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Working in the US
Phil J. Allman

    Filipinos have been finding work in the US for decades. They come to the US to find jobs at which they can make enough money to increase the quality of life of their families in the Philippines (Parrenas, 2001). They come simply to make money, but they stay to raise families. While the US is not regarded as "home" by Filipino immigrants, it is usually regarded as such by their children who grow up here. While Filipinos travel to dozens of countries as both laborers and professionals, they come to the US with a university education under their belt and a job already lined up.


Far East University Institute of Nursing: Class of 1964

    The Immigration Act of 1965 gave preferential treatment to skilled workers who wanted to gain entrance to the United States. Before this act was passed, the main labor export from the Philippines came in the form of male construction workers. With the act in place, the worker migration became more prevalently female. The Immigration Act, coupled with Philippine governmental encouragement, resulted in an influx of educated Filipinos to the United States (Herrin, 1982: 336, quoted in Ball, 2004).

    Many of the skilled Filipinos who come to the United States to work fill positions for which they are overqualified (Ball, 2004). For example, physicians often emigrate and find they can only hold medical technician positions because of licensure laws. A licensed Filipino physician must take several certification exams to become licensed in the US, each of which costs around $100. For someone trying to escape poverty, this can be a significant hurdle. However, a physician in the Philippines makes considerably less than a lab technician in the United States. We saw in an in-class video a Filipina nurse who was working in the UK as a nanny, because she could make more money performing unskilled labor there than nursing in the Philippines.

    In my research I interviewed ten Filipina nurses working in various nursing centers and hospitals in the Chicagoland area. Each of them was educated in the Philippines, where they received their nursing degrees, five of which were master's degrees, the others bachelor's. All but two informants had at least one child born in the United States, and all planned to raise their children in the United States. Many informants stated that, although they think of the Philippines as "home", they are staying here to raise their children in better surroundings with greater opportunity for socioeconomic mobility than they would have had in the Philippines.

A Medical Filipino-American Family

    I learned about one family history through an interview with a twenty-one year old Filipina-American woman, the daughter of a pathologist and a psychiatrist. Both of her parents received their doctoral degrees in the Philippines, but in different ways. Her mother's family owned a trucking company in a city and could afford to send her (their oldest child) through school. Her father's family, on the other hand, lived in rural Bataan, and his parents could not afford education on their own. His older sister went to work in Canada to pay his college tuition. The informant's parents married immediately after graduating from medical school, and moved to the US in 1975. As soon as she had secured a job as a psychiatrist in the US, the informant's mother began sending money home to help her brothers and sisters attend school and to pay for the family's necessities. The informant's parents could at first only afford to live in a low-income neighborhood when they first came to Chicago,but by the time their first child was born in 1980, they held lucrative enough positions to move to an affluent suburb.

Filipina nursing students at St. Louis University, Baguio City, Philippine

    Both parents continue to send money home to their families in the Philippines to help pay for education, household essentials, and medical bills, and regularly travel there with their children to visit. The parents regard the Philippines as "home", but like other informants want the security and opportunity that growing up in the US can give to their children. The informant's godmother had no children, and so came to the United States, made enough money to increase her quality of life, returned to the Philippines, and has since remained there. This love of family and country is the very thing that allows the Philippine government to maintain its economy through promoting both skilled and unskilled workers to leave the country for more gainful employment.

Brain Drain and Labor Exportation

    "Brain drain" is the loss of skilled labor by a nation to a more hospitable locale. Many academics see this happening to the Philippines today. The migratory behavior of skilled Filipino women has been attributed to being "amongst the most domestically migratory women in Asia" (Findlay, 1987 and Trager, 1984; referenced in Ball, 2004). Antonio J. A. Pido describes Filipino immigrants before 1980 as "birds of passage", immigrants who have come to the United States "to earn a lot of money and get an education or both and return to the Philippines, the sooner the better" (in Root, 1997: 28). Economic factors also have accelerated the emigration of skilled labor from the Philippines; the continued decline of the Philippine economy and "aggressive global labor marketing campaigns by the Philippine government" have encouraged this kind of worker export (Ball, 2004). From in-class discussion, we know that the Philippine government does stand to gain financially from the export of their own manpower, by means of the income received by Filipino families at home from their family members working abroad. This has caused the government to actively promote emigration from its own country, in the expectation that Filipinos who leave to make money will send much of it back to the Philippines.

    While this results in a net fiscal gain for the Philippine government, Rochelle E. Ball argues that it results in a paucity of skilled laborers, particularly healthcare professionals, in the Philippines, as well as human rights issues for nurses in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries, where they may have no access to a watchdog agency to protect them from abuse and fraud (2004). Pido argues that emigration had deleterious effects on the Philippines from the early 20th century, in that the removal of a portion of the dissatisfied element from the Philippine social strata meant that economic reforms the group would have been clamoring for would no longer need to be addressed (in Root, 1997: 28).

Working for a Living

    The issue of labor exportation is a complex and important one, to say the least. Labor exportation from the Philippines will continue to affect the entire industrial world in decades to come. Whether it is having a net positive effect on economies and on the lives of Filipinos and the people they work for or care for is a question beyond the scope of this, or I fear any, discussion. While more Filipinos are being educated and living at a reasonable level of comfort, more Filipinos also are being abused or even dying abroad, on top of being forced by undesirable economic conditions beyond their control forcing them to leave their families and work among strangers for years just to ensure a decent life for their children. Although the United States may be one of the hardest places for an overseas worker to secure a job, it does offer greater protection of the human rights of an overseas worker than most other countries they might consider. The overarching principle is that, for better or for worse, people will do whatever they can to make due when faced with dire circumstances, and it is only through educated action that it can be made safer (or better yet unnecessary) to resort to such drastic measures as these.


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Ball, Rochelle E.  “Divergent development, racialised rights: globalised labour markets and the trade of nurses—The case of the Philippines.” Women’s Studies International Forum. Volume 27, Issue 2, June-July 2004, Pages 119-133

BBC News. “Nurse exodus hits the Philippines.” Available online: Wednesday, 27 January, 1999, 13:54 GMT.

Gorodzeisky, Anastasia; Semyonov, Moshe. “Occupational destinations and economic mobility of Filipino overseas workers.” International Migration Review, Spring         2004 v38 i1 p5(21)

Parrenas, Rhacel Salazar. “Transgressing the Nation-State: The Partial Citizenship and   "Imagined (Global) Community" of Migrant Filipina Domestic Workers.”                Signs. Summer 2001, Volume 26, Issue 4, Page 1129.

Root, Mario P. P., ed. Filipino Americans: Transformation and Identity. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. 1997.

Tyner, James A. Made in the Philippines: Gendered discourses and the making of migrants. New York: RoutledgeCurzon. 2004.