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A global labor market in motion

WORK / Half a century ago, the first Filipino workers traveled across the globe to work at factories and hotels in Denmark and Norway, among others. Their journey provides insight into a global labor market in motion.


"We were the proudest of the proud," Teresa Diaz says of the time she – who came to Denmark in 1967 to work – was instrumental in establishing the Filipino Association of Denmark (FAD, 1970). At the time, decades before the au pair issue brought the Philippines to the public agenda in the Nordic countries, there were only a few hundred Filipinos in Denmark. Many were trained teachers, bookkeepers, craftsmen and nurses, but they were recruited primarily for unskilled work. Like most other "guest workers".

However, Filipino workers differed from the typical image of the guest worker. Although Filipinos like Turks and Yugoslavs, for example, also found work in the manufacturing industry, they were primarily employed in the service industry. In particular, they were hired to staff the modern metropolitan hotels that shot up the 1960s and 1970s. And although there were also Filipino men finding work in Danish hotels and factories, migration was dominated by women from the start.

Women seeking better-paid work than the limited supply in their home country. Women who in some cases had been recruited with Filipino officials as middlemen. Women who facilitated further migration of friends, old neighbors, study mates and relatives.

Selling one's labor requires one to be constantly moving.

Like Benita Medina from the village of Samal, who in 1969 was recruited as a maid by Hotel Kong Frederik in Copenhagen, and soon after secured work for eight of her ten adult children. Today, virtually all families in her old neighborhood have relatives in Copenhagen.


When the Philippine state from the end of the 1960 began to build a system for managing labor exports, many countries in Europe had begun to recruit foreign workers to an economy of explosive growth.

But a decade before, the situation had been reversed in Europe. World War II had brought many European economies to the knees, creating millions of internally displaced people. Mass unemployment and refugee chaos were politically explosive, according to European – and American – rulers who set out to get rid of Europe's "surplus population".

In 1952, the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) was established. ICEM should facilitate that people who were not useful or welcome where they are currently located could be sent either to the European economies lacking workers – or to other continents.

The fact that after a war with millions of dead people could talk about "surplus population" in Europe illustrates that the term is not about demographics but about politics.

Labor Minister's Export Vision

Outside Europe, the Philippines was one of the countries most affected by World War II. After a brutal Japanese occupation, the capital of Manila was bombed to unfamiliarity during the American "liberation". Then the US withdrew its investments in the former colony to channel the money towards Europe instead.

Back then, the Philippines was facing an economy in which agricultural exports, trade and industry had stalled – factories and mines, infrastructure, yards, ships and warehouses were either totally destroyed or out of function.

When the later notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos was elected president of 1965, the Philippines was still stuck in this post-war and post-colonial situation. What, in turn, was moving, were workers.

Filipino workers differed from the typical image of the guest worker.

The United States had long used Filipino workers for, among other things, agriculture in Hawaii and California and for work for the U.S. Army worldwide. Christina Santos Madsen, who in 1973 was one of 49 Filipino women recruited as maids at Hotel Scandinavia, for example, had to do without her mother while her mother worked as a chef behind the US front lines during the Vietnam War.

In the same year that Marcos was elected, the United States also opened to allow Filipino professional educators – especially engineers and nurses – to obtain work permits in large numbers.

Marcos' Minister of Labor Blas F. Ople was given the "vision" of putting the labor migration into the state system. This could ensure that revenue from dissemination, recruitment and remittances landed in the state coffers. When the Minister of Labor and his officials had to make the vision a reality, they were not alone. Organizations such as the ILO, the World Bank and the IMF were ready to give advice – and push for general exportsorientering of the Philippine economy. Also prepared were Western economists with notions of surplus population that could legitimize this mass exodus of workers.

Contrary to the measures to get rid of Europe's "surplus population", it was not primarily unemployed Filipinos who set out to contribute their labor to foreign economies. They were resource workers and their skills were lacking in the Philippines.

[ntsu_box title = ”Mobility as a condition” style = ”soft” box_color = ”# ffffff” title_color = ”# 1c1c04 ″ radius =” 10 ″] Employers around the world were initially enthusiastic about the Filipino workforce, which was often overqualified and the Philippine state was encouraged to work hard and never grumble. The so-called immigration ban, which was introduced across most of Europe in the wake of the oil crisis in the mid-1970s, did not mean that the recruitment of Filipino workers stopped either. Five years after Denmark adopted its immigration ban, the country was still on the list of customers of what was then called the Overseas Employment Development Board in the Philippines. However, the conditions for labor migration changed. Residence and work permits were tied up on spouses with Danish citizenship or permanent residence permits, and on employers. For the thousands of Filipino workers who were recruited for hotel work in Denmark after 1974, mobility was at one and the same time an opportunity and a condition – increasingly a permanent condition. For hotel workers, the industry was hit by outsourcing and business transfers from the 1980s. A precarization of an already precarious industry that Filipino maids fought as professionally active in the then Hotel and Restaurant Staff Association (HRF). At the same time, several of them had to struggle to retain work and residence permits when spouses and employers proved unreliable.

On two fronts

Ruth Theil, for example, had left in 1985 her beloved but poor farm and married a Dane on a friend's recommendation – "to give my mother a life she had never known", as Ruth explains. She became a maid at the Hotel Sheraton and quickly realized that there was something totally wrong with the salaries. Later, it also turned out that something was totally wrong with her husband. Ruth therefore took up the fight on two fronts: organizing her maid-servants who – rightly, it turned out – feared losing their jobs if they joined the union, and being divorced from her husband without losing a residence permit and custody over their daughter. She became one of the central forces in HRF, which mobilized a Philippine network, which was at the forefront of professional matches at Copenhagen hotels and doubled the number of members in the Copenhagen branch during the 1990s. Ruth herself had to jump from job to job when the union-hostile employers became too threatening. The fact that today's mobility has become as much – or more – a condition as an opportunity, is linked to the evolution of the international migration regime: migrant labor is still sought after, but under increasingly uncertain and criminalizing conditions. This is linked to the development in the labor market in general – in the Philippines as well as in the Nordic countries – where selling one's labor force requires a constant movement. Between contracts, between workplaces, between industries, between regions and across borders.

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The essay is based on the writer's new book Labor Pioneers. Economy, Labor, and Migration in Filipino-Danish Relations 1950-2015, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2019. Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian. The book is for sale at the Literature House in Oslo and the Student's Best at Stavanger University.
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Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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