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Q&A with Robyn Rodriguez: ‘Migrants for Export’

FILE - Filipino job seekers look at job openings posted on a board inside a Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) in Manila.

FILE - Filipino job seekers look at job openings posted on a board inside a Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) in Manila.

Migrant workers from the Philippines seem to be employed everywhere in a variety of jobs, with eight million Filipinos working in almost two hundred countries. Robyn Rodriguez, an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, discussed her book Migrants for Export with VOA’s Jim Stevenson. In these excerpts from their conversation, she talks about investigating how and why the Philippine government actively prepares, mobilizes, and regulates its citizens for migrant work abroad.

RODRIGUEZ: One day, I happened to be sitting in traffic. Of course, anybody who has been to Manila knows that one sits in traffic for hours on end and I happened to be sitting in traffic right next to a school. And I remembered looking out the window and seeing what looked like a mural painted in front of the school with a picture of then-President Fidel Ramos. It was quoting him, something to the effect of “wherever you are, around the world, raise your head up high, because you are always Filipino.” I found that really striking, because the assumption behind the quote was that people were always going to be going around the world. Somehow, migration has become just so normal, expected, almost natural. That triggered a series of questions for me. One was, what explains this global phenomenon of Filipino migration? How does it happen? What are the impacts for migrant workers themselves?

STEVENSON: You mention in your book nearly 10 percent of the population is employed in almost 200 countries. How does that relate to other nations? The Philippines obviously is out in the middle of the ocean, a very interesting scenario for them to exporting a good chunk of their population.

RODRIGUEZ: That was my quest, right, partly to understand that exactly. There are several explanations for it, and this is what the book is all about. The Philippine government is primarily responsible for the global export of the Philippine workers. The Philippine government, actually in the 1970s, formally instituted a policy of labor export. That was done by then-President Ferdinand Marcos, and once he instituted the policy, that gave rise to a bunch of institutions that are tasked in what I call the export of Philippine workers. I sometimes refer to it as a kind of bureaucratic assembly line.

It’s through this apparatus that Filipinos learn about job prospects because part of what this assembly line does is try to locate markets for Philippine workers, and all of that market information actually mobilizes people so that it facilitates migration.

You said it, the Philippines is in the middle of the Pacific, it’s an archipelago, and yet there are Filipinos who work on nearly every country of the world. And of course, [their a] major source of foreign exchange for the Philippine government. Based on the latest statistics in 2013, nearly 23 billion U.S. dollars was remitted by overseas Filipinos.

STEVENSON: It’s an intersection of both the economy and job creation, and also, the social aspect of it which you’re addressing. If there are not enough jobs at home, it’s a great way to get people employed by sending them where the jobs are.

RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely, it’s a great political strategy, isn’t it? I mean, it’s sort of a way that the Philippine government can “promise” jobs; that these aren’t necessarily jobs at home, they’re jobs abroad. In a lot of ways I feel, that what they call “labor brokerages” is that it’s very much a political strategy, as much as it also generates all these economic benefits, in terms of foreign exchange generation, kind of the way that the Philippine government kind of deflects attention away from some of the really major structural problems. There are some protections that the Philippine government has introduced, several laws that are meant to protect migrant workers overseas. But I think it’s really important to note that these laws actually came as a consequence of migrants actually organizing, [pressing] the government for more protections.

STEVENSON: A lot of this work is very difficult, very back-breaking work and at a distance – they’re separated from their families which emotionally is very difficult.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, exactly. I think what’s important is that despite the fact that, first, that I focus on the government kind of critique of Philippines over in policy, I think what I found most inspiring is that Philippine migrant workers are incredibly organized. They’ve really tried to, and have been quite successful in many ways in trying to push back against this policy that forces them to leave home and forces them to have to work these low wage jobs far away from their families. I really leave with sort of a positive note, of migrants organizing transnationally and representing a possibility for maybe something else. I think it’s not all a story of despair. It’s also a story of hope as people have taken the courage to stand up for themselves to assert their rights to being able to work dignified lives for the country from where they were born.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.