Domestics: For Children of Filipino Transnational Families, Classification as Control

Geraldine Pratt’s recent work with Filipina domestic workers in Canada examines the narratives of ambitious mothers who travel overseas to take care of others’ children in order to provide for their own. Once their children are able to reunite with them in Canada, mothers cite issues of deskilling, where they “lose their skills during the years that they work as caregivers,” limiting them to caretaking jobs and unable to further develop their human capital. Furthermore, Pratt reports that these mothers usually spend an average of eight to twelve years engaged in domestic work overseas and separated from their families before reunification.

As a former educator, I taught in a rural high school in Hawaii, where we had a high Filipino student population whose parents and/or grandparents were immigrants. Many of my students’ family members had limited English speaking ability. When calling home, older sibling often translated my messages for me. We also saw low attendance for parent-teacher conferences. However, when mothers did attend these conferences, they shared their frustrations at being unable to help their children with schoolwork, emphasizing their hopes that their hard work would enable their children to gain “a better life.”

My experience with immigrant Filipino families as an educator prompted me to investigate the education for Filipino American students from transnational families. However, I must stress that Filipino students were also among my best students. It is important to remember that stereotyping all Filipino students according to ethnicity is more dangerous than excluding these narratives. We must look at all contributing factors, such as family education and class in host country, discrimination, and generation.

Despite popular depictions of Filipino migrants as working in highly skilled professions, the US continues to recruit domestic and home care workers. Among Filipino domestic and home care workers: 80% are women, the median age is 44, 60% hold US citizenship, the median annual income was $17,050 in 2005, 1/3 have at least a college-level degree and another 30% attended college without completion, and 3% have graduate and post-BA level degrees. Filipino women are disproportionately represented among domestic workers, and, contrary to prevailing views of Filipinos in the US, a majority of Filipino domestic workers are neither highly educated nor have much opportunity to leave domestic work to enter other skilled professions. The median annual income is just below the federal poverty line. With only 60% of domestic workers reporting citizenship status, some Filipino domestic workers lack access to most social services.

I wrote to Geraldine Pratt on the topic of classifying Filipinos and the use of “Asian/Pacific Islander.” Pratt responded:

“I think in Canada there is a tendency not to lump Filipino youths with other Asian-Canadian youths, because the migration of Filipinos to Canada has been so particular.”

For example, consider how the Canadian and the US census approach the question of race and ethnicity. The Canadian census uses an open-ended question, along with examples and guidelines, which requires respondents to write in their race/ethnicity. The US census requires respondents to check off one or more race/ethnicity box (where Filipinos would fall under “Asian”) and allows respondents to specify their subgroup. Since respondents are not required to specify their subgroup, the US Census Bureau is continuously working on better ways to track race/ethnicity. At the same time, Canadian research tends to give more attention to Filipino academic achievement while research focused on Filipino Americans generally still include Filipino Americans in the pan-ethnic group of “Asians.”

As Michel Foucault suggested, the classification of individuals drives governmental strategies of control. By inventing all-encompassing pan-ethnic terms, which represent group otherness rather than group needs, the counting of certain “kinds of people” informs state allocation of resources and penalties. The state’s power to name a people translates into a power over people’s daily lives. When I report my ethnicity, which box(es) am I allowed to check off, how is it packaged and interpreted in study results, and later, how does someone else’s interpretation of my identity continue to mold my everyday identity and life chances, and consequently, manipulate my identity further through defining my race/ethnicity?

In Pratt’s study, Filipino domestic workers are “sacrificed for the vitality of the Canadian population”, and Canadian families “prosper” while Filipino domestic workers labor and live under conditions “unacceptable to national citizens.” Following Foucault’s critique of the state, state racism and discrimination against certain “inferiorized races” serves a “murderous function” in order to regenerate the general population. In this way, the state “saves” by denying care to domestic workers and their families, but the state also “gains” when domestic workers provide privatized services, such as health care and child care, which the state normally provides its citizens. The state denies transnational domestic workers’ full citizenship rights in order to sustain citizenship rights for others without actually investing in those services.

Though there are issues with the education system and its reinforcement of capitalist ideals and hierarchies of power, a lack of support for Filipino students from transnational families could prove to be more detrimental. When we assume that all Filipino or all Asian students are successful and fail to recognize specific needs, we allow false assumptions to further deny students their rights. For Filipino children of transnational families, lower academic performance and higher dropout rates perpetuate their place among low-waged workers. Filipino Canadian youth struggle to exceed their parents’ educational levels and work almost exclusively in certain service professions. More academic support and guidance can help Filipino American youth from transnational backgrounds overcome these statistics and use education as a tool to achieve the social mobility which originally prompted their parents to become transnational domestic workers.

Domestics: Governor Brown’s veto of California’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights


Last week, Governor Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a three-year grassroots campaign, blaming “increased costs” and increased “burden onto working class families.” Among other basic worker protections, the bill called for overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, and adequate sleeping conditions for live-in domestic workers. For domestic workers in California, where over 90% do not receive overtime pay and many cite issues of sexual harassment and violence on the job, Brown’s decision to prioritize working-class families illustrates a continued disregard for domestic workers as not “really” workers and a continued commitment to the status quo.

In his statement last week announcing the vetoed legislation, Governor Brown called domestic work “a noble endeavor” which deserves fair pay and safe working conditions. Domestic work is indeed a noble endeavor, but in measuring silences we can effectively unpack Governor Brown’s words. Calling domestic work an “endeavor” suggests that the work of caring and maintaining the home is less of a job but more of a service. It is “noble,” because though no one wants to do it, it still must be done. All in all, as the doers of “a noble endeavor,” domestic workers are not real contributors to capital. By calling their work “noble endeavors,” Brown makes the domestic work visible in recognizing its importance; however, Brown’s subsequent veto of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights keeps the domestic workers invisible in failing to recognize domestic work as a “profession” which deserves the same respect and protections found in other jobs.

Furthermore by taking the side of working-class families who “are struggling, I’m sure, to already afford a nanny,” Brown avoids the bigger issue of class production. Both the production of middle class success and the reproduction of the middle class status rely on the burdening of domestic workers. In other words, the middle class cannot survive without the hiring of domestic workers to reaffirm middle class status. At the end, a veto of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights is really a commitment to prioritize middle class comforts over the domestic workers’ basic rights. Brown’s ultimate decision to avoid burdening the middle class is a decision to continue burdening domestic workers in order to distinguish class.

Governor Brown also cites the possibility that increased rights for domestic workers could result in job cuts. Brown raises potentially negative consequences to justify his veto rather than working through these issues later, as Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance maintains: “it was clear we would work through those questions during the regulatory process.” Essentially, Brown’s veto put an end to possible negotiations and other ways to look at the issue. As Kathi Weeks recommends, we must be careful of knowing “too much too soon” and continue to imagine other possibilities and different ways to live. Another household is possible.

(Photo Credit: San Francisco Foundation)