We need to recognize invisible, gendered Filipino care

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Now more than ever, we dwell on the concept of care — its ethic, its crisis, its geographical imaginaries, and its universality.

Ragene Palma is an urbanist, and took up her master’s at the University of Westminster. Janelle Rabe is a child rights advocate and is an incoming PhD student and ESRC-NINE DTP scholar at Durham University. This essay is based on the authors’ academic presentations at the 7th Ustinov Annual Conference, themed "Global migration in practice: rights, policies, and gender." Both authors are Chevening alumni.

As we continue to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we also begin to think and understand more about the concept of care. Globally, Filipinos are at the forefront of caring; our nurses and care workers have a “global reputation” for their work. However, there is also hurt and heartbreak, stemming from their lives as transnational citizens, from gendered norms, and from their experiences as invisible ‘others.’

The emotional costs of labor migration

The deployment of our Overseas Filipino Workers can be traced to as early as the 1970s. Our government has long institutionalized laws, regulations, and programs that incentivize this exodus. Recent years have shown how gendered this movement is. Among the 2.2 million Filipinos deployed abroad, the majority are women. Limited job opportunities in the country have long pushed Filipino women to become migrant workers and pursue opportunities abroad.

Since then, a multitude of Filipino mothers have moved thousands of miles away for a chance at a better future for their families; providing basic needs, and ensuring their children’s education became priorities. But this also came at high cost: Studies and personal accounts demonstrate that family members “left behind” experience psychological distress due to the prolonged separation. Mothers feel homesickness and guilt; as they say, no mother wants to be separated from her children. Children, in turn, could perceive a mother’s separation as abandonment, or punishment for misbehaving. Accounts about unfamiliarity add to this: “It’s difficult — you left your son not knowing you,” she said. “Then you come back, and he can talk, he can run, but he doesn’t recognize you.”

Gendered resilience in transnationality

The displacement of women leads to the drain and deficit, as well as the redistribution of care from one place to another. While it is easily perceived how paid caring work elsewhere can extract energy and resources from mothers to provide care for children other than their own, we also have to acknowledge how much effort is exerted by families in the Philippines to remain resilient despite a faraway loved one, and amidst diversity.

Responding to transnationality is very gendered, and impacts the expectations of children on parental roles. Resilient families have overcome difficulties by adapting to family roles that can be fulfilled by many members. Gender-based norms, which require mothers to constantly be present and see fathers as breadwinners, can give rise to conflicts in children. However, children who understand their mothers’ dual roles — as both providers and nurturers — are more likely to adjust better.

Consistent communication through online channels allows mothers to “mother from afar” and stay involved in their children’s lives despite the distance. Children, with the understanding of their mother’s roles, reciprocate the sacrifice by doing their “part” in sustaining family ties, most commonly through helping with household tasks and striving in their schooling. Those who have grown up in transnational families reflect this; as this mom recalls in a CNN interview, “When I became a mother, I realized her sacrifices. I loved her more because it is hard for a mother to be separated from her children.”

Dealing with invisibility, othering, and hostile policies while living abroad

Now more than ever, we dwell on the concept of care — its ethic, its crisis, its geographical imaginaries, and its universality. For our overseas Filipino workers, and for their families, both in the Philippines and the ones they’ve formed with communities abroad, this resonates deeply.

Filipinos’ care work is global, and crucial to many places; demand for our health workers increased in Europe, while the US health system continues to rely on our nurses. Despite this, and the heavy toll borne by COVID-19, many of our nurses and care workers are invisible in a mix of ethnic groups in global cities. London-based nurses who have served the National Health Service from a few years to twenty, lament how they continue to live with the label of an “Asian other,” while domestic workers, who are “tied” to a domestic household, continue to feel “trapped” inside affluent homes because of hostile environment policies, which restrict them from public funding or finding new jobs.

Living in fear and hurt is something many Filipino migrants have to live with everyday. Research findings show how simply mopping the floor can make an undocumented worker “feel like a criminal;” others endure tiny, shared living spaces — “fifteen people in a three-bedroom flat” — which increases risks of contracting COVID-19. Nurses would share how sometimes, they are not allowed to call fellow kababayans “Ate” or “Kuya,” denying a part of their identity, while some endured forced shifts in care homes, worked longer hours and “more difficult cases” in hospitals. Scheduled clapping in their honor and thank you banners they said were recognition, though not enough.

Responding with care

It is remarkable how Filipinos, who are inflicted with the injustices of invisibility and hostility, respond with more care. Rooted from our virtue ethic of kapwa, which can be understood as a “shared self” or “a self in the other,” this results in solidarity and collaborative spirit in places far away, and which in the process, Filipinos make their own, in the form of caring spaces. In the first year of the pandemic, the extent of solidarity and the collaborative spirit displayed by our overseas communities ranged greatly. Some organized response initiatives to deliver food to nurses who worked overtime at hospitals. Some brought groceries to those affected with COVID-19. Others went as far as assisting bereaved families of nurses and care workers lost to the pandemic.

Even domestic workers who lost jobs and sought shelter partook in volunteering, despite safety risks. When asked about their motivation, they replied: “What drives us to help is our own experience. I came from the Middle East. I was also abused... I understand what they go through, I know how they feel. How could you not help when you see someone else with no freedom?”

Filipinos epitomize and embody care, which flows in the precarious lives and the many places our diasporic community inhabits. Filipinos also demonstrate resilience and adaptability amidst adversity. The difficult, uncertain challenges that come with all of these is something we should recognize, and the solidarity and relations — which are reflections of agency and resistance — something we should maintain; after all, our interdependence on each other is something that the pandemic highlights.