In recent years overseas contract work has become the Philippines’ prime export commodity. In the year following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, overseas Filipino worker (OFW) remittances amounted to US$7 billion. (DER-BSP, Table 11. OFW Remittances By Country and By Type of Worker.) OFW remittance is such a vital source of revenue that since the mid-1980s the government has lauded these workers as the country’s “new economic heroes” or mga bagong bayani. This essay highlights the growth of women’s participation in the ongoing Filipino labor diaspora and underscores the government’s active promotion of overseas labor migration. It discusses Filipino international migration within the context of labor circulation in Southeast Asia, comparing the experience of overseas domestic work of Filipinos and Indonesians. Finally, this essay examines two forms of involvement by the international community in current women’s migration issues – the promotion of international protections and research on different aspects of women’s migration – and includes a current reference list on the issue.
The bagong bayani are a diverse group. They include emigrants and contract workers, both of whom may be documented or undocumented. (NGO statistics categorize these two groups as overseas Filipinos and overseas Filipino workers.) As of 2001, overseas Filipinos numbered 2.74 million and OFWs 4.67 million, of whom 3.05 million are documented and 1.62 million undocumented (Kanlungan Center, citing the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, Department of Foreign Affairs). OFWs are further statistically classified as sea-based workers, who are largely male, and land-based workers, who are the focus of this essay.
Initially, the workers were called OCWs, or overseas contract workers, a term which is descriptive of a temporary and contractual employment status – usually fixed terms of six months to two years. Moreover, the term bespeaks the workers’ lack of physical and social mobility in the receiving country, which is restricted by the terms of their contract. Because of the growing prominence of overseas work and of the sense of being neither here nor there implied by “OCW,” the term has fallen out of favor in both government and media parlance. “OFW” – with the insertion of “Filipino” adding a national projection as befits new heroes – has become the preferred version.
Being heroes, however, does not mean the government can guarantee OFW welfare, despite remittances that annually amount to billions of dollars. News reports abound of victims of abuse and of the death of overseas contract workers since the early 1990s. These include Singapore’s much talked-about 1995 execution of Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of killing a Filipina domestic worker and her Singaporean ward; the unresolved case of Mary Jane Ramos; the case of Sarah Jane Dematera, on death row for 11 years (Kanlungan Center); and numerous others that remain unreported.
The Feminization of Philippine Overseas Labor Migration
These news reports sketch the current face of Philippine overseas labor migration. It is increasingly female and services-oriented. In 1992, of the total deployed, land-based, newly hired OFWs, 50 percent were female. This increased to 58 percent in 1995, 64 percent in 1999, and 72 percent in 2001.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) lists eight skill categories. In the period 1992 to 2001, the skill category “service workers” comprised an average 35 percent of the total number of deployed newly hired, land-based workers (POEA InfoCenter; NSCB). In that ten-year period, “service workers” was consistently one of the top two in terms of newly hired workers deployed. It alternated with the category “production workers,” which was the top occupation of overseas land-based migrants in the 1970s and which was the top occupation of deployed workers in the years 1994, 1996, and 1998-2000. The third highest category in the same period was “professional and technical workers,” which overtook “production workers” in 2001 (POEA InfoCenter).
The stereotypical gender division of labor is replicated in these skill categories. Production workers are predominantly male at 71 percent of the newly deployed in 2002, while service workers and professional and technical workers, largely nurses and overseas performing artists, are mostly female. (Dancers and musicians made up 72 percent of this skill category in 2000; 99.5 percent of all deployed entertainers went to Japan [POEA Annual Report 2000]. In 2002, 85 percent of deployed newly hired “professional and technical workers” were female.)
Fifty-two percent of the women deployed in 1992 were service workers; 59 percent in 1995; and 47 percent in 2000 (POEA 2002). From 1992 to 2001, women comprised an average 89 percent of deployed newly hired service workers. They comprised 92 percent of deployed newly hired service workers in 2000, 91 percent in 2001, and 90 percent in 2002.
The feminization of Philippine overseas labor migration, which had been male-dominated until the 1980s, belies the failure of women’s empowerment in society. The increasing out-migration of women indicates a decline, or continuing limitation, in the share of work available to women in the production process; employment opportunities remain restricted and income insufficient. The majority of female OFWs are still in “traditional” reproductive work such as domestic work and cultural entertainment, health care and nursing, where the pay is low and the nature of the work involves a higher exposure to physical, sexual and other abuse. This in turn underscores the international division of labor, in which the Third World, or the South, does the labor-intensive and lower-paid work. It also demonstrates a persistent gendered division of labor at the global level, with the South taking on the menial aspects of reproductive work, which are thereby “feminized,” secondary, subservient, and inferior to the “masculine,” dominant North.
The State and Overseas Labor Migration
Migration is not wholly a personal decision motivated by desire for capitalist accumulation, but also reflects the lack of development policies on the part of the government and the lack of satisfactory living and employment opportunities within the home country. Feminist activist Wilhelmina S. Orozco asserted , as early as 1985, that the government had deliberately promoted labor migration as a solution to unemployment and growing national accounts deficits. Subsequently, sociologists Graziano Battistella and Anthony Paganoni (1992, 1996), Maruja M.B. Asis (1992), Joaquin Gonzalez III (1996, 1998), and urban planner Benjamin Cariño (1995) have examined the policies and directives of government administrations since Marcos, demonstrating how the government actively promotes labor migration with provision for the welfare of the migrants often an afterthought.
The administration of Ferdinand E. Marcos was blatant in its desire to use labor migration as a solution to the nation’s economic problems. The government was assertive in promoting and maintaining its warm body export. The Labor Code of 1974 formalized the Philippine labor migration program and had as its main goal the promotion of overseas contract work in order for government to reap the economic benefits of lower unemployment and workers’ remittances. In 1982, the Central Bank, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Labor and Employment made the remittance of 50 to 70 percent of workers’ salaries mandatory through Executive Order 857. Sanctions such as the non-renewal of passports or disapproval of new contracts were imposed on those who did not comply. Executive Order 857 was so unpopular with contract workers that government abandoned it for more relaxed measures, like incentives to remitting migrants, the Suwerte sa Bangko program, the Balikbayan program, and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) remittance assistance program (Gonzalez III, 1996).
Government policies and regulations on labor migration up to this period were but slight refinements of the Commonwealth government’s laws from 1915 to 1933, all of which focused on the economic benefits the United States government could gain from this enterprise. The Labor Code of 1974 only made the provisions in the previous laws more organized and economically viable.
In the late 1980s, the abuse of women migrant workers started to be widely publicized. Following a temporary moratorium on the deployment of Filipino entertainers to Japan, the administration of Corazon C. Aquino temporarily banned the deployment of domestic workers on January 20, 1988. The ban was meant to protect Filipino women migrants from being abused and exploited in the foreign countries where they worked. But as NGO activists contended, no matter how well intentioned, the ban was wrong policy: because of it, many more women would leave the country illegally and would “no longer be entitled to government protection, thus putting [them] completely at the mercy of [their] employers” (Ocampo 1988, 5). Another issue was the ban’s infringement of the constitutional rights of workers to travel and find gainful employment. It was meant as leverage for negotiating better terms and conditions for the workers, but as migrant activists also pointed out, it was not binding on receiving states, who could simply turn to other developing countries for cheap labor.
NGOs proposed more concrete measures to address the abuse of overseas workers. They demended that government “put more teeth in the country’s labor laws to guarantee [the] protection of overseas domestic [workers],” compel labor attaches to do their jobs, and “enforce government-to-government negotiations for a fair deal for Filipino domestic [workers]” (C.D. Nagot, Gabriela spokesperson, quoted in Delos Santos 1988, 1; M.L. Alcid 1988; I.L. Laguindam 1988). In a press statement, Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong proposed the following (The United Filipinos Against the Ban, 1988):
- Forge bilateral agreements with receiving countries. Proposals for HK:
(A) Repeal of the new conditions of stay for foreign domestic helpers.
(B) Strict implementation and monitoring of the employment agency regulations. Exorbitant fees and replacement guarantees to employers must be stopped.
(C) Meting out of appropriate penalties against abusive employers and agencies, from blacklisting to imprisonment.
(D) Standardization of working hours to a maximun of 12 hours of daily work.
- Provide on-site protection to overseas Filipinos. Use the Welfare Fund to provide legal assistance, counseling, emergency loans, educational activities.
- Educate certain officials and staff of Philippine Consulates on the rights and welfare of migrants. Remove anti-migrant officials.
- Reorient overseas employment programs and agencies concerned to cater to interests and protection of rights of workers.
- Abide by ILO instruments pertinent to migration and migrant workers, esp. Convention nos. 97 and 143, Recommendation nos. 86, 100, 151, 169.
- Institutionalize the representation of overseas Filipinos in national and local (receiving countries) policy-making bodies.
- Uphold people’s right to gainful employment. Develop viable local employment programs as an alternative to cheap labor export.
Subsequently, the Aquino administration lifted the ban for selected countries, Middle Eastern countries being the last. Maruja M.B. Asis (1992) noted that although the issue of remittances was important to the government, a gradual shift toward welfare and protection was noticeable among the executive orders and legislation passed during Aquino’s term. Among the most publicized of Aquino’s presidential actions was Proclamation No. 276, signed on June 21, 1988, which declared December “The Month of Overseas Filipinos.” In recognition of their contribution to the national economy, President Aquino called overseas contract workers the new heroes of the country or the new economic heroes. (Another version is “modern-day heroes,” which gained currency in the latter part of the 1990s, which Hong Kong activists counter with “modern-day slaves.”)
The epithet could not protect the migrant workers from being abused overseas. After a couple of highly publicized deaths of Filipina domestic workers abroad, the succeeding administration of Fidel V. Ramos tried to put a hold on the “new hero” syndrome. In 1996, RA 8042, the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, was implemented to show government support for the new Philippine heroes following national outrage at the execution of Flor Contemplacion. At the same time, government publicists floated the idea that Filipinos need not go abroad to get good employment.
Ramos promised economic prosperity through his Philippines 2000 program, which aimed to achieve NIC-hood (newly industrialized country status) by the year 2000. Nevertheless, remittances from overseas Filipino workers were still one of the bigger sources of government revenue.
At the end of 2000, Joseph Estrada, the thirteenth President of the Republic, called upon OFWs to be patient and continue supporting his beleaguered administration. Estrada said “the OFWs should continually remit their hard-earned dollars here to help prop up the heavily battered economy and to help in praying for his critics and political opponents” (Manila Bulletin, December 10, 2000). Later, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in her state visit to Singapore in 2001, was quoted as saying: “The Philippine economy will be, for the foreseeable future, heavily dependent still on overseas workers’ remittances” (Agence France Presse, 2001). In a keynote speech to welcoming Filipinos in Kuala Lumpur during her state visit to Malaysia in the same month, the President proffered a new name for the economic heroes: OFI, or overseas Filipino investors. In this telling, overseas Filipino workers “invested” their talents and energy in the receiving country.
One aggressive “investment” strategy the government reportedly adopted was to deploy “at least one million people” abroad annually, or 2740 persons per day (Kanlungan Center 2001). The NGO further quotes the President as saying: “Jobs here are difficult to find and we are depending on people outside the country. If you can find work there and send money to your relatives here, then perhaps you should stay there” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 28, 2001). In keeping with the spirit of the free market espoused by Macapagal-Arroyo, the implementation period of the controversial sections of RA 8042, which provide for the deregulation of overseas employment and the gradual phase-out of the POEA, fell during this administration.
Part VII of RA 8042 reads:
- SEC. 29. COMPREHENSIVE DEREGULATION PLAN ON RECRUITMENT ACTIVITIES.
Pursuant to a progressive policy of deregulation whereby the migration of workers becomes strictly a matter between the worker and his foreign employer, the DOLE within one (1) year from the effectivity of this Act, is hereby mandated to formulate a five-year comprehensive deregulation plan on recruitment activities taking into account labor market trends, economic conditions of the country and emergency circumstances which may affect the welfare of migrant workers.
- SEC. 30. GRADUAL PHASE-OUT OF REGULATORY FUNCTIONS.
Within a period of five (5) years from the effectivity of this Act, the DOLE shall phase out the regulatory functions of the POEA pursuant to the objectives of deregulation.
Like her predecessors, Macapagal-Arroyo could only enjoin OFWs to “stay put abroad and continue to send their dollar remittances until the Philippine economy stabilizes” (Del Callar, 2001). Yet at the same, the government officially maintained that overseas employment was not a policy: “In an August 2001 meeting with a delegation of overseas Filipinos advocating for their right to vote, Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas objected to any reference to ‘export of labor,’ saying that people go abroad on their own volition” (Kanlungan Center 2001; underscoring mine).
The new heroes of the country, ang mga bagong bayani, continue to hold a special place in government rhetoric.
Migration in the Region
Filipinos are not the only border-crossing labor migrants in contemporary Southeast Asia, though they are probably the most “encouraged” by their government and have the most organized way of dealing with the move (Azizah Kassim 1998; Jones 2000). One major receiving country is Malaysia, with about 743,641 legal foreign workers from ten countries, including the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, and an estimated one million undocumented foreign workers. Alien labor accounted for about 20 percent of Malaysia’s workforce of about 8 million and about 10 percent of its population of about 20 million in 1995 (Azizah Kassim 1998). Sidney Jones asserts that “Malaysia was the largest employer of foreign labor in Asia in 1999” (Jones 2000, 3). But Malaysia also sends labor to neighboring countries such as Singapore – where 200,000 Malaysians reportedly work (Jones 2000), some of them illegally – Brunei, Taiwan, and Japan. Azizah Kassim (1998) explains that Malaysian workers in these countries are found in domestic services, manufacturing, construction, and services, the sectors occupied by foreign migrant workers in Malaysia. That is, semi-skilled Malaysian workers take up jobs abroad that they refuse in their home country because of relatively higher pay, while some professionals opt to stay in Brunei for the tax breaks the Sultanate offers.
Thailand also sends workers abroad, while receiving a number of illegal workers, in this case from Myanmar and Southern China. They too work in the sectors occupied by Thais in foreign countries (Azizah Kassim 1998); because of their irregular status wages are often determined by what employers can afford and sometimes by the generosity of employers. Estimates of migrants in 1998 put the number at one million, with two-thirds likely to be irregular (Jones 2000).
Thailand has exported labor to countries in the Middle East (mostly Saudi Arabia), Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States since the 1980s. Political instability in the Middle East, however, shifted Thai labor movement toward Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. By the 1990s, Thai overseas labor was predominantly located in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1993, 85 percent of total overseas Thai labor was in the region, with 32 percent based in Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia. The major destinations of 191,735 deployed Thai labor migrants in 1998 were Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei, Japan, Israel, Malaysia, and Hong Kong (Battistella 2000, 13).
As of 2000, Singapore was home to approximately 530,000 foreign workers. Officially, the workers could be recruited from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, South Korea, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The largest group of foreign workers in the country was Malaysian, while the second largest was Filipino; there were also reports of the presence of a considerable number of Indonesians and mainland Chinese. Foreign workers occupied the following sectors: domestic services, which registered approximately 100,000 workers; construction (200,000); shipyards; services; and hotels. Of the 530,000, around 80,000 were highly skilled and worked in finance, business, commerce, and manufacturing (Battistella 2000, 12).
Brunei had been importing labor since the mid-1980s; the foreign workers based in Brunei were from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines as well as from India and Bangladesh. In 1988, the largest foreign worker group was Malaysian with 18,418 workers, followed by Thai at 9,941 workers (Azizah Kassim 1998). Currently, Brunei’s private citizens are “dependent on migrant workers for 74% of [their] manpower” [needs] (Jayasankaran 2003).
Like its Philippine counterpart, the Indonesian government under the New Order started “sending migrant workers overseas as one of strategic ways to overcome unemployment and to increase foreign exchange” (Eko Susi Rosdianasari 2000, 93). From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Indonesia processed over 700,000 overseas workers’ papers, the majority of which (like Thais and Filipinos in the 1970s and 80s) were for the Middle East. Twenty-four percent went to Malaysia and Singapore; however, this number did not include the over half a million believed to be in Malaysia undocumented (Azizah Kassim 1998). By in 1997, as noted by Graeme Hugo, the Malaysian Immigration Department was impelled to raise estimates of Indonesian workers residing in the country to 1.9 million after nearly 1.4 million resident Indonesians voted in the 1997 Indonesian elections. (The year before, about 300,000 undocumented workers had been legalized.) This estimate was far greater than most others – for example, those based on a 1993 amnesty in Peninsular Malaysia when half a million Indonesians came forward (Hugo 2002). Overall figures as of 1999 indicated an estimated three million workers without “any formal document” – most from East and Central Java, East and West Nusa Tenggara, and South Sulawesi – while statistics from 1994 to 1999 showed 1,461,236 labor migrants leaving Indonesia each year.
A projected 36 million Indonesians were expected to be affected by underemployment toward the end of 2000 when a 2 percent (per annum) economic growth rate was expected. Eko Susi Rosdianasari (2000) asserted that the Workers Department therefore aimed to deploy 2.8 million workers between 1999 and 2004, even as laws and government policies continued to lack measures to protect migrant workers. The government expected a return of up to US$12 billion in remittances from this enterprise.
Indonesians’ top countries of destination are Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, followed by Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Brunei, and Korea. Indonesian labor migrants are mostly found in domestic work and in factories, industries, hotels, hospitals, and plantations, while a hefty 70 percent of all overseas Indonesian migrant workers are women.
Filipino and Indonesian Women in Foreign Households
While the majority of Filipino and Indonesian women labor migrants end up in domestic work, it is considered to be risky and sending governments do not have strong bilateral agreements with receiving states on the protection of these women. As noted earlier, numerous Filipino women have met misfortune in varying degrees in their quest for economic upliftment as overseas domestic workers. Media reports in Indonesia have likewise exposed the abuses experienced by women migrant workers, many of whom are domestic workers. The abuse begins in the home country, at the hands of a tekong (middleman/illegal recruiter) and calo (small company or individual recruiter), and continues in the employer’s home in the form of non-payment of wages, long working hours, subjection to cultural taboos, or physical and sexual abuse. The protection of domestic workers is made difficult because of the location of the work in the employer’s private residence, where the lines between the employee’s work and private time/space are blurred.
It is made even more difficult in Indonesia when “maids are not [considered] workers” and “continue to be regarded as the private property of households” (Ati Nurbati 2000, 91, 90). Because of the general assumption that domestic workers have low education and that “they sleep and eat for free,” their salaries are low and are not governed by minimum wage laws. In fact, “[a]s ‘part of the family,’ a maid’s wage is not public business” (ibid., 91). The notion that a domestic worker’s welfare, including salary, lies beyond the scope of public business partly originates from the capitalist division of labor into the productive and reproductive spheres, where the notion of work is a “production process that contributes to capitalist accumulation and exchange” (Eviota 1992, cited in Cheng 1996, 110). In contrast, domestic work falls within the “process of reproduction, essential to the survival of the family and society, [but] does not directly lead to the process of accumulation and exchange;” thus, it is not customarily considered work, thereby, it converts the status of domestic workers into non-workers (ibid). To a certain extent, women domestic workers fall within the ambit of the private on account of gender relations in society. Patriarchal societies deem women’s proper place to be the home, while men rightly belong in the public arena.
A review of most government policies and legislation on the protection of migrant workers shows that domestic workers’ specific labor problems are not factored in at all (Palma-Beltran and Javate-de Dios 1992; Heyzer 1994, also cited in Jones 2000; Goldberg 1996). Even so, many women leave because domestic workers at home earn only 15-20% of what they can earn abroad. In real terms, however, the enormous recruitment fees and other travel expenses increase their family’s living expenses, sometimes exponentially.
Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia are offered between US$90 and US$150 per month with recruitment fees to be deducted from the first three months. But there are numerous reports of more deductions than agreed upon and failure to receive full or any salary at all (Jones 2000; Ati Nurbaiti 2000; Eko Susi Rosdianasari 2000). Yet for US$100 a month, many a rural woman would take the risk of illegal detention, torture, and even death, strengthened by the hope that one’s own fate will be different. (The bulk of reported abuse of Indonesian domestic workers is in Saudi Arabia, with many physically and sexually abused.)
Aside from the often-marginalized position of migrant workers in receiving countries, workers also fall into hierarchical categories within migrant groups, which can be imposed upon them by local society. In the hierarchy of overseas domestic workers in Malaysia, for example, Filipinos are on the top rung. Indonesians fall into a lower salary range because they usually have a lower level of education, are not yet knowledgeable about the use of “modern” household equipment, and are not proficient in the English language.
But regardless of foreign language proficiency, overseas domestic workers are almost always unjustly considered “potential prostitutes” by local officials and laypeople who tend to prejudge foreign workers (Jones 2000, 65); in fact, even in their home country, unmarried Indonesian women leaving to work as domestic workers are imagined as “social misfits who could not get husbands or who had personal problems at home that prompted them to leave” (64-65), despite the financial support they send back. Of course, recruited domestic workers every now and then unwittingly do end up in prostitution. The multi-million dollar business of trafficking in women thrives upon deceiving, or convincing, unsuspecting women and families about the rewards of overseas work. Once the migration process has started, where a worker actually ends up is determined by the recruiters and their allies. Sydney Jones asserts that in the case of Indonesian women, the high demand for overseas domestic workers in Malaysia facilitates the recruitment of women legal and illegal recruiters conscripting women for housework or for the brothel (65).
International Protections for Migrant Women
The incessant circulation of labor within the region attests to the interconnectedness of economies and unevenness of economic development among the neighboring countries, but it also intimates contiguous human relationships, harsh or otherwise. At the international level, the term “migrant” covers a broad spectrum of people on the move. It is commonly used to refer to people who journey to another country in search of work. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines migrants “as those who migrate from one country to another for the purpose of being employed there,” which assumes that they are legally permitted to stay and work in the receiving country and implies that their movement is voluntary. However, migrants and migrant workers do not always migrate by choice. As the experience of many Asian women shows, a large number of migrant workers are forced by socio-economic circumstance or by recruiters or deceived into believing that they will be legally employed, but end up without legal status in receiving countries. The Beijing Platform for Action recognizes the following categories of migrant women: refugees, the internally displaced, migrant workers, immigrants, and victims of trafficking.
International Covenants seek to address the various injustices experienced by people in general. Typically, they are non-binding yet important in that states are encouraged, sometimes pressured, to act in accordance with international standards and the terms of the conventions. Among the United Nations documents that have significant language for the protection of migrant women are the following:
The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, 1993, the first international document to “raise women’s rights as human rights and treat them as warranting equal recognition and treatment as those rights more traditionally defined” (Goldberg 1996, 176). The Vienna Declaration asserts women’s rights as “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.” Part I, par. 24 of the document recognizes migrant workers as “being among ‘those persons belonging to groups which have been rendered vulnerable’ and demands that ‘great importance must be given to the promotion and protection of [their] human rights’” (177).
The Copenhagen Declaration and Program of Action, 1995. Pamela Goldberg (1996) asserts that while the Copenhagen Declaration is replete with language addressing women’s issues, it does not particularly address the needs of migrant workers and has “nothing concerning migrant women specifically” (ibid). The document does refer throughout to “vulnerable and disadvantaged groups,” among which women migrants and women migrant workers have been “consistently identified in other documents,” which makes the phrase “vulnerable and disadvantaged groups” applicable to migrant women. The brief attention given to migrant workers “stresses the need for intensified international cooperation and national attention to the situation of migrant workers and their families (par. 63) and calls for the equitable treatment and integration of documented migrants, particularly, migrant workers and their families (par. 78)” (ibid).
The Cairo Declaration, which resulted from the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, strongly promotes the protection of women and migrant women. Principle 12 states: “Countries should guarantee to all migrants basic human rights as included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”; chapter 10 deals entirely with the issue of international migration. Additionally, the document promotes issues of gender equality, equity, and empowerment of women, including the directive for states “to pay special attention to protection of the rights and safety of those who suffer from [degrading practices, such as trafficking in women, adolescents and children and exploitation through prostitution], crimes and those in potentially exploitable situations, such as migrant women… (par. 4.9).” Parts of chapter 10 attend to the particular issues of refugees and undocumented migrants, who were first distinguished from documented or regular migrants in the Copenhagen Declaration. The Cairo Declaration urges states to “cooperate in… safeguarding the basic human rights of undocumented migrants” (par. 10.17). Moreover, it advocates that governments
“adopt effective sanctions against those who organize undocumented migration, exploit undocumented migrants or engage in trafficking in undocumented migrants, especially those who engage in any form of international traffic in women, youth and children. Governments of countries in origin, where the activities of agents or other intermediaries in the migration process are legal, should regulate such activities in order to prevent abuses, especially exploitation, prostitution and coercive adoption (par. 10.18).”
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, from the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, is by far the most cognizant among UN conference documents of the issues of concern to women migrants (ibid). In addition to ensuring the rights of women and the girl child, the Beijing Declaration articulates a commitment to “address the structural causes of poverty through changes in economic structures, ensuring equal access for all women, including those in rural areas, as vital development agents, to productive resources, opportunities and public services” (par. 26). Goldberg cites the articles in the Declaration that commit to safeguarding the rights of women migrant workers thus:
“In its section on Violence Against Women (par. 112-130), the Platform for Action recognizes ‘[s]ome groups of women, such as… women migrants, including women migrant workers’ as being ‘particularly vulnerable to violence’ (par. 116). It calls for states to ‘[p]rovide women who are subjected to violence with access to the mechanism of justice, and, as provided for by the national legislation, to just and effective remedies for the harms they have suffered and inform women of their rights in seeking redress through such mechanisms’ (par. 124 (h)); and urges states to ‘[t]ake special measures to eliminate violence against women, particularly those in vulnerable situations… including enforcing any existing legislation and developing, as appropriate, new legislation for women migrant workers in both sending and receiving countries’ (par.126 (d)).”
Moreover, the Platform for Action recognizes the contributions of migrant workers, including domestic workers, as it strongly recommends the enactment or reformation of national policies to guarantee the protection of migrants’ human rights, including protection from abuse and exploitation by their guarantor (par. 148 (h); ibid).
The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, one of the few legally binding documents pertaining to international labor migration. The Convention required more than a decade of lobbying before it was ratified as an instrument of international law. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1990, it only came into force on July 1, 2003, with the ratification of the Convention by Guatemala, the twentieth ratifying state. The slow ratification of the Convention illustrated the rather ambiguous position of many states regarding the protection of migrants. Although governments acknowledged the need to protect migrants, binding themselves to such protection was a different matter. It was a combination of non-government organizations and civil society groups worldwide, along with the UN agencies, which tirelessly lobbied their governments to ratify the document. Nonetheless, the Convention demonstrates the international community’s recognition of and respect for the human rights of migrants and their families; more important, it declares the international community’s commitment to the comprehensive protection of the rights of these people in the economic, social, political, and cultural dimensions of relocation and reintegration.
Lori Brunio, chairperson of the Coalition for Migrants' Rights (CMR) in Hong Kong, has this to say about the ratification of the Convention: “For foreign domestic workers like us, having an international treaty like the MWC that clearly recognizes and protects our rights affirms our dignity and gives us more courage to fight against abuses, violence and discrimination. Even if the place where we work (Hong Kong) has not ratified, the MWC gives us indisputable basis for saying that we should be respected and treated fairly as human beings” (Asian Migrant Center 2003).
Other international documents that can be cited to ensure the protection of the human rights of women and migrant workers are: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (The People’s Movement for Human Rights Education 2003).
The International Labour Organization, which works “on the principle that all human beings irrespective of race, creed, or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom, dignity, economic security, and equal opportunity,” (quoted in Goldberg 1996, 175) has since 1949 approved conventions that address issues related to women workers and migrant workers. Among them are: the Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97); the Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Conventions, 1975 (No. 143); the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29); the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (No. 87); the Equal Remuneration Convention (No. 100); the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. 111); the Minimum Age Convention (No.38); and the Resolution concerning the Conditions of Employment of Domestic Workers, 1965 (Goldberg 1996; The People’s Movement for Human Rights Education 2003).
Although these international covenants are not always legally binding and are not solutions in themselves to the issues of migrants and labor migration, they are important nonetheless in compelling both sending and receiving states to ensure the protection of migrants and to adhere to a set of laws that are accepted to the international community.
Research on Filipina Migrant Workers and Academic Debate in the West
Western academic interest in the phenomenon of female labor migration from the Philippines may be seen in various essays published in different academic journals based in North America. One fine example is the volume edited by Filomeno V. Aguilar, Jr., and published in the Philippines by the Philippine Social Science Council. Filipinos in Global Migrations: At Home in the World? (2002) is a collection of essays previously published in international journals which are not readily available in the Philippines. Aguilar’s introduction, “Beyond Stereotypes: Human Subjectivity in the Structuring of Global Migrations,” contextualizes the recent phenomenon of labor migration within the history of “formal and informal structures and networks of migration” as well as the socio-political forces that determine and affect migration on the global plane. The collection, by way of the introduction, also asserts that migrants are “not passive victim[s] of structures, but [are persons] with human agency and subjectivity who [are] able to navigate through and negotiate with formidable structural forces” (Aguilar 2002, 2).
The following essays in the collection are significant for this review. “From Registered Nurse to Registered Nanny: Discursive Geographies of Filipina Domestic Workers in Vancouver, B.C.,” by Geraldine Pratt, examines discursive constructions of “Filipina” as these are lived out by Filipinas in Vancouver. Using poststructuralist theories of the subject and discourse analysis, the essay looks into how workers come into an understanding of their conditions, given the restrictions placed on them by their work and immigration status. Five other essays present valuable research on overseas Filipino domestic workers: “Sexuality and Discipline among Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong,” by Nicole Constable; “Domestic Bodies of the Philippines,” by Neferti Tadiar; “Stress Factors and Mental Health Adjustment of Filipino Domestic Workers in Hong Kong,” by Christopher Bagely, Susan Madrid, and Floyd Bolitho; “Romancing Resistance and Resisting Romance: Ethnography and the Construction of Power in the Filipina Domestic Worker Community in Hong Kong,” by Julian McAllister Groves and Kimberly A. Chang; and “At Home But Not at Home: Filipina Narratives of Ambivalent Returns,” by Nicole Constable.
Based on her doctoral dissertation, Nicole Constable’s Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers (1997) draws from the insights of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci on power, resistance, and accommodation to demonstrate that household workers do not just passively give in to the authority of the employer and to their poor working conditions. By centering on human agency and assuming individuals to be free agents in society, it argues that these workers subvert and resist the dominant power relations around them. Maid to Order looks at power and resistance as these are performed by Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work (2001) by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas is an ethnographic account of the lives of Filipino domestic workers in Rome and Los Angeles. These workers do the menial tasks that local women have renounced for more “productive” work. The book analyses, at the level of the subject, the costs of labor migration to women who “leave behind their families to do the mothering and care taking work of the global economy in countries throughout the world.”
A book that is outstanding in spelling out interconnections between migrant labor, sending and receiving countries’ migration programs, and globalization and the impact of these on the lives of individual workers is Bridget Anderson’s Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour (2000). This study includes research on Filipina domestic workers based in Europe and analyzes the dynamics of class and race in the global market. Despite the common denominator of gender, this incisive research scrutinizes the politics of race in paid domestic work in the West as it challenges feminist principles of equality, even the notion of “sisterhood.”
Two studies from the Institute of Social Studies at the Hague are available in research centers in the Philippines: Mary Alice P. Gonzales’ Filipino Migrant Women in the Netherlands (1998) and Marilen Abesamis’ “Romance and Resistance: The Experience of Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong” (1999).
The current phenomenon of female labor migration has also spawned academic debate that largely centers on the efficacy of postmodern theories in feminist research on the plight of Filipina labor migrants. In “Imperialism, Female Diaspora, and Feminism,” Delia Aguilar interrogates the significance of such theories as well as posing a challenge about the state of the women’s movement in the United States.
Notwithstanding the importance of analyzing the impact of the current wave of labor diaspora on the level of the individual, international labor migration is undoubtedly a development concern. At issue is the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities at the national and global levels, which force people to migrate. Undeniably, the current wave of international migration is intricately linked to the existing economic model of globalization that fails to improve the life chances of the great majority of people.
Odine de Guzman is an assistant professor in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She is the editor of Body Politics: Essays on Cultural Representations of Women’s Bodies (2002) and From Saudi with Love: Poems by OFWs (2003). Research for the section “Migration in the Region” was conducted while she was on fellowship at IKMAS, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, under the Southeast Asian Scholars and Public Intellectuals Fellowship (SEAF) Program in 2001.
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