Chain of Love documents the under-analyzed emotional and economic consequences for Filipina domestics who leave small children and families behind as they migrate to Europe to care for families in the Global North. The Philippines currently exports one-tenth of their population abroad, and two-thirds of this workforce is composed of women. It is the documentary’s movement between the everyday lives of Filipina migrant domestics in the homes of Dutch and Italian families, interspersed with interviews by two scholars, that provides the rich texture of perspectives that span from women leaving their country, to the work they do in the Global North, to how their own children fare back home. Interviews with Rhacel Parreñas, a prominent feminist scholar who has written various texts on gender, migration, and labor, provide ethnographic and gendered perspectives on Filipina migrants, while Alexander Magno, a political science scholar at the University of the Philippines, narrates the economic and social consequences of Filipina migration for both the sending and receiving states who benefit greatly.
With the economic decline in the Philippines in the 1980s, much of the population was left with few options for jobs, thus creating a vast and willing market of overseas workers. Labeled “heroes” of their country, Filipina/o migrants emerge as valuable global actors who diligently send home eight billion dollars annually in remittances, the largest source of foreign income for the state. As “ambassadors” of their country, women’s moral behavior abroad is of great interest to the state as the Philippines re-orients its economy outwards toward the exporting of a feminized workforce. It is the complexities afforded by the film’s transborder scope that offers students a nuanced understanding of the emotional costs of this growing labor market, the dependence of the middle class on outsourcing jobs to lower-paid workers, and the interplay between personal and global economic changes.
Ironically, the poor economy in the Philippines affords middle-class European women the independence and freedom to follow their careers and to enjoy a higher-class status now affordable at a cheaper price due to the importation of Filipina domestics. Feminist expressions of “freedom” for middle-class professional women, however, begin to decompose when juxtaposed with the choked exchanges by Filipina migrant laborers who long to be close to loved ones, including a woman who left her six-month-old baby in order to care for the children of her Western counterparts. The critical feminist angle of Chain of Love falters in interviews with various European women. For example, an Italian employer proudly shares how changed her Filipina domestic is after witnessing liberated women in Europe. No longer, she tells us, will Filipinas put up with domineering husbands and brothers back home. In this moment the film gestures to the damaging ideology of a global feminist perspective that fails to consider how reliant the Global North is for its sense of liberation on the economic inequalities and the devalued labor of women from the Global South. It is precisely the middle-class desire for female liberation—understood as the freedom to pursue one’s career—and for gender-equitable relations that prevents the various European employers from fully grasping how entangled their lives are with the women they hire. In fact, this global feminist framework of freedom contrasts the documentary’s more critical transnational perspective. For Filipinas, liberation might mean having the right to a livable wage in the Philippines. The film opens up a critical dialogue in the classroom as to the relevance of the colonial distribution of value and the slave-like conditions at the heart of global capitalist circuits, despite the presence of choice.1
Another powerful documentary on domestic workers, Work and Respect, begins with the activist protests of immigrant women from Domestic Workers United (DWU), an organization of Caribbean, Latina, and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly care workers in New York who aim to protect and advocate for workers rights across the United States.2 The necessity for this organization, founded in 2000, cannot be overstated, especially since women are doubly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as immigrants and dispersed workers who labor in the intimate shadows of the home. The irony, these women point out, is that they care for the lives of those most precious to employers but are paid a substandard rate (one woman works seven days a week for $200 per week). Many women recounted a typical twelve- to sixteen-hour workday that begins before employers go to work and lasts until late in the evening after they return home. These women care for children, clean the house, and cook meals.
DWU creatively supports immigrant women using an array of activist tactics: they shame employers by rallying outside their homes and businesses; they offer legal support for immigration cases and abusive work conditions; and they provide nanny training courses and information on women’s rights. They even lobbied successfully to change labor laws in New York City and nationwide, helping to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2004 that legally guarantees workers basic work standards and protections. Standardizing gendered care work, put into law by this bill, will help mitigate an otherwise informal labor market where women are at the mercy of the individual employer as to how much their labor is worth.3 This bill also includes protection for what is usually omitted in their salary: overtime compensation, medical benefits, paid vacation and sick leave, and severance pay.
While they continue their outreach, DWU supports over 200,000 domestic workers in New York City. Imagine, they implore, if we all went on strike. Wall Street would shut down and doctors, lawyers, and teachers would have to stay home. Work and Respect powerfully demonstrates to students how we can bring about change collectively, especially immigrant women who are often imagined as victims of an economic system that abuses their precarious legal position in the United States. The opening scene of activism by immigrant women reminds us that they are not simply passive subjects of care, but also passionate about their demands for “respect, rights, and justice.”
Felicity Schaeffer-Grabiel is an assistant professor in the Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Currently she is finishing her book manuscript, “The Erotics of Citizenship: Cybermarriage, Migration, and Transnational Imaginaries Across the Américas.” Her research interests include borderlands and transnationalism, sexuality and migration, affect and capitalism, race, technology and subjectivity, and Chicana/Latina cultural studies.
1This said, other documentaries, such as Paper Dolls/Bubot Niyar (dir. Tomer Heymann; Los Angeles: Strand Releasing, 2006) offer an alternative account of the liberating effects of migration for transgender Filipino migrants who care for the Jewish elderly population in the more open and accepting city of Tel Aviv in Israel.
2For more information, see their Web site: http://www.domesticworkersunited.org/media.php?show=18.
3For more on the various challenges faced by domestic workers because of the informality of their labor, see Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001); and Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000).