GABRIELA Seattle represented a women and families of color contingent at the Seattle May Day March in 2015. • Photo by Sharon H. Chang
GABRIELA Seattle represented a women and families of color contingent at the Seattle May Day March in 2015. • Photo by Sharon H. Chang

This International Workers Day 2015, GABRIELA Seattle members decided to do something they had long deliberated but never actually done before–represent a women and families of color contingent at the Seattle May Day March.

“In the past we’ve always joined the API contingent or the youth contingent,” said GABRIELA Seattle Chair, Precious Butiu. “But [this year] we wanted to focus on women.” Butiu said as the women’s movement builds and GABRIELA Seattle’s membership grows, international solidarity with women of color and their families is essential.

“It was time,” said GABRIELA Seattle founding member Donna Denina. “Women are often responsible for taking care of their families and their children and we wanted to make sure there was a space for them to participate.”

“Having children there is important,” added member Jill Mangaliman. “Even for people who don’t have children, it’s important to be around children. It takes a village.”

The significance of choosing to make visible a women and families of color contingent was many fold. For one, it represented GABRIELA, which is a collective of Pin@ys that works to educate, defend, and advocate for the human rights of Filipinas globally. Pin@y is a term coined by Filipinos in the United States during the 1920s to refer to women of Philippine descent. Additionally it made space to honor the participation of women and families of color here in the United States, while also marching with this contingent to bring visibility to the Filipina migrant workers and their families overseas. Creating this type of international solidarity is precisely what GABRIELA has been working to do, said Mangaliman. “Broadening systemic problems [and] connecting global to local issues.”

On a day for honoring workers and demanding equal rights, the plight of Filipina migrant workers is vastly significant all across the globe. Cheap human labor is the Philippines’ largest export. Six thousand people leave the Philippines every day to work in many different countries, said Donna Denina, and 70 percent of them are estimated to be women including seasonal workers, migration with illegal documentation, human trafficking and smuggling. The outflow of women workers from the Philippines represents one of the widest flows of contemporary female migration. As Rhacel Salazar-Parreñas, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at USC has written: “Filipina women are the quintessential service workers of globalization.”

Women migrant workers play an incredibly import role in the Philippines’ nation-building and development policy. The government sanctions and encourages migration of its people because the money these workers send back home is a key source of external revenue flow for developing countries like the Philippines. Remittances currently make up almost 10 percent of the nation’s GDP, a figure that has consistently increased over the years and recently reached a record-high of 26.9 billion dollars in 2014. To give an idea how significant this is, by contrast, zero percent of the U.S. GDP is attributed to remittances.

Given that women constitute the majority of the Filipino migrant population, the state effectively relies upon female migration for its economic development. At the receiving end, a multitude of other countries also benefit from and rely extensively on the cheap labor these women provide. Remittances come mainly from the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Canada. The United States is one of the largest overseas recipients of Filipino migrant workers. Close to 4 million currently reside here where they are employed typically in the service or health and caregiving industries.

A marcher's view at the Seattle May Day March in 2015. • Photo by Sharon H. Chang
A marcher’s view at the Seattle May Day March in 2015. • Photo by Sharon H. Chang

But despite how valuable their labor is to others, for the women themselves the situation is not good. Women typically migrate alone. A lot of them are mothers traveling to provide for families they must leave behind. When mothers are forced to work abroad it can have a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of their children. A major concern here has been the potential destabilizing effect of transnationally splitting families. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, recent estimates by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) suggest around 27 percent of Filipino children under the age of 18 are left behind by one or both parents to work tentatively or permanently abroad. “Transnational family,” states the UNICEF report, “has become a norm in the Philippines.”

On top of having to leave their families, so many of these women then end up exploited by recruiters, traffickers, and employers. They are often lured into migrant employment under false pretenses with false promises, endure poor to horrid work and living conditions, as well as labor too many hard hours while being paid unlivable wages. It is not uncommon for Filipina migrant workers to be diminished, verbally and physically abused, and even sexually assaulted by their overseas employers. They are a vulnerable population at undeniable risk.

Take Mary Jane Veloso, a 30-year-old Filipina migrant worker who was sentenced to execution in Indonesia for unknowingly muling drugs that had been planted on her. She was reprieved last month thanks to dedicated lobbying and activism around the globe including by GABRIELA USA and its regional chapters. Mary Jane is a single mother of two. GABRIELA has also been campaigning to seek justice for 300 Filipino teachers trafficked to the United States by Isidro Rodriguez. The teachers were assured teaching jobs but upon arriving found themselves instead manipulated, threatened, lied to, and imprisoned by false debt and fees to Rodriguez himself. About 90 percent of these teachers are women as well, said Denina. Many are mothers, some even grandmothers.

What the Seattle women and families contingent at the May Day March this year stood for was women and families of color everywhere. And it also stood for one of many powerful solidarity-building and awareness efforts by GABRIELA.

“On Workers Day,” asked Donna Denina, “how can we raise the voices of women in particular? Because so many are forced to migrate and are the center of their families.” She answered, we “honor the contributions of women to the labor movement but also highlight the plight and exploitation of workers and working women.”

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