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"But We're Professionals"

Come to some definitions

"Their diplomas must be forked. Recto university, you know." That's what a Filipino friend, educated and working as a teacher, responded when we discussed Parreñas' (2001) finding that most of her informants held advanced degrees despite working as household workers. Similar findings have been made with Filipino household workers the world over. In a quite similar fashion, Filipino health care workers have long been subjected to working less qualified jobs than what they were trained for. Experienced nurses moved to the USA to be employed as trainees (while doing the work of a trained nurse, Choy 2003). Doctors are reportedly retraining to be able to find employment abroad, as nurses.

The explanation for this is simple: to go abroad one needs some starting capital; having that starting capital means the prospective migrant likely has a middle class background; a middle class background correlates positively with university education.^1^ Wages in the Philippines are low, and all the more so for highly gendered professions like nursing and teaching. Economic incentives exist for skilled migrants to take unskilled jobs abroad.

This leads to statements like "Filipino [overseas] migration is skilled migration" from scholars. Filipino professional migrants themselves however question such a categorization, as showcased in the initial quote, and it is indeed highly problematic if one attempts to approach a categoric understanding of Filipino overseas migration or labor migration in general. More specific categorizations and definitions are necessary.

On "skilled migration"

When discussing "skilled migration", there are two distinct ideas conjured in our heads. First, one may imagine migrants who go abroad to take up skilled labor there. The categorization of such migration as "skilled" is likely uncontroversial. Second, there is migration of skilled workers who go abroad to pursue "unskilled" labor. This latter variant of labor migration is harder to categorize.

Parreñas (2001) introduces the concept of "contradictory class mobility": By moving abroad, the migrants (in this case household workers) experience downward class mobility in their host country - they have less money compared to other residents of the host country and work less prestigious and skill-demanding jobs - while at the same time experiencing upward class mobility in their home country as they earn higher wages in absolute terms and as compared to other workers in their home country. This concept is extremely helpful in explaining why my friend quoted in the beginning of this text did not consider this form of migration to be "skilled" and, to solve the contradiction now made apparent, resorted to diminishing the household workers.

The educational attainments and background of migrants are important to understand for understanding migrants' lives, their decision to migrate and their own perception of their life abroad. We cannot however fall into the trap of trying to understand or categorize migrants solely on that. "Filipino migration is skilled migration", if specified to exclude internal migration and importantly migration to Sabah, may hold true even despite the general formulation if one takes the perspectives of migrants' backgrounds. The migrants however, and there the subtext of the initial quote holds true, are not migrating to work skilled jobs.

Keeping both things in mind is important. To stick with examples from Parreñas' Servants of Globalization (2001): many of her informants complained about deskilling (the loss of skills previously attained by working in unrelated fields). Without skills there is no loss thereof. Without prestige being attached to those skills, complaints about the experience of such deskilling is less likely. Thus the background matters much. However, contradictory class mobility is not necessarily experienced by Filipino migrants. Others, such as my initially quoted friend, migrate and take skilled jobs in their host countries.

I am emphasizing the concept of contradictory class mobility here to showcase that there are different meters that need to be considered when discussing skilled migration. Other forms of skilled migration add to that, e.g. migrants first pursuing work outside their original field of training to later get back to their line of work after they have attained an appropriate residency status (Siar 2011).

"Arranged labor migration"

A somewhat related issue that is often overseen is what I will call "arranged labor migration" (as opposed to "unarranged labor migration") for the purposes of this essay. A first question to discuss in this regard is whether a migrants' move abroad is orchestrated through a recruitment agency on the one hand or if the migrant's move abroad is coordinated directly with the future employer or through informal channels (for example migrants from the same community, Aguilar 2009). This distinction carries important implications for migrants' freedom and relation to the state and is in turn often correlated with the above question of skilled migration or unskilled migration.

Recruitment agency serve migrants in easing the preparation and process of migration while importantly streamlining overall migration in a given profession and making it to some extent observable and controlable to the state (of the home country). Commonly, the recruitment agency determines the future employer and keeps track of the migration. High fees often bind the labor migrant to the recruitment agency for long after the initial move abroad.

Such arranged migration - at least in the Philippine case - appears to be linked to the migrants future class status (in the host country) and the perceived need for profession to be regulated and a professions' popularity among migrants. Commonplace examples for recruitment center-based migration from the Philippines include the work of seafarers, where the Philippine state has a stake in regulation (and remittance extraction), many household workers especially those going to the Middle East and Singapore - examples for both foreign countries and the Philippine state having an interest in regulation - to nurses.

Skilled migration in the sense of the migration of people aiming for skilled jobs and especially migration to less popular destinations on the other hand takes place in a self-organized or employer-organized fashion more often. Commercial services might be used for specific aspects (e.g. the acquisition of working visas), but it appears to be much less often the case for such migrants to employ agencies for the full process.

This rough description is of course just a first approximation. Of course, nurses and seafarers, too, are workers working skilled jobs in the destination country (or the ship), too. The reasons for the regulation of their migration through recruitment agency-based processes surely are different or at least differently weighed from the presence of recruitment agencies in the recruitment of household workers.

There are more extreme forms of "arranged labor migration", too, obviously: e.g. trainings in the homeland to prepare prospective migrants for work abroad (especially with Filipino migration to Japan there are examples of this for different professions; Ohno 2012, Parreñas 2011), which not only prepare the migrants but also make migrants share common experiences in migration from the start and lead to the formation of migrant communities before the prospective migrant goes abroad in the first place.

I'm strongly interested in understanding the reasons and effects of the presence of recruitment agencies better, and especially so in a systematic fashion. I hope to one day have the opportunity to look into the different causes and effects further and would be appreciative of tips.


  1. This is not my explanation. I'd guess it comes from Parreñas 2005.