Filipina Migration

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A culture of migration has emerged in the Philippines, one of the world’s largest labour exporting countries with one in ten Filipinos living abroad. Female migration has continued to grow and women migrants now outnumber men in the Philippines. Over half of all Filipinos living abroad are women[1] and they have become a prominent feature of Filipino migration and wider international mobility. In fact, the presence and economic contribution of women to international migration has become more and more important. Now, as women migrate independently and, in many cases, become a household’s principal income earner, the “feminisation” of migration is increasingly evoked.

Motivations & causes

Macro level: State policy

When considering the motivations and causes for Filipina mobility at the macro level, state policy helps to explain the phenomenon. The government of the Philippines exhibits a huge openness towards migration, particularly female migration. It promotes and pursues gender-selective labour migration with an emphasis on domestic and care work for women and with the aim of securing the benefits of remittances.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) regulates overseas recruitment and protects the rights of migrant workers. Having ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) in 1995, the Filipino government also works with governments of destination countries in order to protect and guarantee the rights of Overseas Filipino Workers. The Commission on Overseas Filipinos primarily “registers and provides pre-departure orientation seminars to emigrants”.[2] Accordingly, an increasing number of schools have been created in order to train female care workers before they go overseas, additionally prompting rural to urban migration within the Philippines prior to departure.[3] The Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration, whose mission is “to protect and promote the welfare and well-being of Overseas Filipino Workers” [4], has branches in principal destination countries and supports families with relatives abroad. The Central Bank also works on enhancing the financial products and services available to migrants and migrant families. Finally, an Overseas Absentee Voting Act cementing the Filipino migrant’s transnational citizenship as well as an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act were introduced in 2003.

All these factors undoubtedly create an environment in which Filipinas are encouraged to migrate and feel reassured and protected during their migratory experience.

Micro level

In the Philippines, there are several conditions that are conducive to female mobility. Firstly, Filipino women have more autonomy than in various developing states. For example, in many cases, it is the wife who manages the household finances [5] and women are not inhibited from making independent decisions. In fact, it is believed that one-sixth of Filipinas never consult their family members about their decision to migrate.[6]

Secondly, Filipinas experience low salaries and limited opportunities for employment in the Philippines, despite being more educated than other Southern migrants. Moreover, extended kinship relations prevail in Filipino society, making many women feel responsible to provide for their wider family.[7]

On top of this, one can add the influence of migrant networks, friends and relatives already abroad and the possibility of fleeing an unhappy marriage. Given that divorce is illegal and separation condemned, migration often provides the yearn for an escape route. Therefore at the micro level and in conjunction with state policies there exists, amonst Filipinas, the desire and motivation as a precondition for emigration.

Meso level

Combining the macro and micro level factors favourable to migration creates a social environment in which international female mobility is encouraged and embraced. This is what Oishi refers to as “social legitimacy” [8], which can be seen to work at the meso level in the Philippines. Due to continued state policies, female migration is socially accepted and even promoted in the media. Filipino society is one in which women are educated, economically active and mobile, both internally and internationally. It is also one that has a long history of feminist movements and female involvement in the fight for human rights. Finally, female migrants are also often considered a more reliable source for supplementing family incomes than males.

Filipina migrants: heroines or victims?

National heroes…

In 1988, President Cory Aquino referred, for the first time, to the overseas Filipino population as national heroes. This image has been sustained and popularised to the extent that overseas Filipino workers are even endowed with a national holiday in their honour, celebrated on the 7th June every year. As by far the country’s largest export, Filipino migrant workers play an important role in the country’s nation-building and development policy, aimed at improving the economy and standards of living. Remittances therefore make up to 13% of the country’s GDP,[9] with inflows reaching 19 billion US dollars in 2009,[10] a figure that has consistently increased over the years. Remittances are also the single most important source of income for Filipino households with overseas migrants. Given that women constitute over half of the migrant population and that they are often stated as sending back more remittances than men, the state is effectively reliant upon female migration for its economic development.

Bridging the gender gap

Filipina migrants can also be seen as contributing to increased gender equality in the sense that their migratory experience provides them with a feeling of liberation and independence. Positing the female as the main income ea

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rner of a household also has the potential to change traditional, patriarchal gender roles, providing women with more power and autonomy. Nevertheless, the repercussions for constructions of masculinity could be a source of conflict, as men are obliged to stay at home or assume a less dominant role. The Filipina migrants have also acquired more political clout, becoming active “rights conscious” campaigners.[11] For example, alongside NGOs and civil society, Filipinas campaigned to achieve a minimum wage for migrants in Hong Kong in the 1990s.[12]

Or victims of the global capitalist system?

That said, there are various aspects of the Filipina migratory experience that justify the “victim” hypothesis. Studies examining the feminisation of international migration often evoke its association with the illegalisation of labour migration and the increased vulnerability of females migrating alone. The majority of the Filipina labour diaspora in Asia works on a temporary basis in low-skilled jobs. Indeed, several researchers note a tendency towards “downward mobility” for Filipinas in that they occupy jobs that are not only rejected by the local population, but also inferior to their educational qualifications. In destination countries, they are poorly paid, they experience unsatisfactory work, poor living conditions and they are often ostracised from society. Despite this, they continue to migrate, frequently pressured by the obligation to provide for their families.[13].

Asian destination countries have limited policies for immigrants. They are keen to maintain a system of temporary migration which fulfils their labour requirements, yet restricts immigrant participation, integration and resettlement opportunities.[14] In the majority of cases, immigrants are not protected by legislation or employment acts, making them legally invisible and susceptible to exploitation. In Singapore, for example, Filipinas working in the domestic sector have poor pay and living conditions because, since they do not work in the industrial sector, they are not considered to be “productive”.[15] Moreover, if a migrant is exploited or experiencing abuse, there are little or no legal instruments at their disposal. This is especially problematic in the case of domestic workers employed in private homes.


There have been a number of cases signalling the exploitation and victimisation of female Filipino migrant workers overseas. The most famous was the case of Flor Contemplacion in 1995 who was hanged in Singapore for the double murder of a Singaporean boy and another Filipina migrant worker. It is widely believed that Flor was coerced into a confession and that the father of the household was actually responsible. The episode led to a serious deterioration in Filipino-Singaporean diplomatic relations and her story was used by the media and human rights groups as representative of the plight of the Filipina diaspora. Another example was the case of Maricris Sioson in 1991, employed as an entertainer in Japan, whose murder was suspected to have been concealed by Japanese authorities.[16].

Transnationally split families

In analysing the negative outcomes of gender-selective mobility in the Philippines it is important to mention the potential destabilising effect on the family. Having one parent, or in many cases both, living abroad can have a detrimental effect on the well-being of children left behind although the improved education of children left behind, brought about by remittance gains, has been highlighted. The destabilising effect on the family is particularly problematic on the Asian continent since neither the possibility of naturalisation nor family unification is afforded to migrants by governments. Migration therefore seldom allows for a stable, united family. Scholars often refer to Filipino families as “transnationally-split”[17] and underline the increased probability of negative effects on children left behind in the case of an absentee mother.

Looking Forward

It would seem that today’s Filipina migrants can still be positioned at the centre of the “heroine-victim” debate. Their impact on development in the Philippines is crucial and the support and recognition Filipina migrants receive from the state is significant. In response to cases such as those of Flor Contemplacion and Maricris Sioson, the government of the Philippines responded with legal and diplomatic measures on protecting migrant worker’s rights and welfare such as the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and the ratification of the ICRMW.[18]. Filipinos in fact benefit from a more advantageous position in comparison to other intra-regional migrants. In part due to their reputation as reliable, educated and diligent workers, in part due to promotion by the government, Filipinos generally receive better pay and living conditions than other Asian migrants.

However, it is difficult to ignore how advances in female emancipation in the case of Filipina migrants are undermined in the face of continuing exploitation and pressure. The suggestion that though independent migration women may acquire more autonomy and gender equality is challenged by the fact that mass Filipina labour migration as maids, housekeepers and carers is simply reinforcing a patriarchal order in which women occupy domestic roles. Parreñas aptly gauges that “the economic growth of the Philippines in globalisation depends on the maintenance of gender equalities. The ideology of women’s domesticity remains strongly in place as it undergirds the entrance of women into the global labour market” [19].

Nevertheless, the importance of considering gendered migration and its link to economic and social development, especially in the South, cannot be underestimated. The case of the Filipina diaspora is the most potent example of the phenomenon of feminisation in contemporary international migration. It highlights the gendered motivations and consequences of mobility as well as the increasing importance and impact of female migration, particularly in the Global South. Finally, it illustrates that women, as half of all migrants in the world today, makes gender a fundamental element of migration that should be integrated into migration studies, debate and policy.

See also


  1. IOM report 2010 states 51.1%
  2. Commission on Filipinos Overseas, Official Website, About Us Section
  3. International Organisation for Migration (2009), Gender and Labour Migration in Asia, p. 28
  4. Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration, Official Website, About OWWA Section
  5. Oishi, Nana (2002), “Gender and Migration: an Integrative Approach”, The Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies, p.12
  6. Oishi, Nana (2002), “Gender and Migration: an Integrative Approach”, The Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies, p. 13
  7. Oishi, Nana (2002), “Gender and Migration: an Integrative Approach”, The Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies, p. 11
  8. Oishi, Nana (2002), “Gender and Migration: an Integrative Approach”, The Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies, p. 13
  9. See introduction in Camroux, David (2008), “Nationalising Transnationalism? The Philippine State and the Filipino Diaspora”, Les études du CERI, no 152, Centre d’études et de recherches internationales, Sciences Po
  10. International Organisation for Migration (2010), World Migration Report 2010, p. 168
  11. Piper, Nicola (2005), “Gender and Migration”, Global Commission on International Migration, p. 30
  12. Outcome of “Gender, Migration and Governance in Asia” Conference, December 2002
  13. Lim, L. and Nana Oishi (1996) ‘International Labour Migration of Asian Women: Distinctive Characteristics and Policy Concerns’, in Battistella, G. and Paganoni A. (eds) Asian Women in Migration, Quezon City, Philippines: Scalabrini Migration Center, p. 31
  14. Asis, Maruja (2003), “When Men and Women Migrate: comparing gendered migration in Asia”, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, p. 5
  15. Asis, Maruja (2003), “When Men and Women Migrate: comparing gendered migration in Asia”, United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, p. 8
  16. The Death of Maricris Sioson
  17. For example: Piper, Nicola (2005), “Gender and Migration”, Global Commission on International Migration
  18. Yamanaka, Keiko & Nicola Piper (2005), “Feminized Migration in East and Southeast Asia: Policies, Actions and Empowerment”, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development p. 30
  19. Parreñas, Rhacel Salazar (2008), The Force of Domesticity: Filipina Migrants and Globalisation, New York University Press, p. 173