MANILA, December 14, 2003 (STAR) President Arroyo is due to arrive in Hong Kong today on a lightning visit to meet overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) there in what critics say is a bid to shore up support for next year’s elections.

Mrs. Arroyo will be in Hong Kong for just three hours to speak to the Filipino expatriates, mostly women working as live-in maids who number about 128,000, Philippine consular official Domingo Lucenario said yesterday.

The President flies to Hong Kong less than 24 hours after she arrived in Manila from Tokyo, Japan where she attended a two-day summit. It was her fifth visit to Japan since she assumed office in January 2001.

From Hong Kong, she will proceed to Bahrain for an overnight state visit.

Lucenario said Mrs. Arroyo will explain to the workers "what her government is doing to advance the interests of Filipinos overseas." He did not elaborate.

Wealthy Hong Kong has about 128,000 Filipino maids, who support family members back home with their earnings.

For the first time, overseas Filipinos will have the right to vote in the May 2004 elections, and 88,677 of them in Hong Kong have registered to vote.

The Philippines has millions of workers and professionals working abroad, sending home billions in foreign currency remittances each year, contributing substantially to the nation’s gross national product.

In February, Mrs. Arroyo passed a law to allow about 7.9 million overseas Filipinos to vote, accounting for about 18 percent of the electorate.

The United Filipinos in Hong Kong — a group representing the domestic workers — said they will launch a "no vote" campaign against the President, claiming she did not support them enough when local authorities cut their minimum wage.

Earlier this year amid an economic slowdown, foreign domestic workers’ minimum wage was reduced by HK$400 or US$51to HK$3,270 or US$419.

"We have no faith in her leadership, that under her presidency, the plight of migrant workers will be taken care of," Eman Villanueva, the group’s secretary general, said.

After leaving Hong Kong, the President will visit the Middle East, where more than one million Filipinos work.

The President said she is going to the oil-rich emirate of Bahrain, promising that the state visit "shall widen the range of our diplomacy to reinforce our domestic policies and programs to uplift the lives of our people."

"Ours is an administration that has been working across continents to bring the message of Filipino pride and price in the Filipino’s bright future," she added.

Mrs. Arroyo, who is seeking a full six-year term in next year’s polls, sought to highlight the importance of her official trips abroad as part of her campaign platform of reform and reconciliation.

"This is part of reform and reconciliation as we bring all Filipinos worldwide and at home together behind the sustained march for peace, progress and prosperity," she said.

The President said that during her trip to Japan, she "worked for a better deal for our OFWs and marked more gains for peace and development in Mindanao."

Before she left Manila for Japan, she vowed to pursue in Tokyo her desire to bring more jobs and other economic gains for Filipinos. She also accused opposition leaders of being engaged in a "flurry of partisan activities" for next year’s polls.

"I am glad the opposition is moving towards unity so we can get down to the business of threshing out the issues of the campaign," Mrs. Arroyo said in the arrival statement she issued yesterday.

She will still be in Bahrain tomorrow, the first day for the filing of certificates of candidacy for next year’s synchronized national and local elections.

Deputy presidential spokesman Ricardo Saludo said the President will meet with the King of Bahrain and the OFW community there. – Marichu Villanueva

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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