Filipino Labor for Sale! Will Deliver.

June 11, 2012

The author at a CARE Project training, a program featured in Hyphen's current print issuePhoto courtesy of author.

It seemed
simple enough. Though I was groggy from the almost thirteen hour flight from
San Francisco to Manila, filling out the routine customs form should have been
easy. But it wasn't. As a second generation Filipina American returning to the
Philippines for only the third time in my life, this time for research, I
struggled to determine which of the boxes were relevant for me. Who was I? A
visitor, balikbayan (nation returnee)
or OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker)? What was my purpose there? Business, family
or pleasure?

touching down everybody on the plane had broken into applause and tears. I had joined
them. The boxes couldn't capture how I felt about my relationship to the
Philippines. And it was perhaps in that moment of perplexity and anxiety that
the research questions which ultimately led to Migrants
for Export
were first formed. Why were Filipinos migrating so much to
begin with, such that there was now a category of "OFWs"? What did
the tearful yet excited applause by all of the passengers on the plane suggest
about the kind of traumas migration produces? Since I had participated in the
clapping and the crying, didn't it mean that somehow, in some way, no matter
where I was born, I was a balikbayan too?
How did these official categories originate and in what ways do they resonate,
or not, with people? To what purpose are
those categories deployed by the state and by migrants themselves?

In sum, my questions
boiled down to 1) why does migration happen, 2) how does it happen, and 3) how
does it impact how people think about where they belong? These
questions led me to do interviews with government officials and migrants as
well as an ethnography of the Philippine state.
I would repeat that flight from San Francisco to Manila (and back again) every
few years for nearly a decade.

Ethnography might seem an unusual choice for
studying the state. After all, we typically associate ethnography with dusty
and dirty anthropologists who trek into the deepest of jungles, scale the
highest of mountains, and brave treacherous seas to participate in and observe
the lives of untouched and unusual native Others. Ethnography, in many ways, is
a method through which knowledge was produced to better control colonized
populations. However, critical scholars have reclaimed ethnography as a method
to subject powerful institutions to the kinds of close scrutiny once reserved
for use on the powerless. For me especially, as someone whose family was
displaced by the inequalities that structures of power produce, it was
important to use a research method that would expose them.

And what
did I find? I found that the Philippine state can be characterized as a
"labor brokerage" state that actually mobilizes people for export. It
has set up a virtual “assembly line” that facilitates the process of out-migration. In fact, its
people have become such a profitable export for the Philippines that they rival electronics and garments (two products typically exported by Third World
countries). The global scope and scale of Philippine labor migration are
unmatched, as nearly 5000 people leave the country on a daily basis to work in
hundreds of countries around the world. The Philippines is actually held up
as  “model” of so-called “migration management” for its ability so easily to supply the world’s labor markets with cheap workers. In this moment of
global economic crisis, employers are all the more interested in securing labor
for which they have to pay very little.

export, however, is a rather peculiar policy; that a state would actually ship
its citizens off to faraway lands to eke out a survival is actually quite
absurd. Yet, that is what the Philippines has been doing since the policy was
first promulgated by dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1974. To be fair, Marcos did
not come up with the idea of exporting his people all on his own; the export of
labor from the Philippines has its beginnings in the colonial labor system set
up by the United States. The United States began actively to recruit and
facilitate the out-migration of Filipinos from the Philippines when various
US Exclusion Acts barred the entry of other Asian immigrants. As US “nationals” then, Filipinos were exempt
from those exclusions. Today, the Philippine state remains ever beholden to US
demands, including US global capital's continued demand for cheap labor. On the
one hand, the Philippines continues to supply workers to US labor markets;
that's why the Philippines has been and continues to be one of the top-sending
countries to the US. On the other, hand
it supplies workers to firms producing for US markets. A labor recruiter for
garments factories in Southeast Asia once told me that tags in clothing from
the Gap or Old Navy and other retailers reading “Made
in Malaysia” or “Made in Brunei” should actually read “Made by Filipinos,” as Filipinos are providing
the labor for the firms operating in those countries.

Once neocolonial
structures that ultimately forced people to migrate were put into motion, the
tide was difficult to stop, as it became progressively more difficult for
Filipinos to find secure and sustainable livelihoods at home. Recognizing that,
the Philippine state opportunistically moved in to manage and control migration
for its own purposes. Not only is labor export incredibly profitable, it’s politically expedient. The export of workers allows the state to
project itself as "doing something" about joblessness and
landlessness. By creating opportunities through which its citizens can be
employed, albeit overseas, the state ducks responsibility for creating jobs that offer livable wages and
implementing genuine land reform at home.

So advantageous
is labor export for the Philippine government, that migration has come to be represented
as some kind of patriotic act, and migrants are referred to as “new national heroes.” In fact, the official term
for migrants used to be “overseas contract workers” (or OCWs), but was changed to “overseas Filipino workers”
(or OFWs) to emphasize migrants’ Filipino-ness. Moreover, the
state uses the term “balikbayan” to call even those who have left the Philippines
permanently “returnees.” The state needs to enfold them back into the nation-state:
to sustain their ties to their erstwhile homeland for the purpose of generating
a healthy supply of remittances.

For the
most part, research on immigration to the US has focused on US immigration law,
like the 1965 Immigration Act, to make sense of more recent migration flows to
this country. Yet, I think that by not paying attention to the global context
for migration, including the role of labor-exporting states like the
Philippines, we cannot see the whole picture of the complex structures that
shape processes of migration and constrain migrants’ lives when they get here.  

to the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), an alliance with which
I’ve worked closely for some
time now, one of the biggest issues confronting the US Filipino community is
undocumented migration due to the family-reunification backlog. That is, though
US immigration policy favors the reunification of families, the waiting period
for the issuance of family-based visas is absurdly long. In my own family, for
instance, my father’s petition for my uncle took
over twenty years to be approved. My uncle’s family got the approval
letter in the mail only after he had already passed away. What ends up
happening is that Filipinos, too anxious to join their families (the norm in
the Philippines is to live in extended, rather than nuclear family forms),
enter the US on tourist visas but overstay those visas and are rendered
undocumented. Like other undocumented immigrants, they face the constant threat
of deportation and are subject to extreme forms of exploitation. Though the
Department of Homeland Security’s slowness in processing these
visa applications can partially explain this situation, it must also be
understood as being linked to the Philippine government’s neoliberal policies, including its system of labor
brokerage. NAFCON has also found that Filipinos are increasingly coming into
the US on short-term (H1B and H2B) visas, like their counterparts in other parts of the
world. Indeed, because the Philippine state plays such an active role as a “broker”
of labor, a sizeable percentage of H1B and H2B visa holders come from the
Philippines. Though  migrants are
able to enter the US legally with these visas, they are often overworked and
underpaid by their employers, who are emboldened to exploit them because they
hold the migrants’ legal status in
their hands. Some of the workers I work with at the Filipino Community Center
in San Francisco, a NAFCON affiliate, ended up running away from employers who
had brought them to the US with these visas. What that means, however, is that these
workers have traded conditions of near-indentured servitude for undocumented

NAFCON, Filipinos’ entry into the US through
these short-term employment visas is ultimately a form of legalized labor trafficking,
yet most calls for immigration reform in this country often favor the expansion
of “guest worker” programs. This is probably not surprising. The first
lesson one learns, as a student of Asian American studies is that the US has
long demanded cheap labor and has often designated the least desirable, most
difficult jobs to racialized Others from far-away lands -- yet this country
refuses to embrace those workers as full members of the polity. Although today
the US offers many (though not all) immigrants the chance to acquire formal
citizenship, it has done so begrudgingly. Indeed, what the expansion of guest
worker programs does is institutionalize foreign, racialized, workers’ exclusions from the nation-state and firms up capital’s grip on their lives and labor.  

* * *

Robyn Magalit Rodriguez is a long-time immigrant rights activist in the
Filipino community. She is also an Associate Professor of Asian American
Studies at UC Davis.

Rodriguez is featured in "Who Cares?" from Hyphen's Issue 25, a piece exploring the rights and abuses of API caregivers and domestic workers.

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