Overseas Filipino Workers: The Emergence of an Asian-Pacific Diaspora

In general, imperialism and the anarchy of the “free market” engender incongruities, nonsynchronies, and shifting subject-positions of the non-Western “Other” inscribed in the liminal space of subjugated territory. Capital accumulation is the matrix of unequal power (Hymer 1975, Harvey 1996; Yates 2003) between metropolis and colonies. The historical reality of uneven sociopolitical development in a US colonial and, later, neocolonial society like the Philippines is evident in the systematic Americanization of schooling, mass media, sports, music, religious institutions, and diverse channels of mass communication (advertisements, TV and films, cyberspace) (Bauzon 1991). Backwardness now helps hi-tech corporate business. Since the 1970s, globalization has concentrated on the exploitation of local tastes and idioms for niche marketing while the impact of the Filipino diaspora in the huge flow of remittances from OFWs has accentuated the discrepancy between metropolitan wealth and neocolonial poverty, with the consumerist habitus made egregiously flagrant in the conspicuous consumption of OFWs returning from the Middle East, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and other workplaces loaded with balikbayan (returnee) boxes. Unbeknownst to observers of this commercialized “cargo cult,” remains of these workers arrive in Manila without too much fanfare, straight from the execution chambers of the Middle East and the morgues of Japan, Taiwan, and other sites of “foul play” (see the recent cases of Maricar Evangelista and Emy Pepito, posted in the online journal Bulatlat, May 23 and May 25, 2009).

Notwithstanding the massive research into the historical background of these “new heroes,” their plight remains shrouded in bureaucratic fatuities. A recent ethnographic account of the lives of Filipina domestics celebrates their newfound subjectivity within various disciplinary regimes. Deploying Foucault’s notion of “localized power,” the British anthropologist Nicole Constable (1999, 11) seeks “to situate Filipina domestic workers within the field of power, not as equal players but as participants.” Ambivalence supposedly characterizes the narratives of these women: they resist oppression at the same time as they “participate in their own subordination.” And how is their agency manifested? How else but in their ability to consume. Consider this spectacle: During their Sundays off, Filipina maids gather in certain places like the restaurants of the Central District in Hong Kong and demand prompt service or complain to the managers if they are not attended to properly. They also have the option of exercising agency at McDonald’s if they ask for extra condiments or napkins. Apart from these anecdotal examples, the fact that these maids were able to negotiate their way through a bewildering array of institutions in order to secure their jobs is testimony to what Constable (1999, 202) calls “the subtler and more complex forms of power, discipline and resistance in their everyday lives.”

According to one commentator Delia D. Aguilar (2000), this scholarly attempt to ferret out signs of tension or conflict in the routine lives of domestics obfuscates the larger context that defines the subordination of these women and the instrumentalities that reproduce their subjugation. In short, functionalism has refurbished neopositivism with a populist appeal. To put it another way, Constable (2000) shares Foucault’s dilemma of ascribing resistance to subjects while devaluing history as “meaningless kaleidoscopic changes of shape in discourse totalities” (Habermas 1987, 277). The most flagrant erasure in Constable’s calculated inventory of OFW performance seems more serious. This is her discounting of the unequal relation between the Philippines and a global city like Hong Kong, a relation enabled by the continuing neocolonial domination of Filipinos by Western corporate interests led by the United States (Sison and De Lima 1998). Like most postmodernist cosmopolitanists, Constable and her ilk want us to abandon the politics of representation that allegedly objectifies and disempowers whatever it represents. She wants us to choose, instead, local struggles for strategic articulations that are always impermanent, precarious, and contingent. This precept forbids the critique of ideology—how can one distinguish truth from falsehood since there are only “truth effects” contrived by power? This populist and often demagogic stance promotes “a radical skepticism” (Brantlinger 1990, 102) that cannot discriminate truth-claims, nor establish a basis of consensus for sustained, organized political action.

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