Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Beyond Trafficking, Agency and Rights: A Capabilities Perspective on Filipina Experiences of Domestic Work in Paris and Hong Kong

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Beyond Trafficking, Agency and Rights: A Capabilities Perspective on Filipina Experiences of Domestic Work in Paris and Hong Kong

Article excerpt


Current analyses of trafficking in unskilled female migrant labor are dominated by the concepts of victimization, agency and rights. So far, however, such concepts have done more to legitimate receiving countries' border control protection than to protect the livelihood needs of these migrant workers. Drawing on the experiences of Filipina domestic workers in Paris and Hong Kong, this paper uses Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach to question the efficacy of the current anti-trafficking discourse


Traditionally, international anti-trafficking policies have concentrated on the protection of women trafficked, within prostitution. In recent decades, there has been much reported and published on the noticeable increase of the number of women from poor areas of the world who migrate to rich countries for domestic work, and their exploitation by employers and traffickers. In 2000, the UN Trafficking Protocol also recognized overseas domestic workers (ODWs) as unskilled female labor migrants vulnerable to slavery and similar practices.1 Despite this wider knowledge base, the anti-trafficking principle of "rescuing, reintegrating and repatriating" the victim, continues to persist. Far from protecting the migrant worker and her livelihood needs, this victimbased approach continues to result instead in legitimizing more protection for receiving countries' borders (for example, Doezema, 2000; 2002). An emerging perspective underscoring migrant women's agency is producing a counter-approach that fights for ODWs' rights: not as victims, but as workers. These efforts, however, remain hampered by increasing inequality within the global economy and tightening immigration policies. From poor countries with very limited livelihood options, these migrant women choose overseas domestic work, often at the expense of their human rights. As migrants, they are outsiders whose rights are superseded by the rights of the sovereign, receiving-state, while unenforceable by the sending state (Stasiulis and Bakan, 1997). Consequently, the current rights approach has done little to change the historical course of anti-trafficking policy.

This paper employs Nussbaum's Capabilities Approach to tackle the limitations of the rights-based approach in responding to the situation of migrant domestic workers. Focusing on women domestic workers migrating from the Philippines, the paper shows how current polarized analyses of ODWs theoretically conflate agency with rights, and practically remain aloof to their subjects' needs for sustainable livelihoods. It then draws from Filipina experiences of domestic work in Paris and Hong Kong2 to show how it is the question of capability (what she is actually able to do and be) rather than rights (what she is entitled to do and be) with which the ODW is most immediately concerned. I then use the Capabilities Approach to theorize agency with rights, and to conclude that rights-based initiatives should foreground capability as the political goal. The current challenges faced by both the victim and agency-based approaches show that unless the ODW's agency is conceptualised in terms of its capability to be practiced, it will continue to provide little impact on the progress of current policy actions on who to protect-the Slave or the Worker; and what to protect - rights or livelihoods.

Constrained Agency and the Problem of Rights

Since the 1970s, women in the Philippines have faced increasing unemployment and insufficient wages. Thus, many have resorted to participating in the global labor market for domestic work. More recently, Filipina overseas domestic workers (FODWs) have come to form the majority of female labor migration from the Philippines, which accounts for around 70% of the country's international labor migrants (POEA 2005). While their participation allows access to wages that sustain livelihood expenses, ranging from raising capital for micro-enterprises to raising families, it remains fraught with violations of their human rights. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.