Servants of Globalization
Migration and Domestic Work, Second Edition
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas


Chapter One

The Global Migration of Filipino Domestic Workers

Twenty-nine-year old Nene Soriano is one of approximately 4,000 Filipino au pairs in Denmark.1 As an au pair, Nene works only thirty hours a week, during which she mostly performs light cleaning and occasionally helps in the kitchen and with afternoon child care. Her workload is a vast improvement over her previous job in Singapore, where she had been a domestic worker for five and a half years, working every day from 6 am to 10 pm. Her duties included general cleaning, cooking, washing all the household laundry by hand, cleaning the car, and child care. By relocating from Singapore to Denmark, Nene saw not only a reduction in her workload but also a jump in her salary from US$270 to US$580 per month.

Nene and I met in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Anne’s in Copenhagen during the summer of 2012.2 Nene hoped Denmark would be a launching pad to the European Union and eventually Italy, where she wanted to secure long-term employment as a domestic worker.3 Italy is an attractive final destination for someone like Nene not only for the promise of long-term residency but also for its amnesty programs that regularize the status of undocumented domestic workers (Codini, 2010). Italy granted amnesty to undocumented migrants in 1987, 1990, 1995, 2002, and 2009 (Parreñas, 2008b; Codini, 2010). Yet, without established networks, Italy is not an easy destination to reach.

Not wedded to the idea of being a domestic worker, Nene was also open to finding a husband to secure long-term residency. Her preference for white men encouraged her to actively participate in online dating sites, where she looked for a potential husband from Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or the United Kingdom. Nene even maintained communication with a pen pal serving time in a federal penitentiary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nene had also asked me to introduce her to a potential partner among my friends in the United States. Though I was unsuccessful in finding her a match, I later learned that she did not need my help after all. Quite attractive, Nene eventually married a Norwegian man nearly twenty years her senior in the fall of 2013, after meeting him through an online dating site. Nene now lives with him in Norway, where she is a stay-at-home mom.

Nene’s story provides a glimpse of Filipino domestic workers’ wide range of migration. Her goal of becoming a long-term resident outside the Philippines also points to the continued construction of Italy and the United States as coveted destinations in the diaspora, as they are but two of four locations—along with Canada and Spain—that have historically provided domestic workers with a gateway to permanent residency. Lastly, her story shows that domestic work takes multiple forms, ranging in her case from au pair to child care worker to all-around cleaner; is a long-term career for migrant women; and, for some like Nene, is tied to marriage and desires, fantasies that exceed political-economic approaches to understanding labor markets and migration processes.

A culture of emigration is pervasive in the Philippines. Migrants include land- and sea-based workers. Women primarily work on land, and the majority of them are domestic workers like nannies, housecleaners, and caregivers for the elderly. Domestic work, according to the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), refers to “work performed in or for a household or households.”4 Filipina women are the domestic workers par excellence of globalization. As they did in the 1990s, they work across the globe, including in East Asia, West Asia, North America, and Western Europe. In 2010, the top destinations for domestic workers and caregivers from the Philippines included Canada, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Israel, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.5 With no migration recruitment program, the United States has never been an official destination for Filipino migrant laborers seeking domestic work, but it has been reached by those migrating with a tourist or immigrant visa.

The number of newly deployed Filipino migrant domestic workers has steadily increased through time, from approximately 60,000 in 2008 to 80,000 in 2009 and 100,000 in 2010.6 According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), women make up a disproportionate bulk of these workers: In 2008, 57,354 women left to do domestic work in contrast to only 2,835 men;7 78,389 as compared to 2,395 in 2009;8 and 103,630 versus 2,245 in 2010.9 It is difficult to determine the exact number of Filipino migrants doing domestic work around the world.10 These official figures do not include rehires as well as those who leave the country as undocumented workers and those who secure employment outside official channels, for instance someone who departs as a tourist and secures employment once in the destination country. As these Philippine government figures are based solely on migrants annually deployed as temporary contract workers by the POEA, they also do not include the mostly female au pairs whose outmigration is processed by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, the Philippine government branch responsible for the departure of those seeking permanent residency abroad (for example, spouses of foreigners and those leaving the country with an immigrant visa), as well as those who are relocating abroad but without the intention of securing migrant employment (for example, students).11

While the Philippine government does not provide an estimated count of migrant domestic workers, neither does the ILO, which, in its study of domestic workers, reports that data limitations make it “not possible to give a reliable estimate of the share of migrants among domestic workers.”12 Yet it is probably safe to say that at least 50 percent, or 1.4 million, of the estimated 2.8 million female temporary migrant workers from the Philippines are domestic workers.13


The outmigration of Filipina domestic workers is not a historical accident but emerged from the state’s promotion of migrant labor exportation. In the early 1970s, President Ferdinand Marcos institutionalized the export of labor as an economic strategy when he implemented the “manpower exchange programme” (Basch et al., 1994). Government ministers and President Marcos himself canvased for the importation of Filipino workers into East Asia, West Asia, Europe, and North America. The establishment of POEA in 1982 only solidified the country’s economic strategy of exporting labor, which the government promotes not only by assisting departing migrants but also by pursuing “marketing missions” and securing memoranda of understanding on the hiring of migrant workers with an array of labor-receiving countries. The annual number of migrants has expectedly increased since the 1970s. Whereas fewer than 50,000 per annum departed in the early to mid-1970s, this number has since escalated, jumping from 266,243 in 1981 to more than 700,000 in 1994 and more than a million per annum since 2009 (Martin, 1993; POEA, 2013).

Migrant Filipina domestic workers are located in more than 160 destinations, raising the question of how one chooses a particular destination. In the diaspora, that is usually based on what one can afford, with the cost largely decided by potential wage earnings in a particular place. In the mid-1990s, recruitment agencies charged approximately US$600 in fees to prospective domestic workers in Hong Kong, where the standard labor contract indicated a monthly salary of approximately US$410 (Constable, 1997). Today, the fees have jumped to US$3,000. In contrast, Singapore remains a more affordable destination than Hong Kong, costing migrants only an initial fee of US$115 to $230 and a three- to five-month salary deduction (approximately US$350 per month). Even lower-cost destinations than Singapore are the Gulf Cooperative Council nations, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, which cost prospective migrants only US$115. This figure covers the costs of their passport, medical clearance, and other documents required for migration. But although the Gulf nations cost less, domestic workers’ wages are lower there.14

A more expensive destination for domestic workers is Israel, which costs up to US$5,000 in placement fees (Liebelt, 2008: 108). There, domestic workers can earn anywhere from US$500 to US$800 per month (Liebelt, 2011). In Canada, domestic workers earn more. For this reason, the cost of migration is significantly higher for those coming directly from the Philippines, reaching up to US$16,000 (Paul, 2011: 1855). Similarly, the fees that travel agencies charge to go to Italy are enormous, having steadily increased over time along with Italy’s reputation as a humane destination that offers high wages and minimal risk of deportation.

The migration costs shouldered by the family of one woman I interviewed, Michelle, illustrate this steady increase. Although her older sister initially paid US$3,250 to migrate to Italy in 1986, it cost Michelle US$4,250 to follow her in 1989. In 1994 a third sister had to pay the exorbitant amount of US$12,000. Women who migrated to Rome in the early 1990s usually paid anywhere from US$6,400 to US$8,000 to enter Italy. By 2011, fewer individuals were using “travel agency” services. Migrants more often entered cost free as the direct hires of Italian employers. However, I did meet one woman who paid US$12,000 to enter Italy clandestinely; she used a Paraguayan passport, which exempted her from having to obtain a visa. Also requiring economic resources, the United States has long been an elusive destination for prospective migrant domestic workers. If not entering via family reunification, they enter with a tourist visa that requires proof of property, investments, and savings in the Philippines.

Cost is not the only factor that determines where migrants go. Educational qualifications matter as well, as those without a high-school degree are restricted from employment in most destinations in Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, for example), and those without at least two years of tertiary education cannot be domestic workers in Canada. Aspirations also determine migration paths. Migrant domestic workers who desire permanent residency will set migration to Europe or the Americas as their long-term goal. Others may view migration as a strategy for accumulating enough capital to operate a business in the Philippines. These migrants would be comfortable setting their sites on lower-cost destinations. Individuals I met in Dubai, for instance, would rather invest the money they earn in a business than pay to migrate somewhere else. Religion can also determine a location, with Muslims preferring to migrate to the Gulf region (Silvey, 2000).

As established in migration studies, social networks and “migrant institutions” determine one’s migration pattern (Goss and Lindquist, 1995; Castles and Miller, 1998).15 Migrants will relocate to follow friends, family, and neighbors. This had been the case for many women I met in Singapore,16 the United States, and Italy, indicating their reliance on social networks. In contrast, migrants in the United Arab Emirates usually relied on a “migrant institution” and only went there because it was the first destination offered to them by the recruitment agency in the Philippines. For those relying on a “migrant institution,” a destination is determined not necessarily by the prospective migrant’s networks but by the institutionalized relationships that the recruitment agency has forged with partnering agencies in specific destinations across the globe.

Across the diaspora, the migration patterns of most Filipina domestic workers do not fit the classic assimilation narrative, as their children do not necessarily follow them and integrate into the society (Portes and Rumbaut, 1996). This is because domestic workers are disqualified from permanent residency in most destinations, including Israel, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This exclusion results in varying paths of migration for Filipina domestic workers, with many working in different countries prior to retiring in the Philippines or before settling in one of the few countries that grant them permanent residency (for example, Italy, Canada, the United States, and Spain). Although some migrate directly for a prolonged stay in only one destination, they do not necessarily settle there permanently. For instance, their children do not migrate but instead stay behind in the Philippines; moreover, many plan to retire in the Philippines and not the migrant host society. This had been the case with Rose, who did domestic work for ten years in Dubai, as well as Aida, who worked in Singapore for twenty-four years.

Three of the most salient paths migrant domestic workers take include direct migration, serial migration, and step migration. Direct migration applies to the majority of my interviewees in Rome and Los Angeles, as most migrated directly from the Philippines to each of these destinations. In contrast, serial migrants (Siu, 2007) relocate to new destinations between labor contracts. These migrants are often searching for a “new experience” and a “good employer,” prolonging their stay when they find one and moving on when they do not. Serial migrants have managed to extend their career in migrant domestic work by moving across the diaspora; for example, one might work for four years in Kuwait, then three years in Dubai. Lastly, some are what Anju Mary Paul (2011) would describe as “stepwise international migrants,” referring to those who participate in a multistage process of international labor migration. In this scenario, a typical migration path would begin in a low-cost destination such as the United Arab Emirates, then proceed to a medium-cost one like Taiwan or Hong Kong, and then eventually move upward to coveted and high-cost locations such as Canada and Italy.

What differentiates serial migration from stepwise migration is the lack of upward mobility in the former; a serial migrant moves across borders within low-cost destinations like Jordan, Kuwait, and Singapore. Conditions from one destination to another do not necessarily improve in serial migration, suggesting that this type of movement exceeds rational calculation. Conditions that would extrinsically improve the quality of life for domestic workers include wage rates, family reunification policies, citizenship eligibility, or labor benefits such as health coverage and access to a day off. Considering the various paths of migration in the diaspora, who chooses one path of migration over another, and why? What factors determine the migration trajectory of domestic workers? And what can specific mobility paths tell us about the organization and segmentation of the Filipina domestic worker diaspora?


Sociologist Anju Mary Paul (2011) describes a four-tier hierarchy of destinations for Filipino domestic workers. At the bottom are the low-cost destinations of countries in West Asia, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain; at the third tier are the Southeast Asian destinations of Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei; in the second tier are the East Asian destinations of Taiwan and Hong Kong; and finally the top and most coveted in the diaspora are the United States, Canada, Spain, and Italy. Paul (2011) argues that Filipino domestic workers engage in “stepwise migration,” meaning the process of embarking on a hierarchical progression across countries in the diaspora as they make their way toward their preferred destination. The concept of “stepwise migration” adds an element of intention to the long-established concept of “step migration,” described by the International Organization of Migration as “the mobility from an original residence to first one and then another destination, e.g. in a ‘stepwise’ or sequential fashion” (International Organization of Migration, 2008: 51).

In this schema, Paul asserts that migrants follow a pattern of step migration that goes from the bottom toward the top of the hierarchy of destinations. She places countries in a tier according to their affordability; average wage—the higher the tier, the higher the wage; labor conditions—the lowest tiers offering the least labor protection; and, lastly, citizenship—the highest-tier countries being distinguished by the possibility of permanent residency.17 As Paul’s research establishes for Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore, many in the diaspora chose the path of stepwise migration. My research, however, indicates a greater number of direct or serial migrants.

Migrant domestic workers may aspire to earn higher wages and accordingly move up the hierarchy of destinations, but what they want does not necessarily reflect what they do. Various factors may preclude them from moving up, such as a lack of either financial or social capital. My original research in Italy and the United States yielded just a handful of “stepwise migrants.” Although my recent survey of domestic workers in Los Angeles indicated that thirteen of 100 migrants had worked elsewhere, they did not use the social and economic capital they acquired in the process of step migration to get there. Instead, they entered the United States via happenstance, fleeing an abusive employer on vacation in the country or being petitioned by a family member, usually a sibling, to join them in the United States. Likewise, in Italy, the four migrants who had worked elsewhere in the diaspora had gotten there by jumping ship (as a seafarer) or legally following a family member, either as a family dependent or a direct hire. In the United Arab Emirates, only two of forty-seven interviewees intended to migrate elsewhere as “stepwise migrants”; they specifically wanted to relocate to Canada for the promise of permanent residency.

The majority of domestic workers I have met had neither the desire nor the aspiration to relocate to a higher-tier destination. This is perhaps because of the location’s inaccessibility. For instance, most did not plan to move to Canada, as they had not achieved the minimal educational level—seventy-two units of postsecondary training—required to participate in the Live-In Caregivers Programme. Highly educated migrants were more likely to aspire to work in Canada, as the opportunity for permanent residency gives them the promise of transitioning out of domestic work.

Filipino migrant domestic workers in Dubai are fully aware of the wide span of destinations in the diaspora and have somewhat of a sense of the opportunities available in various destinations (such as permanent residency, wages, and better working conditions). Despite their knowledge, not all aspire to relocate to what would seem to be the most desirable destinations (Canada and Italy). Even if they are eligible to enter Canada or have the resources to go to Hong Kong, many are risk averse, preferring to stay where they have become accustomed to living but also wanting to minimize the expense of their migration. Relocating would not only add to their migration cost but also might not yield the stable employment they are looking for. Among my interviewees in Dubai, the majority did not wish to relocate to a higher-tier destination. For instance, second-tier countries are less preferable given the higher cost of entry, the risk of deportation imposed by policies like the “two-week rule” in Hong Kong, and the undesirable restriction of employment options in Israel and Taiwan to elder care work.18

Significantly, labor conditions do not necessarily improve as one moves up the hierarchy of destinations. Returning to Nene’s case, she described her situation in Singapore as more humane than it had been in the higher-tier destination of Denmark, despite her higher salary and fewer work hours. In Singapore, she had a “good employer,” while in Denmark she told me she was “like a slave” because she did not have complete control over her physical movements. As she told me, she could consume food from the refrigerator only with her employer’s permission and use the toiletries her employer selected, and she could not move around her home—that is, her employer’s home—freely. Her employer would even kick her out of the house, regardless of weather conditions, whenever she wanted to be alone. For Nene, freedom is defined by her ability to control her corporal movements, which she could not do in Denmark. In contrast, Nene felt much freer in Singapore, despite her lower pay, longer work hours, and the absence of a day off during her first two years of employment. According to Nene, she had freedom in Singapore because her employers neither screamed at her nor dictated how and when to cook or clean.19

Nene’s situation and the differences between her labor experience in Singapore and that in Denmark point to the significance of employer–employee relations in determining the conditions of labor migration. Domestic workers aim to secure and hold on to “good employers” as much as they want the highest extrinsic rewards (for example, salary, citizenship, labor conditions). Those who secure “good employers” usually hold on to them, suggesting that intrinsic rewards, which are centrally defined by the relations of mutual respect they cultivate with employers, may sometimes supersede the extrinsic standards Paul uses to measure the desirability of destinations in the diaspora. In this scenario, a domestic worker with a “good employer” in a low-tier destination like the United Arab Emirates may decide to stay long term. This is the case, for example, with Rose, who now earns US$1,000 as a domestic worker for a retired British couple in Dubai. Jocelyn is another example; she sacrifices a day off and stays with an Emirate employer who lets her leave the house only to do grocery shopping every morning because they “treat [her] well” and pay her US$680 per month. For instance, not once have her employers screamed at her or limited her access to the Internet and a mobile phone. Finding a “good employer” is the primary factor shaping their migration path and has encouraged their long-term employment in Dubai.

Despite the near absence of stepwise migrants among my interviewees in Italy and the United States, I recognize migrants’ aspirations to reach destinations where they would have greater labor-market flexibility, more humane labor standards, pathways to permanent residency, and the ability to participate in society. In the Philippine diaspora, migrants consciously measure and compare the costs and benefits of settling in various destination countries. They try to learn about opportunities to resettle in other destinations, as demonstrated by the vast knowledge domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates have of the labor systems and standards in a variety of destinations in the diaspora. Interestingly, domestic workers in Italy and the United States tend to know less about the conditions elsewhere, suggesting they are indeed more likely to be direct migrants.


Direct migrants are those who migrated to one destination in the diaspora and continuously renew their contract with one employer there, those who seek other employers but in the same host country, and those who have likely reached their target location in the diaspora. Migrants stay in one place for many reasons, including the presence of a robust network of family and friends, the cultivation of good working relations with employers, and their social and cultural integration in a locale. For example, as I have already noted, migrants may select a particular destination for religious reasons. Indonesians, for instance, choose to work in Saudi Arabia because the practices there agree with their religious beliefs and allow them to uphold a pious lifestyle (Silvey, 2000).

Most of the domestic workers I have met in Los Angeles and Rome are best described as direct migrants. They did not need to settle somewhere else first to amass either the human, social, or economic capital they would need to enter these more desirable destinations. Instead, they often already had a robust social network of family and friends there, as well as the economic resources to cover the high fees recruitment agencies charge to go to Italy, or the financial capital they must demonstrate to obtain a tourist visa to enter the United States. Indeed, sixteen of the twenty-six domestic workers I interviewed in 1996 entered the United States with a tourist visa.20

Whereas most women I interviewed in Los Angeles entered the United States legally with a tourist visa, most of the women in Rome entered Italy by crossing the border clandestinely. Many initially entered a country in Eastern Europe, then traveled to Italy with the prearranged assistance of a “coyote.” Of forty-six female interviewees in Italy, thirty entered illegally with the assistance of recruitment agencies, or “travel agencies,” as they are referred to in the community. Other research participants entered with a valid visa: eleven with a tourist visa, two as direct hires, and three with a family visa.

Among the twenty-five domestic workers I interviewed in Italy in 2011 and 2012, most were direct migrants who followed a family member who had sponsored their migration or found them a sponsoring employer. Only four had worked elsewhere: one in Taiwan, one in Dubai, another in Saudi Arabia, and one as a seafarer. Two of the four had followed their spouses to Italy. Of those who participated in the survey I conducted in Los Angeles, only thirteen had worked somewhere other than in the Philippines. It is unlikely that the direct migrants I met in Los Angeles and Rome would consider relocating elsewhere; they are more likely to choose a path of assimilation and integration instead of serial or step migration to another destination.

Despite their restricted geography, most direct migrants are aware of the wide scope of domestic-worker migration. Many are part of multinational kinship networks that link them to far-flung destinations in the diaspora. As they increasingly rely on migrant institutions (Goss and Lindquist, 1995) and not their social networks to determine their path of migration, friends and family may end up in different locations. Vanessa, a single woman who followed two sisters to Rome in 1990, is the seventh of eleven siblings who opted to work abroad, as two of her sisters and a brother live in Kentucky while an older brother works as a seafarer. The youngest among her siblings, Ruth works in Rome while one sister resides in Switzerland and another in Saudi Arabia. All three send remittances to their parents in the Philippines. Gloria, a nurse who failed her board exam, is a domestic worker in Rome, while her older sister works as a nurse in the United States. Randy, a vendor who sells Filipino food outside the Philippine Embassy in Rome, shares the responsibility of supporting his parents in the Philippines along with siblings in the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States. Libertad, a domestic worker in Los Angeles, at some point had children working in the Philippines, Greece, and Saudi Arabia. Together with her children in Greece and Saudi Arabia, Libertad sent money to her children in the Philippines. Direct migrants might not physically circulate in the diaspora, but they function within its terrain because many participate in the circulation of money, information, and emotions across multiple nations.


Anthropologist Nicole Constable (1999), capturing the ambivalence of settlement for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, describes how they long to return home to the Philippines only to yearn for their life in Hong Kong once they return. Working in Hong Kong involves a process of learning “to make themselves at home, away from home” (224). Constable found that Filipina domestic workers continuously renew their labor contracts to work in Hong Kong for most of their adult life. Serial migrants share these same sensibilities of home. Yet, unlike the domestic workers Constable observed in Hong Kong, they look to other countries when prolonging their stint abroad.

Of the forty-seven domestic workers I had interviewed in Dubai in June and July 2013, almost half of them had worked elsewhere prior to the United Arab Emirates, and most did not see themselves returning home “for good” anytime soon. Some intended to renew their contract at the end of their current two-year agreement, whereas others hoped to stay in Dubai but under the sponsorship of a different employer. Some planned to return to the Philippines for a three- to six-month hiatus, after which they would apply to work elsewhere in the diaspora. The serial migratory paths of domestic workers in Dubai were often limited to low-cost destinations. Prior to the United Arab Emirates, they had worked in a plethora of other countries in West Asia, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. A handful had worked in the slightly more costly destinations of Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Israel, relying on the “fly now, pay later” system of recruitment agencies. Describing the “fly now, pay later” system, Pei-Chia Lan (2007) notes that domestic workers in Taiwan pay for the costs of migration via a salary-deduction system, under which all of their wages during their first year of employment would go toward covering the recruitment agency fees. Other destinations, including lower-cost ones, also have such a system in place. In Singapore, for instance, Filipino migrant domestic workers do not usually receive a salary during their first three to five months of employment, being restricted instead to an allowance of US$40 per month during this time; employers give the rest of their salary directly to the recruitment agency to pay their migration cost. Likewise, in Hong Kong, domestic workers can pay the US$3,000 fee via a monthly salary deduction during their first year of employment, which gives access to prospective migrants with limited resources.

Although salary-deduction systems make more expensive destinations accessible, serial migrants still avoid them to minimize the risks of migration. Serial migrants tend to have a low level of economic capital. For this reason, they limit their range of prospective destinations to those with minimal fees to avoid being saddled with debt, despite the lower pay they will receive. They also avoid destinations with risky employment systems, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. When I asked why she did not go to a higher-paying destination like Hong Kong, Mary, who had been a domestic worker for nearly twenty years in Singapore and had recently migrated to the United Arab Emirates, responded, “I would never go to Hong Kong. It is because there I would face the Terminator.” When I asked her to explain what she meant by the “Terminator,” as I doubted that she was referring to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famed film character, Mary explained how domestic workers in Hong Kong are made particularly vulnerable by the “two-week rule.”

Under this policy, a domestic worker terminated by his or her employer, regardless of reason, will be deported if he or she does not secure a new sponsoring employer within two weeks of termination (Constable, 2014). Deported employees could include those who had amassed significant debt to cover the US$3,000 recruitment fee. Another serial migrant, Elaine, likewise avoided Hong Kong, opting to go to Dubai after seven years in Lebanon. Explaining why she will not consider going to Hong Kong, she stated pointedly, “Termination. If you get terminated, then it is over for you. I have a friend who got terminated after three months. She was forced to go back to the Philippines. She still had not paid off the [US$3,000] she borrowed to go there. She pawned her house and the land of her in-law. She had no payment because she was terminated. . . . It costs a lot to go to Hong Kong. . . . Then if you get terminated, you have no fight. You have to go home.”

In contrast to the threat of termination in Hong Kong, domestic workers also avoided Taiwan due to the six-year residency cap it once imposed on unskilled migrant workers, which was extended to twelve years in 2012. They also avoided Taiwan due to the greater demand for elder care work—a twenty-four-hour job that many do not want. Lastly, serial migrants are unlikely to migrate to the high-cost destinations of Canada, Italy, and the United States either because they do not meet the educational requirements to enter Canada or because of the networks and resources they would need to enter Italy or the United States.

Serial migrants do not move in an upward trajectory from a less desirable location to a more desirable one. Their migration plans rarely involve a strategic plan to reach a target destination. The serial migrants I encountered in Dubai had relocated there after being displaced by wars in Iraq and Lebanon, having to end their last contract due to a family emergency, or hoping to secure better employment after completing a two-year contract in another country. The United Arab Emirates had not necessarily been their destination of choice, but it was one determined by the recruitment agency that processed their deployment.

Without a high level of education, many of the serial migrants I met in Dubai saw their job prospects limited to domestic work. Their primary goal had been to secure a “good employer,” which they were more likely to find by extending their labor market to encompass multiple nations. However, securing a good employer is made more challenging by the job-placement system for migrant workers; as it is now, employers learn a lot about the domestic workers they hire, as recruitment agencies provide them with information including job history, health record, and skills. Domestic workers, however, do not learn much about their employer until they arrive at their household. This system, in turn, encourages domestic workers to change jobs more frequently, which some are willing to do across multiple nations for minimal financial cost until they secure that “good employer.”


1. For statistics on au pairs, see the Danish Immigration Service, 2012. The sizeable presence of former domestic workers in Denmark supports Cameron McDonald’s (2011) categorization, which places au pairs in the realm of domestic work as opposed to seeing them as a distinct group that is merely participating in a cultural exchange program.

2. In June and July of 2012, I spent six weeks in Copenhagen, where I conducted preliminary research on Filipino au pairs. I interviewed seventeen, a handful of whom had worked in either Hong Kong or Singapore prior to entering Denmark. I located interviewees by visiting known gathering places in the community, including the Roman Catholic Church they frequented and the central train station. I also identified interviewees through the local migrant advocacy organization Babaylan-Denmark. Interviews were one to two hours in length, anonymous, and focused on the labor, migration, and family life of au pairs.

3. Nene relocated to Denmark from Singapore in 2011, not long before the Philippine government lifted its ban against the migration of au pairs to Europe on February 16, 2012. In 1988, the Philippine government banned Filipinos from leaving the country as au pairs due to a reported case of abuse in Sweden. By migrating directly from Singapore to Denmark, Nene managed to bypass the ban that would have been imposed on her as a Philippine national if she had traveled to Denmark directly from the Philippines. Migration to Denmark as an au pair does not require the facilitation of an agency, which helps keep the cost of migration low. Instead, the au pair or sponsoring family can post an advertisement on a number of websites, including, and directly negotiate the terms of the au pair contract.

4. International Labour Organization, “Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189),” adopted on June 16, 2011, 100th ILC Session; retrieved on October 14, 2013, from

5. Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, “OFW Deployment by Occupation, Country, and Sex—New Hires, Full Year 2010”; retrieved on October 14, 2013, from,%20Destination%20and%20Sex%202010%20-%20New%20hires.pdf.

6. Philippine Overseas Employment Administration OFW Statistics, “Deployment Per Skill Per Sex, 2008–2010”; retrieved on October 14, 2013, from

7. My calculation includes those deployed as caregivers and domestic helpers. The migrant worker’s entry visa usually determines the category of employment. For instance, those employed as domestic workers in Israel would enter as “caregivers,” whereas those who work in the United Arab Emirates would enter with a “servant visa.” The former would depart the Philippines with the employment category of “caregiver,” and the latter would be categorized as a “domestic helper.” See POEA Statistics, “2008 Deployment by Major, Sub-Major Occupation and Sex”; retrieved on October 23, 2013, from

8. My calculation includes those deployed from the country as caregivers and domestic helpers. See POEA Statistics, “2009 Deployment by Major, Sub-Major Occupation and Sex”; retrieved on October 23, 2013, from

9. My calculation includes those deployed from the country as caregivers (9,293) and domestic helpers (96,583). See POEA Statistics, “2010 Deployment by Major, Sub-Major Occupation and Sex”; retrieved on October 14, 2013, from,%20Sub-Major%20Occupation%20and%20Sex%202010%20-%20New%20hires.pdf.

10. The latest stock estimate of Filipinos residing overseas shows a total number of 10,455,788 individuals with 4,867,645 permanent residents, 4,513,171 temporary migrant workers, and an estimated 1,074,972 undocumented or irregular migrants. See Office of the President of Philippines Commission on Filipinos Overseas, “Global Mapping of Overseas Filipinos”; retrieved on October 15, 2013, from Of temporary migrant workers, most are women; figures from POEA indicate that women comprised 62.5 percent of all newly deployed temporary labor migrants from 1992 through 2007. See Philippine Migration and Development Statistical Almanac, “Total Deployment of New-Hire Temporary Contract Workers by Gender, 1992–2007”; retrieved on October 15, 2013, from

11. Although the Philippine government does not consider au pairs to be laborers, many scholars have argued that the category of au pair merely masks the employer–employee relationship inherent in this cultural exchange program. See Mitchell (1996), McDonald (2011), and Stenum (2011).

12. ILO, 2013: 24.

13. I base my estimation of 2,800,000 from a calculation of the percentage of female workers from the stock estimate of approximately 4.5 million temporary migrant workers in 2011. See Commission on Filipinos Overseas for the estimated figures on temporary migrant workers. This conservative estimate is based on the percentage of domestic workers among newly deployed female workers reported by POEA, comprising approximately 56 percent of deployed female workers in 2010; 45 percent in 2009; and 54 percent in 2008 (POEA, 2009, 2010, 2011; retrieved on October 15, 2013, from For the estimated count of female workers, see POEA estimate. Of temporary migrant workers, most are women; figures from POEA indicate that women comprised 62.5 percent of all newly deployed temporary labor migrants from 1992 through 2007. See Philippine Migration and Development Statistical Almanac, “Total Deployment of New-Hire Temporary Contract Workers by Gender, 1992–2007”; retrieved on October 15, 2013, from

14. According to a migrant broker I met in Dubai in June 2013, this nominal fee is imposed on domestic workers only so they would feel invested on their jobs. In other words, the fee of US$115 is supposed to deter them from quitting if faced with a difficult employer.

15. The term migrant institutions refers to the “sets of rules and resources which govern the actions and interactions of agents who operate within them” (Goss and Lindquist, 1995: 334).

16. I conducted sixty-seven interviews with migrant Filipina domestic workers in Singapore in July and August 2014.

17. Paul provides a fairly accurate tier system that represents the hierarchy of destinations. Most accurate in her assessment is the prevailing wage in different tiers. Yet her description of the tier system has many inaccurate claims, including the assertion that labor laws protect domestic workers in Taiwan and not in the lower-tier destination of Malaysia.

18. Further problematizing Paul’s hierarchy, migrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates did not agree with the hierarchical distinction of West Asia as a fourth-tier destination and Southeast Asia as third tier. Many had previously worked in Malaysia and Singapore and did not see the United Arab Emirates as a worse place to work.

19. In Singapore, she had autonomy in the workplace. Still, her situation had not been ideal. One day off a month, long work hours, and a heavy workload nearly eliminated her discretionary time, thereby limiting her temporal autonomy and, some would say, her freedom.

20. Four others entered with immigrant visas they had obtained via the sponsorship of a family member, and five others entered as companions of a business investor from the Philippines. One initial interviewee entered the United States by clandestinely crossing the border from Canada.