How Migrant Workers From the Philippines Power Modern Capitalism

Millions of Filipino workers travel abroad each year to labor in dangerous, exhausting, and unregulated conditions. Scattered throughout the world, these hyperexploited workers have been delivered by the Philippine state to serve the needs of foreign powers.

A United Nations International Organization for Migration staff member interviews returning Filipino migrant workers after their arrival in Manila, the Philippines. The Filipino nationals had arrived from Damascus, Syria, on September 11, 2012, on an IOM-chartered plane. (IOM / Flickr)

The presidential elections in the Philippines last week cemented an outcome many had feared. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr (BBM) won the top job as the nation’s president, set to take the helm in June. His election revives memories of his father’s dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s. Sara Duterte, daughter of the current president, won the vice-presidential role, suggesting that the violent rule of her father is set to continue.

Throughout the election, much has been made in the international media about the hold of elites like the Marcos family on the nation’s politics. Despite promises to “work in harmony,” these elites seem to lack any cohering vision beyond nepotism. Their real strength lies in the myriad divisions of the Filipino working class. Workers in the Philippines experience grueling labor conditions in urban areas, lead impoverished and precarious lives in the countryside, and have been subject to labor-export policies for almost fifty years.

It is with this last condition that readers in the Global North will be most familiar. Millions of Filipinos work in exhausting, dangerous, and often unregulated conditions across a range of global industries. The remittances these workers send home now represent a startling 8.9 percent of the country’s GDP. But how did this unique situation come about, and why is the new president suggesting he will expand this system?

Jacobin spoke with Rasti Delizo from socialist organization Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP, Solidarity of Filipino Workers) about the rise of the labor-export policy and how the new president, Marcos Jr, plans to expand it still further.

Chris Dite

The Philippines is now known as a labor-exporting country, but it wasn’t always this way. Could you explain why Ferdinand Marcos was led to introduce his so-called “development diplomacy” in the 1970s?

Rasti Delizo

In 1972, Marcos imposed martial law, and the dictatorship seized control of the country’s key industries, putting in key positions his own cronies, close friends, and collaborators. There was widespread unemployment, political instability, a dispersed military fighting armed insurrections on many fronts, and then this transition to an oligarchic-type economy. Marcos wanted to minimize any social basis of support for an anti-dictatorship resistance. At this stage, it was for the most part university graduates who went abroad for work. The regime saw them as more easily won over to a radical perspective.

At the time the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was also putting a lot of pressure on American allies around the world as a result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Marcos was identified as a puppet agent of US imperialism, so OPEC compelled him to send skilled and semiskilled Filipino workers to the Middle East. It was a quid pro quo: “Give us workers and we’ll give you oil.” As a result, the Philippine state initiated its so-called “labor-export policy,” which sparked a massive outflow of OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) toward West Asia. Filipino nurses, engineers, and semiskilled workers flooded into this part of the world in their tens of thousands. By the 1980s, you had hundreds of thousands of OFWs doing domestic household work in Hong Kong and working in the entertainment industry in Japan and the semiconductor industry in Taiwan. And this situation continues today in the millions.

Chris Dite

This policy did not exist in isolation. Around the same time, the Philippines became the first country in Asia to be subjected to a structural adjustment loan by the World Bank. To what extent is the Philippines dominated by foreign capital?

Rasti Delizo

The Philippines’ national economy has long been controlled by foreign powers. Its overall function is ensuring the strategic needs of the core (for example, via the export of human labor). Any collective “national bourgeois” ideas were killed off by the time Marcos came to power and replaced by the much stronger “Washington Consensus.”

Throughout his rule, Marcos was under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to accept quick financial aid and other conditional “economic assistance.” When the Mexican debt crisis blew up, the Philippine economy went into a tailspin, and it continued to slide heavily until Marcos was ousted in 1986. But Ronald Reagan used Marcos’s depletion of the state coffers as a wedge to force through more structural adjustment loans and maintain US geostrategic interests in the Philippines. All the leading economic planners of the state (then and since) have fallen in lockstep behind this reactionary economic line. They all speak the same language of international capital.

These policies have led to the exploitative and oppressive conditions for Filipino workers. The neoliberal economy has destroyed our agricultural and manufacturing industries. The working class is disempowered and under assault by international capital and their collaborators here in the Philippines. This is linked to the issue of overseas foreign workers, as it’s a major reason why so many Filipinos are forced to look for work elsewhere. It puts a lot of pressure on the country’s long-term developmental needs; on top of restrictive conditions imposed by the financial institutions, a lack of workers with technical knowledge limits the country’s capacity to expand crucial infrastructure. The educated and highly skilled layers of the working class get sucked out of the country.

Chris Dite

Successive Philippine governments all seem addicted to the labor-export policy. Could capitalism in the region function without it?

Rasti Delizo

The Philippines is uniquely placed in the global division of labor. The state has no economic agenda to create stable, long-term jobs at home. This condition pushes and encourages millions of poor Filipino workers to look for work abroad. A majority of OFWs are semiskilled or even lower than that — they’re vulnerable, desperate, and will readily fill gaps in national economies that local workers won’t. A huge amount of surplus value is extracted from these OFWs.

Most of these workers send a lot of hard cash back through the remittance system. This cash goes into the country’s foreign-exchange reserves controlled by the central bank. Every Filipino capitalist regime uses these remittances for whatever economic or political agendas they have during their six-year terms.

These regimes depend on and are living off the backs of the OFW remittances. It’s the bread and butter of the Philippine economy — when inflationary pressures and devaluations hit, the state will look toward a rebalancing of the economy through the massive cash remittances coming from the OFWs. This is particularly noticeable during crises like COVID, the global financial crisis, or climate disasters like Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Chris Dite

The Department of Migrant Workers Act was promoted last year by President Rodrigo Duterte with much fanfare. Why was this new law introduced?

Rasti Delizo

A lot of OFWs have been badly mistreated, and many have died, as a result of exploitation by their employers abroad, especially in West Asia. As such, Philippine embassies and consulates regularly come under pressure from the mass media.

Likewise, OFW families and communities, the church, and organized labor have constantly demanded that immediate protection measures be put in place by the Philippines. Last year Duterte even mentioned all this during his State of the Nation Address in July. He knows this backlash has been decades in the making. Now that he’s ending his term, he might be trying to clean up his image. He knows that he’s going to come under scrutiny by the International Criminal Court (ICC). But it’s hard to read Duterte. He can sound serious about something but then say the following day that “it was a joke, I didn’t mean it.”

It’s also not just Duterte alone. At the Department of Labor and Employment level, there are some career and technical people that are sincere and well-meaning. There was a level of internal bureaucratic pressure — in fact, this was also coming from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Each Philippines embassy abroad has what they call a labor officer posted to monitor and assist the growing number of OFW abuse cases.

Chris Dite

Marcos Jr has called OFWs “modern-day heroes” and has made it clear that he intends to not only continue this system but expand it. What’s behind this rhetoric and proposed expansion?

Rasti Delizo

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr can be expected to continue with his father’s original labor-export policy. What he’s saying is in breach of every alleged commitment of the state. It’s an obligation, a democratic and constitutional duty of the state, to provide meaningful and humane jobs in the Philippines. Workers must be provided with a living wage — that term is actually specified in the constitution. But BBM hardly ever appeared during the preelection debates. Nobody was able to ask him specifically what he would do — about OFWs, the economy, or anything else — should he become president. He evaded answering such questions whenever the media asked him or had his bodyguards prevent reporters from interviewing him.

With the exception of socialist candidate Leody de Guzman, who put forward a detailed and progressive program during his campaign, presidential candidates simply delivered brief motherhood statements — all pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist, and nothing new. Marcos Jr’s was completely blank! He effectively said, “Whatever my dad did was great, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do, so I don’t need an electoral platform to show you guys.”

He and his running mate, Sara Duterte, evaded questions and televised debates. But Marcos Jr openly claims that his father’s rule — a brutal dictatorship! — ushered in the golden age of Philippine history. And Sara Duterte publicly idolizes her own dad: she’s praised his “kill, kill, kill” policy. So even if they didn’t publicly present their electoral agenda, we know what they stand for.

But the majority of Filipinos are young. They’re far removed from the original Marcos dictatorship and were either miseducated or deceived as to what happened then. A lot of the electorate is also still living in shock from the Duterte years, terrorized by this dictator in Malacañan Palace.

It’s crucial for us to force BBM and Duterte to reveal themselves to the masses through a new phase of anti-fascist, anti-neoliberal resistance struggles. And it’s important for the Filipino masses to go through their own process of realization about who these two really are.

Chris Dite

It seems clear nobody can rely on Filipino elites to protect migrant workers. How should the international labor movement respond to the new president’s expansion of “development diplomacy”?

Rasti Delizo

OFWs are workers, whether they’re laboring in factories, in homes as carers, or elsewhere. Anyone organizing and struggling for a socialist world should recognize them for who they are — exploited workers deserving of solidarity in their fight against oppression. The same goes for Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, or Nepalis being exploited in abusive conditions in the Persian Gulf states, or immigrant workers from the Maghreb, the Sahel, or the Levant in the heart of the eurozone.

The Left has to make a conscious effort internationally. This means helping organize OFWs if they’re not already organized and uniting with them if they are. Filipino workers deserve solidarity with their daily plight, and it’s through that solidarity that they can be won over to join in other struggles. It’s important that we remove all the racist, xenophobic, sexist, and antidemocratic blinders that keep us apart. Only that way can we view each other as part of the same class and fight together against the system that exploits us all.