Magazine article The Nation

The Philippines's Shameful Export

Magazine article The Nation

The Philippines's Shameful Export

Article excerpt

There was no national mourning in the Philippines when Delia Maga was murdered in Singapore in 1991. Maga was the Filipina maid for whose death and the death of the Singaporean boy in her care another Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, was hanged in Singapore on March 17. Had it not been for the stunning execution of Contemplacion, 42, the mother of four children and very likely the victim of a frame-up by Maga's boss, Delia Maga would be unremembered now. Her murder fits the pattern of "normal" violence against migrant Filipina workers, on top of which the hanging of Contemplacion is but a hideous elaboration--death linked to death in a series of relationships far less arbitrary than the one that brought Delia Maga and Flor Contemplacion so fatally together.

The Philippines puts more women into the overseas labor market than any country in the world. Last year alone more than 300,000 Filipina workers emigrated, continuing a trend that began in the 1980s. Most migrant women are domestics: 75,000 in Singapore; 50,000 in Hong Kong; 40,000 in England; 80,000 in Italy; 60,000 in Spain; 20,000 in Greece; and 750,000 in the Middle East. The Philippine government has called these women "heroines of the Philippine economy," a phrase President Fidel Ramos evoked when, in eulogizing Contemplacion, he saluted "the migrant worker, who is the Philippines' contribution to other countries' development." It was not necessary for him to add "and a vital export commodity in the Philippines' own economic strategy."

Remittances from the 3 million to 4 million Filipinos who work overseas come to as much as $6 billion annually. This keeps the Philippines afloat, insuring the survival of its population and enabling the government to pay $1.8 billion annual interest on loans accumulated with lenders, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. So systematic is this milking of Filipino migrant workers that in the 1970s they were required by presidential decree to remit 70 percent of their income. Today, the government wants to charge them for medical insurance--a joke, certainly, considering the dismal state of the country's health care.

This exchange system exploits both men and women, but for women exploitation comes with a thick overlay of violence, from murder to battery to sex trafficking. The government won't acknowledge the ease with which contract workers slide into the sex industry, but it is the second most likely employer of overseas Filipinas. While no one has counted how many such women are in the strip joints and semi-legal brothels near military bases in San Diego, Honolulu or Jacksonville, at least 75,000 Filipinas work in the Japanese sex industry. In Okinawa, "entertainment" places catering to American servicemen are staffed by women from the Philippines--the locals' crude way of preventing the spread of AIDS to the general population. Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Holland have Filipinas working in the "leisure" business, and they all have highly organized mail-order bride industries, some offering thirty-day trial marriages.

Each year approximately 19,000 women who leave the Philippines join husbands and fiances of other nationalities, the majority of them in the United States. Not long ago a 47-year-old Seattle man gunned down his wife, 25 and pregnant, whom he'd obtained as a mail-order bride. She'd filed for divorce, alleging battering; he filed for annulment, which would have pre-empted her green card. He killed her and two other Filipinas in the courthouse as they waited for hearings to continue on his petition. Though lavish in its violence, that incident is not exceptional. Since 1980 sixteen mail-order Filipinas in Australia have been snuffed by their husbands, sometimes for insurance money, making them the group of women hardest hit by domestic violence in that country. The government that memorialized Flor Contemplacion has said nothing about these women.

Indeed, the upper edge of Philippine society seems to accept such abuse as part of the natural order of things. …

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