Moving Labor: Transnational Migrant Workers and Affective Literacies of Care

by Eileen Lagman


In this article, I examine the role of affect management in the transnational migration of Filipino care workers. Drawing on qualitative research in the Philippines, I claim that in government-mandated skills training, opportunities for Filipino migrants to critically engage in print and English literacies were often limited to standardized and rote practices to enhance transferability. In response, these migrant workers turned to affective literacies to engage in the kind of critical thinking and knowledge transformation necessary to challenge their labor conditions or simply survive the daily traumas of migrant life. While policies for skills-based labor migration categorize workers and their migration trajectories through a high-skills/low-skills divide, I suggest that affect management is the “high-skilled” work in such contexts where the mobility and flexibility of the global economy are experienced as precarity and insecurity. This reversal of high-low skill categories prompts a re-imagining of the transnational movement of labor—one where worker-citizens and their literacies move through a continuous series of affective attachments to and detachments from the nation-state.

Keywords: literacy, affect, labor migration, brain drain, skills training, care work



Transnational Attachments: Affective Literacies and the Nation-State

Affective Literacies: Affect Management in the Migrant Workplace


Works Cited


Do not argue with your employer. Do not talk to other maids. Do not show a temper or long face when scolded by your employer. Contact your agency whenever you have problems and don’t rely on your friends.

--Code of discipline in a household service worker training, in Julien Brygo’s “Filipino Maids for Export.”


Any social project that is not imposed through force alone must be affective in order to be effective.

--William Mazzarella, “Affect: What Is It Good For?”

A 2006 advertisement from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority shows two figures flying in mid-air. They have the bodies of comic book superheroes complete with costumes and capes. The photographed heads of two women have been cut out and placed to appear on top of the superhero bodies—on one body is the face of then Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and on the other is the face of Mary Joy Buñol, a participant in the Supermaid program of the Philippine government. One of Buñol’s hands extends in a power fist, a frying pan in her grasp; Buñol’s other hand holds a spatula. Cutting across the middle of the ad is the word “SUPERMAIDS!” in large block letters, and beneath this is a group of 36 nameless women. Only their heads and shoulders can be seen, and each woman wears the same uniform—the same professional white shirt and the same pleasant generic smile. Underneath these women, the ad says, “Looking for personable domestic help who cannot only cook and clean, but also save your children from a fire?”


This ad, which appeared in a widely read newspaper in the Philippines, was meant to promote the government’s new skills training program. The Supermaid program provided professionalized training for domestic work abroad, including training in first-aid, emergency evacuation procedures, and effective communication in the workplace. In the ad, Buñol is lifted up as the ideal maid and the ideal worker hero, or bagong bayani1 (new national hero), a phrase used by the government to refer to the one to two million workers who work abroad annually and provide the over $21 billion in remittances that aid in national development.2 The ad explains that the twenty-three-year-old Buñol was from a poor “far-flung” province but after the training was able to gain a position working for a royal household in Malaysia. The skills training course, the ad claims, has moved her from the marginal outskirts of the poor into the cosmopolitan sphere of royalty, providing an intimacy with the global elite that she wouldn’t otherwise have—from “remote to promote,” the ad claims. It’s a fairy tale, a myth, a hero story, as Buñol is seen hovering triumphantly next to Arroyo. It is meant to remind future overseas workers of the potentials of skills training, as well as the hopeful future promised in the government’s labor migration program. It’s unclear to whom the question “looking for domestic help…?” in the ad is directed, since the advertisement circulated in Manila and encourages the reader to “Enroll now” with a list of class locations. With this in mind, it seems more like a promise than a question—an assurance that through this particular kind of education, a maid could, in the eyes of her employer, be more than a maid.

In this article, I explore the role of literacy education in facilitating state-managed transnational labor migration. More specifically, I show how the pressures of global capital, experienced in state-managed transnational labor migration from the Philippines, create a context for literacy learning and practice where emotion, cognition, and embodiment work together in the everyday survival of precarious migrant life. While government training initiatives like the Supermaid program are marketed as programs of professionalization and neutral skills training, my ethnographic research with Filipino migrants shows that migrants experience these moments of literacy acquisition more strongly as moments of affect management or “the ritual and/or professional coordination of affect” (Mazzarella 298). It is clear in the Supermaid advertisement that as much as these programs promise some kind of neutral transferable skill to achieve professionalization, these programs rely on affect management for their success. In other words, migrants must buy into the hero story and understand their literacy acquisition as a practice of national heroism. Migrants must look up at the individual hero who “beat the odds” instead of looking across at the similarly skilled and equally educated “undifferentiated pool” of “waste labor”—the nameless women below Buñol—perpetually hoping and waiting for their own opportunity to beat the odds (Watkins 88). But as the first quote in the epigraph shows, the actual everyday activities that are part of being a national hero include affective disciplining. As I will illustrate, the Philippine state has used literacy education historically as a way to prompt migrant workers to look up at heroic possibilities and take their own individual responsibility for the rights and protections that the state, in its role as temp agency nation, cannot offer abroad. By doing so, the state deflects the anxieties surrounding transnational migrant work and conceals the emotional toll experienced in the many daily traumas of migrant life.


Considering female migrant care workers3 as a particular example, I explain that as care labor practices have become more professionalized and standardized with growing government intervention in the last two decades, care work also became more constrained in the types of affective states permissible in the workplace. In their own experiences as Filipina care workers both on the job and in securing employment, my participants revealed that practices of affect management became integral to their survival, requiring critical literacy and higher-order thinking. In contrast, labor practices often considered high skilled, such as learning new languages, communication strategies, and information management, were experienced as rote and mechanical and looked more like lower-order thinking. My claim is that forwarding affective literacies as essential to the transnational migrant experience blurs the distinction we often place between high-skilled and low-skilled work that shapes migrant trajectories and creates a “vector” of skills that controls transnational migrant labor today (Raghuram 81). This reversal of the high-low skill categorization also reframes literacy practices in a context that goes beyond the individual classroom or workplace. Instead, I believe literacy indexes an affective relationship between migrant workers and the Philippine state. Continuing to use affect as a framework, I suggest that we understand the transnational movement of literacy as taking place through a continuous series of affective attachments and detachments between the state and worker citizen. As I will illustrate, affective literacies do not move in the same way that literacy scholars understand literacy-as-texts to move or in the same way that migration scholars imagine the movement of literacy education in “brain drain” research. While literacy-as-texts circulate through institutions, networks, or linkages (Dingo; Vieira; Queen), and brain drain considers literacy as a possession that can be carried from point A to point B, resulting in the loss of human capital from one country and the gain in another, I claim that the transnational movement of affective literacies—literacies as they are performed and experienced through the body—take place through affective attachments and detachments from the nation-state. I illustrate how state educational projects like the Supermaid program are one means by which the Philippine state creates emotional and legal ties with its workers, thus strengthening the role of state authority in the migration process.


Researching literacy in the temp agency nation

When I began my ethnographic study of Filipino migrant workers in 2013, labor migration numbers had reached an all-time high; the previous year, the Philippine state had deployed over 1.8 million workers and received $21.391 billion in remittances that accounted for more than ten percent of the GDP (Magtulis). I began my research interested in brain drain and the ways in which literacy was transferred transnationally because of this flow of labor. Brain drain has been defined by economists and policy makers as a phenomenon in which large numbers of highly-skilled workers leave a developing country for work in a developed country, thereby taking their literacy education and its value with them. Since brain drain describes the movement of “skilled labor,” I focused my research on those defined as skilled workers in the brain drain literature: college-educated (and in the Philippines, mostly English-speaking) migrants over the age of twenty-five.4 I interviewed Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) or temporary contract workers who usually work in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or Europe, as well as balikbayans (nation returnees), a term generally referring to permanent migrants living in North America (Rafael 206).


My study was transnational in design. I conducted interviews in a metropolitan area of the Midwest, as well as a province in the Central Luzon area of the Philippines where I interviewed future and current OFWs, as well as balikbayans.5 Those whom I interviewed in the Philippines were in various stages of departure and arrival—some were in between work contracts; others were preparing to leave or had been home from overseas work for several years. I conducted twenty-five audio-recorded semi-structured interviews (Fontana and Frey 645) with migrant workers, asking about their educational histories, vocational training, and process of migration, as well as the activities they conducted at work. Of these migrant workers, eight identified as care workers, and I draw on their narratives for this article. I focus in particular on two female care workers—Luz, whose experiences were representative of participant responses, and Maria, whose experiences I analyze as a “telling” case study and who demonstrated a unique awareness of affect management (Mitchell 239). To supplement interviews with migrant workers, I conducted seventeen interviews with key informants in the labor migration process, including labor recruiters, government workers, and college educators and administrators. Finally, I conducted a systematic collection of Philippine government documents, migrant online writing, media coverage, and other written artifacts related to labor migration.


During my research, I quickly discovered that the divisions between “skilled” and “unskilled” work in brain drain didn’t hold up. A handful of the skilled, college-educated adults I interviewed, including some of the care workers I describe in this essay, were working abroad or were going to work abroad in so-called unskilled or semi-skilled occupations in the service sector. In addition, the migrant workers I interviewed who were working in occupations categorized as skilled (e.g., those in professions such as nursing, education, or IT) often described their work in ways that were embodied and emotional, not solely cognitive. To investigate my questions, I took with me an understanding of literacy as situated social practice, in which (contrasting functional definitions of literacy) literacies acquire meaning from the cultural context where they are embedded (Street 1). I also brought with me an understanding that a macro-view of literacy can be researched by examining the material tools and the social actions surrounding individual literacy use, and that these can be gleaned from collecting oral histories or literacy narratives in which participants articulate their memories of literacy learning (Brandt, Literacy 9). During my interviews with migrant workers, I asked my subjects about moments of reading and writing, looking for sponsors, technologies, artifacts, or any writing and reading to appear in their migration trajectories. Although reading and writing existed throughout descriptions of subjects’ experiences, they were often not the most important moments, nor the moments filled with tension and complication. Instead, I found myself drawn to how migrants described their work tasks and the emotions that they used to explain them. In describing their work activities, migrants described intense intellectual engagement, but they described this in forms that often went beyond textual representation. Taking a closer look at how these women were trained to work and what they did at work convinced me that there was more to understanding their literacy practices than simply considering how or what they were reading and writing.


Affective literacies

The work of writing studies scholars on emotion, affects, and embodiment provided me with the means to understand the emotional undercurrents underlying the work experiences of my participants. In researching forms of embodied work, Mike Rose and Catherine Prendergast argue that literacy researchers and educators need to embrace a more nuanced “multidimensional model of intelligence” (Rose 215) that takes into account an “ever-developing understanding of the complexity of learning” (Prendergast 5). This includes, they argue, the intellectual work of the body. Rose argues for a way of valuing labor practices that does not separate the work of the hand from the work of the brain, and Prendergast, researching literacies in a scientific research lab, calls us to reconsider the ways that our focus on writing eclipses the importance of embodied practices critical to successful learning in the sciences, including “manual dexterity necessary to conduct experiments, the ability to tolerate long hours of working both independently and with others, and the capacity to pursue projects over long periods of time” (3). These scholars remind us that the brain and the body are inseparable and interconnected in everyday practices of learning and labor. Similarly, Elisabeth Johnson and Lalitha Vasudevan, examining the extradiscursive practices of high school students, argue that critical literacy must go beyond “verbo- and logo-centric” definitions to recognize how texts and responses to texts are embodied and performed (34). They claim that “everyday texts invite affective responses that exceed logical, rational, verbal, and written responses” (34). Scholars of rhetoric have also questioned the division between emotion and reason (Gross; Edbauer, “New”; Trainor; Worsham) and have argued that emotion can be traced in the subtexts of schooling, that emotion is a means of persuasion, and that emotion is an “analytical, performative, and rhetorical act” (Micciche 2). In particular, scholars have used the term “affective literacies” to describe embodied and emotional responses to texts and spaces of learning (Amsler; Cole; Rice, “Big Time”). I build on this history of scholarship that takes seriously the intellectual work of emotions and the cognitive work of the body. I’ve found in my research that migrants generate affective responses to text and that the discursive practices of the state seek affective resonance to do their work. But I also posit that affect management is itself literacy work.


While scholars of affect6 have traditionally held a sharp distinction between affect as sensory experience and as symbolic mediation, William Mazzarella argues that sensory experiences and the symbolic mediations they become remain in constant dialectical relationship, making affect and language difficult to separate. As he argues, social projects must “speak both of [Brian] Massumi’s ‘languages’ concurrently: intensity as well as qualification, mimetic resonance as well as propositional plausibility” (299). In other words, the work of affect is in fact the work of mediation. It is for these reasons that I situate affect managementas a literacy practice. As literacies are concerned with processes and practices of symbolic mediation as well as the politics of language and schooling, affect opens up an additional dimension to representation that links symbolic practices to a larger network of sensual corporeal life. Importantly, affects are not just individual but emerge from a shared sense experience, illustrating that, as Teresa Brennan reminds us, “there is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment’” (6). Affect is “both embodied and impersonal” (Mazzarella 292) and “presubjective without being presocial” (291). This sense that affect is beyond the individual is what I believe connects affect management to critical literacy work.


As I will illustrate, affect management is the means by which migrants practice critical literacy when professionalized literacies and intellectually constraining workplaces offer little room for critical engagement. By critical literacy, I mean literacy that is used as a means of both “self-authoring one’s place in the world” (Hernandez-Zamora 9, italics in original) and conveying or expressing a “particular way of being that belies, subverts, and exposes social norms and imbalances” (Johnson and Vasudevan 36). While lower-order thinking demands only routine or mechanical application such as tasks of memorization, critical literacy contains higher-order thinking—knowledge transformation, interpretation, evaluation, analysis, and manipulation of information “to achieve a purpose or find possible answers in perplexing situations” (Lewis and Smith 136). I will argue that in the case of Filipino migrant care workers, practices involving the production, circulation, and management of affect looked more like higher-order thinking processes. In contrast, work that was deemed high-skilled by the state, such as language acquisition or communication training, was experienced more as tasks requiring lower-order thinking. This reversal of high-low categories that I am suggesting not only opens up our understanding of what literacy practice looks like but can also influence how labor is valued in migration policy. As the flow of people globally becomes increasingly understood along a vector of skills, controlling who can move and where and when, the destabilization of skilled-unskilled labor categories could substantially change how we understand the transnational flow of labor at large. Migration scholars recognize that skills pave the way for migrant movement. As Parvati Raghuram explains, “skills have become one of the most significant vectors in contemporary migratory regimes” where certain countries have opened up their borders for the highly skilled while limiting immigration opportunities for the less skilled (81). Importantly, Raghuram claims that “skills provide migration policies with a thin veneer of gender, class, and race neutrality” (93); therefore, she encourages scholars to strip away this veneer through critical examinations of the “modes of governance” that have produced skills (93). One way to do this, Raghuram argues, is to examine more fully the ways that skills production is mapped onto and folded into trajectories of skilled migration—that is, to examine how skills are valued and produced in both sending and receiving countries. My research contributes to this effort by pointing to the ways state-sponsored skills training, and the affective lessons migrants take from them, function to fulfill and at times subvert the high-skills/low-skills divide. While affective literacies are a part of everyday migrant life, there is a need for policy that acknowledges and values the emotional and embodied dimensions of human capital. As Deborah Brandt has written about the knowledge economy, “Government analysts continue to ponder the costs and benefits of human assets, including literacy, in the knowledge economy. However, the costs and benefits to humans has been much less explored” (“Writing” 194). An attention to affective literacies offers what I hope is a step toward a fuller and more complex understanding of the human dimensions of human capital.

In this section, I provide an overview of transnational labor migration as it is facilitated by the Philippine state, focusing in particular on the growth of literacy education by way of mandatory vocational training for female care workers in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. In this discussion, I examine two trends in migrant education that signal the contact and collision that characterizes the affective relationship between the Philippines and its migrant citizens: first, the state’s move to be an agent of caring feelings; and second, the state’s attempt to train care workers in a professionalized and standardized form of care work. This professionalized training curriculum, while intended to upgrade the skills of workers, was experienced by migrants as rote and mechanical lower-order thinking activities. But that does not mean migrants were not intellectually engaged in higher-order thinking tasks. The politics of care and protection that surrounded these standardized trainings point to an affective landscape where migrants did their critical work. It is on this affective landscape that migrants engaged in knowledge transformation and critical thinking activities that included negotiating an ongoing relationship with the state.


As the world’s largest source of temporary contract labor (Tyner 10), the Philippines has been labeled a “temp agency to the world” (Diamond) and a “labor brokerage state” (Rodriguez, Migrants x). Since 2006, the Philippines consistently has sent over one million workers abroad each year, resulting in ten percent of its total population or about twenty-five percent of the adult workforce working abroad (Calbay 34). In 2013, the top destinations for migrant workers included Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Qatar, and the most commonly deployed occupations were “service workers,” including domestic workers, nurses, waiters, bartenders, hairdressers, caregivers, and caretakers. Of the 464,888 workers who were new hires in 2013, an overwhelming majority—164, 396—were domestic workers. In comparison, the second largest category was nurses at 16,404 (DOLE). In their research on the government structure supporting this labor migration, Robyn Rodriguez and Anna Guevarra explain that neoliberal practices of the state—which include depending on remittance money as a means for development; maintaining economic ties to workers abroad; negotiating with labor-receiving states to formalize outflows of workers; and actively marketing workers as a flexible, highly-skilled, and well-educated workforce—are all part of a “labor brokerage strategy”: “a neoliberal strategy that is comprised of institutional and discursive practices through which the Philippine state mobilizes its citizens and sends them abroad to work […] while generating a ‘profit’ from the remittances” (Rodriguez, Migrants x). This strategy functions through a long history of colonial and neocolonial practices shaping infrastructure and economic possibilities in the Philippines as well as through a world-wide racialized and gendered labor market ready to accept cheap, flexible, and expendable labor. As Martin Manalansan succinctly puts it, “Filipinos are the pawns in the game of global restructuring of capital” (215). This kind of relationship to the global labor market and to the nation-state creates a particular set of relations between state and citizen—even while workers engage in life abroad, they are intimately tied to the Philippine state and in fact understand their overseas work as an enactment of a kind of “migrant citizenship” (Rodriguez, Migrants xix). Dwindling rights and protections under neoliberalism shape this citizenship and forward such national hero narratives as bagong bayani.


Female labor grew in larger numbers and began to outpace male labor in the mid-90s, particularly in the service professions. As a result, a discourse of anxiety began to circulate around the loss of maternal care from families and the resemblance of this labor flow to trajectories of human trafficking. In order to deflect this anxiety, the state created mandatory training programs for those seeking employment in vulnerable occupations. The Supermaid program is just one of the government-facilitated training programs to come out of this emotional response to a growing and vulnerable female workforce. Importantly, the program was announced during the same national press conference that addressed the Philippine government’s difficulty in evacuating over 30,000 migrant workers from Lebanon during the 2006 Lebanon War.7 The Supermaid program was presented as a means to give repatriated migrants a pathway to other work opportunities, and in particular opportunities that would place them in the “higher-end” of domestic work that was believed to lessen the risk of violence and abuse. At the time of this press conference, stories circulated in the local media about two Filipina maids who jumped out of the windows of the high-rise apartments where they worked when their employers refused their evacuation. In order to erase the image of abused bodies plummeting downward to death, the government redirected affects toward an alternative image—that of a hero-worker like Buñol whose skilled body can rise upward above trauma.


The transfer of care: "From the heart and into their hearts"

The Lebanon evacuation not only reminded Filipino citizens about the vulnerability of domestic workers abroad, but it also highlighted a glaring contradiction in government rhetoric: If Filipino migrant workers are heroes, then why do they need to be rescued? To deflect attention from appalling working conditions and a migration infrastructure that allowed such conditions, the state began to position itself more strongly as a caring body and the worker as a rational and skilled body. To say that the nation “cares” means seeing the nation as a “subject of feeling” and also “generates the nation as the object of ‘our feeling’”—we feel cared for by the nation, we care for the nation (Ahmed 13). To present itself as a subject of feeling, the state claims that it offers migrants protection “from the heart” (Philippine, 2011 5). The most effusive example of these caring feelings can be seen in the 2011 Annual Report from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the government agency that facilitates and manages transnational labor migration. The newly appointed POEA Administrator Carlos S. Cao Jr. promised to “bring the heart of God” into the overseas employment program and declared that in administering the overseas migration program, what matters most is not “migration expertise and vaunted experiences of many years” but “dealing with [migrant workers] from the heart and into their hearts through various acts of kindness both small and big, while serving their needs.” While knowledge was presented as the means for migrants to rise above trauma, for the state it was emotion that mattered, not knowledge. Cao further explained that the administration’s efforts to reform migration policy are physical and emotional. The administration, he argues, “actively participated in putting teeth, flesh and muscle, as well as heart and soul” into the implementation of Republic Act 10022 (Philippine, Omnibus), a recent piece of migration policy that claimed to bolster protections for migrants (Philippine, 2011 5). Rather than imagine the state as a rational and mechanical bureaucratic entity, Cao positions the state as a vulnerable working body. Just as migrants experienced the pain of labor, the state also felt pain in doing work on their behalf.


Domestic workers were therefore encouraged to understand the formation of the Supermaid program, and other government sponsored vocational trainings, as acts of caring by the government. This caring came in the form of skills training. The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, or Republic Act 8042 (Philippine, Migrant), put the mantra of skills as protection in place. Section 2(g) of RA 8042 established, “The State recognizes that the ultimate protection to all migrant workers is the possession of skills. Pursuant to this and as soon as practicable, the government shall deploy and/or allow the deployment only to skilled Filipino workers.” Just as the Supermaid program was a response to tragedy surrounding female care workers, RA 8042 was signed into law just a few months after the execution of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino maid working in Singapore who had been accused of killing another Filipina domestic worker and the child under her care. Many Filipino citizens believed that the Philippine government should have intervened, as evidence surfaced that indicated Contemplacion’s innocence. When the government did not intervene, the public was outraged. Filipino scholars suggest that the public outcry over Contemplacion’s death forced the state to address the issues of migrants’ rights and protections head on. As Rodriguez explains, “RA 8042 signaled a new kind of relationship between the Philippines and its migrant citizens” (“Migrant Heroes” 342). In 2010, RA 8042 was amended and replaced with RA10022, which was broadly understood as a policy that increased the state’s regulatory functions in all areas, including the dissemination of skills. The amended Section 2(g) of RA10022 presented a slightly different function for skills and emphasized the government’s role in skills training. The revised statement reads: “The state recognizes that the most effective tool for empowerment is the possession of skills by migrant workers. The government shall provide them free and accessible skills development and enhancement programs. Pursuant to this and as soon as practicable, the government shall deploy and/or allow the deployment only of skilled Filipino workers” (Philippine, Omnibus, emphasis added). This new law codified the already ongoing practice of government-sponsored skills training, making clear that it was the state as a welfare state and caring body that was providing the means for migrant workers’ empowerment. The slight gradation in the function of skills as “the ultimate protection” to “the most effective tool for empowerment” is telling—to be protected and to be empowered are not the same thing. Using skills as protection implied a defensive position; only vulnerable people need protection. But empowerment was the proactive responsibility of the strong individual to possess. Through these policies for implementing vocational training, the state became a caring body, eschewing its image as rational unfeeling body. In response the migrant care worker became less a caring and vulnerable body and more a rational, skilled, and empowered body. What I am attempting to illustrate here is that this responsive back-and-forth dynamic points to a different framework for understanding how migrant workers become mobile bodies. Unlike the “transfer of care”8 of the “care drain” narrative proposed by migration scholars, this transfer of care not only moved from one country to another, but moved through the collision and contact between the state and its worker citizens (Hochschild 17).

Care training: "You have to be patient and work from the heart"

Just a few months after the Lebanon evacuation, the POEA issued a series of memorandum circulars regulating the training of domestic workers that became known as the Household Service Worker Reform Package of 2006. The Reform Package, which the POEA claimed to “professionalize and minimize the vulnerabilities” of Household Service workers, made government assessment and skills training mandatory for household service workers by including a minimum age requirement of twenty-three as well as requiring completion of a National Certificate II (NCII) course, which established basic competencies for household service work, and a Language and Culture Familiarization training, which taught basic language and cultural practices of specific destination countries, including training in Arabic, Hebrew, Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English (Orbeta). Changing the title of the occupation from domestic worker to “Household Service Worker” was the first step in professionalizing this kind of care work; in the NCII course, domestic workers were referred to as “household managers.” In 2009, the Language and Culture training curriculum was made part of a larger four- to six-day Comprehensive Pre-departure Education Program for migrant household service workers, which would include basic life support and first aid training as well as a stress management course (ILO). We can see here that the Philippine government attempted to intervene in the skills regime by shifting its “unskilled” workers into a slightly more skilled category through professionalized training. But this professionalism was taught more through affective disciplining than through knowledge creation.


In their research on the impact of the HSW Reform Package, Graziano Battistella, Jung Soo, and Maruja M.B. Asis conducted a comprehensive survey to determine just what migrants were learning from these trainings. They found that these mandatory trainings did not increase the knowledge and understanding of government regulations and that the competency and language requirements were widely criticized as being income-generating programs for the government rather than adding any valuable knowledge. While Battistella, Soo, and Asis recommend that the migrant education program be reinforced with improving information campaigns, I would suggest that the issue isn’t that migrants are not learning but that they are understanding these programs as part of their ongoing contentious relationship to the state. In other words, the meaning they find in this work is not in the memorization of procedures but in how their work as caregivers or domestic workers positions them in a particular relationship to the state and in a particular kind of trajectory abroad. In the trainings, it is not content per se that is taught but a kind of unfeeling, rational, professional disposition promoted by the curriculum of the state.


The state’s brand of professionalism was taught through mechanized and rote work tasks in both NCII courses and pre-departure orientations. As Beatriz Lorente explains, the language and communication tasks taught in these courses were those that required the simple transfer of information, including “filling out forms and recording information” (198). Lorente writes that the assessment criteria suggests, “the communication skills that are considered to be valuable are ‘passive’; they are not about constructing or questioning knowledge or procedures” (199). According to the standard curriculum for the Household Service Worker NCII course, competencies achieved in the course include: participating in workplace communication, working in a team environment, practicing career professionalism, and maintaining effective relationships with clients/customers. In the Workplace Communication module, some of the competencies covered included parts of speech, sentence construction, effective communication, communicating with the employer, technical writing, and recording information. When assessing communication performance, trainers ensure that “[s]pecific relevant information is accessed from appropriate sources; […] Appropriate medium is used to transfer information and ideas; Appropriate non-verbal communication is used; Appropriate lines of communication with superiors and colleagues are identified and followed; […] Personal interaction is carried out clearly and concisely” (TESDA, emphasis in original). As is evident in the curriculum, language skills and communication goals are talked about in the same language as business interactions such as teamwork, processing requests, and setting up work plans. Thus, this curriculum re-frames the home in which migrants would be working into a place of business. The home is not seen as an intimate space where care takes place, but one of standardization, measurement, and distance. By setting up the domestic workplace in this way, the migrant body is disciplined to be unfeeling and rational as well.


However, scholars of domestic work have explained that what distinguishes domestic workers from other service workers is the intimacy of their relationships to their employers—they are employed directly by the families they serve and often share living space with them, at times perhaps sleeping in their children’s bedrooms. They are intimate with the dirt and the bodies, as well as the dynamics and dysfunctions, of a family. As close as domestic workers are to family dynamics, being “one of the family” also makes them susceptible to abuses like overwork and unpaid back wages. While standardized communication practices made up the formal and official curriculum of the classroom, affect management made up what education scholars might call the “hidden curriculum” (Trainor 4). According to government officials, the minimum age requirement of twenty-three was meant to ensure that domestic workers were emotionally “mature” before going abroad. They hoped that this age requirement would reduce cases of homesickness and reduce the costs of repatriation. The Language and Culture Familiarization training was described as equipping overseas workers with basic knowledge in the language and culture of the receiving country “to ensure a harmonious relationship with the foreign employer and better job performance, hence [helping] them cope with the new working environment” (Samante). These affective discourses trickled down to the labor recruiters who were involved in matching migrants with foreign employers. Omar, the owner of a labor recruitment agency that sends household service workers to Bahrain, told me in an interview that when he hires agents whose job it is to recruit workers from surrounding provinces, his criteria was that “they must have a background in psychology,” not business or marketing. The most important part of the recruitment agent’s job, he explained, was ensuring that workers were emotionally prepared to work overseas, since it is labor recruitment agencies who often bear the costs of repatriating workers who do not fulfill their contracts. Most often, Omar said, he tried not to hire women who had already worked in professional occupations, because it was difficult for them to do the menial tasks of household work without complaint. He said, “we screen applicants properly” so that they do not “create a problem” once they are abroad. Thus, these state entities and state partners understood that it was not certified content knowledge that would make a migrant mobile, but one’s ability to manage affect in the work place.


The “emotioned rules” of professionalized training can be seen in migrant accounts (Trainor 26). Luz, a fifty-one-year-old married mother of three, completed a one-month certificate course in 2012 for caregivers going to Israel that included two weeks on caregiving techniques and two weeks in Hebrew language instruction. Before taking this course, she had worked since 1983 as an elementary school teacher and was, at the time of my interview with her, waiting for her work visa to go to Israel. In our interview, she detailed for me the various skills she learned in her training: “how to take care of a baby, how to change a diaper, how to give them a bath, how to give an elderly person medicine.” Despite having children of her own that she raised and caring for her elderly parents before their deaths, she said that the trainings were “very difficult” and emphasized that memorization was the main skill she used. During testing, a demonstration was put on by a trainer, and after this demonstration she had to follow and memorize the procedures. One by one those in the class had to go in a room and then perform the tasks as three trainers watched intently for mistakes. When I asked Luz what skills she thought were needed to be a caregiver based on the trainings she received, she said, simply, “Follow the rules. Oh yes, just to follow the rules and regulations. Just like that.” It was not content knowledge, but the disciplined ability to mechanically repeat gestures, discourses and dispositions that were necessary. It was not care, but unfeeling professionalism that mattered. Luz later explained that the thing that qualified her for the job and made her appealing to employers was not her skills training but her “old age,” explaining “Israelis like the old age. Like me. Because [older workers] are very matiyaga (patient).” Luz illustrates here the underlying lessons learned from the curriculum: this professionalism was essential precisely because employers expected and wanted a worker who would not be quick to show emotions. In his article on the Supermaid program, Julien Brygo describes meeting an instructor for the program who claimed, “Many employers are looking for domestic workers who are polite, respectful, patient and quiet. Here we try to get them used to the excitable temperament of Hong Kong employers. You have to be patient, and work from the heart.” While employers have an “excitable temperament,” care workers must respond with the appearance of no temperament. We can see that while professionalization was promoted as the skill that would empower heroic workers, these tasks were experienced as lower order thinking—as Luz put it, pure memorization. In the experience of workers and recruiters in the migration processes, the more valuable, critical, and higher-order skills were those that played out in the affective landscape.

Affective Literacies: Affect Management in the Migrant Workplace

In order to illustrate what higher-order thinking tasks looked like in this affective landscape, I detail the workplace experiences of Maria, a former Filipina domestic worker who worked in Hong Kong and Singapore between 1992 and 1999. Maria worked during the period when the state was beginning to standardize migration and training processes and can thus give us insight into how migrants experienced these initial forms of standardization and the affect management that came along with it. I see in Maria’s actions two primary moves that show her affect management and reveal processes of higher-order thinking—first, Maria practices what Manalansan has called “disaffection” or the channeling of affects while outwardly appearing “unmoved,” and second, what Brennan calls “discernment,” a process that includes considering the history of her emotions, where they come from, and how they connect to the feelings of others. Both disaffection and discernment include knowledge transformation, the combination of new and existing information to evaluate situations and solve problems as well as self-authoring practices that position one in the world or that offer critical stances toward existing structures and ways of being. I explain that Maria’s claim that she is “just a maid” and not “more than a maid” is a way of holding the state accountable, of creating a history of her literacy’s gains and losses, and of tracing her literacy’s transnational attachments. In the end, I suggest that Maria is offering an alternative emotional reading of matiyaga (patience) that provides her a separate rhetorical space of possibility to manage her relationship with the state.


Disaffection: "That's why my employer loves me"

When I met with Maria, she had just come from a long day of teaching math to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. She took an hour-long jeepney ride from a neighboring province on an afternoon where the heat and humidity felt even more oppressive than usual. But instead of being exhausted she spoke quickly, with intensity and passion, not at all hesitant to speak in English (a task which caused many of my participants to speak with hesitancy). During our interview, I learned that Maria graduated college with a degree in civil engineering and worked initially as a field engineer in construction in Manila. But after a few years, and after getting married, she and her husband decided that she should study to be a teacher in order to get a job in the small town in which they both grew up. Maria spent the next year taking twenty-one units of education courses but failed her first attempt at the teaching licensure exam. Finding work in the province proved difficult, so she eventually decided to work abroad as a domestic worker. Maria, like Luz and like many of the participants in my study, had more education than what was required for her job, and would be considered by economists as part of a transnational flow of labor called “brain waste”—a subset of brain drain. She worked in Singapore for two years and then spent the remainder of her time abroad in Hong Kong, where there was a higher salary and better working conditions. She stayed there until she left through the Balik-Turo program, a short-lived government program that offered domestic workers in Hong Kong an opportunity to return to the Philippines with guaranteed jobs as teachers. The program was presented as a strategy to reverse brain drain.


Maria explained to me that in Hong Kong she worked for a family that included one young daughter, who was attending international school, and her parents. She often helped the daughter with homework, which included both English and Cantonese reading and writing tasks. When her employers were busy, which often was the case, Maria explained that she would “give the child lessons.” Because the child’s international curriculum was partly in English, Maria could assist her with homework, but when assignments were in Cantonese, Maria would ask the daughter to translate in Cantonese for her so that she could help. Maria explained:

I told her, okay, you translate in English and then you translate in [Cantonese] so that I can help you, because if you talk to me in [Cantonese] I just only understand, but I cannot talk, cannot speak [in Cantonese]. So that time, the daughter told me, “okay Tita (Auntie), the English is like this.” So I [helped] her in English and she wrote like that. Then at that time, the daughter became excellent in school.

This glimpse of Maria’s work life illustrates that Maria performed what are considered professional activities, including literacy tasks like teaching, translation, and tutoring.9 Maria’s knowledge of teaching—how to guide children step-by-step through assignments and how to overcome their gaps in knowledge and language to complete tasks—makes this labor possible. We can also see that the labor is affective, as the daughter uses the affectionate term “Tita” meaning aunt or auntie, to address Maria. And Maria feels perhaps what she is not supposed to feel—pride over her work as the daughter became “excellent in school.” These skills, texts, languages, and affects blur together in her multidimensional practice of labor. However, these literacy tasks had little economic value for her, as she hid her education as a teacher from her employer and did not tell the parents about the lessons she was conducting with the child. Maria explained that there was no need to reveal this to her employer because her job was to be a maid, or domestic helper (DH). She explained that the mother didn’t learn she had training in education until the daughter started to excel in her schoolwork. Here Maria describes what happened when the mother learned she was a teacher:

And then [the mother] learned I am a teacher. “Why did you not tell me?” [she said]. Why should I? Because there is no relevance. I am your DH. What, are you going to change something if I tell you that I am a teacher? I am your DH, so there’s no need. So I did not tell her, but that’s why she learned that I am a teacher.

Maria explained, and brought up several times in the interview, that one of the important skills of being a DH in Hong Kong was not talking back to your employer and no longer thinking of yourself as a professional when you worked as a DH. She even referred to herself as a “maid” since she believed that “domestic helper” and “nanny” were euphemisms that were “nice to hear.” Maria described her mentality this way:

I’m a maid there […] if you are a maid, do not tell yourself that ‘I am a professional.’ You are a professional in the Philippines, but you are a maid here. I know I’m a DH so I did my work well. Because I am a DH, I will not put in my mind, oh you are a professional so you can answer back to your employer. So that’s why my employer loves me. Because I do my job very well.

As Maria explains it, her job was to manage her emotions—to not answer back to employer and to not consider herself in equal status to her employer. Her “work” was to do this remembering, to remind herself that she was a maid. This is how she “did [her] work well.” She explained that this was a strategy she was taught in her training program before she was deployed, where she received lessons on “how to be a good DH”: “If your boss is angry, don’t answer back,” and “eliminate your envy” of other Filipinos who have secured additional part-time work.


The decision to understand her job as just a maid and not a professional is in direct contrast to what government programs like the Supermaid program promoted. Augusto Syjuco, then head of the government agency that facilitated the Supermaid program said the program would make maids more than maids: “‘They are not just maids. They are really very well trained now,’ he said. ‘If there is someone injured among the family they work for … how to get out of a fire in a high-rise building, all these are part of our upgrading program’” (qtd. in Javellana-Santos 86). He promised that the program would allow Filipino migrants to transcend the boundaries typically placed on domestic workers, providing them both higher pay and pride in their work. But Maria realizes that to think of her professionalized literacy abilities as a kind of capital did not do much for her in Hong Kong and certainly did not allow her to transcend the limitations of her position. When she decides not to tell her employer of her training as a teacher, she understands that her literacy practices were embedded in an affective economy that valued her emotional performance over her professionalized skill set. In fact, she considered her literacy history as a trained teacher and engineer as potentially damaging since it might direct her emotionally to feel pride and cause her to be tempted to think of herself as more than a maid. This reminder of how she is defined by the state and by her foreign employer provides the direction for her to re-channel her pride and delay her anger. This practice of affective management mirrors what Manalansan has labeled disaffection: “an affective orientation that inclines towards a managed, if not studied, refusal to unleash or display emotional states publicly” and a “strategic emotional flow combined with self-possession” (217). While outwardly, Maria appeared “unmoved” (Manalansan 218) by the employer’s question, inwardly Maria was affected, moving from the angered “Why should I?” to the challenging “What, are you going to change something?” to the more disciplined “You are a professional in the Philippines but you are a maid here. I know that I’m a DH so I did my work very well.” The mantra “you are a maid here” provides for Maria a map of the affective states permissible in this workplace structure as it has been laid out by the state—a reminder that she is not in the home but in the professional space the state encouraged them to imagine. We might also consider the many cognitive steps required for Maria to do this work of disaffection: keen awareness of the environment, judgment, assessment of risks and priorities, interpretation of behavior, inference of “mood and motive,” and a “big picture systematic view of things” (Rose 203, 210). It is important to understand that this is how Maria kept her job and made sure that her employer treated her well, or “loved” her, as she called it. Maria explained that when your employer doesn’t love you, you’ll suffer physically. She said “if your boss is not so good, your food sometimes is only twice and sometimes once a day. How can you do a job if your stomach is empty and you have a headache because you are starving?” Maria explained then that being able to appear unaffected—withhold pride and anger—while displaying composure, and still performing domesticity and care, is what made it possible for her to survive.


Discernment: "You are a professional in the Philippines, but you are a maid here"

As part of her affect management, Maria provides us a short glimpse of her past. She said, “I’m a maid there […] if you are a maid, do not tell yourself that ‘I am a professional.’ You are a professional in the Philippines, but you are a maid here.” I believe that Maria’s statement “but you are a maid here” is not an attempt at erasure of her past, but rather a kind of active reflection that helps make sense of the anger that she is feeling and the situation that is causing her anger. In saying “you are a professional […] but you are a maid here,” she brings the past (you are a professional) into the present (you are a maid here) and holds these two identities alongside each other. This disconnect between the past and present allows her to make sense of her feeling and to understand where her anger comes from—from the directive that she must forget the past in order to be in the present. Maria makes the same comparison of past and present again in this description of her pre-departure training experience:

Sometimes your boss is angry. Do not answer back [our trainer said]. But then sometimes Filipinos are hard-headed. And they do not want to. You know, sometimes we think we are bossy. You know that? That feeling? Because sometimes you are a DH, but in the Philippines you are not so, you are not like that. So maybe your perception is not so good.

When Maria says “sometimes you are a DH, but in the Philippines you are not so, you are not like that,” she describes a constant back and forth between the identity she must take on as a DH—an overseas migrant worker in a subservient position with few rights and protections—and who she is in the Philippines—someone who is and can be “bossy.” When she says “sometimes we think we are bossy,” she describes a pride that comes back and that can’t completely be erased—an affect that can’t be removed. This practice of reflecting on where one’s present emotions come from and how emotions connect to you to others is what Brennan calls discernment, a conscious examining that happens during the transmission of affect. Discernment, Brennan argues, is a simultaneously cognitive and affective practice involving an indistinguishable enmeshment of thought and feeling. It includes reviewing the history of one’s own feelings and following “an essentially historical procedure in order to recover a truth” (121). This is the realm of critical literacy and of higher order thinking—taking old information and combining it with the new to transform knowledge, solve a problem, or come to a resolution.


This discernment process, where Maria brings her past and present together to recover a truth, can be seen in her narratives. When Maria describes her interactions with her employer about her teaching experience, she relates the event first as it happened (the mother asked “why did you not tell me?”), but the rest of the event she relates through an imagined interior dialogue. She did not actually say aloud “Why should I? Because there is no relevance. […] What, are you going to change something […]?” to her employer, but is conveying a response she gave in her mind at the time or perhaps a response that she would give now if she could. It was not a history as the “way-it-really-was” (172) but what David Eng would call history as affect that reveals a history as “what-could-have-been” (184). These feelings of anger about her inability to take pride in her work and the inability of her intelligence to be valued as it should were more “true” to her than the unfeeling mask she put up to perform that state’s version of the docile worker. Maria makes a similar rhetorical move in describing her response to the pre-departure training. While the trainer says “do not answer back” when your boss is angry, Maria conveys a history as it-could-have-been when she says “but then sometimes Filipinos are hard-headed. And they do not want to.” This is not a history-as-it-was, or something that was actually said in the moment of the training, but reflects an affective response that wasn’t captured in the historical happenings. She traces it here when she says “you know that? You know that feeling?” She attempts to connect the disconnected, tracing her affective memory to the scene of her actions and to the feelings of others. She effectively engages in knowledge transformation in order to self-author a place in the world where her feelings are not erased and her words are not silent. This echoes what Eng has said about affect’s productive relationship with language: “affect might come to supplement history as the way-it-really-was by providing another language for loss [.…] This appropriation of memory’s affective valences ultimately works to expand the signifying capacities of language and to endow forgotten creatures and things with new historical significance and meaning” (172). According to Eng, this allows Maria to keep the past actively alive. Maria’s anger finds justification and resonance as she remembers her history as a professional. This affective positioning again shows a stark contrast to the affect promoted in government educational programs—instead of looking up toward the triumphant hero rhetoric, Maria looked back to her past and, as I will argue next, looked across to the other migrant workers in similar positions.


Matiyaga: "Filipinos are hard-headed"

Discernment shifts the contexts of emotions. Instead of imagining emotions as self-contained in the individual, they point outward to the environment. By understanding the affective moves of disaffection and discernment, we can complicate a virtue like matiyaga, a characteristic that the Philippine state uses to market its care workers abroad and discipline their emotions in training. In my interviews with migrant care workers, I asked about the skills that they thought made Filipinos attractive on the global labor market. They all responded that patience, or matiyaga, was perhaps the care worker’s most valuable skill. Luz, for example explained that she obtained her job with her Israeli employer because Israeli’s liked older workers who they considered matiyaga. Rose, a woman who trained to be a caregiver in Europe, claims that “Filipinos have this tender loving care aspect [….] we have more patience than other nationalities, we love the employer, we treat them as our relative even though they are just our employer.” Rose echoes a sentiment often expressed by the Philippine state when they market their workers abroad: matiyaga is an expression of love in the pseudo-family relationship care workers are often encouraged to have with the families they work with. If a maid is patient with her employer’s demands, this affect is based on the internal feelings she holds for her employer. However, Maria’s experience reveals that migrants practice matiyaga in ways that are more complex than these traditional notions of patience articulated by the state and by foreign employers.


The bagong bayani figure, the hero, is always about moving forward, and in order to do so erases from the past the tragedies and violence that brought the hero into being. Evgeny Dobrenko has written, for example, that the Soviet hero-worker mythologized through Soviet realism was brought into being through the concealment of violence: “this heroism wants to forget the violence that engendered it” (217, italics in original). But for Maria, the rationalization for withholding emotion was not an erasure but an intentional remembering. In her reflection on the circumstances of her patience, on why she needs to be patient and how she came to this position, she is able to remember the anger and traumas that engendered them. She creates an affective archive of her literacy’s gains and losses. In our interview, Maria connects feelings of anger with other moments in her migration trajectory—anger when she attempted to come back to the Philippines through Balik-Turo but had to battle with the government for months before they honored the letter promising her guaranteed teaching position. Anger toward the fact that women still go abroad for domestic work and that her own daughter is now working abroad as a nurse in Saudi Arabia. She tells me that there were over one thousand women who applied for the Balik-Turo program, and only three hundred were able to gain teaching positions. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of women in Hong Kong and Singapore and thousands of other professionals who did not have an opportunity like Balik-Turo. Anger is a memory that resonates to other experiences in her life and the lives of other migrants, and anger propels her to action as she tell me “maybe you can ask the government, you can write a message […] that I interviewed an OFW [and her] dream is no more DH […] The government, they do not want to open their minds. You can do that. I will thank you that, and I will read your message or read your wakeup call to them and then one day, the government will do something about it.” Affect, Maria shows, can connect us and can “move” people to action (Jacobs and Micciche 3). This is critical literacy work, work that “belies, subverts, and exposes social norms and power imbalances” (Johnson and Vasudevan 36). In allowing for memory, recollection, comparison and detachment, the discerning process of matiyaga allows for an alternative rhetorical space to bring the past into the present, offering what Manalansan calls a way to “open up social and occupational spaces for themselves,” a possibility for not only surviving the day but “moving on” to the next one (220). Maria describes Filipinos as collectively “hard-headed”—a phrase that invokes the mind, the corporeal experience, and the senses. Here Maria provides a different figuring of the migrant body—different from the soft vulnerable worker or the unfeeling rational being. Hard-headedness indicates an unwillingness to let the affects circulated by the state—affects that promote silence and submission—permeate. It is a figure that is neither hero nor waste labor, but strong, intelligent, and feeling.10