Trans(nation): Global Migration and the Filipino Diaspora

Published in March 2009 issue of Playboy-Philippines


Global Migration and the Filipino Diaspora

Marius D. Carlos Jr.

Immigration, in other words, has had its own contradictions: many have been propelled by need, others motivated by ambition, yet others driven away by persecution; for some, there really is no longer a home to return to, in many cases, need and ambition have become ambiguously and inextricably linked.

Aijaz Ahmad

Global migration may be the clearest sign of world poverty today. According to William Robinson, a sociologist from the University of California-Santa Barbara, the world is now polarized into the ratio of 80-20. Eighty percent of the world’s population is living on the world poverty line (subsiding on $2 or less a day), while only twenty percent are living comfortably with much higher incomes. To add to this continuing turmoil, which had been happening even before the Second World War, the largest industrial countries in the world are now experiencing economic downturns. The United States of America, which is viewed as the “land of opportunity” by millions of Filipinos, is experiencing an unemployment rate of more than 6%. Local and international news wires around the globe report massive layoffs, the closing of factories and the collapse of big businesses. The price of oil is steadily dipping owing to the slowing demand for world oil- because even national middle classes are feeling the heat. Either way, these signs point to global downturn where the poorest become even poorer.

Cruel reversals

In the Philippines, migrant workers come in a myriad of official names. OCWs (overseas contract wokers), OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) and Bagong Bayani (Modern-Day Heroes). The Philippine government regularly pays tribute to migrant workers through television infomercials, flyers and posters declaring its allegiance to the individuals who help stabilize the peso-dollar exchange through foreign remittances. Telecommunication companies ceaselessly advertise on popular television shows, offering remittance systems, cheap SMS services, satellite phones and cheap calls abroad. The image of the proud migrant Filipino is shamelessly bannered across different media. The stories of suffering and unceasing hardship remain untold. The image is substituted for the real thing; and we remain deluged with a million renditions of the same false picture.

It is ironic that often, popular media plays up “life abroad” as a joyful rendezvous with snow, foreign food and dollars. Glimpses of hardship are used by politicians to create a niche for themselves in the coming elections. It is as if the plight of migrant Filipino workers are now in the giving hands of millionaire politicians who make it appear that they have no interest other than to help fellow Filipinos. In the end, the problem remains. Alms have no business in trying to resolve a problem that is rooted in economic relations among people. That is exactly what Filipinos are being asked to be supportive of. The much-maligned concept of charity is put in place of progressive reforms against social ills. In the end, we are led to believe that supporting the charity projects of million-peso corporations will do much good. Reality television adds a blip in the blinding collection of false promises. To gain the support of television viewers, participants of reality television shows produced by multinational media companies like Endemol are asked to “be one of the masses” and to “help the children”. The sad faces on television only hint at the hardship of families of migrant workers. These families have been fragmented, and often, separation, drug addiction and social apathy become clear consequences of the fragmentation of the nuclear Filipino family.

Exodus to the Middle East

The old concept of imperialism is no longer applicable today. Instead, a more sinister structure (economic, political and military in nature) had developed to compensate for the bourgeoning trade routes that had developed after embargos post-WW2 have been lifted. In the United Kingdom, the Thatcherite administration had declared war on the welfare state with the T.I.N.A (There Is No Alternative) and the Third Way. In the United States, the cult of multiculturalism and neoliberal foreign policies (which implicates the G-8, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank) had grained ground. Political commentators like the French political anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu had been quick to denounce the ills of the Free Market system and the global financial system, which is now a supra-national entity. In France, the ideological and economic doctrine of Pensee Unique, which takes away the veils of Moslem women who wish to be naturalized also takes away the power of collective structures, such as worker’s unions. The impeccable logic of late capitalism had rendered man incapable of helping himself through hunger and strife.

In weak, fragmented and poor nation-states such as the Philippines, the symptom had begun, as we have stated earlier with political glosses like The Global Filipino or Bagong Bayani. The Philippine National Bank even has a separate counter for “Foreign Remittances/Dollar Accounts”. This might spell relief for relatives in the Philippines, who quickly grab and go (to where, nobody knows, but Duty Free Philippines certainly made a killing last Christmas). But what does this mean? Popular television shows on primetime often contain heavily edited interviews of migrant Filipino workers. It appears that they are having a grand time abroad, scrubbing the toilet bowls of foreigners, so that their children can buy shoes at home. These shoes on the other hand, have been produced in poorer Third World countries for Nike. The dollars that migrant workers have worked so hard for are simply returned to the First World through the Free Market system. And the children are smiling, happily tearing through the plastic and boxes of the new shoes and dresses that they’ve been able to buy with “green money”.

A. Sivanadan, a critic for the journal Race and Class identified more than twenty years ago the massive shift from import-substitution to export-oriented industrialization. The various interweaving patterns of national labor migrations (which spans the Philippines to Latin America to China) is affected greatly by this shift to export-oriented trade. Export-oriented industrialization, which had given birth to global crises such as peak oil production is what drove millions of Filipinos to the Middle East. In a literal “quest for bread”, millions of Filipinos flew to Middle Eastern countries, distributed and segregated, based on their qualifications (high school graduate, college graduate, semi-skilled, skilled). Many ended up being underemployed, doing menial tasks for wealthy employers, while swallowing the fact that they had finished degrees back at home. Years later, the discourse of Bagong Bayani would still serve to undermine the reality of labor migration. Presidency after presidency would take the mantle of Bagong Bayani and give it another whirl, prolonging the agony of millions of migrant workers who had only been forced by circumstance to leave their families.

It is estimated that more than 10 million Filipinos are working abroad. According to Epifanio San Juan, a Harvard-trained cultural critic, “Malubhang eskandalo ito, na tila walang nakakapansin” (“This is a huge scandal, which no one seems to be noticing.”) This is the global diaspora of Filipinos. Diaspora, a neologism of Greek origin (“to spread/to scatter”) is the singular term that capture the world-historic moment of the disintegration of whole national communities. In the wake of “counter-terrorism” and the new faith in the presidency of Barack Obama, many are crossing their fingers that the whole thing would turn around for the better. Unfortunately, Obama had arrived too late in the scene, if he is truly sincere with his promises of “change that we need”. Already, the United States is no longer the biggest lender in the global landscape. It is, however, the biggest spender. The ironic (yet fitting) term of military Keynesianism has put the United States at a precarious position among the other world powers. Already, it has allotted and spent billions of dollars on military power- covert operations, paramilitary operations, the war in Iraq, etc. Thousands of nuclear warheads stand ready in hidden bases around the US. Each nuclear warhead, if spent on agriculture or on welfare services, could have fed thousands of people a month. And yet, this artificial paranoia, “justified” by the events of September 11 is being used to gain more and more economic and military power in strategic regions in the world. Let it be said that the owner of the last trillion barrels of oil will be the wealthiest country in the world.

Modern slavery

Students of college history are often taught that “world history” is split into the following historical periods: ancient (as in “ancient Greece” and “ancient Rome”), the middle ages (where bad translations of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno is studied), renaissance (virtually nothing is understood of this time period). After the renaissance, centuries are skipped, until the student is suddenly faced with the “modern times”. An examination of college history books (including classics like Zaide’s) would reveal that the chatter about “history” stops at the exact moment that would matter to all Filipinos- modernity. With this in mind, we can sadly conclude that whole archives, from the chronicles of Carlos Bulosan to the wisdom of poets such as Tato Laviera, have been completely obliterated. The true dialectic of “world” history, including the events that had affected our own country has been removed. What we are left with are unusable “husks” or dead and freeze-dried pieces of trivial information, fit for afternoon game shows. This is when “history” is killed repeatedly by textbook writers. One consequence is the gravest of them all- selective amnesia. We have learned to selectively forget what matters most.

We have learned to forget what migration really is, or what it has already been years before the youngest generation had been born. Epifanio San Juan Jr., in his study of modernity and the modern exclusionary practices of nation-states, states clearly:

“Since the nineties, the average total of migrant workers has been about a million a year—close to three thousand every day—bound for 129 countries. They remit an amount totaling over 5 percent of the Gross National Product; in the process, millions of pesos are collected by the Philippine government through innumerable taxes and fees for passports and other documents.”

San Juan continues to examine the statistics laid out by Migrante International, and the figure of the Bagong Bayani:

“Migrante International and other organizations have investigated the horrendous conditions of work, the racist abuses and humiliating deprivations, they suffer every day. But they continue to fly overseas, undeterred by the future of overwhelming debt, mental derangement, physical injuries, rape, and violent death. Hence these Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) are glorified as “modern heroes, ” mga bagong bayani (the “new heroes, ” in the words of former president Corazon Aquino), the most famous of whom are Flor Contemplacion, who was falsely accused of two murders and hanged in Singapore; and Sarah Balabagan, flogged in Saudi Arabia for defending herself against her rapist-employer, and deported. Were their fates the signs, or stigmata, of a portentous heroism?” (in Working Through the Contradictions, p. 260)

San Juan had just reminded us of the two infamous cases related to immigration in the nineties- Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan. There was a two-fold reaction to the headlines of the day (back then): outcries from the progressive (yet largely unsupported) groups like Gabriela and Migrante and movies that depicted the life of the two women. In both instances, the government had been mute, completely mute in addressing the problems posed by inequities in juridical systems abroad. The inability of the government to speak when necessary, and to act when most needed is a dire sign that we are required to expect nothing from the national government but slogans and taxes. In a nutshell, we are to subside on streamers stating “Pilipinas Kong Mahal!” and “May Silbi, Works Well, MMDA Labs You”. The hopelessness of the situation of the migrant workers is perhaps further satirized by balikbayans in a popular noontime variety program, who do nothing but praise the “goodness” of the host toward “the poor”. In reality, the poor are paraded and asked to sing and dance for alms. In return for the popularity of the show, millions of pesos are exchanged for a few hours a day for a transient fantasy that ends as quickly as it begins.

Characteristic of the “age of migration” is the camouflaging of the real relationships between migrant workers vis-à-vis foreign employers and host countries. While there are some instances that migrant workers are not starved or raped, there are many documented cases where host countries strike down harder on migrant workers than guilty natives. In a world completely flabbergasted and rendered anxious by the “atrocities” of “Islamic terrorists”, the real terrorism is ignored. The question of who has the more resources or capital is rendered operational on all levels of legal existence. “Justice” is only an informal category retained for the purpose of qualifying or discounting points of discussion on national broadsheets. Social justice, aimed at addressing individual inequities among social subjects has already been abandoned. Even in Europe, in France, where they cannot stop talking about “Man” (but cannot stop oppressing its workers), the figure of the French worker is being erased to be replaced with the figure of “the foreigner”: the migrant worker. This is the surreal and violent reality that Filipino migrants have to face when they fly to Fortress Europe in search for a few Euros.

Dos Kapital?

In a debate between the prophet of neoliberalism, Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat) and the combative French journalist Ignacio Ramonet (journalist for Le Monde Diplomatique and founder of ATTAC), Thomas Friedman declared the death of the German philosopher and political economist Karl Marx’s analysis of modern industrial society. He titles his own reformulation of economics “Dos Kapital”, a play on the title of Marx’s treatise on political economy Das Kapital. Friedman states:

“Unlike the Cold War system, globalization has its own dominant culture, which is why integration tends to be homogenizing. In previous eras, cultural homogenization happened on a regional scale – the Romanization of Western Europe and the Mediterranean world, the Islamization of Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain by the Arabs, or the Russification of Eastern and Central Europe, and parts of Eurasia, under the Soviets. Culturally speaking, globalization is largely the spread (for better and for worse) of Americanization from Big Macs and iMacs to Mickey Mouse.”

“Whereas the defining measurement of the Cold War was weight, particularly the throw-weight of missiles, the defining measurement of the globalization system is speed the speed of commerce, travel, communication, and innovation. The Cold War was about Einstein’s mass-energy equation, e = m[c.sup.2]. Globalization is about Moore’s Law, which states that the performance power of microprocessors will double every 18 months. The defining document of the Cold War system was “the treaty.” The defining document of the globalization system is “the deal.”” (in Dueling Globalizations, Foreign Policy Press)

It should be noted immediately that Friedman is actually espousing globalization, the same way the World Bank is doing it. Friedman is unable to see the world beyond the blinding presence of neon lights advertising the largest brands in the world. In Friedman’s mind, productivity is still productivity regardless of whether the proponents of the productivity are eating three times a day or not. Friedman continues to enumerate the various “innovations” of the new world system, including the “social mobility” of the Individual as opposed to the “walls” of the old nation-state systems. Friedman is simply thanking the world because he has a nice niche in the Market, and he can eat Big Macs anytime.

Ignacio Ramonet was quick to counter Friedman’s arguments:

We have known for at least ten years that globalization is the dominant phenomenon of this century. No one has been waiting around for Thomas Friedman to discover this fact. Since the end of the 1980s, dozens of authors have identified, described, and analyzed globalization inside and out. What is new in Friedman’s work and debatable – is the dichotomy he establishes between globalization and the Cold War: He presents them as opposing, interchangeable “systems.” His constant repetition of this gross oversimplification reaches the height of annoyance.

Furthermore, our author appears incapable of observing that globalization imposes the force of two powerful and contradictory dynamics on the world: fusion and fission. On the one hand, many states seek out alliances. They pursue fusion with others to build institutions, especially economic ones, that provide strength – or safety – in numbers. Like the European Union, groups of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, North Africa, North America, and South America are signing free-trade agreements and reducing tariff barriers to stimulate commerce, as well as reinforcing political and security alliances.

The political consequences have been ghastly. Almost everywhere, the fractures provoked by globalization have reopened old wounds. Borders are increasingly contested, and pockets of minorities give rise to dreams of annexation, secession, and ethnic cleansing. In the Balkans and the Caucasus, these tensions unleashed wars (in Abkhazia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh, Slovenia, and South Ossetia).

The social consequences have been no kinder. In the 1980s, accelerating globalization went hand in hand with the relentless ultraliberalism of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Quickly, globalization became associated with increased inequality, hikes in unemployment, deindustrialization, and deteriorated public services and goods.

It is clear from Ramonet’s arguments that the premise of the first author had been completely misguided- because social criticism requires another level of analysis- the degree and effectiveness of social distribution. This has been around for the longest time- and is visible in works by Joseph Schumpeter, who discusses the relationship between democracy and the current world order. This point of discussion is relevant to the “age of migration” because the “age of migration” would have never gathered force if not for the eternal “quest for bread”. It is with these specific features of our current epoch that we shall begin to understand anew our real positions in relation to other nation-states in the world.


6 thoughts on “Trans(nation): Global Migration and the Filipino Diaspora

  1. pwede bang isa pa (since naaliw ako ever)…but also, we have to note that the these people, these overseas migrants are not from the lower end of our economic strata. They are actually middle class citizens (upper and lower). I’m not sure if poverty can be directly linked to this scenario, as most academics will readily imply. what do you think?

    1. I think poverty is central to the Filipino diaspora. Being a member of the Filipino middle class does not cushion you completely from scant resources.

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