FILIPINA “SERVANTS” RESISTING GLOBALIZATION:  Agency and Representation in Migrant Women’s Narratives

Nearly ten million Filipinos, mostly women domestics, now comprise the expanding Filipino diaspora of migrant workers all over the world. This is a historical phenomenon of unprecedented proportions. How did this happen? Once a leader in industrial development in Asia in the fifties, the Philippines today is arguably the most economically backward and depressed society in the region, with over 75% of 84 million Filipinos suffering incredible poverty, victimized by successive tsunamis of imperialist violence and exploitation since formal independence in 1946.  Filipinos have now acquired the reputation and status of “servants of globalization.” Are these Overseas Filipino Workers (as they are officially designated) simply victims, or are they also agents of their own self-emancipation? I would like to explore the actualities and possibilities of their existential and historical situation in the hope of countering the fatalism and compensatory self-delusion that vitiates government apologias and World Bank/IMF propaganda.

Background to Dislocation

The Cold War ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the patrons of a triumphalist “New World Order” celebrated freedom and democracy for the subjects of the erstwhile “Evil Empire,” thousands of people of color were displaced from the oil-rich Arab states during the Gulf War. Prominent among the victims of this reassertion of Western imperial hegemony were Third World contract laborers, primarily women located in the reproductive sphere. Not only in the Middle East but elsewhere, in Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and elsewhere, the drive to resolve the crisis of accumulation that began in the seventies continues in the form of flexible, postFordist production and the accelerated proletarianization of dependent/peripheral formations.
Given the exacerbated uneven development of the world system, the patriarchal capitalism of the industrialized nation-states (and its neocolonial client regimes) has been able to displace the crisis by exploiting the reserve army of female labor outside their national boundaries for unprecedented bargain prices. As Robert Miles observes, “labour migration accentuated the process of uneven development of the world capitalist economy” (1986, 60) and paradoxically intensified the contradictions at the heart of the accumulation crisis.
The global eventually finds its geopolitical embodiment in local narratives. This process of displacement acquires symbolic expression in the stories of Filipino women whose textualization of their individual experience reveals both the pathos of commodity fetishism and the possibilities of resistance or transcendence.
The plot begins with the breakdown of realistic representation in the stories they are able to construct when they return. The logic of existence for migrant contracted labor parodies the epic form: ushering us in medias res where events soon acquire fantastic proportions, we see how beginnings assume an apocryphal coloring and the denouement becomes problematic, non sequitur, indeterminate or undecidable.
The protagonist of this narrative tries to acquire means to gain happiness from “donor” societies (money is the mediator for security and success); but this quest is quickly foiled, and she finds herself deceived and shortchanged. She is angry, enraged, but often terrified and soon reduced to mute despair. She tries to accomplish the task she has chosen for the sake of family and kin by physical resistance and cunning ruses of self-defense. It seems that she behaves without rational reflection, her sheer motion impelled by the compulsion of a reversal or peripeteia that has overtaken her.
What does she learn from this sudden turn of events?  Contrary to the usual expectations, the shock of recognition never fully materializes because many of these women return drugged, still mesmerized by the amount of consumer durables their meager savings has allowed them to bring home. So they are eager to venture out again since local conditions provide no substitute way of fulfilling dreams of consumption. This actantial model may be trite and hackneyed, but the interest lies in its distortion and displacement by individual experiences of change. Agonistically toned oral narratives give way to solipsistic textuality (Ong 1982)–one obvious effect of commodification. Although the mass media imposes its reifying conventions, the genre of migrant female labor narratives exhibits its performance as symptom of, and protest against, the logos of general equivalence–of money as the measure of all value (Goux 1990).

Episodes of the Ordeal

In an article for The New Yorker (November 16, 1992), Raymond Bonner describes in detail the horrendous plight of women migrant labor in Kuwait–about 71,00 domestic servants from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Of the 25,000 women from the Philippines, two thousand so far have fled from the brutality of working long hours for meager pay, virtually imprisoned, subjected to arbitrary physical violence (including rape), and even killed.
There was the case of Jenny Casanova, 30 years old, mother of three daughters left in the Philippines, beaten for days by her employer’s wife, who finally sought refuge in the Philippine Embassy. She began work at 5:30 AM, allowed to sit down during the day only for meals, took care of four children, did all the cooking and cleaning. She had no day off, not even for going to church. Another case was Shirley who worked from 6 AM to 9 PM, paid fifty cents an hour for 15 hours a day, 6 days of the week, with one day off–she fled after two weeks. And there was Josephine hit by a 29-year old son and threatened with death. The labor laws of Kuwait and other Gulf states do not cover such domestic workers who, in the absence of a contract, virtually become slaves to those who “buy” them from unscrupulous recruiting agencies. Unless “released” by their employer, it is practically impossible for these women to secure another visa; hence they become slaves, or if they escape, fugitives or refugees. No prior intervention is given by nor secured from the Philippine government.
When Bonner interviewed these “domestic helpers,” to use the honorific euphemism, the Philippine Embassy had become a home for battered women and runaways. Kuwait, newly liberated from the Iraqi invaders, was a country where only Kuwaitis (28% of the population) can vote and exercise the rights of citizenship; 80% of the labor force was non-Kuwaiti; every Kuwaiti family had 5 or 6 servants. These statistics don’t really provide the context or theoretical framework necessary for understanding the anecdotes of oppression and exploitation–from swindling and insult to rape and daily battering–that characterize the lives of thousands of women of color scattered all over the globe.
One study confirmed the empirical observations of many that the vast majority of workers in the Gulf suffer for lack of protection for their basic human rights “due to the absence of clearly defined legal rights, the ineffectiveness of local courts and administrative procedures” (Owen 1985). Completely dependent on their institutional or individual sponsor who confiscate their passports as soon as they arrive in the host country, these workers are maltreated, exploited, abused, beaten, and even killed. According to Women in the World: An International Atlas, this new phenomenon of migrant women–the poorest of the world’s impoverished populations–are “triply burdened by race, class and gender barriers” (1986, 17).
In the Philippines, a woman was interviewed who once worked in a garment factory for eight years but left for Kuwait and after two years of working in a jewelry store got married to the owner, a military man who worked for the Kuwait National Petroleum Company. She was converted to Islam, earning her 2,000 dinars on the spot. Semaya Muhammad Mokhtar, formerly Shirley Arrieta, now owns a BMW and testifies to her good fortune as a citizen of Kuwait, just before Saddam Hussein’s tanks rolled in:

“Imagine a place so clean, where if you get sick all is taken care of for free. There is no place like Kuwait. If you’re a Kuwaiti, not only do you not pay any taxes, you can borrow money to set up a business. No taxes.  Where in the world will you find a place where they give you money to set up a business, and you don’t have to pay taxes? If you give birth to a child, you also get money. Just to show you the strength of the dinar, 10 dinars is enough to fill your grocery bags; you’d have a hard time lugging them home…. My purpose there when I left our country was to marry a Kuwaiti, because once you’re married to one, one was certain to live in great comfort.  But one disadvantage was their men want their wives to stay home” (Laurel 1990, 4).

Semaya Mokhtar’s narrative exemplifies the fulfillment of a quest that departs from the conventional pattern of women alienating their time and energies to provide for an extended family left at home. But where is home? Filipinos who return to the Philippines at Christmas time are eager to go back to Kuwait where, although problems also beset them, “over there”–they unanimously concur–“we have money, and that makes a big difference.” They frankly confess their motivation: “The money is the attraction, nothing else, and it’s as simple as that.” They cheer at the mention of the exchange rate: “If you’ve tasted earning three thousand pesos a month [in dinars], and your husband is just a jeepney driver, I think even you can bear the loneliness” (Laurel 1990, 5). The key motif of petty accumulation shrivels the montage of events into an apocalypse of redemption from class oppression. Money decides the unfolding of the plot.

Awakening In the Promised Land

For many Filipinos who have been forced to sell their labor-power abroad, Saudi Arabia has become a symbol of the new path to a simulacra of prosperity, even if the affluence is superficial and transitory. Many seem to agree with this belief expressed in the early eighties: “This ‘Saudi Juice’ has really helped our country a lot…. Many things have changed in our lives.  Before, only the rich can afford to eat good food.  Now, the rich can be equalled by someone who has gone to Saudi Arabia” (Catholic Institute 1987, 79). By 1992, this juice seemed to have gone sour, at least in Kuwait where 367 Filipinas sought refuge in the Philippine Embassy, each one reporting physical, sexual or psychological abuse at the hands of their employers. One badly cut and bruised Filipina stated that her boss had thrown her out of a two-story window.
The feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe thinks that women’s vigilance is either due to their new self-confidence and awareness of their rights, or that Kuwaiti men have grown more violent after the cessation of the Gulf War (1993, 185). People magazine popularized the stories of the Kuwaiti families’ atrocious and barbaric conduct toward these hapless women. The most notorious case of abuse seems to involve Lorna Laraquel, 44, who worked as the maid of Sheikha Latifa Abdullah Jaber al-Sabah, a Princess in the royal family. According to one testimony, the Sheikha forced Laraquel to eat her meals off the floor. She also once threated to cut off the Filipina’s hands and tongue and gouge out her eye. While traveling in Egypt in February 1992, Laraquel felt that she could no longer tolerate the abuse and stabbed her mistress to death with a kitchen knife. The last word is that she had been condemned to death in Egypt. In a report in USA Today (21-23 February 1992), the version of the event reads as follows:

“Foreign workers are bracing for more violence after the stabbing death of a member of Kuwait’s ruling family by a Filipina housekeeper.  Lourana Crow Rafaeil, 44, is accused of murdering Sheikha Latifa Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah last week in Cairo after she refused Rafaeil’s request to travel to the Philippines.  Kuwaiti and other Arab newspapers are calling the foreign workers untrustworthy, and even branding them as prostitutes.”

With her name altered at every mention of the incident, Lourana or Lorna becomes an emblem of a possible resistance and her story an exemplum of vindication. She becomes the archetypal victim warning of retribution, an allegorical stand-in for all subalterns smoldering with vindictive ressentiment. Her mutilated name and story register and refuse at the same time the claims of bourgeois realism and surveillance. Here the Filipina narrative of exodus and return acquires a nuanced complexity that defies the usual procedures of academic rhetorical analysis and tropological deconstruction.

Decoding the Script of Self-Liberation

[A few weeks after having written the above paragraphs, I received a packet of information about this case from a friend working with overseas contract workers in Japan. The name of Lorna Calda Laraquel, 42 years old, from the province of Oriental Mindoro, has now been authenticated by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It confirms her deed: she stabbed to death her employer, Princess Latifa Abdullah Al Jaber Al-Sabah, in Cairo on 13 February 1992 at 3:30 PM. Some personal letters she wrote to her children were reproduced in a chapter of Ma. Ceres P. Doyo’s book Journalist In Her Country. The letters are confessions of Lorna Laraquel’s painful sojourn in Kuwait, the inhumane treatment she received from the Princess, and her anguish during the travel to Cairo, Egypt; she was terrified that she would be killed at the behest of her employer and simply disappear.
Do we need more facts, or further interpretation? In a news report datelined Cairo, February 14, we learn more detailed information: Laraquel wanted to get her passport because she overheard her aristocratic mistress saying that she would never allow Laraquel to go home. The Princess refused to give the passport, pushing Laraquel violently until she fell. Laraquel told the prosecutor: “I could not control myself, I rushed to the kitchen and took a knife and attacked her.”  Enough was enough. This was the culmination of her ordeal which began on July 21, 1991. On March 25, Laraquel was arraigned in the South Cairo Preliminary Court, charged with premeditated homicide. There is no mystery left to this plot, with the hermeneutic code completely anulled: when asked if she killed the Sheikha, Laraquel told the court: “Yes” (Doyo 1993, 81.] The subaltern has spoken.

Interlude or Postlude?

Meanwhile, many Filipinos continue to feel no alternative to misery in the Philippines except to find work abroad. In spite of repeated humiliation, hunger, brutal treatment, rape, and the ravages of solitary confinement, these new “modern-day heroes” (to quote former President Corazon Aquino’s ironic praise of overseas domestics) seem incapable of learning the lesson of refusal. Could it be naivete, ignorance, or sheer bullheadedness? Or could it be a deeply-ingrained susceptibility to fantasy and dreams of success? Or all these?
One answer is given by Ricardo Lee and Gil Portes’ film Bukas…May Pangarap. The script concerns a man from the peasantry who was swindled by a recruiter; after being deported from Saudi Arabia, Udong (the main protagonist) returns to his family and struggles to earn a living. Somehow feeling guilty for the failure of her husband’s adventure in Saudi Arabia, his wife Mering kills herself. After her burial, Udong offers himself to another recruiter (not connected with “Saudi”) so as to be able to feed his children and pay back his debts. It is the end of the rope for him; the only way out is to sell himself again at a price higher than what he can get in the Philippines. Reminded by his brother of his being swindled before, his “loss of face” and the suicide of his wife, Udong seems unable to summon up the courage needed to give up his dream (or delusion?) of being able to earn enough to support his family and wipe away his debts by going abroad. The siren overseas beckons; desire for proving one’s worth, one’s honor, to kins, loved ones in the family and community, pushes each individual Filipino to try his/her luck, even risk life itself in the process.

Seduction for Fugitives

It becomes evident that the seduction exercised on millions of Filipino men and women occurs in the space of a wrecked or stagnant local economy due chiefly to indebtedness to the World Bank/transnational lenders and the oligarchic greed of the native elite. Can one escape going abroad? Freedom to sell one’s labor power to anyone who will buy it is a freedom that crosses, nay, overturns national boundaries and seems to leap barriers of all kinds. But soon one discovers the concrete limits of this freedom. It is accomplished with the mediation of petrodollars, Japanese yen, or any viable European currency, whose use-value is precisely its exchange-value, its translation into commodities.
What happens next? When these subalterns find time to reflect and attempt to reconstitute their identity, the montage of their fragmented lives revolves around the post office (medium of communication with relatives or family members) and the bank, the two loci where the diegesis of the world system as a metanarrative of the global circulation of finance capital crystallizes. In the Middle East, petrodollars are able to purchase the labor-power of migrant workers in order not only to build infrastructures but also to sustain and reproduce the patriarchal structures of power in tributary or feudal social formations. But more important, the exchange of their time and energies for money (which never really corresponds to what is socially necessary to reproduce their human capacities) provides the foreign exchange needed to bail out the  Philippine elite who has mortgaged the future of the country to the World Bank and financial consortiums of the West.

Illuminating the Stage

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest debtor nations. In 1984 it owed $27 billion. In the past ten years during the Marcos dictatorship, the indices for the quality of life showed a marked deterioration in rising poverty due to income inequality, lack of employment, fall of real wages, with 3.6 million poor families. The oil shock of 1979 and the international economic recession led to 64% inflation and the precipitous decline in per capita income. Structural adjustments recommended by the IMF/World Bank resulted in prolonged stagnation, exacerbating unemployment and depressing the living condition of the majority in the rural areas. Since the seventies, the Marcos dictatorship encouraged the migration of domestic workers to relieve unemployment and ease widespread political unrest. Filipinos working abroad grew from 314,284 in 1982 to 449, 271 in 1987–40% of overseas contract workers were women (majority of whom had college education) in the entertainment, office work, and service sectors.
In the eighties, a survey found that most of the 46,000 women domestic workers in the Middle East suffered from “extreme degradation, humiliation, sexual harassment and even rape”; they are faced with “hazardous working conditions, including contract substitution, wage discrimination, ill-treatment by employers,” and other forms of harassment (Vickers 1993, 90). By 1984, there were 311, 157 Filipino contract workers in the Middle East; 43,385 in Asia; 5,905 in the Americas; and 3,724 in Europe (Orozco 1985). Between 1977 and 1983, Filipino migrants sent home more than $3.5 billion–the largest foreign exchange earning (which used to come from commodity exports) sufficient to temporarily relieve the government of its balance of payments deficit.
In 1995-1998, according to Elizabeth Eviota, 4.5 million Filipinos working overseas (representing 17 percent of the total employable force) remitted $5.2 billion (2004, 58). With over nine million contract workers abroad today, overseas remittances now reach $7 billion annually, with roughly $1.5 billion sent through the local banking system.
The bodies of Filipino men and women, as vehicles of the capacity to labor, are thus exchanged or traded as commodities to generate the values remitted to the Philippines in order to sustain the extravagant lifestyles of the oligarchic elite (less than one percent of the total population) who, from the time of the U.S. colonial invasion in 1898, has historically served corporate interests and their drive for superprofits. With the huge increase of prostitution, women’s bodies literally prop up and maintain a flagrantly oppressive and exploitative system.

Fables of Ruptures and Silences

Is the experience of Filipino women in the civilized centers of Europe any different?  The cases I have noted are replicated with only minor variations. Of the numerous testimonies gathered by the London-based Anti-Slavery International, I cite Lulu’s story:

“I received a very low wage which I accepted because there was no alternative. My employer did not follow the contract. There was no day off. I was maltreated, overworked and [had] few hours sleep.  When I arrived in London my employer was always shouting at me for whatever little mistakes I did in the housework.  Whenever I said that I was not feeling well my employer would shout back at me: ‘Why are you not feeling well? I did not pay for you in the agency to be sick.  I paid for you to work’… I wasn’t feeling well because the food that I was eating was not enough to sustain me to do all of my work.  In the morning I would eat a slice of bread and have a cup of tea.  During lunch I would usually have a bowl of rice and some water, and in the evening I would have a slice of bread and a cup of tea again…. The lady wants me to sleep in the garage if there is a carpet but I argue with her that the garage is only for the car and it’s very cold.  I told her that I cannot bear to sleep there” (Anderson 1993, 48).

Thus we see that the recollected stories of Filipina workers are often interrupted, forced to repeat themselves, or hang suspended, unable to sustain a logic of continuity. The reason is obvious. The condition of slavery for these domestic workers explains why their testimonies are composed of flashbacks and analeptic withdrawals to scenes of privation that need to be revisited in order to effect a catharsis of the trauma (Rimmon-Kenan 1983). Meanwhile those who have escaped, the runaways who have managed to get jobs by giving false names, are haunted by the fear of being caught by immigration authorities (see Mirkinson 1994).
In Britain, women engaged in hospital and hotel work are driven to obtain two or three jobs to earn more to send to their families and relatives. One of them rehearsed her plight: “I have always worked in a hotel since coming here in 1975, first as a chambermaid, then as a cashier.  My weekly wage is 81 pounds for a 40-hour week.  I always split duty, 7:00 am to 11 am and 12:30 to 4:30 pm, or 12 noon to 3:30 and 7:30 pm to midnight. It doesn’t matter even if I work weekends or bank holidays.  I never get any extra money, only time off when we’re not too busy, and now that business is not so good I never get an opportunity to do overtime” (Catholic Institute [hereafter CIIR] 1987, 65).
For these modern “slaves,” loss of control over the rhythm of everyday life is compounded by the pressure of a regime of surveillance. This experience is captured vividly by this testimony:

“When they want me to do overtime, even on my day off–I might be asleep–they just phone through and ask me to work.  Even if I am off sick, the supervisor comes to my room to check–she doesn’t believe I am telling the truth.  Women feel unable to invite friends, and feel perpetually under observation.  Everybody knows everything about you…they know if we go out, or if we bring someone in, and I feel people are always gossiping about me.  Sometimes I feel so lonely and isolated, even though there are plenty of people here.  My room is so small and stuffy, but the bathroom is always so dirty, the toilet is always out of order, but I cannot move out because I couldn’t afford to pay travelling expenses if I move too far from my work” (CIIR 66).

What are the consequences of this interruption of the quest for financial security?  Psychological maladies of all sorts–loneliness, despair, recurrent headaches and psychosomatic symptoms, profound anomie, withdrawal, even suicidal thoughts–beset this group. Here are three confessions typical of the collective mood:

“I am pursued day and night thinking of my family at home.  Even while I work my thoughts wander far and I spend my nights worrying or crying out of sheer helplessness….My husband seems to be cooling off, he seldom writes to me now…I sometimes get dizzy and often have stomach pains…. My doctor says, ‘Sorry but you must learn to live with it.’ He gives me pills but they don’t help.”

“Look at me now, I’m old already, and I still have to send 100 pounds a month home to educate my nieces and nephews.  How could I get married?…I got the opportunity to come to Britain and it is my duty to help my family.”

“I get so tired all the time, it’s only work, work, work, and now my family are asking for more money.  I don’t think I’ll be able to keep going much longer… I’m not so young any more.” (CIIR 1987, 67)

Deciphering Hidden Transcripts

These reflections all generate enough force to invert Freytag’s pyramid–the scheme in which one mounts the ladder of success without serious hindrance. They are anticlimactic glosses to an anachronistic, nonlinear pattern of development where the commodity-form (whose substance is comprised of the bodies of Filipino women) is assigned a price quite out of proportion to the surplus value it adds to their product: the reproduction of class inequality and a hierarchical political economy of racialized gender/sexuality.
There may be utopian variations in the unfolding of these vicissitudes. One is dramatized by a certain Ana DelaCruz who escaped slavery and attempted rape; eventually she married an Irishman in the building trade so that she was able to send 200 pounds per month to her mother–but at the cost of her being permanently estranged from her two children left at home in the Philippines (Asean-Far Easterm Monitor, March 1993, 14). But here, too, the quantitative schema of the transformation of Commodity–>>Money–>>Commodity hides the qualitative relation of exploitation and oppression. Value as a social relation is occluded by the exchange of the commodity labor-power, now converted into abstract labor in order to be measured in terms of alienated time, so that the material relations between humans mediated by the money wage become fetishized, acquiring an enigmatic life of their own. Given the geopolitics of uneven development, it is the sex/gender contradiction that disrupts the fetishism of the neoliberal order and reveals the limits of male physical power.

Orientalizing  Scenarios

Let us look finally at the stories of those working in Hong Kong (about 60,000 women) and Japan (of the 141,937 Filipinos in Japan, 32,636 are in the entertainment or “hostessing” sector)–both destinations, replete with abundant bazaars and emporia, are highly sought.
As domestic helpers and “hospitality girls,” Filipina domestic helpers function within the sphere of reproduction–raising children, cooking and washing and cleaning, etc. (Himmelweit 1983). Cases of sexual abuse and even killing become more dominant and sometimes exorbitant, as epitomized in the case of Anastacia in Hong Kong who was victimized by William Chan, the millionaire chamption horse trainer of Hong Kong. Anastacia was repeatedly assaulted by her employer; after the fourth assault, she escaped and brought her case to court. Found guilty by the British magistrate who chided him for behavior “contemptuous of the woman’s indignity,” Chan was fined $643 for each of the five counts of indecent assault for a grand total of $3,215.  Eventually Anastacia returned to the Philippines with a pittance of $3,213 after 11 years of service (Maglipon 1990). With about 52,868 Filipina domestic “helpers” in Hong Kong in 1989, the term “Filipina” has become synonymous with “maid” in the idiom of Hong Kong residents.
The case of sixteen year old Liza (investigated and reconstructed by the journalist Maglipon) may not be typical but is exemplary in foregrounding the use value of the erotic in the traffic of women’s bodies. This attractive girl from a quiet home in Laguna province in the Philippines was lured by the promise of a job as waitress in Hong Kong. The man who accompanied her to Hong Kong threatened her with jail if she complained that her name in her passport was different; after being raped by her companion, “she was turned over to her customers in a brothel managed by a Chinese resident. In her testimony to the police, she stated “that she was made to work every night from 10 pm to 7 am” and had 20 to 30 customers every night (Maglipon 1990, 16).
On the 16th day of her captivity, she succumbed to an epileptic seizure. Instead of being sent to the hospital, the immigration authorities threw her in jail for the crime of faking a passport. In prison for three months, she was subjected to all kinds of indignities and given pills that bloated her body and induced a liver ailment. When she became pregnant, she had to demand an abortion. Upon her release, the doctors told her that she had a brain tumor. Surprisingly enough, the narrative ends with the note that Liza has rejoined her mother in the province and that she “has become beautiful again.”
This recalls somewhat the story of Liza Mamac, a handsome woman who was forced into white slavery in Holland; she was rescued through the efforts of Johan Agricola who later married her and helped prosecute her victimizer (Parel 1990)–a paradigm with functions and roles that evoke those in the narratological schemas of the Russian critic Vladimir Propp and the French semiotician Algirdas Greimas.

Revisiting the Outrage

The Japanese scenario has been played out for some time now, replete with horrendous consequences. It has generated narratives that are now archetypal and exemplary in illustrating the contradiction embodied in labor as commodity: the value form–the social form of abstract labor–and its concrete use value that is exchanged and depreciated owing to the political, economic, and cultural asymmetry between Japan as an economic superpower and the Philippines as a dependent, neocolonial formation. In short, it is no longer a surprise to find Filipinas in Japan always equated to prostitutes, also euphemistically known as “hospitality girls.”
In Japan, Filipina women service the libidinal needs and psychosexual fantasies of Japanese businessmen, selling “a particular brand of female sexuality” (De Dios  1992, 49). Japayukis, as Filipina entertainers are called, suffer from the violence of this kind of trafficking in women–female sexual slavery: once in Japan, their passports are immediately confiscated by their employers. And instead of being paid monthly salaries (lower than that promised in the Philippines), they are given cash advances for food and basic necessities; when and if they are finally remunerated at the airport after the stipulated six months, they are unable to complain. During their contract, they are subjected to all kinds of abuse, humiliation, and physical violence. The scandalous dossier of what happened to Filipina entertainers like Maricris Sioson (killed under mysterious circumstances), Jocelyn Guanezo, and Cecilia Gelio-Agan, among others, illustrate the ultimate climax of commodification: in the case of Sioson, an autopsy of her brutalized body that conflicts with the Japanese hospital’s diagnosis of her death, a death the circumstances of which are permanently suspect.
Profit are literally squeezed from the cadavers of these victims. The expenditure of concrete labor (the sexual instrumentalization of women’s bodies) whose use value is measured by a drastically reduced price constitutes the necessary condition for sustained accumulation for the metropole elite. Both use value and exchange value are relational categories that operate within the logic of accumulation. Their tension produces uneven development, that geopolitical inequality I mentioned earlier.  Why the diaspora of Third World workers? Samir Amin sums up the explanation: “The world capitalist system embodies a structure of labor-market segmentation wherein workers in peripheral countries receive no more than one-sixth of the wages received by their counterparts in the advanced industrial center” (1980, 26).

Regime of Sacrifice

The seduction of finally becoming a consumer is almost irresistible. Most of the women entertainers recruited by the Japanese are seduced by the offer of high wages especially if converted into pesos. Why not accept the offer if the only alternative is hunger and hopelessness? These promises are made to applicants (most of them from poor rural families) in the Philippines, reinforced by token advance money. At the airport in Japan, they are given “show money” to prove to immigration officers that they have money to spend; but that is taken away from them, together with their passports, when they are assigned to different “houses” and shuttled from one club to another.
In ‘Club 229’ and the ‘Jump Club’ in Osaka the women worked from 6 pm (and sometimes earlier) until 11 am the following morning.  They did everything: they were dancers, waitresses, dish washers, cleaners, and hostesses.  They were also forced to go out with customers for which they only get less than one-third of the money…The women did not talk about their problems. ‘We were undergoing the same things, perhaps we were ashamed…. The only thing we really cried aloud was our longing for home…” (CIIR 1987, 99). The clubs are raided, the women arrested and eventually deported. Why don’t they complain? One woman responded: “I was so afraid I would read my story in the papers. Besides there was nothing I could do.  If the Philippine authorities in Japan didn’t help me there, why would they now?  Right now I just want to forget it all.”
Forget it all?  Not for the relatives of Sioson, Gelio-Agan, and many others.
Is this the lesson of the circulation of social energies in the continuing saga of Filipino migrant labor? We have seen how the socially necessary labor time needed to produce the power to work, the value of the women’s labor power, has been reduced to the minimum. In the case of women in Britain and elsewhere, the “free” laborer collapses all of time into the expenditure of labor power that is measured and translated into money wage. The time left to recuperate, or reproduce that same labor power, is either absent or left to coincide with the purchased time. In short, production and reproduction of the worker’s life have become identical. The value of abstract labor is represented by the money commodity, its exchange into consumer goods. Hence the dream of every Filipina to advance her lot by crossing boundaries and inhabiting the dreamworld of a consumer’s paradise overseas–even if vicariously because what she earns is really enjoyed by her parents, children, or relatives in the impoverished homeland.

Remapping Carnal Cartographies

Value translated into commodity-fetishism is mediated through the cash-nexus.  Money as social power and as the form of value, not as money capital, and the commodities it is equivalent to, conceal the social meaning of value itself. It also hides the character of private labor and the social relations between workers and their employers. While the market system–the commercial exchange of labor as commodity–seems to dictate the price of quantities of use values expended by these “sexual slaves,” it is actually the political and economic domination of the Philippines by Japan, and also by the Western industralized states (and their Arab clients) that explains how the exchange value of the Filipino women’s capacity to produce value results in their super-exploitation. Both the conditions of work as well as the intensity of the labor process–symptomized by the gaps, absences, and elisions in the narratives–are wholly controlled by the employer despite efforts by the Philippine government to negotiate more humane terms.
We see then that the freedom of the labor market is an illusion. In these narratives of spatial adventures, we find a temporal process that deconstructs the Eurocentric paradigm of the “free laborer” emerging from the dissolution of feudal serfdom. Inserted into the configuration of the world system with its sex-gender and racialized class hierarchies, women from the Philippines and elsewhere are reduced into modern-day slaves. Their bodies become commodities whose exchange is severely delimited by their virtual “ownership” by Western or Japanese businessmen and gangsters even while the institutional framework defining the status of overseas contract workers superimposes the illusion of the “free” circulation of labor power exchanging according to fair market prices.
This disjunction between the classic paradigm of the free market of commodities and the tributary relations between nation-states–the underdeveloped peripheries like the Philippines supplying cheap labor–has shaped the plots of women’s stories into either a pathetic or sentimental one: pathetic in that a sequence of misfortunes cuts down our protagonists who do not deserve such suffering and so arouse our sympathy, sentimental in that despite the blows of adversities, our attractive and weak protagonists triumph in the end–through marriage or safe return to the homeland (Ducrot and Todorov 1979). In any case, one can perceive a moment of agency in the twist of representation. Whether it is simply consolation, or real efficacy in transforming one’s class position, depends on the context of social changes involving the whole nation.

In Quest of An Ending

We scarcely find any plots of education or revelation in the accounts of their travels since most Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) seem not to have learned the lesson of avoiding repetition.  Instead we find them confessing their desire to either return to the same place of misfortune, or travel to another place where tales of opportunities abound. At the very least, a change occurs in their specific attitudes but not their central belief that the economic improvement of their lives will not happen in their homeland but abroad.
This perception matches the reality of unrelenting immiseration, which in turn hides the dangers of exploitation abroad. Some are tested, reformed and enlightened; others become disillusioned. Rarely do these veterans give warning to their compatriots to desist from exploring unknown territory. So, in effect, the commodity-fetishism of the system of dependency continues to mediate the dispersal of libidinal investments by people of color in narratives where the process of mediation or transformation of their lives is determined by a combination of brute physical power, state regulations, callous neglect and indifference of governments, and hypocritical moralists.
It is only recently that OFWs in Europe, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, have begun to organize. Amelioration of the “hospitality” women’s condition and a halt to the traffic of sexual slaves will surely begin when and if a critical mass of Filipina and other Third World women are conscientized enough to organize and revolt against the whole system. Lacking this, we can for the moment be consoled by one woman’s ironic quest and personal sacrifice for justice and freedom–I have in mind the fate of Lourana or Lorna Crow Rafaeil, condemned by a whole system of racist exploitation and oppression, whose testimony remains to be exhumed and liberated from the archive of an inhuman “New World Order.”  For Flor Contemplacion and many others, it is difficult to superimpose a conventional tragic stereotype on their lives because the norm of justice remains to be imposed.
Is there another form of agency in the trajectory of Filipina workers’ lives? In a play entitled Pitik-Bulag Sa Buwan ng Pebrero, Ricardo Lee captures the existential vibrance and power of this testimony in the words of Yolly who narrates and also reflects in a Brechtian gesture her life as a Filipina “dancer” in Japan:

“Nagputa ako hanggang gusto nila. Pinag-aral ko lahat. May malaking aquarium, nakababad kami d’on sa tubig, may mga numero sa dibdib, parang mga ipinagbibiling isda.  Tiniis ko lahat.  Nag-cultural dance ako nang naka-bikini. Nakipag-sex nang may nanonood.  Nilaspag-laspag nila ako, lahat na nang bagay ay pumasok sa katawan ko, pero lagi pa rin akong at your service, omese, anything you say. Nakakulong kami, may kandado at bantay, pinupurga sa contraceptives at penicillin, binubugbog kapag nagreklamo. Kagaya ni Esper [a “mail order bride” beaten up by her Australian master] ay marami rin akong hiwa at pilat sa katawan. Tinanggap ko lahat nang mga iyan.  May nakaplaster na ngiti sa mga labi ko pero putang ina, sabi ng dibdib ko, putang ina.”

[I became a whore up to the hilt. I studied everything. They had a large aquarium, there we were immersed in the water, with numbers on our chests, like fish being hawked. I endured everything. I did cultural dances with a bikini. I had sexual intercourse with spectators around. I was thoroughly bruised, almost all kinds of objects went into my body, but I was still at your service, yes, anything you say.  We were imprisoned, with lock and guard, purged with contraceptives and penicillin, beaten up if you complain. Like Esper, I have many cuts and scars all over my body. I accepted all these. There was a smile plastered on my lips but son of a bitch, my chest cried out, son of a bitch. (translated by E.San Juan, Jr.)]

Once Upon A Time

The real denouement, however, is suspended in the larger diasporic agon of Filipina domestic workers. On March 17, Singapore’s government hanged Flor Contemplacion for the alleged killing of a fellow maid and her four-year old charge. Despite the patent implausibility of such an accusation, belied by witnesses who testified that Contemplacion was innocent (she was in fact tortured by the Singaporean police and forced to confess to the alleged crime), her story was given no credence–even by the Filipino officials who, doubting Contemplacion’s own disavowal, made the motion of setting up its own bureaucratic inquisition.
The cover-up could not be tolerated. Millions of Filipinos, enraged by such injustice, exploded into rallies of indignation all over the islands; urban guerillas as well as local town and provincial administrators threatened Singaporeans and their businesses. In response to then President Fidel Ramos’ plea for clemency, the Singaporean president was quoted as saying that his cabinet “found no special circumstances to justify commutation of her sentence” and cited Section 302 of his country’s penal code to the effect that anyone convicted of murder is meted the death penalty “regardless of nationality” (Philippine News, March 15-21, 1995, A6).
It was a classic tautology to wash bloody hands and also conceal the real criminals. Ramos, of course, assumed that the woman was guilty. In the reports in Singapore’s newspapers, Contemplacion was portrayed as hearing voices that told her to kill the Filipina maid and the Singaporean boy. In a last-ditch effort, the Philippine government tried to appeal to the United Nations to intervene, but apparently this was all a gesture meant to appease the infuriated citizens (Philippine News, March 22-28, 1995, A1, A14).
In the immediate aftermath, the Ramos administration mounted an all-out display of concern for our latter-day “national heroes,” hundreds of thousands of contract workers exploited and brutalized daily in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and other cities in the Middle East, Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Somehow we want to affirm our national dignity, our conscience, our sense of solidarity. Rallies, vigils, flag-burning, funeral marches, massive protests, and unrelenting cries for vengeance–these interruptions of the comic plot (or aborted tragedy) are symptomatic of an impending breakdown of the entire symbolic economy of globalized labor-exchange on which the ideology of individual success through work, thrift, and self-sacrifice rests. Perhaps the lesson here is that aesthetics and philosophy cannot really capture the complete and full trajectory of Filipina lives and that, to quote Delia Aguilar, “only with an unequivocal articulation of the global order that women can be adequately grasped in their complexity as laboring and desiring subjects” (2004, 21). Such more unequivocal inquiry remains the agenda for another occasion. Meanwhile, let me conclude provisionally this introductory essay.
The Flor Contemplacion story is not over yet despite the deluge of films, official documents, police blotters, etc. attempting to bury the whole affair. When the masses explode, it is clear that empathy is no longer needed, vicarious identification no longer avails. Peripeteia (a reversal of fortune) short-circuits the shock of recognition. Finally, the sacrifice of bodies for the sake of Gross National Product and IMF conditionalities–of sensuous use-value for the abstracted or reified exchange-value–has found a precise dramatic embodiment in the execution of Flor Contemplacion by the rabidly self-righteous authoritarian capitalists of Singapore whose worship of the commodity and money-fetish eludes the descriptive reach of ordinary language. Indeed there are no more stories or tales to recount, only this uncanny quiet of the vigil and intimations of “the fire next time.”  Revolution blasts the continuum of normal history, splicing past and future, dream and reality, into the Now of Pinay power.


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E. SAN JUAN, Jr. was recently visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and lecturer in seven universities in the Republic of China. He was previously Fulbright professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University, and chair of the Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University. Among his recent books are BEYOND POSTCOLONIAL THEORY (Palgrave), RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press),  WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press, IN THE WAKE OF TERROR (Lexington Books),  BALIKBAYANG SINTA: AN E. SAN JUAN READER (Ateneo University Press), and FROM GLOBALIZATION TO NATIONAL LIBERATION (University of the Philippines Press) . He was recently fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center at Bellagio, and visiting prof of English and Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines. He will be a fellow of the WEB Du Bois Institute in Spring 2009.

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.
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