Disposable Targets: Domestic Workers Exported Exploitation

Kamusta, Womanist Musings readers!  I’m tanglad, and I write about the impact of globalization on women and marginalized groups in the Philippines and Southeast Asia at tanglad.wordpress.com.  In case you’re wondering, tanglad is Tagalog for lemongrass, my favourite herb.  I can’t begin to thank Renee for this opportunity, and am thrilled at the chance to join your conversations. Salamat.

Eugenia Baja’s family began to receive worrisome text messages towards the end of 2007. First, the 25-year-old Filipina domestic worker in Riyadh said she could not send money for Christmas. Then in January 2008, Eugenia pleaded to her brother, “Please help me. Please find me.” 

Eugenia texted that she felt cold all the time. Hungry. She did not know what was being done to her. She felt like she was losing her mind.

Then in February came the news that Eugenia had died in a Saudi Arabia hospital of an unspecified illness. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs later changed the story, saying Eugenia committed suicide by banging her head against the bathroom tiles in her employer’s bathroom.  But Riyadh autopsy documents listed her cause of death as an ulcer, and noted that her body showed signs of starvation.

Eugenia was one of the three thousand Filipinos who leave the country every day to work overseas. An estimated 75 percent of them are female, making Filipinas the country’s largest export.  People like Eugenia are also the country’s most lucrative export, generating remittances of over US$15 billion in 2007. This state-sanctioned labor migration is therefore a key component of the country’s economic development program.

This, of course despite the fact that too many women are coming home in caskets.

The government is heavily invested in the OFW remittances, so it maintains that the death of Eugenia Baja, and too many more before and since then, are just unfortunate, isolated incidents.  President Gloria Arroyo calls OFWs the bagong bayani. The new heroes. Somehow, these platitudes are to make up for how women like Eugenia are practically treated like export commodities.

Eugenia’s death was a direct result of the state state-sanctioned labour migration program and the lack of support infrastructure. This is even more pronounced for Filipina OFWs in service and domestic work occupations, where they are more vulnerable to abuse and violence.

Rosa Linda Fregoso provides relevant insights for studying state culpability in the deaths of women, in her essay “The Complexities of ‘Feminicide’ on the Border,” from The Color of Violence:  The Incite! Anthology:

“The state’s early response, negation, involved at first a denial that the killings were systematic. Then, when the state could no longer deny this reality, officials shifted the blame onto the victims, committing further sacrilege against already violated bodies.”

This denial was evident in how Eugenia’s cause of death was painted as a suicide (i.e, her fault), even when her body evidenced starvation, bruises, stab marks. This denial and victim-blaming is also seen in the government’s silence on the “rash of suicides” among OFWs in the United Arab Emirates, including numerous women workers who allegedly jumped off buildings. Norayda Ayuman. Mitos Vergara. Myrna Baylosis. Evelyn Lilo. Remedios Waayan. All women the government would rather we forget, women whose families’ demands for justice continue to go unheard.

And lest you think that Filipinas only come to harm in the Middle East:

There is Honiefaith Ratilla Kamiosawa, a waitress whose mutilated and dismembered body parts were found around Tokyo last April.

There is Jocelyn Dulnuan, who was found dead last October of multiple stab wounds in the Canadian mansion where she worked as a caregiver.

So what is to be done?  We can start by supporting the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development, and Human Rights.

But the only true solution is a long-term strategy. Filipinas like Eugenia, Honeyfaith, Jocelyn become OFWs for one reason—because it was impossible for them to provide for their families by working in the Philippines. Eugenia comes from a family of tenant farmers in rural Bohol. They needed seeds, fertilizer, rent money, then had to turn over half the harvest to the landowner.   Eugenia could barely contribute when she worked as a salesperson. But when she went to Riyadh, she was able to send money for a carabao.

“This newly constituted global economic order impacts the most vulnerable communities,” writes Rosa Linda Fregoso, “the bodies of the poor and Third World women, who are its disposable targets of labor exploitation.”

The poverty that fuels labor migration is a systemic program, and globalization has only exacerbated the problem.  And every day, there are thousands more Filipina women who become globalized labor’s disposable targets.

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