Monday, August 06, 2007

International Labor Migration & Human Trafficking

Women & children trafficked into prostitution can end up forced to work in nightclubs (Source: Corbis)


Human trafficking (trafficking) is modern day slavery. It comprises the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, sexual exploitation, peonage, debt bondage, slavery, or other kinds of exploitation.

Trafficking can take various forms including:
• Forced prostitution
• Forced labor (factories, sweatshops)
• Domestic servitude
• Soldiering
• Organ trade
• Commercial or illegal adoption

According to the U.S. State Department up to 800,000 people are trafficked around the world each year for the purpose of prostitution, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation. This number does not include trafficking within a country's borders. An estimated 17,000 victims are trafficked into the United States each year. The International Organization for Migration estimates there are around 200,000 to 250,000 women and children trafficked every year in Asia. An estimated 27 million slaves still exist today, more than at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade.

Trafficking is the product of many factors including: poverty, lack of education, unemployment, underemployment, feminization of migration, organized crime syndicates, government corruption, and low awareness of trafficking at all levels of society.

Overseas migrant workers travel to countries across the globe (Source: Corbis)

The Connection to International Labor Migration
The Philippine economy today is heavily dependent on the export of human capital or migrant labor. The resulting income, or remittances, has various macro & micro economic benefits and provides much-needed cash to families who generally spend it on education, health, and homes; however, the wealth is not distributed equally throughout the population. Because higher education is generally private in the Philippines (almost 80% of students in higher education in the Philippines are attending private schools), only those with money can afford it. Because higher education is an important factor in finding work abroad, generally only those with money to begin with benefit from migration and the resulting remittances. This means that families receiving remittances are generally not poor, thus the income gap between rich and poor increases (Tullao et al.). Migration's ability to alleviate poverty, therefore, remains unproven.

Although migration and trafficking are not the same, they share many similarities. In the case of the Philippines, trafficking is an industry that benefits from a culture of migration and newfound remittance-funded economic power that fuel the romanticism and mystique of working abroad. Trafficking thrives on weak economies with large uneducated, poor populations. It comes hand-in-hand with unemployment and underemployment. Trafficking is a bi-product of an unhealthy economy in that only when a sizable group of the population has become financially vulnerable and desperate does it reach its full exploitative, profitable potential. The unemployment and low wages that migrant workers and trafficking victims want to leave behind is the same. In the end, they chase the same dreams except that migrant workers, while still at risk to abuse, are given the chance to fulfill them while trafficking victims never come close.

Culture of Migration

Mega shopping malls reflect the materialistic side of Philippine culture (Source: Corbis)

International labor migration is ingrained in the Philippine consciousness as a path to financial stability and a way to effectively provide for one's family. Over the decades migrants have returned home wearing designer brands, carrying boxes of foreign made goods, and possessing the most valuable resource of a poverty infected nation- cold hard cash. Returning migrants, or balikbayans as they are referred to in the Philippines, bring with them stories of life abroad in the UK, Qatar, the US, Hong Kong, or Australia. They dazzle relatives and neighbors with their newfound worldliness and financial power and as a result move up in their social standing. This is the culture of migration in the Philippines. Migrants promote overseas work simply by coming home, bringing gifts, and perhaps telling a few stories. They are the most effective promoters of international labor migration for their brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, and nephews will observe this wealth and view migration as the key to financial success. Often times, as we have seen from the state of the Philippine economy, they are not wrong.

This migration culture makes it easy for traffickers to sell a dream to vulnerable men, women, and children. As previously mentioned, higher education is generally closed to those without money, yet is integral to working abroad. This is where traffickers move in. They offer provincial women jobs in the city or abroad as waitresses or singers. They offer men well paying jobs in factories or farms. They promise money, enough to take care of the family, but their promises are empty. The reality is forced prostitution, domestic servitude, forced labor, or some other form of exploitation. The culture of migration helps convince these poor, often uneducated men, women and children that migration is worth the risk because they have seen the gleaming remittance-funded house down the street and heard stories of life abroad.

Economic Factors

Shanty towns dot the urban landscape in the Philippines (Source: Corbis)

Remittances are extremely important for the Philippine economy reaching $US7.6 billion by 2003 and equivalent to 20.6% of the country’s exports and 19.4% of its imports (Yue). If remittances are increasingly important to the country's economy, they therefore constitute a primary tool for local economic development- an influx of foreign currency from healthy economies abroad to be used towards creating industries and jobs at home. Depending on how they are used then, remittances play a key role in either combating or promoting the trafficking industry.

The Philippines remains a poor country. It is a place where trafficking thrives because there is a large vulnerable population that dreams of going abroad to earn foreign wages. The large influx of cash provided by remittances carries with it the potential to stimulate local development, create jobs, improve the standard of living, alleviate poverty, and as a result make a significant dent in the trafficking industry. If remittances are used productively in a way that promotes local economic growth, creates jobs, and increases wages then the Philippines will be on its way to ending modern day slavery within its borders.

Current efforts to combat trafficking are primarily reactive. For example, the government conducts rescues after the victims have been enslaved. Or NGOs counsel victims and provide temporary shelter for them once they have been trafficked. Or the courts attempt to prosecute the traffickers after the fact (there have approximately 10 convictions in the Philippines since it passed its anti-trafficking bill, RA 9208, in 2003). These reactive services are critical because they support those who have been victimized by offering rehabilitative and reintegrative services. But combating trafficking must involve a holistic approach. There must also be active efforts to address trafficking before the problem starts.

Poverty in Manila (Source: Corbis)

Prevention programs that provide information on the dangers of trafficking to at-risk populations are no doubt helpful; however, it is difficult to dissuade someone from migrating in the face of economic desperation. Even if these men and women are aware of the risks involved, this does not change their financial and economic reality and need to provide for their families. This does not change their desire to live a better life. There needs to me something more than preventative information.

The Power of the Dollar
Remittances provide an excellent opportunity to address socioeconomic issues like poverty and trafficking through building the local economy. Trafficking is made possible by economic desperation, but if remittances are used to build businesses and stimulate the local economy, then over time trafficking can be reduced or eliminated through an increase in living standards and a reduction in unemployment. But these improvements must reach all sectors of society and, in regard to trafficking, especially the poor. Higher education must be made accessible to all income groups. The bottom line is that the estimated $20 billion generated annually by international labor migration can do a great deal in spurring local development, creating local jobs, and eventually minimizing the need to leave the country for work; however, these funds must be managed and invested properly to be truly effective.

Money changers are a popular channel through which to send remittances (Source: Corbis)

The Philippine government currently has no control over how remittances are spent. With the rampant corruption that runs through its hallways; however, perhaps this is a good thing. Nevertheless, there needs to be an organization or coalition that can help migrants manage their funds back home in ways that help not only their families and friends, but their community and ultimately their country. In the absence of government initiatives, microcredit, social entrepreneurship-based non-governmental organizations like Unlad Kabayan become integral in organizing and distributing remittances for local economic benefit. Although distribution of remittances for local economic development would, under ideal circumstances, be the responsibility of the government because of superior funding, national reach, networks, etc., existing government corruption is a deal breaker when managing a resource that can play a large part in reviving the local economy.

Filipinos are a large part of the global sea farer industry (Source: Corbis)

Balikbayans, or overseas migrant workers, are called the heroes of the Philippines and in many ways they are having staved off economic troubles through the strength, and wages of foreign markets. But sending money home is only the first step. Remittances can truly transform the Philippine economy and over time, potentially turn the country from a labor export country into a labor import country if its economy can be brought back to life. If remittances are used to create local businesses, create local jobs, raise local wages, and in general invested in the Philippines instead of buying imported goods and focusing solely on training people to leave the country, then the Pearl of the Orient will be taking the first step towards economic independence and improving quality of life at home, including the eradication of trafficking.

An Uncertain Future

Makati, Manila- an island of wealth in a sea of poverty (Source: Corbis)

Has the Philippine government made a mistake by emphasizing the role of international labor migration in the economy? This depends on how the benefits of this decision, in this case remittances, are managed. The local economy is weak, jobs are few, and wages are low. The government cannot ignore the local economy while depending on foreign markets to keep it afloat. Migration labor is not open to all. It is mainly the rich who benefit from remittances. The government continuing to support international labor migration and ignoring local development is almost equivalent to them supporting the gap between rich and poor, which will only worsen if international migration continues in its present pattern. Higher education must be made more accessible to all. The benefits of remittances must trickle down to all levels of society.

Currently the Philippine government has been signing free trade agreements on the condition of relaxed migration laws. While this may benefit those who can afford to become nurses, accountants, computer specialists, etc. abroad, the poor are left out in the proverbial cold at home to survive in a broken economy. They are left desperate and vulnerable to the schemes of traffickers. Further, the cheap imported foreign goods that flood local markets once these agreements are signed will only further shrink local business and make it increasingly difficult for the country to stand on its own.

The Philippine Stock Exchange (Source: Corbis)

The future of trafficking in the Philippines is intertwined with international labor migration because the resulting remittances are an integral factor to the development and survival of the local economy. Policy makers must consider the long-term effects of international labor migration and its impact on the local economy as well as its influence on poverty and trafficking. The government must institute and implement policies that protect its migrants and ensure maximization of remittances to fuel local economic growth. It must stop looking to the exchange rate as a barometer of economic health and develop serious measures towards poverty alleviation and job creation at home. Trafficking is a solvable problem. It cannot be fixed overnight, far from that, but significant progress can be achieved through executing well-planned development strategies that utilize existing resources to improve the local economy.

For now, the Philippines has the potential to change for the better; however, whether it meets this potential remains to be seen.

Labor Mobility and East Asian Integration

Siow Yue CHIA
Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Asian Economic Policy Review (2006) 1, 349–367

The Economic Impacts of International Migration: A Case Study on the Philippines

Tereso Tullao, Jr., Michael Angelo Cortez, Edward See
Center for Business and Economics Research and Development
De La Salle University- Manila, Philippines


  1. Fantastic work, and powerful photography to compliment the subject matter.

  2. Anonymous1:39 PM

    A very useful article. Thanks for posting it

  3. Anonymous1:03 PM

    The allowing of work visas for professionals with an enormous base of poverty is cultural suicide. What nurse wouldn't leave her homeland for a year or two, providing valuable labor to other nations when her own nation could benefit from her service? A condition of this visa might be working in an underserved area at a government clinic (paid, of course) for a commensurate period of time. Unskilled labor should not be allowed visas at all. This leads to the trafficking by deception.