The Hand that Rocks the Cradle: Feminization of Migration in the Philippines
“Where can I get that form?” a slim longhaired young lady asked while I was filling up the Departure Card at the Immigration Area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. I quickly pointed her to the check in counter and proceeded in the queue to have my passport stamped by the Philippine Immigration Officer.
“They used to allow early morning passengers to spend the night within the departure area premises of the Davao City International Airport. Without money for hotel accommodation, I couldn’t go back to my hometown that will take me a 16-hour bus trip to reach the city. I was just lucky to meet a kind girl who worked at the canteen and invited me to spend the night in their home just outside the airport”, said the lady from Davao, a province in the big island of Mindanao, south of the Philippines.
“My two-week vacation was ruined. I got sick because of the weather. Now I am going back to Hongkong broke,” said another young lady who traveled by bus from Florida Blanca, a town devastated by lava when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 and left thousands of people homeless and farmless.” Pampanga is located 55 miles north of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines.
This was the conversation I overheard at the queue. We all came from the 3 big islands of the Philippines- Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao to converge in the big city, the jump off point to faraway places where we could earn a living.
The bespectacled big man inside the booth sternly looked at me and asked, “What’s your job?” I confidently replied, “I am a housewife.” Knowing that I am “jobless” he demanded to see my return ticket and asked that I open my laptop to show him my round trip plane ticket to Singapore. I searched for my file and before I could read him the flight details, he stamped my passport and emphatically told me to bring a hard copy next time.
The immigration officer must have thought that I was joining the ranks of ten million Filipinos who are scattered in 193 countries and territories as well as in ocean plying vessels.
The majority of us travel outside the country to find work so that we can support our family back home. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas (COF) classifies the economic migration by Filipinos into three categories:
1) Permanent migrants or immigrants are legal permanent residents abroad. 2) Temporary migrants are Filipinos whose stay overseas is regular and properly documented and are popularly referred to as “Overseas contract workers (OCWs)” or “Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs)” and 3) Irregular migrants whose stay abroad is not properly documented.
They also do not have valid residence and work permits; they can also be overstaying workers or tourists in a foreign country. A nondiscriminatory label for these migrants is “undocumented migrants”.
In 2010 alone, more than 340,000 Filipinos were deployed for overseas work in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Oceania. More than half of them, or 185,601, were women. The newly hired Pinays take care of nearly 94,000 families in the Middle East where they work as domestic helpers in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and United Arab Emirates.
Filipino nurses provide TLC, (tender loving care), to the sick in the hospitals of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Yemen. They are also in Finland, Norway and the United Kingdom while compassionate caregivers tend the elderly in Israel.
My town mates Lala and Easter are sisters who held permanent jobs as government employees in our province. Both in their mid forties and with children who are studying in college, their dream of visiting the Holy Land while earning an income several times higher than their salaries in the Philippines came true when they had the opportunity to work as caregivers for the elderly in Israel. Their pragmatism is paying off, as they are able to save and gradually invest their income in real property.
Sustained economic prosperity in the tiger economies of Asia, (Japan, Singapore, So. Korea and Taiwan), have drawn well-educated women to managerial and professional occupations. However, traditional gender roles in the households remain untouched. Working women have faced a severe conflict between their careers and reproductive responsibilities with the solution being to import domestic help from neighbors - the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Bangladesh among others.
Thus the professional careers of women and men in many parts of the world are supported by hundreds of Filipino women who bravely decided to leave the confines of their homes to take care of children who are not their own, clean houses, do other people’s laundry, learn to cook and prepare foreign dishes far different from their native kitchen. In fact, more than 55,000 determined Pinays were deployed in different parts of Asia in 2010. Nearly 60% of them are doing paid care work at homes in Hongkong (28,154), Singapore and Malaysia while more than 6,000 women take care of children and elderly in Taiwan.
Filipina migrant workers are mostly young, between 25 to 44 years old with a minimum of at least ten years of schooling, can understand and speak English and were gainfully employed in the Philippines prior to deployment abroad. They include professionals such as licensed teachers and nurses who opted to work as domestic helpers and au pairs abroad and doctors who attended the school of nursing to be able to land a nursing job in the USA, UK or Canada.
We started our training as early as six years old. As girls we are tasked to help out in the kitchen, clean the house, wash the clothes, and baby-sit our younger siblings while the boys were allowed to play outside the house and get away without doing the house chores.
Both girls and boys are given equal opportunity to get an education. We were expected to study hard, perform better in school, get a college education, find a job, get married and have children. This life pattern remains the same despite the increased involvement of Filipino women in the professional and public life. Because parents are more lenient with boys, this results in lower participation and cohort survival rates of more boys than girls in the elementary and secondary level. This likewise resulted in multiple burdened Filipino women who are better educated and have the ability and drive to earn their own income.
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2010, the Philippines ranked 9th out of 134 countries, making it the only Asian country to enter in the top ten since 2006. The Global Gender Gap Report’s index assesses 134 countries on how well they divide resources and opportunities amongst male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources. The report measures the size of the gender inequality gap in four areas, namely: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Political Empowerment, and Health and Survival. Other countries in the top ten are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Lesotho and Switzerland. This is thanks to our mothers, fathers and the women’s movement for their relentless pursuit of what is right, just and equitable to girls and boys, women and men, the young and old and those with different gifts and abilities.
Economic participation must be in the genetic make-up of the Filipino woman. She is willing to venture to foreign shores in order to find a better paying job, become financially independent and provide a better life for her family back home. Thus, there is a pronounced feminization in migration in the Philippines.
Many of those who became permanent migrants are Pinays who were married to foreign nationals. The “un” sex disaggregated statistics from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas indicates that from 1989-2009 there were around 372,718 Filipino spouses and partners of foreign nationals. The majority has settled in the USA (41.55%), Japan (29.04%), Australia, Canada, Germany, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, So. Korea, Norway, Sweden and others. The Filipinas insist on getting a job in their new country so that they can earn and send money to their parents in the Philippines. They support the education of their siblings, donate to the church during town fiestas and build or renovate their parent’s abode. Soon, their sisters, cousins and female friends will find a suitable partner and migrate to a foreign land, too. It is very rare to see Filipino men marrying a foreigner. Women are the ones who are open to learning a new language in a different environment, adapting to a foreign culture and adjusting to age and economic differences to better withstand interracial marriages.
Permanent residence were also accorded to teachers, nurses, and physical therapists in the US and Canada. Sixty doctors from my city enrolled in a nursing school. There were women pediatricians, anesthesiologists, and obstetricians-gynecologists who joined the exodus of experienced nurses to the west. Enrollment in nursing schools surged while that of the medical schools declined. Hospitals in the Philippines have an ever-ready supply of fresh graduates who are eager to work and be trained in preparation for future work abroad. However, despite the oversupply of nursing graduates, public hospitals and rural health centers cannot meet the standard doctor/nurse to population ratio due to budget ceilings on personal services especially in local governments units.
The quality of education is affected by the high teacher and pupil ratio. The public school system cannot absorb all the licensed teachers again due to budgetary limitations. Lack of sustainable jobs, low pay and high cost of living compel hundreds of nurses and teachers to go abroad and accept work as domestic helpers.
“We see a lot of deskilling of migrant women and they represent a high proportion in the brain drain, especially in health and education sectors”, said Linda Wirth, Director of the ILO sub-regional office for South-East Asia and the Pacific in Manila.
Thirty-six (36%) or 123,822 of newly hired Pinays in 2010 went to the Middle East. They worked as domestic helpers in Bahrain (3,700), Kuwait (21,413), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (11,238), United Arab Emirates (13,101), Oman, Qatar and Syria. Pinays also take care of homes and children in Italy (834), Cyprus, Denmark, Norway, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.
Problematic marriages also push the married Filipina mother to work abroad. Meet Izza, Jean and Rina, all hardworking professionals who would have promising careers in the Philippines, had they stayed.
Izza was a political science graduate from the leading state university in the Philippines. A dutiful learner, she graduated ahead of her class and immediately enrolled in law school with financial support from her parents. She married a civil engineer and bore two children. The handsome husband who didn’t have a stable job, wasted his time drinking with friends. Izza, who did not want to depend on her parents for her children’s needs and was frustrated by her husband’s irresponsible behavior, decided to quit law school and apply for a job abroad. She worked as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia and then moved to Kuwait to serve as an office assistant in a media agency. Her husband lived with another woman and had children. Her mother and brothers took care of her two children. Izza assumed sole financial responsibility for the children’s needs. She worked in Kuwait until the children finished their college education. After 19 years of persistence in the Middle East, she went home for good to manage a beach resort and a private elementary school in her hometown that she had helped put up with her earnings.
In-law problems and a financially abusive sea-faring husband compelled Jean to leave her work in an orthopedic hospital and look for a job elsewhere. She worked as a physical therapist in Bahrain and then moved to the United States. Aside from supporting her child until she became a pharmacist, Jean also provided financial support to her parents and siblings. She is now an immigrant in the US with her new family.
Rina’s husband was a drug user whom she thought would be reformed during their marriage. She vividly remembers the day when she and husband were physically fighting over the custody of their second child on the railway. She moved her children to a rented apartment to protect her children from their drug addict father. Her salary as a medical secretary in a private hospital was not enough to support her children’s needs and so she had to work in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as a medical transcriptionist.
My collection of women migrant survivors’ tales goes on and on. I learned a lot of them while in the airport waiting for my next flight.
I cannot forget Ms. Luciano whom I met during one of those night stops. She came home from Bangkok financially broke and frustrated. She was already a Master Teacher II and a candidate for school principal when she decided to grab an attractive offer for an English teaching position in Thailand. It turned out that she was a victim of illegal recruitment. Without a regular contract teaching job waiting for her, she toured and illegally tutored in Thailand for three months so she could feed herself and afford a return ticket. She was lucky to come home before she was subjected to forced labor.
According to the International Labor Organization, women and children from the Philippines and Indonesia are among an estimated 9.5 million victims of forced labor in the Asia Pacific region, which represents over three-fourths of the global total of 12.3 million victims. The ILO also reported that, “domestic workers in the region are facing new forms of coercion. Sometimes an initially freely chosen job later becomes an exploitative trap, while in other cases women and girls are trafficked into forced domestic service overseas. Forced labor situations can develop when workers are confined to their employer’s home, subjected to physical, verbal or sexual abuse, and their freedom to leave the job is denied, particularly when passports and other identity documents are confiscated,” the agency said.
The lack of employment opportunities in the country, the increasing cost of living and education, indebtedness and the lure of the big cities are the common reasons why women and men wish to try their luck abroad. I have deep empathy for my migrant worker sisters. This is the reason why I chose to pursue them, know them, and write about them.
Dateline Singapore: I met Yoly. 32 years old and married while she was doing part-time house cleaning and ironing for my host family. She comes from a family of 12. Women’s migration may have become a family tradition because two of her sisters are in Norway, two in Singapore and one in the USA. She has been working in Singapore for eight years and regularly remitted her monthly salary to her husband who takes care of their three children. Her world almost crumbled when she learned that her husband was having an affair all the while. Going back to the Philippines was not an option. “How can I support my children if I don’t have a job? Their father is jobless, too.” Yoly decided to stop sending money to her husband. With the encouragement and permission from her European employers, she is currently attending a hotel and restaurant management skills training to get certified and move to a higher paying job in the future.
There are several Yolys I’ve encountered. Hundreds of them were at the Lucky Plaza, where the Filipina domestic helpers converge on Sundays during their day off. Some were shopping for Filipino food items they missed from home. Some were busy on their cell phones talking to their loved ones in the Philippines. Many were window shopping. Others were in the internet shops chatting with friends and family online. Pinays were queuing at the remittance centers to send their hard-earned money to their families.
According to Expat Singapore, the average monthly salary of a live-in Filipina domestic helper is US $ 472.00, which is around 70% higher than the average salary of an Indonesian or Sri Lankan at US $ 275.00. The huge salary difference is due to the implementation of a minimum pay by the Philippine embassy and also because the Pinays have better or perfect command of English, have higher education and are usually more efficient in their work, according to the website.
Nurses in the Middle East receive P 25,000-35,000 (US $ 581 – $814) while office workers ‘ salary is around P 15,000-20,000 (US$ 349- $465). Unfortunately, employers in the Middle East do not adhere to the US $ 450 monthly wage proposed by the Philippine Embassy for domestic helpers. Hence, my Pinay sisters working in Kuwaiti households get a much lower pay. It is 50% less than those in Singapore and Hongkong. It’s a take it or leave it condition for domestic helpers not to mention the suffering that a lot of them experience from abusive employers.
It is not a government policy to promote overseas employment to sustain economic growth and achieve national development. Labor exportation is just a temporary measure while fledgling industries in the country have yet to emerge to provide employment opportunities to hundreds of job seekers. This policy is explicitly stated in "Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995” which recognizes the significant contribution of Filipino migrant workers to the national economy through their foreign exchange remittances.
Unfazed by the difficulties of the US and Eurozone economies, remittances of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) grew by 10.6% from US $ 1.61 B in 2010 to US $ 1.78 billion in November 2011. Remittances continue to support household consumption, which is a major growth driver of the domestic economy. While the men overseas receive higher pay, women’s contribution cannot be underestimated considering their sheer numbers and spending values. Researches proved that when women earns, their incomes are mostly spent on their family.
Since 10% of households and the Philippine economy enjoy the fruits of the migrant worker’s sweat and tears, it is fitting that gender responsive policy options should be in place to protect the rights and welfare of women migrant workers and mitigate the social costs of migration.
Allow me to contribute my two cents worth.
Firstly, I believe we should mobilize remittances to develop local economic enterprises that will create employment opportunities and promote entrepreneurship, especially among women starting from a migrant workers’ families so that they will not be dependent on remittances from abroad.
Secondly, we must instill savings and investment consciousness so that overseas Filipino workers and their dependents will redirect expenses to wealth creation rather than depletion.
Thirdly, we need to ensure that participants of Pre Departure Orientation Seminars (PDOS), after being provided with adequate information, can articulate the policies and culture of host countries, migrant workers’ rights and responsibilities, what to do and where to seek help in case of emergency and abuse by employers.
Fourthly, we must advocate with the host countries to strictly monitor compliance by their citizens of the provisions of the migrant worker’s contract; to strictly observe the weekly day-off schedule, and to educate potential employers on migrant worker’s rights.
Fifth, we should provide FREE basic language training including common body language to household service workers and care givers especially Arabic and Chinese prior to departure and FREE internet literacy so they can contact their families and loved ones.
Lastly, we can involve non-government organizations, migrant workers informal groups, faith-based organizations and local government units in both sending and receiving countries in developing and delivering continuing language, life skills, financial management trainings and peer counseling and support to the migrant workers and their family.
Women household based workers and caregivers of the world unite. We clean homes and clothes, pots and pans, take care of the sick, the elderly and the young. Let the hands that rock the cradle, rock the world.
This is Paulina Lawsin Nayra reporting from the Philippines.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.