“The Filipino is a truly global labour force. Filipino workers can be found in hundreds of countries around the world. It is astounding to think that this archipelago in the middle of the Pacific can produce so many people who leave for so many destinations around the world,”
says Dr Robyn Rodriguez, assistant professor of Asian American Studies and author of Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World.
In this podcast, first made for New Books in Asian American Studies, part of the New Books Network, Robyn Rodriguez explores ‘labour brokerage’ with Christopher Patterson of University of Washington. Labour brokerage describes how the Philippine state mobilises its citizens and sends them abroad to work for employers throughout the world while generating profit from the remittances that migrants send back to their families and loved ones remaining in the Philippines.
Christopher started by asking Robyn how she came to write about ‘labour brokerage’.
Robyn Rodriguez: I was born and raised in the bay area, and spent most of my growing up in Union City California, which has a sizeable Filipino immigrant population. For many Filipinos in the US, Union City is in our constellation of key sites for Filipino settlement. I grew up in a place where literally the whole block was Filipino immigrants. My schools – from kindergarten to high school – had a good number of Filipinos (it felt as if we were the majority, even if we weren’t!). And my growing up in Union City shaped a lot of what would eventually become my research questions, and the core of my political activism, because so much of my academic work emerges from my political work as an immigrant rights advocate.
When I think and talk about my work, I’m talking about my scholarly work, but also about my activism.
I recall in high school, one of the big issues in the 80s was the proliferation of gangs and gang violence – particularly among Filipino Americans – and I started getting really involved with the different community based projects that were responding to gang violence, initiated by the Filipinos for Affirmative Action based in Oakland, now Filipino Advocates for Justice. I got involved in different dialogues organised to facilitate better communication between the youth and their parents, dialogues between the police and the youth and parents – a number of different activities. I think that was where my interest in Ethnic Studies began and that carried through into my undergraduate career.
I eventually attended UC Santa Barbara, where there was an Asian American Studies programme, and where I began to encounter ethnic studies as a student, and to think seriously about being an Asian American scholar. Along the way I continued my organising work around immigration issues. As student activists we also took Asian American studies into our own hands, not necessarily waiting to take courses, but to take what we were learning and to educate our peers, creating our own curriculum. That is where a lot of my work as a teacher and scholar began.
That shaped the questions that I would eventually seek to answer in my book, in large part because I continued to do activist organising work.
I entered graduate school in 1996 in the Department of Sociology, at UC Berkeley. I continued to be involved in social justice work and was taking a keen interest in what was happening to Filipino migration. 1996 was just a year after the hanging of a Filipino domestic worker by the Singaporean government. Many Filipinos had been falsely accused, there seemed to be a lot of elements to her conviction that seemed to be off (she was convicted of murder).
Christopher Patterson: Was this Flor Contemplacion?
RR: Yes. A lot of Filipinos were concerned she might have been set up. She had been accused of killing another Filipino domestic worker and the child that woman was taking care of. There was too much about the case that was suspicious. So Filipinos in the Philippines and around the world staged massive protests demanding that the Philippines government intervene, launch an official Inquiry and also use diplomatic pressure to get the Singapore government to re-open the case. The protests rivalled the people power movement that brought down the Marcos dictatorship , but what was different about this was that it was no longer simply confined to the Philippines, but was a global movement. The movement behind it became Migrante International.
I ended up in the Summer of 1997 going to the Philippines and meeting with Migrante activists. I was not entirely sure I was going to study migration, but my experiences there made me realise that migration really had to be my focus. It is impossible to ignore migration when you are in the Philippines, it is everywhere. It is in the forms you fill out before you land at Ninoy Aquino airport. It is right there when you pass through immigration – there is a separate line for overseas workers. There are the people who stand beside you at the baggage claim who are lugging huge boxes off the carousel. It is just there, confronting you immediately, and I guess I could not ignore it!
CP: You talk about ‘labour brokerage’ as a globalisation strategy and one that helps characterise the Philippines State. What is labour brokerage and how do you see it helping us understand Asian America and globalisation in general?
RR: First let us back up a bit. US listeners will understand immigration in the US context, but when we step outside the US – going even just to Canada – migration begins to look very different. In the Canadian context, for example, there is a huge population of live-in care givers and a great majority are migrants from the Philippines. The Canadian government introduced a policy to bring in low wage care givers to provide care for children and the elderly.
But let’s go further. Let us imagine ourselves on Google Maps starting in the US, and panning out. What we find is that the Filipino is a truly global labour force. Filipino workers can be found in hundreds of countries around the world. It is astounding to think that this archipelago in the middle of the Pacific can produce so many people who leave for so many destinations around the world. Daily, nearly 5000 people are leaving the Philippines to go everywhere – and by ‘everywhere’ I mean everywhere. You find Filipinos in Africa (I’ve met them in S. Africa), in Europe (I’ve met them in Spain, the UK, Sweden, Germany), in the streets of Hong Kong and Tai Pei, in Taiwan, in Korea, in Japan and all over the Middle East (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, the UAE). The Philippines is unrivalled in this regard – you do not have the same size and scope of migration from other places. Mexico produces quite a number of migrants, but they primarily come to a single destination, unlike the Philippines. And of course the Philippines counts as one of the top remittance earning countries in the world, not surprising given the global scope and scale of migration.
So what explains it? For me the answer is the ‘Labour Brokerage State’. In a nutshell it is the transnational apparatus of institutions that help to facilitate the out-migration of workers. There are agencies in the Philippines, but it is also the network of consular an dembassy offices all around the world that actually play a role in helping with marketing and bi-lateral agreements with those countries to facilitate migration.
Why does it do it? In the Philippines it is the dominant neo liberal strategy for dealing with globalisation. It is a strategy whereby the Philippines state attempts to contain the social dislocations endemic to neo-liberal globalisation. The term neo-liberal refers to an economic philosopy that basically says ‘States ought not to be in the business of providing social services, or regulating economic life – corporations, firms, businesses, entrepreneurs do that much better.’
In the US we don’t usually call it neo-liberalism, we call it ‘welfare reform’. Neo Liberalism in other places manifests itself similarly and causes tremendous dislocation for especially formerly colonised countries in the global south, like the Philippines. There is tremendous inequality, and it is exacerbated by neo liberal economic reforms that take away social safety nets, and give full rein to corporations – both national and global – in setting the agenda for the economy.
Labour brokerage becomes the mechanism for addressing these inequalities.
Neo-liberalism says, ‘you need to liberalise, make your labour policy more flexible…..firms aren’t going to want to come to the Philippines to invest if they feel they have to pay people too much……you need to be more flexible about what the minimum wage is…..and about the working day….and for how long you intend to employ workers…..that would make the Philippines much more enticing for foreign investors.’
And foreign investors, or so the logic goes, are what the Philippines needs to develop.
But what does that mean for the Filipinos? It means they are under-employed (because they have to work as contract workers), it means they are underpaid (they are not being paid a living wage). The Labour Movement and the progressive movements in the Philippines are growing and are attempting to put the brakes on these policies.
It is not as if labour brokerage is a hidden agenda – labour export is promoted as providing jobs to people in the Philippines that they would not ordinarily have, as providing a source of income that they can’t enjoy in the Philippines. It can therefore cut social unrest.
So I think labour brokerage is less an economic strategy (even as it provides a source of foreign exchange to the Philippines state) but rather as a neo liberal mode of governmentality, a way of managing the Philippines population, alongside other neo liberal interventions.
CP: You use the term ‘governmentality’ throughout the text and you provide a history of it so we see outward migration beyond the past 20 years. You begin with US colonialism in the 1950s. How did that help the emergence of the labour brokerage state?
RR: I track the emergence of labour brokerage to the US colonial labour system. Labour brokerage wasn’t invented by Marcos, though we particularly think of the labour export policy of Marcos as being the moment when you see the institutionalisation of the active export of Filipino workers. But really labour brokerage is an invention of the US colonial system, where you see the blueprint laid out for what becomes the neo colonial Philippine economy and government.
To understand this contemporary apparatus, you do have to locate in the the colonial moment.
However, the connection to US empire and US global capital can be seen when you track where the Filipino labour goes. Indeed, it is one of the things I do not develop enough in the book. The reason is Filipino labour is so global is because US capital is so global. I find instances of this over and over again in my research. For example, Filipinos working in Brunei, in a garment factory producing for US markets, for The Gap! And Filipinos are in Iraq servicing the US military.
CP: It is interesting to see this grow – from Filipinos being exported as US colonial subjects to being exported as part of the global economy. It is fantastic how you develop that narrative.
But specifically in the 1970s/80s when Marcos signs Executive Order 797, the labour brokerage state really starts to emerge. What are the structural adjustments that helped this new context emerge?
RR: Marcos introduced this in the mid 1970s. It is a moment both specific to the Philippines but also part of a global shift – the push from multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
And there is also the context of the Cold War. We need to understand how the multilateral institutions were aimed at the containment of colonial countries away from what was called the ‘pernicious’ and ‘dangerous’ spread of communism. So the idea was for places in the US ambit (eg the Philippines), to be be important sites to showcase the benefits of capitalism, that the capitalist route was the better route.
So this was among the different policy initiatives as part of the Cold War project.
What was also happening simultaneously was de-industrialisation in the US. Firms in the US, in response to a growth in the labour movement post World War II that had meant higher wages for US workers (which cut into profits), were identifying alternative sites for production, where there were cheaper workers.
All this is coming together at a particular historical moment and in places like the Philippines, governments are being encouraged to shift away from ‘import substitution industrialisation’ (where former colonies, boost domestic production, trying to produce locally to substitute for what they used to import) towards export oriented industrialisation. The idea was that foreign capital – along with foreign expertise and technology – can help towards industrialisation, in a way that local actors cannot. This in turn led to the offshoring of production from places like the the US to places like the Philippines and its neighbouring countries. This created major trade imbalances, the multilateral institutions argued that this was just part of the transition, some of the adjustments that a country needs to endure towards the greater goal of capitalist modernisation. But it did lead to imbalances, with major impacts on the populations of these countries and those populations did react. So the 1970s was also a time of the rise of student radicalism in the Philippines as young people responded to this orientation and how it exacerbated inequalities in Philippine society.
It is against this backdrop that Marcos introduces the labour export policy. He did not just invent it, of course, he has the institutional pieces of it already there – they had been established under the colonial labour regime.
CP: Marcos signs the Executive Orders, but you describe how Philippine nationalism and citizenship then begin to change – the idea of ‘the heroic overseas worker’. And it also re-categorises how women are seen, not just as domestic and in the home, but also out in the world.
RR: So much of how labour brokerage works is about capturing the hearts and minds of Filipinos, about engaging them in imagining themselves in new ways. Having them imagine achieving self-actualisation through migration, that it isn’t a betrayal of the country to imagine oneself leaving, but it’s a nationalist contribution.
It also requires re-imagining gender. How women and men, femininity and masculinity, can be differently understood. Certainly for women in the Philippines and everywhere – after all patriarchal and heteronormative ideas reign dominant – a dominant idea is that women continue to be the most appropriate care takers of their children and their homes. Under labour brokerage, however, there is a real stretching of that idea and a reconfiguring of it – the family can be, should be, imagined as a transnational one, that women can and should care for their children but by being employed, even as they continue to sustain their children emotionally transnationally.
It ties to citizenship. We think of citizenship not just as who is eligible to participate in a polity – though it is that – but it is also about belonging, who belongs to a place? Where is that place? There is a way in which to be a Filipino is to be global and to think globally.
CP: We haven’t discussed your research methods.
RR: I did what is called ‘an ethnography of the State’. Typically, ethnography is thought of as anthropology done by white dudes who go out to far off, remote places in the world to study strange and unusual people! And sometimes it is still like this. But some feminist scholars and other Marxist scholars have seized on ethnogaphy as a method that can serve liberatory ends, can help in elucidating structures of power, by training the eye on major institutions of power (as opposed to racialised others). That is why it was a method that made sense to me within my own commitment to doing research in the service of unmasking power and locating and describing these sites of power for the purpose of unravelling power.
So I did this ethnography of the State. It meant going around looking at how different bureaucracies function, talking to functionaries of the bureaucracy, also talking to people as they were engaging with the bureaucracy.
It is an important methodological tool, one that should be in the toolkit of Asian American students and scholars. I see our field as one that comes from social justice movements and has a responsibility to continue to work towards those ends.
CP: How has your activism been informed by the research over the past 2 or 3 years since the book was published? And how would activists view this book?
RR: I worked with Valerie Francisco, my former student, now Assistant Professor at Portland University , using qualitative methods, interview methods, in collaboration with the Filipino community centre in San Francisco. We designed a participatory action research project involving the care givers going to the centre. They had so many issues they were bringing forward to the centre – wage theft, employer abuse, debt peonage. The centre recognised it needed to understand what was going on amongst this category of workers, and we collaborated in designing and implementing a participatory action research project to get at what was going on.
But there was more than that. Qualitative research methods, particularly interview methods, use the same kinds of strategies as organisers in organising in social movements. To organise, one needs to make contacts, to identify issues in a community, to gain trust. Along the way, they formed what is now Migrante San Francisco. They have elected their officers, and it is heartwarming to think, and they said as much, that the research played a part in helping them get on their feet, organise themselves.