The Export of Philippine Women

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Delia D. Aguilar

AT THE SAME time last September that Business Week (Sept. 30, 1996, 20) announced how the Philippines, “Asia’s ‘sick man,'” appeared to be out of “the convalescent ward for good,” National Public Radio reported the return to Manila of 24yearold Lenny Torres, a domestic helper employed in Bahrain.

Torres came home in a coffin, her alleged suicide angrily questioned by relatives, women’s groups, and government officials. In 1995, 87 overseas contract workers (OCWs), mostly domestics like Torres, met unexplained deaths. Meanwhile, as Business Week and other media report, the GNP has been accelerating steadily since 1992, reaching 7.1% in the first half of this year.

In the aftermath of the hoopla over the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Conference in the Philippinesas reportage in the United States predictably center-staged President Clinton’s meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, with Manila and vicinity, cleared of 30,000 messy squatter dwellers and sanitized for the comfort of foreign delegates, serving as convenient backdropthe media continue to provide scant information on the impact of global restructuring on the lives of the majority in peripheral nations.

In this essay I will fill in this gap by interrogating the economic “miracle” that Philippine President Fidel Ramos is presumed to have performed, what it means for women workers and, finally, how intellectuals and progressives are responding to these changes in the context of a politically conservative globalized order.

When we visited the Philippines this past summer the climate was lively, indeed, in the commercial districts. Megamalls had grown ever larger and tawdrier, the hustle and bustle of endless crowds of shoppers giving one the impression that, compared to the previous decade, these were good times.

Fancy restaurants had mushroomed in what used to be a modest residential avenue in Quezon City, their highpriced menus apparently not entirely only within the reach of the affluent, as seated at their tables were what appeared like common folk. In jeepneys and street corners, ordinary people talked away on cellular phones.

To someone who had not visited in four years, there was a perceptible difference in the environment. It was not that ubiquitous beggars and the poor had disappeared, for their numbers seemed to have multiplied, but that the once negligible middle class had suddenly become visible, with accouterments of material wellbeing, if not prosperity, conspicuously displayed.

What was one to make of this?  Everyone we talked to provided the same explanation: Business had picked up due to consumer spending brought about by remittances sent by family members who are OCWs. With remittances expected to reach $7 billion this year, 43% higher than in 1995, migrant workers constitute the single largest source of foreign exchange.

The Central Bank Governor recently declared that the increased amount should help shore up the country’s balance of payments, currently under pressure from a rise in imports. (Philippine News Digest, Oct. 1996)  Women now comprise 60% of workers who sign up for jobs overseas, the large majority being domestic workers like Lenny Torres.

It is therefore no exaggeration to state that the Philippines’ present recuperation from financial maladies, to continue the illness metaphor, has been made possible through the labor of its women who may now claim the title of servants of a corporatized world that they have unwittingly integrated. Progressive analysts acknowledge the economic recovery witnessed in the past four years, attributing much of it to OCW remittances, since these pay the debt servicing for loans from IMF/WB, thereby literally keeping the economy afloat.

If the indispensability of OCW remittances in the nation’s current economic wellbeing is downplayed in the U.S. media, this is not the case in the Philippines.  A recent news item titled “OCW Remittances Outpace Exports” (The Manila Bulletin USA, Dec. 1218, 1996, 1) states precisely this:

“While exports grew by an average of 20 percent from January 1992 to October 1996, the foreign exchange remittances of Filipino OCWs surged by an average of 35 percent over the same period…the robust growth…has made it possible…to sustain a surplus in its balance of payments despite a yawning trade deficit of $12 billion.”

But the sustainability of this phenomenon, not to speak of its mockery and disruption of any decolonizing gestures, is highly problematic. Recently, the government’s anxiety over the fate of 130,000 domestics in Hong Kong was considerably allayed by the assurance, in spite of the change in Hong Kong’s status, that repatriation will not occur and that OCWS can continue to be employed as servants.

In fact, the sustainability of other economic growth factors is equally subject to question. Among these are government impact projects and election spending, government income from the sale of government assets, and massive inflows of shortterm speculative foreign capital (Ibon, February 1996).

Also to be underscored is the unevenness and inconsistency of the growth pattern: Construction undergoes a boom one year and then tapers off to nothing; the following year the power industry experiences high growth and then declines, and on with the boom/bust cycle. Amidst all this, however, is the unmistakable crisis experienced in agriculture, particularly the staple crop of rice, a truly ominous sign for a still primarily agrarian society.

Immediately after the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization [WTO, created under the terms of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT — ed.] in 1995, a rice shortage transpired (Villegas, 1996). The government policy of agricultural deregulation and trade liberalization resulted in the virtual collapse of agricultural production. The main exports, asparagus and cut flowers, have replaced the production of rice, corn, sugar, coconut, bananas, and tobacco, among others.

Further, although the government expected lowered tariffs under the sponsorship of GATTWTO to create a million jobs a year, this did not occur; consequently, the rise in Gross National Product which has earned kudos for Ramos has been aptly labeled “jobless growth” (Ofreneo, 1995). A distinction is thus made between economic growth which is a reflection of an improved business milieu, and that of a sustainable pattern of economic development.

In an environment where “growth and development” as mandated by WTO policies alongside International Monetary Fund and World Bankimposed (IMF/WB) structural adjustment programs (SAPs) has dubious credibility, how are women faring? If, as antiAPEC organizers contend, the real winners along with sectors of the local elite and public officialdom are transnational corporations and foreign investment speculators  precipitating, in short, a “deepened imperialist economic hegemony” (Bayan Media Release No. 32, Nov. 25, 1996)  how have such arrangements affected work conditions for women?

The onerous burdens placed by SAPs on the shoulders of women in developing countries, because of cultural practices, traditional sanctions, and their charge in both productive and reproductive spheres, have been sufficiently documented (Vickers, 1991; Feldman and Beneria, 1992). The World Bank itself of late has had to admit, for instance, that in SubSaharan Africa where women bear a disproportionate share of the debt crisis, loans have simply failed to deliver their promise of an improved economy.

In the Philippines, SAPs have spelled import liberalization, new taxes, removal of government subsidies to public utilities, social services and education, wage freezes and layoffs, and exportoriented production. It was under the Marcos regime that “exportled production” acquired a meaning beyond the selling to overseas markets of bananas or pineapples, and bras or Barbie dolls manufactured in Export Processing Zones.  More significantly, through the Philippine Labor Code of 1974, it institutionalized labor migration and made the “warmbody export” a commonplace in the daily existence of Filipinos.

The outmigration of women as “entertainers,” mailorder brides, and OCWs has since proceeded unabated, the latter evoking commendation from former President Corazon Aquino as “the nation’s new heroines” and from current President Ramos as “the Philippines’ contribution to other countries’ development.”

While the global restructuring mantras on behalf of transnational corporations include liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, in the workplace worldwide, the governing slogan is flexibility.

Flexibility denotes, above all, the treatment of human labor as a variable form of capital. It means the power of business to exercise extraordinary versatility in the allocation of human resources and wages and the deployment of innovative hiring practices. It also means the ability to pick up and move when labor proves intractable or more malleable workers beckon elsewhere.

Filipino women, comprising only a third of the labor force, have not been spared the effects of a flexible regime of accumulation now in operation as never before. (The following information on the status of women workers has been culled from PinedaOfreneo and Ofreneo.)

Mostly situated in garments/textiles and electronics (the former a sunset, the latter a sunrise industry), women are very much ;subject to practices such as subcontracting and domestic outwork, receiving piecerate pay rather than hourly wages. Twothirds of the half million workers in the garment industry are located outside factory walls, dispersed in a system of multilayered subcontracting in which an exporter subcontracts to a provincial agent, who subcontracts to a town agent, who subcontracts to a barrio agent, who then hires domestic outworkers, mostly women and children.

In such a system it is not surprising that a rural woman who sews a baby dress that sells for $15 in a U.S. department store gets paid 10 cents for her labor. But even more broadly, though an earmark of garment manufacture, subcontracting is being utilized in industries as disparate as car parts manufacturing, metal fabrication, leather production, food processing, and in agriculture, where it is called contract growing.

Apart from the use of subcontracted labor, on the factory floor itself the number of permanent workers has been exceeded by casuals or temporaries. Hired for the duration of from 36 months, after which the law mandates conversion to regular worker status, temporaries may be rehired anew after a break of 24 weeks. Aiding this new but pervasive practice is the proliferation of temporary service agencies: Contracted services now include equipment maintenance, office management, packaging/bottling, marketing, transport, etc.

The hiring of temporary workers characterizes sales, in particular. To illustrate business firms’ dependence on casuals, Shoemart or SM (a huge supermarket/department store chain) of Metro Manila has a total of 30,000 sales workers, only 1500 of whom are regulars (from a conversation with Center for Women’s Resources staff, June 1996). Sales is dominated by women, and it is the single category of work in which women’s pay (slightly) surpasses men’s. Overall, women’s average income moved up from onethird that of men’s in 1986, to onehalf in 1991.

Another area of work in which women predominate is the “informal sector.” Called to question as a misdesignation, “informal” or worse, “underground” activities, are directly linked to the formal sector’s production and consumption (Bullock, 1994, 5659), contributing an estimated 40-50% share of the Philippines’ GNP.

Deindustrialization at the height of the debt crisis in the ’80s, as evidenced in declining employment in industry and manufacturing, was accompanied by increased employment in the informal sector and services. Prostitution, now increasingly involving very young girls and children, is classified under the service industry that answers to the requirements of tourism. Here new nomenclature has replaced the old”guest relations officer” or GRO for the wellunderstood and hopelessly sullied “entertainer.”

Filipino women’s particular placement in the world of paid work might render them especially privy to the dark side of globalization. Viewed from this angle, one might reflect on the radicalizing potential of such a purview. Perhaps in the long term. But for now, flexibility and other management practices pose more than a simply worrisome challenge to labor unions which, to begin with, are severely fractured.

How does one recruit membership from ranks that are technically unorganizable? When “human resource development” is summoned to maximize exploitation by training workers in different aspects of the production process, the easier to move them from one department to another in the plant as needed; when management increases the number of shifts per day, utilizing different groups of casuals; when the company sets up its own sweetheart union, what’s a weakened progressive movement to do?

When critical divisions within the left, which began in the mid’80s, led to a seriously attenuated progressive movement, radical energies became redirected to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These were attractive to donors, in part because the legacy of government corruption and cronyism under Marcos caused awarding agencies to question the reliability and trustworthiness of official channels with the proper disbursement of funds–but the cooptation of revolutionary impulses as an ulterior motive cannot be altogether dismissed.

For the case is that when previously vigorous and vociferously antiimperialist people’s organizations, whose activities centered on mobilization for social change, began to receive healthy amounts of funding, they effectively got tamed and transformed into projectoriented NGOs. In the face of a dispersed united front and a diminished revolutionary organization, the notion that NGOs had replaced the Communist Party as the “new vanguard” gained currency in the early 90s; but that illusion has quickly dissipated.

In such a context, some responses inside the left have been disturbing, if not entirely incomprehensible. Echoes of proclamations trumpeting the decline of the nationstate, mainly from intellectuals in the industrial West, resonate in the Philippines.  One political scientist, who a few years ago appropriated for himself the label “Marxist theoretician,” has turned brazen apologist for the government’s policy of complete acquiescence to GATT/WTO and IMF/WB/transnational pressure by maligning antiimperialist forces and “protectionism” for their “nativist, claustrophobic, ethnocentric framework.” (Alex Magno, “Introverted Nationalism,” Filipinas, June 1996, 20).

Magno advocates, instead, “a disposition that will allow us to meet the challenges of a globalized reality.”  Translate this to mean wholesale acceptance of freetrade arrangements.

To be sure, other responses are less malignant, sometimes even bearing the semblance of critique and a flourish of theoretical sophistication. For example, one intellectual (Pertierra 1994) calls to question Ramos’ “Philippines 2000” scheme, the design to push the country into the company of the four “Asian tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea) by the end of the century.

But this analysis, centered exclusively on the manner in which public life has relied on anachronistic mechanisms like “personal prowess” spawned by the nation’s colonial and “postcolonial” history, curiously avoids the tainting marks of political economy. Consequently, the alternative Pertierra recommends to equip the nation for its place in the globalized systema “disinterested knowledge regime” based on the establishment of impersonal structures in the public domain, a customary companion to industrializationmerely serves to privilege intellectual life and occlude current international economic relations of power.

As a reaction to leftist heavy handedness of the ’70s and ’80s, some progressives have thrown out Marxism and found their balsam in a framework that valorizes “civil society.” This framework claims to be radical since it invokes the logic of ;Gramscian thought on social change, but this is deceptive.

To be adequately understood, this “civil society” perspective needs to be aligned with the efflorescence of NGOs mentioned earlier. Its chronology can perhaps best be traced back to the “democratic space” opened up soon after the Marcos downfall. It is in turn derived from notions of “radical democracy” circulating among avantgarde intellectuals in the metropole.

Noting how “civil society” has appeal in countries as diverse as India, South Africa, El Salvador, and the Philippines, Canadian political scientist Sam Noumoff calls for its abandonment because, while seeking to establish space (against “state cronyism” in the case of the Philippines), the concept “is inescapably linked to private property” (“Democratic Rights, Resistance, and Civil Society,” unpublished essay).

NGOs and their claim to exist in a space separate from the state or the political order has led to their depoliticization and the consequent monopoly of politics by the apparatuses of the state. In short, “civil society” is a code word for the negation of revolutionary struggle in favor of reform within the status quo.

Feminist “postalities” have also been part of the global knowledgeindustry outflow into the Philippines, but their effects are scattershot and not yet apparent at the moment. Most of these are evidenced in research and writing produced by women from outside.

Progressive Filipino feminists have brushed elbows with the “politics of difference,” without a doubt. Fortunately, so far not too many have been convinced of the presumed pitfalls of the homogenization of “Third World” women as “poor,” nor have they been roused to disprove the purported image of women in the developing world as “passive victims without agency.” But it is true that a few middleclass intellectuals are starting to question the primacy of class.

Someone has written about women in the military and, using Foucault’s conceptualization of power as capillary, arrived at the conclusion that the New People’s Army and the army of Ramos are both patriotic and both violent (Hilsdon, 1995). The former, a guerrilla army, is made to stand side by side with the U.S.backed state army as though they were equals, thanks to the Foucauldian notion of dispersed power. (Foucault believed that wherever there is power, there is resistance, and that the antagonistic forces are equal.)

There was also the proposal, dispensed at a time when GABRIELA (a national alliance of women’s organizations) and people’s organizations were a solid unity, that alliances ought to be formed. This foreign observer (St. Hilaire, 1992) suggested that in contrast to existing people’s organizations, alliances should refrain from targeting the poor or, indeed, any particular group.

Instead, alliances should be built that “like our identities…remain precarious, unstable, in constant flux, displacing and being displaced as they come into contact with other differences, whether of class, race, sexual preference, age, nationality…”.

In all, the present outlook for progressives is not bright. Yet in the case of the Philippines, principles of social justice are clearly not served by applauding a system that prides itself in an increased GNP at the same time that it farms out its women to be servants of the world.

Epilogue: I just returned from a brief visit to Manila early in January. There was still some residual excitement over the protest activities organized around the APEC conference. Although progressives did not speak as one voice, the counter conferences provided a platform for oppositional critiques of corporate globalization.

I had an opportunity to talk to two groups of women workers picketing against the shutdown of garment factories where they had been employed. Both factories used bankruptcy as a pretext for closure, but the women workers, having learned of relocation plans, knew otherwise.

I also spoke to women vendors who, that day, had been forcibly dispersed from their sites by 150 security men hired by the management of the governmentrun Cultural Center of the Philippines where they have plied their trade since the mid70s. Two years ago the vendors, numbering around 80, sought the help of GABRIELA to solidify their association. Deeply aware of their exploitation and determined to put up a good fight, these groups of women called to mind the spirit of popular struggles that suffused the air during the years of martial law. This is a small but potent indicator of the bigger, more explosive “fire next time.”


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ATC 67, March-April 1997