News Analysis: “A Nation of Servants”

by Kobakila News

CANADA — Thousands of Filipinos marched through Hong Kong in protest against a local magazine columnist who described The Philippines as a “nation of servants” in a satirical article that has sparked an international race row.

But even as the protest march was going on, some influential Filipino groups were admitting that The Philippines has indeed become a country of overseas domestics.

Media in The Philippines said that many migrant groups, including the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), Kanlungan Center Foundation, and Migrante International, have bashed the columnist for spouting this “racial slur” while at the same time lamenting that the “servant” tag for the nation’s overseas workers fits because of the government’s labour export policy.

Kanlungan resource and advocacy assistant Alladin Diega said that The Philippines being called “a nation of servants” is not a new thing.

“Tsao (the columnist) is not the first and will not be the last. [The] Philippines being a nation of servants is not a new thing,” he told GMANews.TV.

But Evelyn Uy, with the Richmond Multicultural Concerns Society immigrant services organization, said discrimination against migrant Filipinos – no matter how it is dressed up with eloquent satire – is “an ongoing problem” wherever in the world Filipinos find themselves, including in Metro Vancouver.

She said individual Filipinos seeking a new life and better opportunities abroad should not be blamed and targeted for decades-old policies made by Manila.

“We experience these problems here too,” said Uy, a Filipino who emigrated to Canada in 1992.

“It might even be comments about our accent or comments that ‘How come your English is so good?,’” explained Uy.

“Discrimination has been an ongoing problem. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary previously placed Filipina as ‘domestic helper.’”

Back in The Philippines, both CMA and Kanlungan questioned why Filipinos are so keen on denying the fact that they do have large a number of Filipinos doing domestic work abroad.

“We react because we have too many domestic workers abroad? But we do,” CMA executive director Ellene Sana told GMANews.TV.

This, Diega said, is what the country gets by letting the government deploy thousands of Filipinos everyday to other countries instead of focusing on creating jobs locally.

In Hong Kong’s Central district in late March, more than 2,000 Filipinos from over 130 organisations took to the streets chanting “No to racism. No to Discrimination” and carrying banners with slogans such as “We are workers, not slaves,” to protest the recent article by writer Chip Tsao in HK Magazine.

Other banners read: “Don’t insult our intelligence, racism is not easily misunderstood” and “We are not stupid, we know how to discern political satire from racial slurs.”

Tsao had raised hackles by writing that Manila’s claims to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea were ridiculous in the face of Beijing’s rival territorial claims.

“As a nation of servants, you don’t flex your muscles at your master, from whom you earn most of your bread and butter,” he wrote.

The comments angered a large chunk of the more than 120,000 Filipinos who live in the southern Chinese city, mostly as low-paid domestic workers.

The community has become increasingly vocal in recent years through church groups and other organisations, and regularly holds protests against unfair treatment or poor working conditions.

Tsao’s column has sparked huge resentment in Hong Kong and in The Philippines, which has banned him from entering, even after he insisted the column was meant as a satire and apologised if it caused any offence.

“We acknowledge the apology of Chip Tsao and we take this action today as the expression of the community that we do not want this thing to happen again,” Dolores Balladares, chairwoman of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, was quoted as saying.

“As Filipino migrant workers, we do not tolerate any racism or discrimination attacking the Filipinos.”

Balladares said the rally was also in protest over other discrimination in Hong Kong, such as the possible exclusion of migrant workers from an upcoming minimum wage law in the city.

“Every day the domestic workers experience discrimination,” she said, adding that the column has become a symbol of that discrimination.

The diplomatic dispute over the Spratlys, believed to sit atop vast mineral and oil deposits, was renewed early last month when China sent a patrol vessel to the area.

The move came after The Philippines passed a law laying claim to some of the disputed islands in the Spratlys chain. Beijing has called the law “illegal and invalid.”

The chain of atolls and reefs is also claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Tsao, meanwhile, has been overwhelmed by the Filipino fury his punditry has inspired. Although Tsao has apologized in print, radio and television, organizers of the rally remain unconvinced of his sincerity.

‘’The article was never intended to be insulting to the Filipino domestic workers,’’ said Tsao.

‘’English, being a global language, is open to different interpretations by those who come from various cultural backgrounds.

‘’Has anyone been deeply upset, it was never my intention and I feel sorry.’’

A Filipino news commentator said there are almost nine million Filipinos abroad – half of whom are overseas Filipino workers (OFW), “yet we deny that we are a ‘nation of servants.’”

The phenomenon of migration from The Philippines can be traced back to the 1970s when there was a surge in the number of Filipinos leaving for abroad.

Dante Ang, chairman of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, said this was because then Labour Secretary Blas Ople thought to deploy Filipino workers to the Middle East to take advantage of the oil-boom while at the same time temporarily solving the growing unemployment rate in the country.

“To the credit of the government, the policy of sending Filipino workers abroad helped defuse what could have been a social volcano,” said Ang.

However, more than 30 years after migration was pegged to be a temporary stop-gap measure against unemployment, the deployment of Filipino workers still hasn’t slowed down.

In an article titled “Understanding International Labor Migration in the East,” published in the May-June 2007 Newsletter of the Philippine Institute for Development, Maruja Asis, director for Research and Publications of the Scalabrini Migration Center, identified the factors why Filipino migration has continued for almost four decades.

One of the reasons for this, she said, is the “institutionalization of migration.”

As proof, government agencies like the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs have been set up to help OFWs with their concerns.

This, Asis said, has developed and encouraged a culture of migration.

“Working abroad has become an accepted fate to most Filipinos,” she said.

In fact, she said it is now unusual for a Filipino to not to aspire for a job abroad despite being faced with proof that overseas is not really a haven for the unemployed. –The Filipino Post

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