Thank God for Slavery! – Notes and Objects on a Global Labor Force, a Collage in Five Parts

Manila-born writer and independent curator Alice Sarmiento writes about her personal encounter with the labor migration flow in the Philippines, one of the largest labor exporters in the world. A form of work that is characterized by care and is inextricably linked to feminine stereotype. Sarmiento’s personal interactions in Germany with the Filipino community, in particular with nurses, and the migration process they have gone through, are reflected in her narrative notes and collages. In doing so, she illustrates a problematic process of labor migration and confronts economic development, religious beliefs, and gender.

1. At the Primark on Königstraβe

In my first weeks in Stuttgart, I found myself wandering aimlessly around town far more often than was necessary. For this, Königstraβe, the main shopping street, was the main artery. I wandered into the Primark near Rotebühlplatz for the sole purpose of feeling the rush of strangers hurrying past, some just as lost in the overwhelming array of cheap shit that fast fashion brings. If there was anything that could take me back to Manila, it was the endless wandering from mall to mall in the absence of public spaces for the upwardly mobile. It was here that I met M and her friend K by accident. They were with a group of nurses assigned to a hospital in Tubingen, among the many beneficiaries of the Triple-Win Project, which helped employ Filipino healthcare professionals across Western Europe.

»Are you a nurse, too?« M asked, as K wandered off looking for pillowcases. I tried to explain what I did, but only stumbled across the massive divide that separated her life from mine. »Where is your boarding house?« »What are your hours like?« To answer would only elaborate on my privilege and the guilt that comes with every departure being different.

In 2015, in the short-lived Manila Review, Filipino activist and sociologist Walden Bello wrote that, »This country [the Philippines] is one of the great labor exporters of the world.« Bello reported that the Philippines placed fourth as a recipient of overseas remittances (just after China, India, and Mexico) receiving some $20 billion a year. In a country of 100 million, about 11 percent of its total population and 22 percent of its working age population are migrant workers in other countries.

Labor from the Philippines fits an interesting stereotype in that a major component of what we export involves care. It addresses more than just the need for extra hands in our hospitals and our households; global in scope, it addresses developments that stem from having placed so little value in the human touch – in intimacy and emotion.

While a growing number of migrants work white collar jobs, with many going to the creative sectors of the US, the EU, and Singapore, many more still perform care and maintenance labor in Western countries. With women still dominating the statistics on migrant labor, it is no coincidence that the rhetoric of emotional support and sacrifice still form a major part of the discourse. It is no coincidence that the symbols of our diaspora – the massive boxes full of snacks and clothes and cosmetics, the Skype calls with the children left in the care of family members – are so overwhelmingly female.

»Labor from the Philippines fits an interesting stereotype in that a major component of what we export involves care. It addresses more than just the need for extra hands in our hospitals and our households; global in scope, it addresses developments that stem from having placed so little value in the human touch – in intimacy and emotion.«

There is no separating gender from the discourse on labor migration, especially in the case of the Philippines, and within that vein: a gendered concept of martyrdom. If labor migration is inseparable from a discourse on economic development in the Philippines, then that discourse cannot be separated from our faith, our idols, the martyrs we emulate to make the sacrifices easier.

2. Florida Woman

In 2018, in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack at a high school in Parkland, Florida, house representative Kimberly Daniels attempted to pass a bill that would require public schools throughout the state to prominently display the United States motto »In God We Trust.« This controversial order stirred public interest in Daniels’s past as a Christian preacher, eventually drawing attention to a particularly bizarre sermon in which she was found to have proclaimed, »I thank God for slavery … And if it wasn’t for slavery, I might be somewhere in Africa, worshipping a tree.«

The words »Florida (wo)man« bear a special type of currency within the World Wide Web, wherein they are usually used to begin particularly outrageous headlines, granting him (or her, although with the exception of people like Daniels, it is rarely a her) the honor of being named the »Worst superhero ever.«

Daniels’s statement however goes beyond the meme-able, largely through its ties to sentiments that are apparently not-so-uncommon within the diaspora. Two decades prior, a Washington Post journalist was shunned for controversial statements denouncing his own African roots. The statements revolved around a sense of shame similar to that of Daniels, and were made in his book, Out Of America, published in February 1997. »I’m tired of lying,« wrote the journalist. »And I’m tired of all the ignorance and hypocrisy and the double standards I hear and read about Africa, much of it from people who’ve never been there, let alone spent three years walking around amid the corpses.«

While Daniels does enjoy the power and status of a lawmaker in one of the world’s most powerful countries, she was not given immunity from being reduced to a meme. The journalist, on the other hand, is now the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, his statements given a free pass. On his website, the banner switches between two images from past coverage for the Post: a woman standing in front of a Chinese flag, and himself, the journalist, smiling next to some men fully kitted in camouflage, as if testifying to the power he now wields over his career and the journalism profession. As if to say, look at what America has made possible.

There are common denominators however, questions of worship, of trust in a good God. What does worshipping a tree have to do with suffering the violent consequences of having been colonized for centuries? What do we put our faith in when we migrate?

3. In God We Trust

Organized religion makes faith seem so simple. Isn’t it all just a matter of trust? My sister moved to the United States in 2012 after so many (or too many) failed attempts and long waits for a visa that would make her eligible for employment in the country’s broken healthcare sector. This was in the wake of an economic recession and shortly after the #Occupy movements that would shed further light not only on how bad it had gotten, but just how easily those on the fringes – women, immigrants, persons of color – could fall through the cracks.

Still, we all believed it was far better than the Philippines, which on its worst days felt like so many levels of irreparable damage. Raised in the belief that life was better »abroad,« we set our sights and ambitions on jobs that would guarantee valuable spots in this imagined elsewhere. In her case, America, or at least the United States, was shorthand for possibility and potential. Like so many others who came before, alongside, and after my sister to work as nurses, caregivers, and therapists, America made possible a level of social mobility that would have been unthinkable in the Philippines – where there was work to be done, no doubt, but no jobs, no security, no institutions we could put our faith in.

»Raised in the belief that life was better »abroad,« we set our sights and ambitions on jobs that would guarantee valuable spots in this imagined elsewhere.«

Questions of faith often cross my mind when considering the intersections between these anecdotes: with Daniels’s obsession with a God-fearing populace, with that Washington Post journalist’s devotion to the American dream, with the Philippines as the last Catholic stronghold in Asia and its dependence on a stream of migrant workers and an oncoming cycle of cash remittances, meant to uphold an otherwise ailing economy. How is it that we are still enslaved by these fictions? Is it all just a matter of trust?

4. Out of America

»Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers and I’ll throw it back in your face, and then I’ll rub your nose in the images of the rotting flesh.«

That is the journalist again, writing in Out of America after having spent three years covering the continent while attempting to make sense of the violence and corruption. Coming from the widely held anti-colonialist-anti-imperialist sentiments of the academe, sentiments we often perceive to be held by humanity in general, it is easy to dismiss such proclamations – and with good reason. When granted a platform, such statements only discredit and diminish hard-won moves toward restitution and acknowledgements of the large-scale criminal acts that were just part and parcel of the violence of empire. »Had my ancestor not made it out of here,« he mused, »I might have ended up in that crowd … maybe I would have been one of those bodies ….«

A wrench in the discourse on labor migration is this reduction of the human agent to a body. What is asked is not whether this characterization is problematic – we already know that. So much has been written about migrant workers and the burdens they bear, but the slavery spoken of in Out of America is not the slavery of today. To an extent, the auction block that brought his ancestors to what is now the United States can be compared to bureaucracy underpinning the production of desire and desperation that now drives migrant workers to foreign shores, but it is not the same. At least not entirely.

5. Blessings

Terms like »migration,« »exile,« and »diaspora« tend to take a specific shape so that they may fulfill a specific stereotype – whether it is the black enslaved body or the Filipina caregiver. While this may point us toward understanding what it is to leave, it also tends to obscure our understanding of the complexity of finding oneself elsewhere and the choices that came with that. To have even had a choice in this case might be no more than the luck of the draw. And for that, maybe we do have god to thank if God should come in to the equation at all, as Representative Daniels notoriously proclaimed.

To call it a matter of luck, then, is nothing more than an easy answer, one that absolves migrant workers of accountability for certain choices. There is no choice when it comes to where you were born and what you were born into, but there is a choice when it comes to where you will build the rest of your life and the lives of those who come after. For Daniels, this came with embracing the work of the captor, the auctioneer, and the colonizer – and then thanking God for it.

Among Filipinas, the word I often hear is »blessing,« as in blessed with a way out or blessed with more to give, regardless of the costs. I cannot question what this means at the individual level, but to the tune of $20 billion a year, and coming from a country of 100 million where about 11 percent of its total population and 22 percent of its working-age population are migrant workers in other countries, it begs questions beyond the self. These are questions that have nothing to do with God and more to do with institutions; but in the contemporary moment, is there even a difference?