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When People Become Commodities

by Repost Wednesday, Jun. 14, 2006 at 2:35 PM

By Jonathan Rowe

There is an egregious disconnect in the case for the global economy, corporate version. We are told that the world should be without borders, for corporations and stuff. Borders are clogs in the celestial mechanism of the market. They are protectionism, which is darkness to the market’s light.

But when the discussion turns to people, somehow the argument flips. Then it’s troops, fences, regulations up the kazoo. Corporations get magic visas; cars and video games get them too. But when an actual human being tries to cross the border – well, call out the National Guard.

To which one has to say, “Wait a minute.” If the world should be borderless for artificial persons called corporations, then why not for real people? If Ford can go to Mexico to find cheaper labor, then why should not Mexican workers be able to come to the U.S. to find higher-paying jobs – or jobs period? The proponents of global corporatism think that real people should be content with second-class status. I don’t think so.

Once the proponents set the syllogism in motion, it doesn’t stop conveniently where they want. The people are coming, until there is enough hope in their own countries to make them want to stay. At least one country has sought to bring the syllogism a step closer to its logical conclusion – namely, the Philippines. As a result it serves as a kind of early warning as to what lies ahead, as people get redefined as integers in a corporate global marketplace.

Several decades ago, Ferdinand Marcos, then the Philippine president-dictator, seized upon a way to finesse the nation’s economic woes – which is to say his own failures. If the Philippines couldn’t sell products abroad, well then, he would in effect sell its workers abroad. If the employers wouldn’t come to him, he’d send the workers to them. The remittances those workers sent back home would provide the cash infusions the country needed.

By the logic of the global marketplace it made a kind of sense. Filipinos, moreover, have a “competitive advantage” in the parlance of the policy trade. They are educated and diligent. As English-speaking Asian Catholics they are culturally multi-dextrous and can adapt almost anywhere. Can and do: today over one in ten Filipinos works outside their own country. There are over 24,000 Filipino nurses in the U.S. alone, and over 2.5 million overall. There are nearly one million n Saudi Arabia. Hong Kong has over 120,000 Filipina maids.

To put this another way, the Philippines has turned labor into a global commodity that is almost as mobile as capital. There is no denying the monetary inflow that has resulted. Expatriate Filipinos remit over ten billion dollars a year, which comes to over ten percent of the nation’s cash economy. Millions depend upon those remittances for food, housing, tuition, everything. In farm country, when you see a sturdy cement house, you can be almost certain that someone in that family is sending remittances from abroad.

But the financial gain has come at a great and growing cost. A small portion of the money goes into small businesses; but most goes into consumption or land, which does little to build the nation’s capital base. At the same time, the toll on families is enormous. Many of the expatriate workers are parents. Fathers typically take three- to- nine month turns in the Saudi oil fields or on ocean freighters. My wife’s father worked as a carpenter in Saudi (Filipinos drop the “Arabia”) for six years to send his daughters to college. He came home once a year during that time.

More often the missing parent is a mother who goes to work as a maid in Hong Kong or a nurse in the U.S., and who might visit home once or twice a year. One of my wife’s sisters-in-law just left her husband and five kids in their village to go to Hong Kong. This is so common that it hardly bares mention there. Philippine Newsbreak, a biweekly, reported recently that some mothers are going to Singapore to work the sex trade.

“Now children can buy a lot of computer games,” the nation’s Labor Secretary, Patricia Santos Tomas, told the L.A. Times recently. “But they don’t have a mother or father, or both.”

In the Philippines, the extended family is the main support system and safety net – the cohesion in a society that otherwise has little. Second cousins are closer there than many siblings are in the U.S. The networks grow outward from bonds of mutual obligation between children and parents. How long can they last when children grow up without those parents?

No one knows. But if the system weakens, there won’t be much else. The social infrastructure, such as it is, already has begun to crumble. Medical workers are leaving in droves for higher-paying jobs in the U.S. and the Middle East. On our recent visit my son spent three days in a provincial hospital, and practically every nurse was just out of nursing school. The experienced ones had left. The Sister who heads this hospital told us this was her biggest problem.

We were lucky: at least there was staff. In Negros Oriental, a province on the neighboring island, close to half of the doctors have become nurses so they can work overseas and earn much more. One district had to close two of six rural hospitals for lack of staff, the L.A. Times reported. The main hospital there had to close its cardiology unit because the last cardiologist left to become an emergency room nurse in Chicago, where she earns more in half a day than she earned in a month in Negros.

American politicians wax indignant when the impoverished of the world try to come to the U.S. for a better life. But they are happy to drain the Third World of skilled workers and professionals when it suits their own convenience. (The answer is not to close the door to such people out but rather to help create more opportunity and hope in their own countries.) It isn’t just nurses by the way. Schoolteachers leave to become housekeepers in Hong Kong and the Middle East, for better pay.

As people become a global commodity called labor, family ties and social supports diminish. More, the polity of the country, the whole sense of connection to a civic and political process, disappears as well. In the Philippines this never has been large. Three hundred and fifty years of colonial rule – first under the Spanish, then under the U.S. – did not encourage the kind of culture in which self-government flourishes. Nor did the years of the Marcos dictatorship, which the U.S. supported.

But now the human export business has been undermining the civil consciousness that remains. Walden Bello, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines and a winner of the Alternative Nobel, pointed out to me recently that dependence on foreign remittances has made people somewhat disengaged from their own economy. With dollars coming from relatives in the U.S., it doesn’t matter so much what’s happening to the economy at home. (This has made the U.S. immigration debate a matter of considerable interest in the Philippines, by the way, even though the nominal focus is the U.S.-Mexican border.)

More, as educated people set their sights abroad, they are less engaged in their own country period. “We have a middle class, but they don’t live in the Philippines,” Doris Magsaysay, who runs a placement agency for merchant seamen, told the L.A. Times. Those who remain respond to questions about the nation’s raunchy and corrupt politics with a shrug that says both “What do you expect?” and “What can you do?”

A case in point is the current President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. GMA, as the papers call her, was tape recorded in a phone call to an election official during the last election, trying to fix the vote count. The recording became a national joke: people used it as the ring tone on their cell phones, so that it echoed all over Manila.

But now, two years later, Arroyo still is there, mainly because of the inability to muster sufficient opposition, or even outrage, against her. Twice in the last twenty years, Filipinos have taken to the streets to unseat corrupt leaders – in 1986 when they brought down Marcos, then again in 2001 when they forced the resignation of Joseph Estrada, a former movie star better known as “Erap.” This time the energy just wasn’t there; and one of the reasons, Bello says, is that middle class Filipinos have continued to shift their focus abroad.

That confirms my own impressions. When I asked people how Arroyo possibly could continue in office, they just shrugged again and say something along the lines of, “Well, if she goes we’ll probably get someone worse.” When I talk to young people about their plans, I hear more about jobs in Saudi or the U.S. than about making their own county better. In the global marketplace this is as it should be. Politics are not supposed to matter. Communities and extended families are not supposed to matter.

What matters is the mechanism of supply and demand, as expressed through the offices of global corporations. Lives take shape around this supposed mechanism; people define themselves in relationship to it. It is not entirely coincidental that as Filipinos have become more politically disengaged, more of daily life has migrated into the enclosures of mega-malls, where commerce is disconnected from the sense of local community, and where people are shut off from the poverty and squalor that often lies close by.

Employees at the SM Department Stores, which dominate most of these malls, are temporary workers who receive no benefits. The low pay – around 0 US per month – is part of what drives workers abroad. The remittances they then send home keep SM in business. A recent headline in the Philippine Inquirer put the matter thus: “Philippine Malls Thrive As Diaspora Dollars Roll In.”

And so the wheel turns. President Arroyo, who was trained as an economist in the U.S., calls those expatriate workers “our greatest export.” Indeed. But when you redefine your people as an “export” -- that is, as a commodity – sooner or later, will there be a nation left?

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