The Philippines is one of the great labor exporters of the world.  Some 10 per cent of its total population and 22 per cent its working age population are now migrant workers in other countries.  With remittances totaling some $20 billion a year, the Philippines places fourth as a recipient of remittances, after China, India, and Mexico.

Labor Export and Structural Adjustment

The country’s role as a labor exporter cannot be divorced from the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.  The labor export program began in the mid-seventies as a temporary program under the Marcos dictatorship, with a relatively small number of workers involved–some 50,000.  The ballooning of the program to encompass some 9 million workers owes much to the devastation of the economy and jobs by the structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund beginning in 1980, trade liberalization under the World Trade Organization, and the prioritization of debt repayment by the post-Marcos governments in national economic policy since 1986.

Structural adjustment resulted in deindustrialization and the loss of so many manufacturing jobs; trade liberalization pushed so many peasants out of agriculture, a great number directly to overseas employment; and prioritization of debt repayments robbed government of resources for capital expenditures that could act as an engine of economic growth since some 20 to 40 per cent of the budget was allocated yearly to servicing the debt.  In the role that structural adjustment and trade liberalization played in creating pressures for labor migration, the experience of the Philippines parallels that of Mexico, another key labor-exporting country.

Labor Export as Safety Valve

For the governments of the two countries as well, massive labor export has served another function, which is that of serving as a safety valve for the release of social pressures that would otherwise have been channeled into radical movements for political and social change internally.  Those who migrate are often among the most intrepid, nimble, and sharp people in the lower and middle classes, the kind of people who would make excellent cadres and members of progressive movements for change.

Along with the crisis of socialization of children owing to the absence of the mother, this is one of the most damaging legacies of the massive labor migration in the Philippines: that it has allowed our elites to ignore overdue structural reforms.

Creating and Expansion of Unfree Labor: the Case of the Middle East

 Labor export is big business, having spawned a host of parasitic institutions that now have a vested interest in maintaining and expanding it.  The transnational labor export network includes labor recruiters, government agencies and officials, labor smugglers, and big corporate service providers like the US multinational service provider Aramark.  What is actually happening is the expansion of a system of labor trafficking that is just as big and as profitable as sex trafficking and the drug trade.  The spread of free wage labor has often beeb associated with the expansion of capitalism.  But what is currently occurring is the expansion and institutionalization of a system of unfree labor under contemporary neoliberal capitalism, a process not unlike the expansion of slave labor and repressed labor in the early phase of global capitalist expansion in the 16thcentury that was pointed out in the work of sociologists like Immanuel Wallerstein. 

This expansive system that creates, maintains, and expands unfree labor is best illustrated in the case of the Middle East.   In 2009, some 64 per cent of the more than one million Filipino workers that went abroad went to the Middle East.  Most of these workers were women and the biggest occupational category was household service workers or maids.

Here is how the labor trafficking system works in the states in the Arabian peninsula along the Persian Gulf:

A recruiter from a Gulf state contacts his man in the Philippines.

The Filipino contact goes to the remote provinces to recruit a young woman promising a wage of $400 a month, which is the minimum amount set by the Philippine government.

When she departs, the recruiter gives her another contract at the airport, one that is often written in Arabic, saying she will be paid only half or less that amount.

Upon arrival in he destination, she is provided by the Gulf recruiter with a temporary residence permit or iqama, but this is taken from her along with her passport by the recruiter or by her employer.

She is turned over to a family where she labors under slave-like conditions, being expected to work 18 to 20 hours a day.

It is common that among the services expected of her is to minister to the sexual needs of the master of the house, which creates an unbearable situation not only because refusal often brings a beating but also because this brings her into conflict with the wife.

She is isolated from other Filipino domestic workers, making her communication with the outside world dependent on her employer.

She cannot leave the employer because her temporary residence certificate and passport are with him.  If she runs away, however, and goes to the labor recruiter, she is “sold” to another family, sometimes at an even lower rate than that paid by the original employer.

Unable to leave the country since she has no documents, the runaway most often ends up being sold from one family to another by the labor recruiter.

If she is lucky, she might find her way to the Philippine Embassy, which operates a shelter for runaways, but it will take months if not years for the Philippine Embassy to be able to obtain the necessary permits that would enable her to return home.

How Regulation is Subverted

In its effort to curb this free market in virtual slavery or to prevent workers from going into countries where their physical security would be in great danger like Afghanistan or Iraq, the Philippine government requires government-issued permits for workers to be able to leave or it has imposed deployment bans to some countries.  However, labor recruiters, which are often in cahoots not only with Middle East employers but also with the US Defense Department US private have found ways of getting around these regulations.  Some say that government effort to curb labor export abuse has made the system worse, by creating a black market in labor.  I disagree.  I think things would be far worse without the exit permits and deployment bans.

But it is indeed true that there have developed clandestine networks to smuggle workers from the Southern Philippines to destinations in the Middle East.  A number of women domestic workers I was able to interview in Damascus a few weeks ago told of being smuggled out in the Southern Philippine city of Zamboanga by small boat to the Malaysian state of Sabah.  From there they were transported in the hold of a bigger boat going to Singapore, where they were then offloaded and brought by land transport to a site near Kuala Lumpur.  In Kuala Lumpur they were forced to work for their subsistence for six weeks.  It was only after two months that they were finally transported by plane from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai, then to Damascus.

With such illegal transnational human smuggling networks in operation, it is not surprising that of the nine thousand domestic workers in Syria, the Embassy estimated that 90 per cent were there illegally, that is they had no valid exit papers from the Philippines.  Among other things, this has made locating them and contacting them very difficult after Manila issued orders to the Embassy last January to evacuate all Filipino workers in Syria.

The situation is similar in Afghanistan and Iraq.  For much the same reason, we do not have an accurate figure of how many Filipinos have been illegally recruited to be service workers in the US bases by the Pentagon and US military contractors, but 10,000 is probably a conservative number.   In the case of Afghanistan, the collusion between illegal labor traffickers, the US government, and US private contractors poses a gargantuan challenge to the weak Philippine state.

Sexual Abuse: the Ever-present Menace

The predominance of women among the workers being trafficked to the Middle East has created a situation rife with sexual abuse, and a system whereby labor trafficking and sexual trafficking are increasingly intersecting.  Here is an excerpt from a report of the House Committee on Overseas Workers following the visit of some members to Saudi Arabia in January 2011:

“Rape is the ever-present specter that haunts Filipino domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. …Rape and sexual abuse is more frequent than the raw Embassy statistics reveal, probably coming to 15 to 20 per cent of cases reported for domestics in distress. If one takes these indicators as roughly representative of unreported cases of abuse of domestic workers throughout the kingdom, then one cannot but come to the conclusion that rape and sexual abuse is common.”

I would go further and say that there is a strong element of sex trafficking in the trafficking of Filipino women into the Middle East given the expectation, especially in many Gulf households, that providing sex to the master of the household is seen as part of the domestic worker’s tasks.

The horror of labor cum sex trafficking is illustrated by the experience of Lorena, one of the rape victims that the mission was able to interview during the January 2011 mission to Saudi Arabia.   Let me quote from the report extensively since Embassy officials and human rights activists say the harrowing experience of this woman is not uncommon among Filipino household workers in the Gulf states:

“Lorena [not her real name] is in her mid-twenties, lithe, and pretty—qualities that marked her as prime sexual prey in the Saudi jungle. And indeed, her ordeal began when they arrived at her employer’s residence from the airport. “He forced a kiss on me,” she recalled. Fear seized her and she pushed him away.

“He was not deterred. “One week after I arrived,” she recounted, “he raped me for the first time. He did it while his wife was away. He did it after he commanded me to massage him and I refused, saying that was not what I was hired for. Then in July he raped me two more times. I just had to bear it [“Tiniiskonalang”] because I was so scared to run away. I didn’t know anyone.”

“While waiting for her employer and his wife in a shopping mall one day, Lorena came across some Filipino nurses, whom she begged for help. Upon hearing her story, they gave her a SIM card and pitched in to buy her a load.

“But the domestic torture continued. She would be slapped for speaking Arabic since her employer’s wife said she was hired to speak English. She was given just one piece of bread to eat at mealtime and she had to supplement this with scraps from the family’s plates. She was loaned to the wife’s mother’s household to clean the place, and her reward for this was her being raped by the wife’s brother; kinship apparently confers the right to rape the servants of relatives. Also during that month, October, she was raped—for the fourth time—by her employer.

“She not only had to contend with sexual aggression but with sheer cruelty. Once, while cleaning, she fell and cut herself. With blood gushing from the wound, she pleaded with the employer’s wife to bring her to the hospital. She refused, and when Lorena asked her to allow her to call her mother in the Philippines, she again said no, telling her this was too expensive. The employer arrived at that point, but instead of bringing her to the hospital, he said, “You might as well die.” Lorena had to stanch the wound with her own clothes and treat herself with pills she had brought with her from the Philippines.

“Wildly desperate by now, Lorena finally managed to get in touch with personnel of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Al Khobar. Arrangements were made to rescue her on December 30. That morning, the rescue team from POLO and the local police arrived at the residence. Lorena flagged them frantically from a second story window and told them she wanted to jump, but the team advised her not to because she could break her leg. That was a costly decision, since the employer raped her again—for the fifth time—even with the police right outside the residence. When she dragged herself to her employer’s wife and begged her to keep her husband away from her, she beat her instead, calling her a liar. “I was screaming and screaming, and the police could hear me, but they did not do anything.”

“When the employer realized that he was about to be arrested, he begged Lorena not to tell the police anything because he would lose his job and offered to pay for her ticket home. “I said I would not tell on him and say that he was a good man, just so that he would just let me go [‘paralangmakatakasako’],” Lorena said. When she was finally rescued moments later, Lorena recounted her ordeal to the POLO team and police, and the employer was arrested.”

This story, unfortunately, had a sad ending, since, after we left Saudi Arabia, the naval officer’s lawyers were able to drag out the case to the point where Lorena was forced to an out-of-court settlement which gave her a small monetary compensation in return for the naval officer’s going scot-free.   Tolerated by the Saudi legal system, employers find it easy to have their maids and rape them too.


Let me sum up the key points of this article:

The creation of the labor-export economy in countries like the Philippines stemmed greatly from the impact of structural adjustment, trade liberalization, and the prioritization of debt repayment, policies that led to industrialization, the erosion of local agriculture, and the gutting of state investment, disabling it as an engine of growth.

Labor export became a safety valve draining the country of forces that could have contributed to progressive political movements and allowing the elite to keep on postponing much needed structural reforms.

The dynamics of neoliberal capitalism have led to the creation of a global system of labor trafficking, reinforcing insight of Immanuel Wallerstein  that the development of capitalist relations of production does not, in many cases, displace but reinforce or promote the spread of unfree labor.  This includes not only new centers of capital accumulation like the Middle East but also old centers like the United States.

With a great number—indeed, in the case of the Philippines—the majority of migrant workers being women, rape and sexual abuse has become a central element in the system of unfree labor, in particular in labor trafficking in the Gulf states.

Ending labor trafficking is a massive challenge to government and civil society.  But perhaps the key is stimulating sustained and sustainable economic development at home that will create the decent jobs that would absorb our workers so they do not have to go abroad to look for them and instead get trapped in a system of unfree labor, like most of our domestic workers in the Middle East.  President Aquino has expressed the desire to solve the crisis of our migrants by getting the Philippine economy moving.  It’s time he decisively pushes the tough but necessary internal social and economic reforms that will ignite this process.

* columnist Walden Bello is the chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs of the House of Representatives of the Philippines.  This article is based on a talk he gave at the State University of New York at Binghamton.