Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Review of Sociologist Robyn Magalit Rodriguez's NEW BOOK Migrants For Export

Jeb Sprague
Science & Society

Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World, by Robyn Magalit Rodriguez. Minneapolis, Minnesota/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. $67.00; paper, $19.00. Pp. 208.
From government-sponsored nursing classes in Manila to crushed labor strikes at garment factories in southeast Asia, a variety of mechanisms have been developed to manage, promote and coerce Filipino workers as a readily available cheap source of labor around the world. A book of interest for scholars or students of global migration or of the contemporary Filipino/ Filipina experience, Migrants for Export should also be of interest to those studying the state in globalization and in relation to the changing practices and ideologies of state elites.
Rodriguez starts by considering some theoretical issues behind the state and its interaction with migrants, and the historical roots of the novel processes of today’s global market and political economy. She explains how the modern Philippine state developed, first tightly bound to the United States as a colony and later as a component within a global system (yet, still closely aligned with the United States). It is in today’s era of global capitalism that Rodriguez seeks to understand, by way of the Philippines, the exploitive and contradictory nature of the state’s role in migration.

The book’s central argument is that the Philippine state has become actively involved in marketing its citizens to companies and labor-receiving governments around the world for low-wage and closely watched temporary jobs. The practices and ideologies of state elites have become rooted in this process — becoming active migration promoters and managers, such that the “orientation of Philippine officials and government agencies toward overseas employment reveals the extent to which Philippine citizens have become reduced to mere commodities to be bartered and traded globally”(27). 

Rodriguez pieces together the puzzle of such a project: how Philippine state agencies, such as the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), for example, utilize the private sector for education and training courses, for which TESDA sets the parameters. Different kinds of self-financed training seminars, paperwork, evidence of skills and other tasks are required for Philippine citizens to be approved for labor migration (33). Rodriguez argues that the Philippine state is reconfiguring citizenshipn in order both to justify its policies promoting the outflow of labor, and to maintain the loyalty of those migrants through “rearticulated ideas of nationalism and national belonging for the purposes of brokering labor” (xxi), accomplished through a “myriad of practices” (xxvii). The state and its functionary strata have become entwined with global capitalist accumulation
to such an extent that managing and promoting networks of transnational migration have become an important part of their own social reproduction, with profitable migratory management companies and large amounts of taxes collected from mandatory remittances.
While facilitating the outflow of workers to transnational corporations and other types of employers around the world, Philippine state elites, through various institutional mechanisms, utilize national rhetoric to legitimize their policies among ordinary Filipinos. Filipino migrants are vaunted in state propaganda as the “new national heroes.” In this way, elites “rely on the reification of national identities and citizenship” (xxv) to legitimize what are in fact highly unequal and exploitive transnational processes. One way to study the class dynamics of power is to look at the difference between elite discourse and mainstream discourse, to understand what elites discuss strategically and what they communicate with a wider citizenry. Rodriguez does well at uncovering such discourse and the reality it obscures.
The goal for top bureaucrats has been to streamline labor brokerage, so that people can be shipped out quickly, put in place and recalled or coerced if they organize collectively or make demands on employers. “The bureaucracy operates like a well-oiled machine facilitating the process of authorization and thereby expediently speeding up the export of labor” (41). Not operating in isolation when they broker labor, state elites work to stave off the protests of workers, while juggling the requirements of employers. “Accordingly, the Philippine state has developed mechanisms by which it not only exports labor but by which it forcibly repatriates workers” (74). While groups like Migrante International are organizing inspiring protests in and outside of the Philippines, the Philippine state has worked to punish and extricate workers who organize labor strikes.
Rodriguez observed one such strike in Brunei. She explains how the Filipino state helped mediate a temporary solution among the workers, the Brunei state, Philippine-based labor recruitment agencies and the Malaysian–Chinese employers (116). The mediation ensured that the workers were pacified, with their demands unachieved. This brings up another very interesting point of this book, covered briefly toward the end: the expanding coordination and similar interests of the Philippine state with other states and institutions. This is valuable, as the vast majority of even critical works on political economy nearly always focus with a realist scope on the differences and conflicts among “nation–states.” Rodriguez observes an ongoing and expanding coordination. She explains: “Philippine migration officials and bureaucrats have increasingly become experts in the global field of ‘migration management,’ working as consultants to other labor-sending countries or playing host to delegations from other countries because of the Philippines’ highly developed migration bureaucracy” (145). Philippine officials work closely with countries in their region such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China, as well as with supranational institutions and government ministries in labor-receiving countries in Europe, the Persian Gulf and North America.

Philippine state officials explained to Rodriguez how memoranda of agreement to ensure exchange of information had been developed with other countries; some Philippine officials were even going to work for other governments to aid the development of their migration programs. Supranational institutions like the WTO and ASEAN meanwhile facilitate and lay out standards, working toward “greater mobility of labor both regionally and globally” (146). It would be helpful here to mention some of the work on transnational class formation, as her work is so relevant to such ideas, for example a discussion of the transnational capitalist class whose interests benefit most from these transnational processes. Although Rodriguez does discuss the work of David Harvey, Saskia Sassen, and William I. Robinson, it would have been nice, at the start of the book, to see more nuanced discussion on theories of the state (and the state in globalization) upon which the author draws. For example, she refers to U. S. Empire and neoliberalism, ideas that could be better explained in relation to the global system, the emergence of transnational elites and the ongoing reconfiguration of state institutions. (It should be said that she develops these ideas somewhat further in a previous journal article.) At a time when many scholars of migration are turning away from political economy, Rodriguez helps us to better understand critically migration in relation to the transnational processes of our global epoch.

Sociology Department
Social Sciences and Media Studies Building
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106 –9430

Also view Dr Robyn Magalit Rodriguez's web-blog here.

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