MicSem Publications

Is There a Place for Foreigners in Micronesia Today?

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

April 13, 1994 Economics Government


There are some 1500 non-Micronesians residing in the FSM today. Nearly all, of course, are employees or their dependents, although there are a smattering of US, Japanese and Australian volunteers, diplomats, and missionaries of various kinds. Some have been residents of Micronesia for many years. What brings foreigners to the FSM? There are probably as different stories as there are individuals. Many offer skills that are in short supply in the islands; others see business opportunities here that entice them. In theory, these foreign workers do their work and save what money they can, while contributing to the development of a new nation. They know that they have in Micronesia no permanent home, for government policy dictates that they pass on their skills so that they can be replaced in time by FSM citizens.

But the facts tell a different story. Some of the more highly skilled foreign workers have been in Micronesia for years, and still there is no replacement to be found for them. Many others work at jobs that require a much lower level of training. The manager of a local construction company admits that he has as many Filipino laborers as he has Pohnpeians on the payroll. His company is typical, not just of construction companies but of many other kinds of businesses as well. Is the FSM becoming too dependent on outside labor?

Are Some Aliens Too Alien?

Many of the foreigners attending the discussion have been residents of Micronesia for ten or twenty years or longer. Some have married here and foresee spending the rest of their lives in the islands. They represent a small but important minority, yet, as some of them testified, they feel as much like outsiders looking in as they did on the day they first arrived in Micronesia. Their status as aliens, even if they are married to citizens, is no different from that of any other foreigners. They cannot own land. They must go through the usual tortuous channels to start a business here. Their immigration status is as precarious as all other aliens; they must apply for renewal of their entry permit every year after taking a medical exam, showing their police record, and filling out the normal papers. In addition, they must also file alien registration papers every year.

Obtaining FSM citizenship is a long and arduous process, and citizenship has been granted to very few since self-government. One participant told that he had applied for citizenship for his Filipino wife three times, but each time was told that he would simply have to wait until the government resolved the policy questions that citizenship raised. It was difficult enough to acquire citizenship in Trust Territory days, as some of us recall, but it is nearly impossible now. There are good reasons for the government to be extremely careful in granting citizenship. FSM is a small nation and so has to take pains to protect its scarce resources and small population; otherwise, it would run the risk of being swamped. But perhaps the time has come for the FSM government to review the process of naturalization. A waiting period of five or ten years would guard against marriages of convenience or other opportunistic moves by foreigners who wanted nothing more than FSM citizenship. Other countries ordinarily require such waiting periods before one can apply for citizenship.

Most of those who have been living in FSM for years, however, do not seem to be interested in applying for FSM citizenship. What they seek is some form of recognition of their long years of service and commitment to the country. They ask whether the FSM government might be able to tailor a "middle status," something that, while not granting them the full rights of citizenship, would free them from the itch of applying each year for the right to live in the islands. This could be analogous to permanent residency status that other nations grant, except that it need not be permanent. This status could have a duration of five or ten years and could be subject to revocation for just cause.

Everyone recognizes the valid need of the FSM government to protect its own land and people from being swamped by outsiders. This is all the more true in a country the size of this one. On the other hand, the Micronesian people have a rightly deserved reputation for nonexclusivity. They welcome any and all to their feasts, excluding none, and they will speak in a language that all can understand whenever possible. Micronesians are famous for making every effort to have their guests feel at home. The present immigration legislation, unfortunately, does not reflect this spirit. Surely this can be changed without damage to the nation.

Working Themselves Out of a Job

All foreign workers are in Micronesia to provide the skills that are needed for a certain time, but it is hoped that they will sooner or later work themselves out of a job. If the FSM's problem were simply a matter of lack of trained manpower, we might hope that would happen. The problem seems to go deeper, however. One Micronesian stated it clearly and forcefully when he said that foreign workers are in great demand, and will continue to be in demand, because they are more reliable than local people. He attributed this simply to motivation. If Micronesian workers are laid off, they can live off the land and survive nicely; but foreign workers cannot. An expatriate told of his experiences training a local bookkeeper, who was skilled enough in his line of work but could never finish a job within the deadline. As the pressure to produce mounted, the understudy would disappear to attend a funeral or a village feast. These comments were not meant to disparage all local workers, but they certainly describe a situation that everyone recognized as common in the islands.

People are always advising one another to relax and not to worry too much about work, another Micronesian participant reflected. They have the security they need, if not through their paycheck then on their land. Many people have as one of their personal goals lots of leisure time. This is all well and good for them, but what about the modern economy and the national welfare on which their labor depends. The government of the FSM has plotted a course of controlled change for the future. It is committed to economic and social development, but it must have the means at its disposal to get the job done. This requires much more than money; there must be people to do the work that is needed. Can and will Micronesians do the construction work, the commercial fishing, and even the white collar work so essential to development?

The FSM is not the only country facing this problem. One participant mentioned that Spanish workers are having serious difficulty competing with the productivity of Germans and other Europeans. Another person noticed that white middle-class Americans don't seem interested in performing certain kinds of work. The ground crews at the airports are mostly blacks, while the chambermaids in the hotels he lived in were nearly all members of ethnic minorities.

If motivation is as much a key factor as many people think, we may be nowhere near replacing foreign workers with Micronesians. It is assumed that the government will hire foreign doctors if they should be needed. Why shouldn't businesses, on which the future of the economy depends, obtain foreign labor as needed? One participant argued that private business should get the cheapest and most productive source of labor, even if this means hiring people from other countries. This is simply a wise economic decision, after all.

Nevertheless, the government also has a stake in the matter. Government policy in the FSM remains what it has always been: to develop local manpower sources by hiring Micronesians whenever possible. In doing this, it is seeing to the long-term good of the nation and its people. Thus, its goal is to replace foreign workers with local people as soon as possible.

Or Is There Another Option?

Suppose that local people don't really want to replace the foreign workers, however. What if they don't show any interest in the jobs? Or what if they insist on wages that are too high and productivity standards that are too low to allow private business to compete with other countries? In that case, the government will have to moderate its former policies governing foreign labor, unless it wishes to abandon the development goals it has set for itself.

There is no pressing need for employment in the FSM at present. Just about everyone who genuinely wants a paying job can obtain one, providing he can pay the cost of his airfare to Guam or Saipan. The labor situation in FSM right now is a "revolving door" that provides what just about everyone needs. While Filipino and other Asian labor comes in one door, FSM citizens who prefer serving table at a restaurant to digging ditches and repairing water lines head for Guam.

Meanwhile, Micronesians can now truly be said to run their own country. They are in the decision-making and top administrative positions, where they should be. The many foreigners who remain in the FSM serve at their pleasure and help provide for all Micronesians a quality of life that would otherwise be unobtainable.

Assuming that foreigners will be needed for a long time to come, perhaps in even greater numbers than today, FSM will have to address one or two important issues. In the past, it has attempted to control the inflow of foreign labor. To be sure, some control will be necessary indefinitely, even if government policy is moderated. In the future, however, FSM will have to give some thought on how it is going to integrate these foreigners into society. If foreigners are to continue to be a strong presence in Micronesia, one Micronesian participant remarked, the government will have to provide for them, make them feel accepted, and assure them of the importance of their contribution.