Saturday, March 07, 2009

Fruits of Her Labor

The troops were assembling, a batallion of women from the communities. The heat of the afternoon sun was merciless, pricking the skin. There I sat next to a battle-weary colleague, a seasoned activist in his thirties. Cool in his shades he says, we should be organising for the nationalisation of the oil industry. Stung, I replied - this isn't as sexy, but just as important. No such thing as high politics or low politics, to my mind. The battle ground is culture - values, norms, standards. The scale is the micro and gendered politics of the home. At stake are bodies of women and what can and cannot be done with their reproductive functions. What a jaded, unfortunate thing to say, I thought, for someone who'd been at this far longer than I have.

Our purple bandanas were a meagre protection from the sun, but I put one on my head anyway. A lady in a brightly-coloured top was distributing them to rows of six to five. Another colleague looks through the lenses of his camera, documenting the preparations for the short march to the House. Through the scope he scanned the ladies hoisting their brightly-coloured placards. The booming voice of a community leader could be heard among the ranks, practising the chant of the march. I thought, nobody would hear the chanting, but it was probably more for the marchers than for anyone else, to keep energy from flagging.

As with many aspects of this country, the politics of gender is as multi-faceted and conflicted as our democratic process, our national project, our class formations and alliances, our cuisine. A developing country which regularly ranks high in alleviating gender inequality, it nevertheless thrives from the perpetuation of traditional roles of women. Many Filipinas leave their homes only to perform similar domestic roles elsewhere. The only difference is, for mothering young children or caring for the sick and elderly of others, they gain a handsome remuneration. The migrant Filipina’s remittances purchase the labour of other women to take care of those she left behind.

Women’s labour earn most of this country’s foreign exchange, as migrants and as workers in the electronics industry. Women constitute 74 percent of electronics industry workers, amassing more than $27 billion a year in exports for the Philippines. Semiconductors account for over 70 percent of Philippine exports (McKay 2006). In the wet dreams of the foreign investor, the docile Filipina would never think to organise a union as the rent-seeking local government would never think to enforce labour standards. There she sits, quietly assembling the micro parts of the chip, her nimble little fingers and eye for detail put to good use.

The President is a woman, the matriarch of the Philippine household. Reflective of our quasi-feudal society, the fruits of her labour accrue to her husband, her children and their myriad hangers-on. Meanwhile the government she has inherited perpetuates the export of women’s labour of care – nannies, care-givers, nurses, entertainers, teachers, sex workers. She wants to export more than a million this year. Typical of many of this country’s contradictions, a woman wearing the pants in her home leeches blood from the domesticity of other women.

The two o’clock sun reflects heat from the cement road on the way to Batasan. Cars honk their horns in derision or solidarity, I don’t know. Reproductive health always elicits snickers. Apparently it isn’t serious business when a woman has no choice what happens to her own body. But then, a woman constantly pregnant and home-bound is the ultimate expression of Filipino domesticity.

McKay S. (2006). "Hard Drives and Glass Ceilings: Gender and Stratification in High-Tech Production." Gender & Society 20(2), pp 207-35

No comments: