Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Commodification of Filipino Workers in the Era of Globalization

Guest blogger: Jennifer L. Sta.Ana, second-year law student, University of San Francisco

On a hot August morning, I sat at my grandmother’s table, eating kanin (rice) and daing na bangus (fried fish) for breakfast.  The ceiling fan swirled above, the shutters were pushed open, and the breeze delivered echoes of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” through the window screens. Renee, my grandmother’s driver (a member of the family commonly present in city homes in the Philippines), had a local radio station on, playing “the” summer anthem which originated from the distant land I called home – the United States. After breakfast, I got into Renee’s car and headed to the airport. It was my last day in the Philippines after an externship working in human rights.

Renee and I took the same highway to the airport as we had done everyday to get to work – EDSA. This was the same highway brimming with crowds during the People’s Power Movement, which overthrew Marcos in 1982. Looking out the car window, it was now filled with billboards, advertising U.S. films like Despicable Me 2, clothing brands depicting U.S. teen heartthrobs, and blue-eyed, blonde-haired models.

As I peered out of the window, I took a short moment to reflect on my summer. On my last day on the job, I said my goodbyes to familiar faces, one of which belonged to the cafeteria cashier. In response to my farewell, she asked, “Saan ka pupunta?” (“Where are you going?)” “Sa States” (“To the US”), I replied. “Suerta ka naman aalis ka na” (“You’re so lucky that you finally have your chance to leave”), she exhorted without knowing I was Filipino-American. “Nandito pa ako katulad ng mga iba na naghihintay sa aming papeles!” (“I’m still here like the rest of us waiting for our [immigration] paperwork!”).

She, like many Filipino citizens, strives to be elsewhere. The Philippine government explicitly calls Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) its greatest export. Corazon Aquino’s administration of the 1990s glorified OFWs as the “new heroes” of the Philippines.  Largely underlying this token praise is the reaped gain for the government. In 2011 alone, OFWs delivered $20 billion USD back to the Philippines, over 10% of which contributes to the Philippines’ GDP and ranks them as the world’s second largest sender of remittances, just behind Mexico.

To the individual, the opportunity to work abroad, even as cheap labor, promises more financial security than staying in the Philippines. The average hourly wage is less than $1.50 USD in the Philippines.  Many more citizens are unemployed. From April to September 2012, 2.2 million OFWs were scattered the world.  The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, an entire government agency devoted to OFW migration, identified domestic work as the number one occupational category for migrant workers

Filipino immigrants who work in household service enter the U.S. either through 1) the H2B visa (non-agricultural guestworker visa), 2) a tourist visa, 3) by accompanying their diplomat employers through the B1, A3 or G5 visas or 4) a family petition.  These gateways to a “better life” are not always propitious.

Recorded cases depict U.S. recruiters fraudulently petitioning for H2B visas.   A number of OFWs find that, upon arrival, employers steal their rightful wages, provide inhabitable housing, and charge excessive recruiter fees. Because OFWs can only lawfully stay in the country by working for their petitioning employer, workers do not report abuses.  Proposals for immigration reform in the United States only increase the number of guestworkers to satiate the U.S.’s cheap labor needs.

Some domestic workers enter as tourists and overstay their B2 visa. Now undocumented, they work under the table and are subject to the same exploitative schemes as H2B workers.  Domestic helpers accompanying diplomats are similarly situated– unable to escape from potentially abusive employers due to risk of deportation. 

Filipinos who are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are among the largest groups to submit family petitions to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). More requests for family reunification outnumber visa availability. The backlog is so large that the U.S. State Department sets priority dates especially for the Philippines in its visa bulletin, meaning that visas will finally be available for petitioners who filed on or before the bulletin’s listed priority date. The May 2014 bulletin indicates that USCIS will have a visa available for a Filipino sibling of a U.S. citizen if the petition was filed with USCIS on or before November 1, 1990.  But, to clarify, the sibling waiting twenty-four years will not be granted a visa come May. USCIS will solely begin processing the application. There is no guarantee of approval. Proposed immigration reform eliminates the sibling category because the backlog is so extensive.

As I sat in Renee’s car, not only did I think of the commodification of people outside of the Philippines, I also thought of the converse – what directly permeates into Philippine borders.

At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. colonized the Philippines, importing its brand of law and education. To this day, the main Philippine Constitutional Law textbook at one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation, Ateneo, heavily showcases SCOTUS opinions.

From legalese to common vernacular, Western language holds formidable cultural capital in the Philippines. I used Tagalog to the best of my ability while I was there. Upon realizing I was born and raised in the States, locals commonly asked, “Bakit ka nagtatagalog?” (“Why are you speaking in Tagalog?”). It was expected that I, as many Filipino-Americans, would only know English. Even if I did know Tagalog, English was the preferred language of the land – it signified prestige and a good education.

With the advent of neoliberalism in the 1970s, the Philippine government instituted pro-privatization policies to adjust to Western expectations of progress. While in the Philippine region of Mindanao, I stumbled upon a government-sponsored advertisement in the local paper. It informed foreigners of the government’s visa waiver program, enticing them to stay and invest in the country. The Philippines unabashedly promotes rapid development and relocates the urban poor to the metropole’s outskirts.  Accompanying ads saturated with American movies and idols, billboards promote new shopping centers and condominium high-rises.

Culminating from the synergy of seemingly countervailing policies in the Philippines – the encouraged exodus of citizens and the unfiltered embrace of Western knowledge and development – is a streamlined message asserting, “What’s foreign is better.” It is better to drive out citizens to work in foreign lands. It is better to learn and speak in a foreign tongue. It is better to welcome foreigners to capitalize on the land.

Washington loses sight of what is happening beyond U.S. borders when formulating “comprehensive” immigration reform. Policymakers push for myopic measures, solely focusing on immigration as a domestic issue. Congress will pour money to create a construct akin to the Berlin Wall and a path to citizenship will be given to undocumented persons already here. But, if it is truly comprehensive, should we not look at the underlying causes of immigration, which is inherently tied to the U.S.’s influence abroad – tied to the U.S.’s need for cheap labor and its economic and political stamp of approval in the Global South? In an era of globalization, we must champion local industry and knowledge. People should not be forced to leave their families and homelands any longer.


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