrangement doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it; like many Palauans, I have mixed feelings about the country’s easy reliance on foreign workers. Yes, foreign workers have an opportunity to earn more money than they would in their home country. The opportunity to work for a few bucks is better than the opportunity to work for almost nothing. (And, who knows, you might find a side job with a young American couple who will pay you in a day more money that you could have made in a month in Bangladesh or the Philippines.)

Yet, there is something deeply unseemly about a system in which Palauans are allowed to prosper on the labor of others simply by being Palauan. Palauans have the exclusive right to own businesses and secure work visas for employees. Often, it doesn’t seem like Palauans have done enough work to justify the cut they take.

It’s not just their tightfisted grip on the means of production. I understand and laud Palauans’ prevailing impulse to retain tight, local control over the economy. Doing otherwise would undoubtedly rearrange the existing power structures in Palau. This rearrangement would be swift and likely irreversible, so I appreciate the caution with which Palauans proceed.

So, while a hyper-nationalistic position creates the potential for Palauans to profit beyond their contribution, that alone does not trouble me. Rather, like the treatment of undocumented workers in America, the problem is one of humans failing to treat people like they were human beings. The system of foreign workers in Palau looks a lot like indentured servitude and is tinged with racism. The foreign worker’s dependence on the employer for renewing the worker’s visa distorts the normal employer/employee relationship by giving the employer a shocking amount of power over the destiny of the employee’s life.

As one of two Public Defenders in Palau, I got a chance to see the institutionalized racism of police officers up close. I was in charge of the misdemeanor charges. Lots of citations for driving with a brakelight out or failing to use a turn signal came across my desk. Very few were for Palauan drivers. Driving While Filipino is a real thing in Palau. After practicing for almost a year, I was confronted with a citation I’d never seen before: riding a bicycle without a headlight. The time of the citation was a 5:35 p.m. It wasn’t even dark. My client was Bangladeshi.

I looked at the statute and, sure enough, each bicycle is required by law to be outfitted with a lamp for nighttime illumination. I took the citation and my client downstairs for the Wednesday afternoon traffic docket and summoned my deepest indignation: “You Honor,” I told Justice Lourdes Materne, “I don’t have a light on my bike. I’ve been on island for almost a year and I don’t know anyone who has a light on their bike. This ticket is absurd.” She agreed. Judge Materne saw right through the technical violation and recognized the ugly truth behind the ticket. She apologized to my client for having to miss an afternoon of work.

It’s just pure harassment. Officers cite foreign workers because they can, because they need to. You’ve got to remind them who’s boss.

One afternoon, Nur visited me at the office. Nur has skin the color of coffee beans, a strong, square jaw, perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. He has a luminous presence. He belongs in magazines–he is the most handsome landscaper I’ll ever employ. He knocked on my open door and bowed slightly while smiling deferentially. He did not want to disturb me.

“I have a problem,” he said.

He had ben arrested the day before while riding a bicycle down Main Road that he had recently purchased from some neighborhood kids for $25. The bike was stolen and he was charged with the felony of receiving stolen property worth more than $300.

I saw the bike. It was a piece of shit worth $25, not $300. So, there was that fact issue. Then, under the statute, the state would have to prove that Nur knew the bike was stolen. The prosecutor was adamant–she would not dismiss the charge. We could either 1) accept an offer to amend the charge to a misdemeanor spend two weekends in jail or 2) go to trial on the felony. This case was made for a trial. We had two great issues to tell the judge about. (When I was in Palau, there were no jury trials. This part of the Constitution has since been amended.)

Instead, we accepted the offer and Nur spent two days in jail. Here’s why: if we had gone to trial and lost–a remote yet possible outcome–Nur’s punishment would have included a longer jail sentence, but also deportation following his time in jail. This was an unacceptable risk. Nur had a hard life in Palau, but no life in Bangladesh. So, Nur took the deal and served his bullshit time. Nur was not the only foreign worker who took deals that my Palauan clients would never have accepted; deportation was not part of the potential punishments for my Palauan clients and the prosecutors knew it.

The economic freeloading does not disturb me.[2] The racism, the paranoia, the exploitation, the meanness–the detritus of lopsided economic power–does. Differences in economic power are inevitable. But, the ugly side of the power differential is not. That it so often exists is deeply saddening. Differences in economic power do not automatically instill in a person or populace a sense of moral superiority to those less powerful, yet the transference occurs more often than not. The human psyche, apparently, cannot acknowledge disparate economic power and accept that this power is derived from a strictly-enforced system of laws that seeks to preserve the powerfuls’ power.

Rather, humans–especially the powerful–must also tell ourselves stories about us and about them that justify the status quo for reasons beyond (or instead) of the simple and obvious fact that the powerful are powerful because the powerful wrote the laws from which they derive their power. Perhaps this truth is too bareknuckled. Perhaps part of the job of the stories about Filipinos‘ deceitfulness or Mexicans’ laziness is to wrap the bareknuckled truth in something softer. Something on which we can lay our heads at night, something in which to swaddle our babies, something with which to line our coffins.

These stories are not true. These stories insulate the rich and divide the poor by ethnicities, geographies, nations. They prevent us from seeing each other for what we are: delicate, vulnerable, full of love and fear, here only now.

I’m on a plane. I’m going back to Palau. I hope desperately that I see Nur riding a bicycle down Main Road. I hope to see my friend, Nancy, while I’m there. I hope he is still there. These people are people. I so often forget that. I tell myself stories to help myself forget that. I’ve heard them my whole life.

Growing up has meant learning different stories, real stories, about real people. Learning new stories is hard, but not impossible. My hope for us rests in our ability to learn and tell new stories. We can learn new stories, stitch together new patterns.

It’s really no problem.


  1. Palau enjoys a longstanding relationship with the United States that makes Palau relatively prosperous. The first Compact of Free Association involved an agreement to provide $300,000,000 in U.S. foreign aid to the Palauan government in exchange for an agreement that the U.S. could park its nuclear submarines in Palau’s waters, if necessary. It’s more involved than that, but for purposes of this essay, it’s enough to know that this country of 15,000 has received $300,000,000 over the last 15 years.

  2. This is an overstatement. It does disturb me, but it is not the most disturbing aspect of what foreign worker’s confront in Palau. If it disturbs you, that’s cool. I get it.