Migration and Overseas Filipin@s [1]

by Niklas Reese

Close to eleven million Filipin@s across more than a hundred countries around the globe—that was the picture of Philippine outmigration at the end of 2009. This figure represents more than ten percent of the total Philippine population and a little more than one fifth of the working-age segment. Each passing day, more than three thousand Filipin@s leave the country to seek greener pastures elsewhere, registering a 42 percent increase in the span of just ten years. Of this eleven million, three million have settled overseas, having married nationals of the host country and/or those who have taken on foreign citizenship. Since they continue to nurture their ties to the Philippines, they are included in the statistics as overseas Filipin@s.[2]  However, with a headcount of 8.5 million, Overseas Filipino Workers (or OFWs for short) represent majority of these migrants.[3]

There is a steady demand for Philippine labor at the international level, given Filipin@s’ high levels of education and excellent English language skills. However, there is a two-class system in place. There are those who make it to “Western” countries in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand and mostly work as nurses, caregivers or special education professionals. Also included here are Filipino priests who fill in the gap of declining numbers of Catholic priests at the global level. And then, there are those sixty percent “second class” migrants who work in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. These include domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore, construction workers in the Gulf states and so-called Japayukis or “entertainers” in Japan whose daily grind sometimes borders on prostitution. It is also a fact that Filipin@s represent 20 to 30 percent of seafaring staff on high seas.[4] About one to two million OFWs do not enjoy legal migrant status in their host countries and lead a life of “TNT” or tago nang tago, meaning that they are always hiding and on the run from authorities. A more recent phenomenon are Filipin@s’ deployment as drug mules.

While Mexico boasts of the highest number of migrants in terms of absolute numbers and El Salvador and Tadzhikistan carry the distinction of having up to 40 percent of their population living and working outside their respective national borders, Filipin@s are the most highly dispersed workforce across the globe. Filipin@s are thus the most globalized working population of the world. Taking a closer look at remittances reveals another interesting pattern. While remittances sent back home to India, China and Mexico are higher in terms of absolute numbers, what is remarkable about the Philippine economy is that total remittances represent more than ten percent of the Gross National Product (GNP), which is not the case for the other three countries above.

The important point to be made here is that given the massive extent by which the Philippines is shaped by outmigration, it is almost impossible to understand Philippine realities outside the context of this phenomenon.

in its various forms has profoundly shaped Philippine society. Past decades have witnessed massive internal migration from the provinces to the urban centers, such as greater Metro Manila which is said to host a population of 15 to 30 million Filipin@s. This push from the countryside to the city is caused by inequitable land ownership (land reform notwithstanding), the lack of rural development, as well as development aggression, which manifests itself in the displacement of farmers, agricultural workers and indigenous people due to big mining operations and plantations. In 2008, 65 percent of the population lived in urban areas, with the rate of urbanization increasing by three percent each year (CIA Factbook 2008). These mega cities are however unable to provide decent shelter, jobs and public services to all, resulting in slums and miserable living conditions, especially in Metro Manila.

In Mindanao, armed conflict between Muslim rebels and the government has caused waves of civilian evacuations, affecting hundreds of thousands who live in internal refugee camps. Others have sought refuge across the border in the Malaysian state of Sabah where they suffer from lack of legal protection. One of the root causes of the long-standing conflict can be traced to a government program of the 1950s which transplanted millions of settlers from Luzon and the Visayas to Mindanao, displacing the original inhabitants.

History and Contemporary Context of Outmigration

During the time of the American colonial administration, at the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Filipin@s were deployed to the pineapple and sugarcane plantations of Hawaii.

Mass migration began in the 1960s and 1970s due to employment opportunities in the industrial countries of Europe and North America as well the booming oil economies in the Middle East. This created a big demand for manual labor and domestic helpers. Former president Ferdinand Marcos recognized that supporting labor migration was a way of getting hold of foreign currency to repay the country’s debt without having to initiate long overdue structural and economic reforms. This meant that the selective opening up to the world market as witnessed in the neighboring tiger economies was not forthcoming. While the Philippines and Japan were considered the most economically promising and developed in 1950, a number of Asian economies overtook the Philippines by the 1980s. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan sought more and more cheap labor from overseas, including from the Philippines.

The effects of migration are found everywhere. Overseas employment agencies and brokers are found everywhere, offering jobs for construction workers and domestic helpers in Dubai or Hong Kong. It is not uncommon to find plaques attached to school buildings, village plazas and churches indicating the generous financial donations of their native sons and daughters who have made their fortune abroad in the renovation of public spaces and development of their hometowns. In the provinces, only landowning elites used to live in houses made of concrete. Nowadays, however, many a nipa hut has been replaced by a modern abode. These new houses have become status symbols that reflect the success of their owners overseas. In the provinces of Batangas and Laguna, just south of Manila, there are several villages built in Italian style (see box). In the big cities, gated communities and subdivisions have mushroomed all over, accompanied by the construction of shopping malls—all made possible by the spending power fueled by overseas remittances.

These remittances have become the most significant source of foreign currency for the Philippines. In 2010 alone, government figures indicate that OFWs sent home 20 billion dollars through banks and other financial institutions. This figure represents one tenth of the GNP. According to the estimate of journalist Rodel Rodis (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 09 September 2009), however, the actual figure could be closer to 40 billion dollars. This includes the value of all goods and services that reach the country through informal channels, whether in the form of cash (padala), souvenirs (pasalubong) or mailed packages (balikbayan boxes) and even voluntary services rendered by OFWs. This amount not only surpasses any foreign direct investment or development aid package. It is, in fact, the equivalent of the Philippine government’s national budget. No wonder then that politicians hail OFWs as the “new heroes” and rally support behind labor migration. Sadly, this outpouring of support is not matched by the level of official commitment and government initiative when it comes to the protection of migrant workers’ rights abroad.

Culture of Migration

In 2009, one in five Filipin@s agreed in a survey that they would emigrate to another country, if given the opportunity to do so.[5]  Many observers, such as the journalist Marlen Ronquillo (Manila Times, 27 August 2008), feel that the actual number is much higher, reaching as much as 99 percent of the population. A student of medicine, Kris Mangunay (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 25 August 2011) puts it this way: “…most people believe that going abroad is the only way to a better life. Who would not know about the overseas worker who just built a house in the town proper, or the young woman who at a relatively early age already provides for her family? It is a story known to the tambays [the ones hanging around – the Ed.] at the sari-sari store.”

The push abroad is not just a result of economic factors, even if these are important reasons.[6] The Philippine economy has been undergoing a prolonged period of stagnation and job opportunities are far from bright. The local labor market is unable to absorb highly qualified Filipin@s. Seeking for employment overseas is often seen as the only chance to find a decent job if at all. Plus there is the added prospect of sky-high salaries compared to the local rates. Migration has become a standard response to this bleak outlook that goes largely unquestioned. Indeed, those who have the necessary qualifications must often justify to friends and family why they do not wish to migrate.

Moreover, migration has become a way of “voting with your feet” or giving expression to one’s dissatisfaction with conditions at home. The seemingly hopeless state of affairs in politics and public service, corruption and criminality and the lack of opportunity have resulted in a “let’s just get out of here” attitude. Given the seeming bankruptcy of the state and the rudimentary features of the present social security system, the decision to send a family member abroad seems like the only feasible solution to these problems. It is often the only way to sustain one’s family, to finance the education of one’s children and siblings, and support one’s parents in old age. Working abroad also presents a way of saving up some capital to be able to start one’s own business upon returning home.

Outmigration and internal migration are not the only two forces that continue to leave their mark on the country. The Philippines is shaped by immigration as well. Aside from the ancient movement of people from present-day Indonesia to Philippine shores, there is also a discernable Chinese influence on the local cuisine and a visible sub-population of Chinese mestizos as a result of more than a thousand years of active trade with Southern parts of China.

Spanish and American colonial influences are noticeable in the cityscape. The Iberian character of ubiquitous churches and altars is unmistakable, as are the Spanish roots of thousands of words that have found their way into the local vocabulary. With English being the language of education and business, the American influence on the public sphere is hard to miss as well.

Mindanao, for its part, bares a strong Muslim influence. Arabic traders and missionaries reached the southern tip of the archipelago via India and the Malay part of the world in the mid-14th century.


For all intents and purposes, remittances assume an important socio-economic function, representing a de facto pillar of social policy. In the year 2006, based on figures of Asian Development Bank (ADB), 23.3 percent of households received direct remittances from abroad—compared to only 18 percent in the year 2000. For nine percent of families, these remittances are their main source of livelihood, while 60 percent of the population belong to the wider network of beneficiaries (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 February 2010).

Even if it is difficult to ascertain the internal breakdown of household expenses (Weninger cited in Reese/Welkmann, 2010), only 44 percent of those who receive remittances are able to put aside some money in the form of savings, according to the Central Bank of the Philippines. For the rest, all money is spent, mostly on food (93 percent of households), paying off debt (46 percent), education (72 percent) and for “out of pocket” health expenses (63 percent). Nevertheless, 29 percent were able to buy household appliances and 7.7 percent a car. Only six percent were able to make investments (The Philippine Star, 14 December 2010).

Only those whose family members work as professionals in the West or in the booming economies of Asia have the spending capacity to go beyond the bare essentials (about 15 percent of all migrants). Seafarers are also included in this count. Seafarers may only make up 3.3 percent of all OFWs, yet their earnings account for 15.3 percent of all remittances (Camroux 2008). It is also interesting to note that although only about 13 percent of overseas Filipin@s live in the USA, a whopping 40 to 50 percent of total remittances originate from there.

How much a single household receives is determined by the amount the relative abroad is able to earn and how much thereof he/she is able to send back home. This may range from to 300 to 350 US dollars from domestic workers in Hong Kong or the Middle East to several thousand dollars earned by highly qualified medical professionals in the West.[7] According to ADB estimates in early 2011, there would be two to three million more Filipin@s below the poverty line if it were not for the dependable flow of remittances.[8] For “second class” migrants, remittances compensate, at least partially, for the lack of livelihood opportunities and social security at home. However, once destiny deals them a blow, such as sickness in the family, any savings generated by migration are quickly wiped out.

The class background of migrants also merits closer examination. Internal migrants who move from poor provinces to urban centers are largely from very poor families. Overseas labor migration abroad, by contrast, is a phenomenon of the “not so poor” of the so-called D class.[9] These migrants originate from urban centers. Almost half are from Metro Manila and neighboring provinces. The poorest of the poor who belong to the so-called E class and rural populations are largely outside the loop of remittance flows because they do not have family members who work abroad. While the richest 20 percent of the population received 44 percent of the remittance share, the poorest 20 percent received just seven percent, based on ADB figures from the year 2006 (Manila Times, 03 May 2011).[10] This is because this segment lacks the formal educational requirements or else, because they are unable to cough up the funding for the pre-departure expenses.[11] These “non-migrants” live in nipa huts, often without electricity, subsisting as peasants and upland farmers. In the cities, the poorest populations live in marginal settlements, scraping by in the informal sector. The luckier ones among them work minimum wage jobs where they earn about 250 to 400 pesos a day or equivalent to 5 to 6 euros. They are employed for example as casual sales personnel at shopping malls, where they provide services to migrants and their families. As early as 2001, columnist Belinda Aquino already warned of the gaping social divide between those who can depend on remittances from abroad and those who are left to fend for themselves (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 06 June 2001).

Brain Drain

Contrary to the commonly held assumption that migrants from the global south are less qualified and educated than their counterparts in the north, majority of Filipin@ migrants have had at least some college education.[12] Majority of them have also reached higher levels of job competence, labor productivity and quality as a result of years of job experience. The economic and social development of the Philippines is thus severely affected by this brain drain and the resulting lack of well-trained professionals and experienced workers. This lack of assurance of higher levels of labor productivity makes it unattractive for more foreign as well as local investors in search of new production sites to consider the Philippines. And as these skilled professionals and workers leave, it is instead the economies of the richer countries which benefit from all these years of accumulated working experience.[13] A jarring example from the health sector: in the time period from 2005 to 2007, five thousand medical doctors left the Philippines to seek employment overseas and another six thousand took additional nursing courses to qualify as nurses in other countries. While the United States and other Western countries actively recruit nurses from the Philippines, there are many obstacles for doctors who wish to practice their profession elsewhere. This is because there is still no shortage of doctors and so the job market is protected from outsiders.

While more and more students from countries such as India, Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia come to the Philippines to enroll in medical school, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that no other country in the world exports as many medical professionals as the Philippines. While the demand for nursing graduates has been declining for a long time, new nursing colleges mushroomed all over place at the beginning of the new millennium. And while the number of new students of medicine declined by 40 percent from 2006 to 2009 (Manila Times, 26 August 2009), more and more made nursing their course of choice. Nursing students readily admit that their motivation for their choice is to be able to work abroad. According to the Department of Labor (DOLE), the number of new nursing students increased from 28,000 in the year 2000 to 454,000 in 2006.  At present levels, Philippine nursing schools train more than 90,000 applicants a year, out of which 50,000 to 70,000 later become licensed registered nurses.  There are more nursing board examinees per capita in the Philippines than in any other country in the world. Yet the reality is that year by year, only about 10,000 nurses clinch contracts abroad.[14] Consequently, there are now about 300,000 registered nurses who are unable to put their training into practice. Since working experience is an important criteria in applying for a nursing job abroad, many local hospitals take advantage of this surplus. They expect inexperienced nurses to first undergo a fulltime practicum (meaning they are asked to work for free) or even pay the hospital for training them.

“It’s time to serve myself!” These were the words of a highly qualified doctor when he trained to become a nurse in 2004. At the level of the individual, such a choice may be understandable and in full accordance with the neoliberal notion of the enterprising self. Yet at the societal level, this single decision represents a painful loss. Mass outmigration of nurses has weakened the Philippine healthcare system– not because there are not enough nurses, but because there are not enough experienced nurses. They are the ones who are in high demand abroad and where they can earn about twenty times as much as they would receive in a government hospital at home.[15]

Better working conditions for medical professionals are found only in the private hospitals in the big cities. These are those which cater to the small upper class and family members of migrants who can pay for services that remain beyond the reach of ordinary Filipin@s. These hospitals then are the only ones who are in a position to pay better salaries to prevent their employees from looking for greener pastures elsewhere—at least for the time being. Save for some idealists, Philippine hospitals are therefore staffed with nurses with less training (who do not yet qualify for employment overseas) or with those who do not want to be separated from their families. This results in a situation where novice nurses are deployed in operating rooms. The few experienced ones have to work more by doing double shifts.

These trends in the health sector are mirrored in the education and other fields. Students enroll in special education, hotel and restaurant management or information technology courses with eyes firmly fixed on lucrative opportunities at the international level. They enter university with one foot already outside the door. This means that numerous local positions for specialists and professionals in various fields are not filled.

To make matters worse, returning overseas Filipin@s do not find outlets for the skills and talents honed elsewhere because there is a lack of opportunity at home to make the potential brain gain a reality. The lack of positions and inadequate working conditions prevent this from happening. The government actively supports outmigration, but is less interested in creating an enabling environment so that returnees can apply their knowledge and experience for the good of the home country.


While women represented only twelve percent of Philippine OFWs in 1975, their number increased to 47 percent in 1987. By 2002, the percentage of women shot up to 69.  Although the construction boom in the Middle East has since somewhat offset this trend (at present women account for about 55 percent of OFWs), the feminization of labor migration is undeniable. The reason for this is the big demand for “caregivers”, which is considered to be a “female” domain. Nurses, domestic helpers, nannies, caregivers and sex workers are much sought after.[16] In Taiwanese factories, Filipinas’ renowned dexterity and nimble fingers likewise gained a good reputation.

The demand for female labor from the Philippines must be seen in the light of the dominant social relations wherein women shoulder a large financial responsibility in supporting the immediate, as well as, their extended family. The international labor market thus provides much needed opportunity for them. According to the Philippine sociologist Belinda Medina, female migrant breadwinners show greater commitment to their family compared to their male counterparts, i.e. females send a proportionally greater allotment back home than males.

Labor migration can also become an attractive option for women because it allows them to break free from conservative, discriminatory gender relations. This is especially true for women who do not fit the traditional mold, such as those who have gone through marriage break up or an experience of prostitution.[17] This re-positioning, however, is only partially successful since migration re-casts them into specific gendered relations of labor and reproduction. They may earn more money abroad, but it is at the expense of a diminished social status. Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, Singapore or the Middle East often become victims of verbal, physical and sexual violence. A study in October 2004 revealed that every fifth Filipina returning from work abroad was subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of her employer.


The feminization of migration profoundly changes the order of the traditional patriarchal gender relations.  Because of their relatively high incomes abroad, women (mothers, daughters, sisters) take on the role of providers and de facto decision-makers of the family. In cases where the mother, not the father, leaves for abroad, the family unit undergoes more extensive adjustments than if it were the other way around. Women are still seen as the primary caregiver and homemaker and men are supposed to work outside the home. Although some fathers do step up and take on the responsibilities of care work, most often, other female relatives are tapped to take on the mothering role in absentia.

The general consensus in the public discourse is that children suffer psychologically if left behind by their mother. Women migrants are blamed for causing families to break up, for driving their husbands into alcoholism and the youth into delinquency. Given these bleak scenarios, a mother forced into the role of breadwinner is plagued by guilt. Yet this doomsaying may not be entirely reflected in real life. Interviews of children with absentee parents show that they are indeed capable of coping with the situation, even without their mothers around (Rhacel Parreñas in Reese/Welkmann 2010).[18]

Beyond the human cost

Filipin@s seem to have internalized their position in the international division of labor, that it is their part to supply the rich countries of this world with cheap and compliant labor with a compassionate touch. Numerous children and young people probably identify with a sixth grader who, when asked about her future ambition, declared, she wants to work as a domestic worker in the United States.

The government is a beneficiary of migration. The billions of dollars remitted by OFWs each year decrease the deficit in the balance of payment and thus lessen the pressure to institute sustainable reforms. It is in the interest of those pushing these shortsighted policies that there is no ebb in the stream of migrants to the West. The dependable flow of remittances ensures that families of migrants are able to afford private education and health care and therefore pose less of a burden on the state and mute calls for improving public service in the country.[19]

Putting an abrupt end to labor migration would not just be unrealistic but would also most likely trigger a revolt in the country. “Migration remains a necessary strategy in the short and medium term,” writes Fernando Aldaba.[20] His suggestion for the short term is to ensure that the gains of migration are used to effectively protect OFWs in foreign countries. In the medium term, the government should refrain from its intention of expanding migration as a policy. “In particular, the government must find ways to channel remittances into productive investments to create more jobs locally. Education and training must be linked to the building of a dynamic economy that produces goods for local and international consumption and is not just geared towards overseas markets.”

These proposals would mean furthering structural reforms, increasing labor productivity and the base for wealth creation, expanding infrastructure, supporting local medium enterprise (to complement ecological re-tooling in the global north), increasing tax collection and strengthening consumer spending—premised on  the democratization of Philippine politics. What is needed is the fundamental transformation of the status quo and a renunciation of neoliberal economic policy. Only the assurance of a decent existence is able to stop mass migration, population growth and rural exodus.

Removing migration as an option would not be a welcome development. Forced migration may have its downside, but the Philippines would surely be less culturally exciting without migration. The country’s history is profoundly shaped by movements of people and various colonial and cultural imprints from all over the globe. At present times, OFWs are the conduits of cultural impulses from all the corners of the world. These are transmitted back home and amplified to the world in a colorful cultural mélange. What would the world be without Pin@ys?[21]

 Niklas Reese is a social scientist and researcher in the University of Bonn (Germany) as well as lecturer for South East Asian Studies at the University of Passau (also in Germany). 

This article is an advance publication taken from Niklas Reese/ Rainer Werning (Ed.): Handbuch Philippinen.  The German edition will be published in September 2012 (Horlemann Verlag: Berlin); the English edition will be published later this year in the Philippines.

Suggested Reading

Katrin Bennhold: From afar, moneymaker and mother: Women who left families behind have become a global force, in: International Herald Tribune, 08.3.2011 – available online:

David Camroux (2008): Nationalizing Transnationalism? The Philippine State and the Filipino Diaspora – available online:

Mary Lou U. Hardillo-Werning (2000) (ed.): TransEuroExpress – Filipinas in Europe. Bad Honnef.

Niklas Reese/Judith Welkmann (Hg.) (2010): Das Echo der Migration. Wie Auslandsmigration die Länder des globalen Südens verändert. Bad Honnef.

IBON Facts and Figures, Special Release (15.5.2008): OFWs, Remittances and Underdevelopment.


[1] Kitakits is a colloquial Filipino expression among people who are close to one another, bidding one another farewell. Loosely translated as “see you”, it is an open-ended goodbye that does not indicate a timeframe for a possible reunion.

[2] Since government statistics only reflect legally documented migration, official headcounts are significantly lower than the actual movement of people and magnitude of remittances. This considerably hampers the search for reliable data and current facts and figures.

[3] According to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, there were more than 700,000 Filipin@s living and working in Europe in 2009. Of these, 300,000 obtained either permanent or time-bound residency permits, while about 100,000 were undocumented migrants. Great Britain hosted the highest number of Filipin@s with a headcount of 200,000, followed by Italy with 120,000. In Germany there were about 55,000 Filipin@s, 30,000 in Austria and 22,000 in Switzerland

[4] While legal migrants in Western countries are often able to obtain indefinite working permits, OFWs in the Middle East and other parts of Asia are usually hired for two to three years and must return to the Philippines upon expiration of their contracts if these are not renewed.

[5] It is said that upon the assumption of office by President Noynoy Aquino, which was accompanied by much hope in the future, this figure drastically dropped to nine percent! 75 percent explicitly disagreed with the statement, compared to 56 percent previously (The Philippine Star, 06 August 2010).

[6] One non-economic reason for migration is the unquestioned belief in America as the “land of milk and honey” where life just must be sweeter than elsewhere. Other reasons are the wish to have children with light skin and pointy noses, having a shot at the possibility of social mobility and the chance to live one’s own life outside the rigid social controls in place at home. Many also cite a sense of adventure and their wish to experience something new as motivations to leave the country, at least temporarily.

[7] It is worth noting that OFWs in Hong Kong are able to remit about 70 to 85 percent of their earnings, which is simply not feasible for Filipin@s living in the West where living costs are considerably higher.

[8] Migration is not a guaranteed way out of poverty. In November 2010, 33 percent of OFW families were rated poor and 18 percent very poor. For families without migrant breadwinners, 51 are considered poor and 39 percent very poor.

[9] The access to jobs abroad is often a function of financial capacity, which effectively poses barriers to poorer strata of society.  The reason for this is that the farther one’s destination, the more prohibitive travel expenses become. The package prices of recruitment agencies are in the range of several thousand dollars. Enrolling in a good school where one can acquire an internationally recognized degree and fluency in the English language also does not come cheap—another factor influencing the opportunities of potential migrants.

[10]             Given the increasing feminization of migration, this disparity has diminished to some extent. Thus the poorest 20 percent received a mere three percent back in the year 2000. Female migrants are more likely to come from the countryside than their male counterparts.  Recruiters for the “entertainment” industry in the Philippines and abroad largely focus their efforts on rural populations.

[11]             Some recruitment agencies work around this situation by offering “fly now, pay later” packages. OFWs are able to travel abroad without advancing any expenses, but in return, they have to endure salary deductions for a long period of time before they are able to pay off their debt to the agency.

[12]             ADB findings from the year 2004 show that 58 percent of surveyed OFWs have at least a few semesters of college education under their belts and that 80 percent graduated from high school.

[13]             The local economy becomes particularly vulnerable when top experts in their fields are attracted by irresistible offers overseas, since they are hard to replace. In the summer of 2010, the Philippines was beset by a triple whammy. The government weather bureau of Dubai pirated 24 meteorologists from its Philippine counterpart. This was identified as one of the reasons for the inaccurate weather forecast and resulting lack of preparation in the eye of the devastating typhoon Basyang. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has a similar tale to tell. The department said goodbye to 83 geologists in the span of three years. As a consequence, there is not enough expertise to adequately map out the country’s earthquake fault lines and mineral deposits. Last but not least, 25 pilots collectively turned their backs on Philippine Airlines, which resulted in abrupt cancellations of flights.

[14]             For a long time, the projection was that the demand for Philippine nurses would increase over time, as populations in industrializing countries are growing older year by year. Yet the number of newly hired nurses actually declined in the past few years.

[15]             In the meantime, call centers are becoming attractive employment alternatives to hospitals, local health centers (or even schools and planning offices). Salaries of agents are twice or even four times higher compared to what new nurses, teachers and engineers usually receive.

[16]             The economic miracle of the so-called Asian Tigers is in part made possible by the employment of female domestic workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia who are paid sub-standard wages and kept unaware of their rights. In Hong Kong, employees can fully concentrate on making money in their respective fields without being bothered by household chores, while “amah” takes care of their home and children.

[17]             Many migrants, male and female, note how they have changed upon returning to the Philippines. In cases where their social environment is not prepared to accept these changes, this can become a reason to leave the country anew contrary to earlier intentions of staying.

[18]             The social costs of migration described above are not fabricated. Yet Parreñas finds that exaggerated typecasting can be traced to stubborn patriarchal notions essentializing women as mothers and nurturers.

[19]             A nagging question remains. Does the steady flow of remittances breed false dependencies and laziness among recipients or do these impressions reflect the middle class biases of social commentators?  The appraisal of Belinda Aquino (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6 June 2001)  illustrates this kind of thinking:  “Spoiled by the regular  “pension,” members of families, usually the males, quit school, treat out their “barkadas”  to endless rounds of drinks, and just slum around. Meanwhile, their poor sisters, aunts, mothers are working their heads off earning the money that just goes up in smoke and drink back home..”

[20] Fernando T. Aldaba: The Economics and Politics of Overseas Migration in the Philippines. Manila Time, 22 to 24 March (three parts)- available online:

[21]             Pinoy (male) and pinay (female) are common appellations used for one’s fellow Filipinos or kababayan.

Myanmar open for business, not its people

by Gerhard Hoffstaedter, School of Social Science at the University of Queensland

Aung San Suu Kyi has just left Myanmar (Burma) for the first time in 24 years visiting Thailand and Europe and calling for more foreign investment in Myanmar. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in Myanmar continue to erupt to the surface in a country that is slowly shaking off its pariah status in international affairs.

The recent by-elections in Myanmar, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy claimed 43 of the 45 seats available, have awakened hope and a flurry of activity around the world to weaken if not dissolve the Western sanctions regime against the ruling military junta.

For now, Suu Kyi will take her seat in a parliament that remains firmly in the hands of the military-backed ruling party.

The by-election follows extensive market reforms, the release from house arrest of Suu Kyi, the re-registration of her party that allowed her to contest the election, the freeing of political prisoners, and the relaxation of media censorship controls.

It seems like Myanmar is coming in from the cold. More than that, Myanmar is open for business and everyone is lining up to enter a large domestic market of 60 million untapped consumers and a largely un- or underdeveloped natural resources sector.

Thailand has a long trading history with Myanmar, dominated by logging and the import of natural gas among other natural resources. It is, however, the access to cheap labour in Myanmar that is seen as a great drawcard for manufacturing industries. Already Thailand is profiting from the cheap labour of Myanmarese refugees in Thailand who work illegally in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, most often on an itinerant basis.

Long the preserve of Thai business interests and cross-border trade, Myanmar is of great geo-strategic importance to the region as a whole, and its other neighbours are entering the fray. Two global players are increasingly overtaking the Thai special relationship: China and India.

At the forefront of this regional engagement is the Dawei Deep Seaport currently under construction in Myanmar’s south. It will offer an alternative entrée into the Indian north-east and Chinese southern markets. It will also be the country’s first special economic zone as well as the entire region’s largest combined port and economic zone.

Thailand stands to gain most from this endeavour. Firstly, as its closest neighbour, long-time investor and main trading partner, Thailand will have direct access to cheap labour, resource abundance and offer itself as a transit point for goods to Cambodia and Vietnam. Already, a Thai construction company is the main contractor for the first phase of the project and further investments in the energy and manufacturing sectors are in the offing. The figures are staggering. The first phase alone of the $US58 billion project is worth $US8.6 billion.

Secondly, Thailand still houses millions of irregular migrants in its borders, most of whom have fled or left Myanmar for Thailand. This massive scheme offers a way to resettle and offer opportunities to, especially, the economic migrants.

Indeed, some have begun to trickle back to Myanmar, including political exiles. The government is wooing them back for their expertise and capacity to support the burgeoning economy.

However, the Myanmar government has its work cut out to capitalise on these opportunities. On the one hand, China, in particular, will require order and stability in Myanmar to provide safe transport links for their products as a viable alternative to the South China Sea. On the other, the West and some ASEAN members will require Myanmar’s rulers to, at least, offer some vestiges of democratic governance (as we are seeing at the moment) and a durable solution to the refugee crisis along the Myanmar/Thai border and wider ethnic tensions.

Some of these tensions have resulted in all-out wars with intermittent ceasefires. The situation in the uplands and ethnic held areas continues to be tense, and despite the recent political changes in the capital, the situation for ethnic minorities has not changed significantly.

Thousands are still fighting insurgencies and vast stretches of the country remain off limits to government troops. These conflicts continue to elicit a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing the fighting to Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and beyond. The diaspora networks of these refugee populations span the globe with small minorities settling in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.

Since last June, for example, the army has been in a protracted war in Kachin state, again displacing thousands of civilians. While some ethnic conflicts have calmed and ceasefires have been in place, the Kachin conflict is again causing destruction in the poorest, remotest and most disadvantaged areas of Myanmar.

Asked about the tens of thousands of refugees living in Malaysia recently, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said that it was too early to return to Myanmar as, “They have got to have something to return to.”

Indeed, but the situation for them in refugee camps in the region or living as illegal immigrants in places like Malaysia, which does not recognise refugees, is no solution either. Late last year, Malaysia introduced a new registration program for illegal migrants, called the 6P program.

The program was designed to find out how many undocumented workers are currently in Malaysia and whether they can be retrenched into specific sectors that are in need of labour, or repatriated.

The program has been aided by the mass mobilisation of the army, police force, immigration department, and RELA, an auxiliary police force that is undertrained and poorly resourced but ideologically driven.

In addition, the Malaysian home minister proposed an immigration detainee swap program last year, no doubt inspired by the so-called Malaysia-swap agreement between Australia and Malaysia. The deal would see Myanmar nationals detained in Malaysia ‘swapped’ for Malaysian nationals detained in Myanmar.

The Malaysian government’s attempt to systematically register illegal immigrants living and working in Malaysia is aimed at enabling better law enforcement. However, the final part of the program is ‘repatriation’, i.e. deportation of those not needed in the Malaysian economy and those deemed unsuitable, e.g. those with criminal convictions. Caught in the midst of all this are the thousands of asylum seekers, political exiles and refugees who have fled Myanmar’s enduring conflicts.

It is they who fear ‘repatriation’ most, as they have no homeland to return to, much less interest in doing so.

Author’s note: The people I work with, mostly ethnic refugees from Myanmar, call the country Myanmar because calling it Burma invokes the notion that the country belongs to the Burmese Bamar, the dominant ethnic group. Most Western governments refer to the country as Burma.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His first book Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia is published by NIAS Press.

This article was first published by the ABC Drum.

At the High Table

by Stig Toft Madsen, NIAS

On April 19th India test-fired a long-range ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear bomb. With a range stated to be more than 3.100 miles, the missile would be able to reach not only large Chinese cities beyond the Tibetan plateau.  It could reach even further. The distance from say Srinagar in Kashmir to Vienna in Austria is 3.114 miles or 5.011 kilometer. In other words: Vienna is within its reach.

The missile has been developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and other defense organizations and laboratories often located in science- and IT-cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad.  As the name Agni V indicates the missile is the latest in a series of missiles with progressively longer range.  Already in 1971, Indira Gandhi reportedly directed the defense ministry and the DRDO to start developing long-range ballistic missiles (Kampani 2003). Agni V is the fruit of that labor, but some Indian strategic thinkers are not content with this. They have urged India to develop a missile (called Surya, the Sun) that may reach even further. Some argue that India should develop thermonuclear bombs in the megaton class. India has so far not capitalized much on its powerful weapons through sales to other countries. Some argue that India should do so.

Why, one may wonder, does India persist in developing and buying these and other weapons? Looking at such questions somewhat anthropologically, I will have a closer look at a few commonly used phrases, which say something about how Indians think about themselves and their role in the world today. The test-firing of a missile, the testing  of nuclear or thermonuclear bombs in 1998, and the launching  of a satellite into space are occasions, which lead Indians and others to make statements to the effect that India is now a superpower and that others should recognize it as a superpower. On such occasions three phrases are commonly used:

  • India is now taking its rightful place in the Comity of Nations
  • India is now a member of an Exclusive Club
  • India is now sitting at the High Table

The High Table is an institution found in old British universities or colleges such as Oxford and Cambridge. Senior faculty members or fellows and their guest would sit at the raised table above and separately from the students. By contrast, in other universities (such as Princeton in the US) dining was used as an opportunity for students to interact with the faculty members (

In India, the partaking of meals has been used since time immemorial to unite and differentiate people, often along caste lines.  Historically, commensal rows or “feeding lines” consisting of people of the same caste or sub-caste have repeatedly defined or objectified group identity (Madsen and Gardella 2012). When Indians say that their weaponry entitles them to sit at the High Table, they thereby evoke notions of superiors sharing a meal. The image does not imply that only Indians may eat under conditions of grandeur. But it indicates that Indians may eat only with their equals and not with others.

Being the member of an “exclusive club” implies an even greater degree of inequality. While students at Oxbridge may not sit at the High Table, they can at least see the table from where they sit. An exclusive club is closed in a more radical manner. Its charmed circle entirely sealed, an outsider cannot even enter the club. Such exclusive clubs have an aura of secrecy. Their members probably wine and dine, but others cannot really tell what they do. The members set their own rules which may not be in conformity with the rules that others follow. Evoking the image of an exclusive club signals power, non-transparency, and even the ability to act with impunity.

In contrast, to achieve one’s rightful place in the comity of nations does not imply exclusivism or secrecy. All countries, big and small, are entitled to a place as equals in the United Nations where, in principle, discussions are held openly and where every nation has a voice. In that sense, India already enjoys its rightful place in the comity of nations. It does not need to lay claim to it by demonstrating its power back-up in terms of weapons of mass destruction. But then the “rightful place” may be understood to mean something more than a place like any other nation. India’s rightful place – taking into consideration it size, it military muscle, its growing economy – then may turn out on closer inspection to be an elevated position. In short, what India claimed it achieved by test-firing the Agni V and similar acts was a rightful place at the High Table in an Exclusive Club for the select among the nations of the world. Not a very democratic vision but more inclusive than the idea of “the peaceful rise of China”, which portrays China’s rise as a form of “reemergence” whereby China is about to regain the all-encompassing hegemonic status that it presumably once possessed.

Gaurav Kampani, “Stakeholders in the Indian Strategic Missile Program”, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall-Winter 2003.

Stig Toft Madsen and Geoffrey Gardella, “Udupi Hotels: Entrepreneurship, Reform and Revival”, in Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas (eds.) Curried Cultures, Globalization, Food, and South Asia, Berkeley, Los Angeles London: University of California Press,  2012.

With thanks to Sasikumar Shanmugasundaram for comments.