Editorial: Unpack the feminization of migrant labor

Editorial: Unpack the feminization of migrant labor

Women hold up half the sky. For the past two decades, Filipino women migrant workers (WMWs) contradict this traditional wisdom as they outnumber the men leaving the Philippines to work overseas.

The United Nations Women monitored that an “annual average of 172,000 WMWs” left the Philippines as new hires for the past two decades.

This migration of Filipino WMWs peaked in 2004, comprising three-fourths of the total migrant workforce. Currently, women still outnumber the men in total deployment overseas.

In 2014, the World Bank placed the Philippines among the top three countries receiving remittances.

For the 10.4 million Filipino workers scattered in what the Commission on Filipinos Overseas estimates to be more than 200 countries and territories, what do the remittances mean for their families?

A better life than one she could have given her teenage son and her mother in her 70s had she stayed in Bohol, Carmen believes. When she separated from her partner in Cebu City, Carmen returned to Lila with her infant son because she had no one to leave him with while she worked to support them.

Employers favor women employees who are too old to get pregnant or whose children are grown. A lactating single mother represents a red flag for emergency absences from work when the baby gets sick.

When an elementary classmate helped her find work as an all-around helper to a Hong Kong family, Carmen did not resist when told she had to pay the agency 60 percent of her salary to cover the processing of her requirements. The rest of her first salary she gave to her former classmate.

Compliance demands that Carmen works without expecting anything from her employers except for the salary she saves and sends home regularly. She puts her son in college and enabled her mother to open a small store. When her son’s father invited him to live with him in Cebu City, she blocked his attempt to get his son.

In her 2008 research, Nicola Piper noted that the feminization of Filipino migrant labor means greater participation of women in the major migration routes and greater autonomy for the women as they moved away from being economic dependents in the earlier years to becoming workers and family breadwinners.

Yet, gender segregation still blights migrant work. WMWs are generally hired for service work while overseas Filipino men corner production work. Fewer skills are expected in service work.

The lowest compensations are given for service work, with domestic helpers at the bottom of the rung. In Hong Kong, where Indonesian WMWs present competition, Carmen has never complained about work conditions, such as rising early and working late and not having a day off every week. She fears being replaced by another worker if she is seen to be “noisy and demanding.”

Years of physical absence erodes Carmen’s intimacy with and influence on her son. She was unable to dissuade him from choosing Criminology, the course taken by his father.

Her son continues to desire a reunion with his father. Carmen is frustrated that he seeks a parent who abandoned him when he was still in the womb.

Carmen ventilates that she is not a mother, only a remittance sender. Yet, her Hong Kong employment remains a major motivation because she fears losing her son to his father if she has no more money to send him.

For many Filipino WMWs, returning “home” is only a bubble of fantasy popped by the realities of hardships in the Philippines and opportunities overseas.

In the dearth of viable alternatives to wean away the country’s dependence on overseas workers’ remittances and the bombardment of propaganda extolling the modern heroism of overseas workers, WMWs like Carmen will continue to struggle and bear with the gendered discrimination and personal tribulations that form the legacy of a top remittance-earning nation.

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