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Empire's LaborThe Global Army That Supports U.S. Wars$

Adam Moore

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781501742170

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501742170.001.0001

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Colonial Legacies and Labor Export

Colonial Legacies and Labor Export

(p.35) 3 Colonial Legacies and Labor Export
Empire's Labor

Adam Moore

Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the emergence of labor export as a development strategy by the Philippines starting in the 1970s and the concurrent development of labor flows between Gulf states and South and Southeast Asian countries. It analyzes the links between recruiting pathways, logistics subcontractors, and Filipino employment on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chapter also discusses the United States' annexation of the Philippines following the Spanish–American War of 1898. During the subsequent colonial period, and in the decades following independence when the Philippines operated as a U.S. client state, Filipino labor was enrolled to facilitate a number of military and civilian projects. It concludes by explaining how the prevalence of Filipino labor in the Middle East, and the Philippines' unique historical relationship with the United States, shaped President Arroyo's decision to support the invasion in Iraq, with an eye to the economic and political benefits she anticipated would accrue.

Keywords:   labor export, recruiting pathways, logistics subcontractors, Filipino employment, U.S. military, Spanish–American War, U.S. client state, Philippines, President Arroyo

No other nation has felt the force of American power so closely, so constantly throughout Washington’s century-long rise to world leadership. No other nation can reveal so much about the character of America’s international influence, both direct colonial rule and diffuse global hegemony.

—Alfred McCoy

It is the rare news story on foreign labor at overseas U.S. bases that does not mention workers from the Philippines. From Patap Chatterjee’s description of “coffee shops run efficiently and politely by Indian and Filipino migrant workers, who serve up espresso chai latte and mocha frappers” at massive bases in the Middle East, to Sarah Stillman’s observation about Filipinos who “launder soldiers’ uniforms” in Afghanistan, to David Phinney’s discussion of labor strikes in Iraq, Filipino workers are ubiquitous.1 These accounts reflect the fact that many of the largest firms providing logistics support for the military over the past fifteen years have relied heavily on Filipino labor. Unfortunately CENTCOM censuses do not provide information on the country of origin of TCNs, so it is not possible to determine the number of Filipinos who have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, but by all indications the Philippines has been one of the most significant sources of labor. Even after the country imposed travel bans to Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of Filipinos were added to the payrolls of military contractors in the region.

Why is the Philippines one of the primary suppliers of labor for the U.S. military? Certainly cost is a consideration. KBR’s largest subcontractor, PPI, for example, typically paid its Filipino workers in Iraq around $500–600 a month. But cheap labor is just one element. Additionally, interviews I conducted in the Philippines, along with various news accounts, suggest that South Asian workers have tended to be paid less than Filipinos, especially when one takes into account the exorbitant recruiting fees they must pay back after receiving a job—fees that are often split between recruiters and subcontractors.2 Thus to fully understand the (p.36) link between current U.S. military operations and Filipino labor requires a more historical perspective.

In this chapter I describe two historical formations that influence this relationship. The first followed the U.S.’s annexation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War of 1898. During the subsequent colonial period, and in the decades following independence when the Philippines operated as a U.S. client state, Filipino labor was enrolled to facilitate a number of military and civilian projects. The second was the emergence of labor export as a development strategy pursued by the Philippines in the 1970s. Part of a broader labor import-export regime between newly wealthy Gulf states and poor South and Southeast Asian countries that materialized that decade, this assemblage—along with its associated practices and labor flows—has become imbricated with U.S. military logistics outsourcing through the extensive reliance on subcontracting companies from the Middle East. After examining these two formations I conclude the chapter by explaining how the prevalence of Filipino labor in the Middle East, and the Philippines’ unique historical relationship with the U.S., shaped President Arroyo’s decision to support the invasion in Iraq, with an eye to the economic and political benefits she anticipated would accrue.

Making the Empire Work

The year 1898 is a momentous one in the history of both the U.S. and the Philippines, the year in which these two countries’ histories became inextricably joined through the former’s defeat of Spain and annexation of several of its colonies, including the Philippines. For many scholars it also represents a transformative moment, the point when the U.S. transitioned from a republic to a global imperial power. This transformative view was widely held by contemporaries—both proponents and opponents of the new colonial territories. “By the acquisitions made during this period, the United States has definitively entered the class of nations holding and governing over-sea colonial possessions” observed William Willoughby, an economist appointed to an administrative position in Puerto Rico in 1901.3 Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899) exhorted the U.S. to embrace colonial rule over the Philippine islands.4 Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan, a staunch critic, deemed colonial administration of the new territories “a radical and mischievous change” and argued that “the idea that this country may acquire territories anywhere upon earth, by conquest or treaty, and hold them as mere colonies or provinces—the people inhabiting them to enjoy only such rights as Congress chooses to accord them—is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius, as well as with the words, of the (p.37) Constitution.”5 Not all subscribe to this vision of 1898 as rupture. The historian Paul Kennedy asserts that “from the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation.”6 Increasingly, scholars are adopting this longer perspective, arguing that nineteenth-century campaigns to exterminate and/or displace Native Americans and the annexation and settlement of vast territories across the American West need also be situated in the context of U.S. imperial expansion.

Regardless of one’s take on this debate, one fact is clear: from the beginning of colonial rule in the Philippines, as well as in the decades following independence in 1946, Filipino labor has played a crucial role in the spread of U.S. empire across the Pacific and beyond. As early as 1901, when the Philippine insurgency against their new colonial overloads was still raging, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) began inquiring about the possibility of importing Filipino labor to work on its members’ sugar plantations.7 It directed its inquiry to the Bureau of Insular Affairs, the newly created bureaucratic entity under the auspices of the Department of War that was charged with overseeing the administration of U.S. overseas possessions. Founded in the aftermath of the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii, HSPA was itself a significant node in the new network of U.S. territorial possessions. Many of its members had been key figures behind the coup and subsequently became proponents of annexation, a goal achieved when Hawaii was incorporated as a U.S. territory in 1898.

Assembling Filipino labor for Hawaiian sugar plantations foreshadowed the current labor export system in the Philippines. In 1915 a Philippine Bureau of Labor was established to regulate labor recruitment, supplanting the Bureau of Insular Affairs. HSPA recruiting agents were required to obtain permits from the Bureau of Labor to set up offices in designated provinces. Signed labor contracts were mandated, and in 1915 labor agreements began including free transport back from Hawaii after the completion of a three-year contract. Mechanisms to monitor labor conditions were also developed, most notably the position of resident labor commissioner based in Honolulu, which was established in 1923 in response to petitions by Filipino plantation workers. Ultimately this did little to improve the conditions of workers as the commissioner, Cayetano Ligot, typically supported plantation owners in labor disputes. This is not surprising since “Filipino government leaders remained under the ultimate supervision and control of the United States” and were “expected to act according to U.S. interests.”8 Nonetheless, HSPA agents did not struggle to find willing labor migrants. By 1922, 41 percent of the plantation workforce was Filipino.9 In total more than 125,000 Filipinos had traveled to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations by 1946.10

In the introduction to their edited volume on labor and early U.S. empire, Making the Empire Work, Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman claim that “perhaps (p.38) the most obvious cohort of workers who built the U.S. empire are those who labored in agriculture.”11 Arguably no group filled this need for cheap, flexible, agricultural labor more than Filipinos in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to Hawaiian sugar plantations, by the 1930s tens of thousands of Filipino laborers could be found at farms across California, harvesting lettuce in Watsonville, melons in the Imperial Valley, and fruit trees in the Central Valley. They were also recruited to work in apple and cherry orchards in Washington and the hop fields of Oregon. Several thousand more were employed in the burgeoning canned salmon industry in Alaska, and by the 1920s the canneries were “a regular stop on the seasonal labor circuit that stretched from Southern California to Alaska.”12

The demand for Filipino labor was tied to two political and legal developments. The first was a series of exclusionary immigration policies that closed off other labor flows, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), followed by an informal “gentleman’s agreement” (1907) limiting Japanese immigration and the creation of an “Asiatic Barred Zone” (1917), and culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply curtailed immigration outside of Northern Europe. The second concerns a series of opinions issued by the Supreme Court in 1901 in the wake of the occupation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Known as the “Insular Cases,” these opinions determined that these U.S. overseas colonies should be considered “unincorporated territories,” a new legal category that situated them “in a liminal space both inside and outside the boundaries of the Constitution, both ‘belonging to’ but ‘not a part’ of the United States.”13 Filipinos, consequently, were classified as U.S. nationals—but not citizens—and thus were not bound by the immigration laws passed by Congress. JoAnna Poblete usefully categorizes those suspended in this liminal and subordinate political and legal status as “U.S. colonials.” Exempt from immigration restrictions during this period, U.S. colonials like Filipinos and Puerto Ricans experienced remarkable labor mobility. In addition to travel to the mainland, this often involved intracolonial movement “from a colonized home region to another colonized location,” as was the case with Filipino sugar plantation workers in Hawaii.14

While their status as U.S. nationals facilitated mobility, it did not protect Filipino migrants from the experience of racism and exploitative labor conditions. This was especially the case with the agricultural industry in California where they competed with poor whites in the labor market, particularly following the migration of tens of thousands of destitute families to California following the Dust Bowl in the Plains. Filipinos also threatened entrenched racial hierarchies, especially men who dated or married white women. Thus in the eyes of many white Americans at the time they represented a “foreign invasion that challenged Americanness, as non-whites they were a threat to whiteness, and as a mobile (p.39) workforce who did not need U.S. passports they were regular competitors for employment.”15 In 1930 violent riots targeting Filipinos spread across California. Growing opposition to their presence culminated in the Tydings-McDuffie Act (1934), which reclassified Filipinos as aliens, established strict limits on immigration—with the exception of the territory of Hawaii, “based on the needs of [sugar] industries”—and laid out a ten-year process for Philippine independence.

A second—and more significant for this story—labor cohort involves Filipinos who worked for the U.S. military. As with agricultural work, this can be traced to the beginnings of colonial rule. One of the first major infrastructure projects pursued by the new colonial authorities was construction of a mountain retreat in Baguio conceived along the lines of hill stations built by the British in India. Nearly 5,000 feet up the Cordillera mountain range in central Luzon, the Baguio retreat, and especially the road leading to it, was a labor-intensive undertaking. One of the biggest challenges facing military officials was recruiting and retaining workers given the low pay offered, dismal living conditions and the backbreaking and dangerous nature of the work.16 In 1901 an army officer overseeing construction of the road complained that “securing native laborers continues to be a most serious difficulty.” To overcome this problem the military experimented with the use of prison labor in 1903, a short-lived scheme that “ultimately proved costly and accomplished nothing in the way of road building.”17 Baguio is but one of many examples of the use of Filipino labor in support of U.S. military objectives during the colonial period. Another was the Philippine Scouts, America’s colonial army version of the Gurkhas.18 Looking for a more effective means of countering the ongoing insurgency, the U.S. Army incorporated the Scouts in 1901. Initially a 5,000-strong force, they formed the backbone of U.S. forces in the Philippines up to World War II.

More widespread and enduring was the use of Filipino labor by the U.S. Navy, which began in 1901. By the 1920s Filipinos constituted roughly 5 percent of the Navy’s workforce, serving predominately as stewards who cooked, washed dishes, and cleaned officers’ quarters.19 Reflecting racial and colonial hierarchies that prevailed, in subsequent years they often served alongside African Americans, who were also relegated to these positions.20 Even independence did not end this labor arrangement. As part of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement concluded between the Philippines and U.S., the Navy was given the right to continue enlisting Filipinos. In fact, following President Truman’s 1948 executive order to desegregate the armed forces, demand for Filipino stewards grew as African Americans began experiencing opportunities to rise up the ranks. By the 1960s the Navy was receiving as many as 100,000 applications from the Philippines a year. In addition to pay rates that exceeded most salaries in the Philippines, the prospect of (p.40) U.S. citizenship after three years of service was a strong inducement. Yet Filipinos’ subjugate status as a “brown skinned servant force” continued.21 In 1970 a scathing article in the Washington Monthly characterized the Navy’s Filipino recruitment program as “a remnant of colonial rule.” Pointing out that over 80 percent of the nearly 17,000 Filipino citizens serving in the Navy worked as stewards, and that Filipinos constituted more than 80 percent of the steward class personnel in the service, the article concluded that the Navy was in effect operating as a “floating plantation” that used Filipinos as an “unending source of docile, cheap, and unquestioning labor.”22

Another remnant of colonial rule was the continued use of several bases by the U.S. military, most notably Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, as stipulated by the Military Bases Agreement. One of the more controversial aspects of this agreement in the Philippines—and that which demonstrated most clearly the country’s subordinate status as a former colony and now pliant client state—was language that gave the military exclusive jurisdiction over any criminal offenses committed on bases, even those involving Filipino nationals. This grant of extraterritorial jurisdiction contrasted sharply with the 1951 NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that expressly prohibited U.S. forces in Europe from exercising jurisdiction “over persons who are nationals of or ordinarily resident in the receiving State.”23 Following years of protests, an amended agreement in 1965 brought jurisdictional language in line with the NATO SOFA. Yet opposition to U.S. bases continued, reaching a crescendo in the 1980s due to their association with the repressive Ferdinand Marcos regime.24 This opposition was tempered in part by the substantial role that the bases played in the Philippine economy. In 1987 more than 42,000 Filipinos worked on U.S. bases, earning salaries significantly higher than local prevailing rates. With total wages reaching $82 million, this represented “the second largest payroll in the Philippines, topped only by that of the government itself.”25 Nonetheless, following Marcos’s overthrow in the People Power Revolution of 1986, several years of tense negotiations culminated in a decision by the Philippine government to close the bases in 1992.

The presence of Filipino labor on military bases was not confined to the Philippines during the Cold War. In fact it was during this period that the practice of recruiting Filipinos to work at overseas bases flourished. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s thousands could be found on the occupied island of Okinawa, supporting the military construction boom, working as cooks and performing various administrative tasks.26 And during this period tens of thousands of Filipinos were recruited to work for the military on Guam, Wake, and other island territories across the Pacific.27 According to military officials, Filipinos also began working at Guantanamo after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 cut off local labor flows.28 And as noted in chapter 2, Filipino engineers and construction laborers (p.41)

Colonial Legacies and Labor Export

Figure 3.1. Filipino labor flows to U.S. military bases from the end of World War II to present

were widely employed by RMK-BRJ and other contractors in Vietnam. By 1980 Filipino laborers could be found as far afield as Diego Garcia.29 Several years later they were employed by the U.S. contractor Burns and Roe, which managed facilities for the U.S. Navy in Singapore.30 Indeed, if U.S. empire is defined by its global network of bases, as a number of scholars have argued, then tracing the flows of Filipino labor that make this empire work provides a remarkable—if partial—mapping of critical past and present nodes in the network (figure 3.1).31 This is especially true of island bases, whether those located on unincorporated territories or sites such as Guantanamo and Diego Garcia, where the “ligatures between colonialism, violence and the law” have produced exceptional regimes of sovereign authority and jurisdiction.32

Exporting Labor

The Philippines has a long history of integration with the world economy. In the late sixteenth century Manila was the epicenter of a Spanish-Pacific trade network, facilitated by regular visits from Chinese junks and the development of the “Manila galleon” route to Acapulco.33 Additionally, as detailed above, from the beginning of U.S. colonial rule Filipino labor was a desired commodity for both military and civilian projects on the mainland and overseas territories. So in one sense the emergence of labor export as a development strategy represents a continuation and deepening of the country’s participation in global economic circulation. Yet it also, as Robyn Magalit Rodriguez points out, constitutes a striking example of government-promoted and-regulated “labor brokerage.”34

(p.42) This policy was formally implemented in 1974 when Ferdinand Marcos introduced a new labor code by presidential decree. This code provided the institutional structure for labor export, including the creation of an Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB) and National Seamen Board (NSB). The OEDB was charged with promoting the overseas employment of Filipinos (whom Philippine agencies refer to as Overseas Filipino Workers [OFWs]), overseeing the conditions and terms of employment on a “government-to-government basis,” and the recruitment and placement of overseas workers for land-based employment, with similar duties for sea-based workers discharged by the NSB.35 Initially the state envisioned a phase-out of private recruiting agencies, which predated Marcos’s presidential decree and were to be replaced by government monopoly, but this plan was reversed in 1978 due to intense lobbying by the agencies and the fact that it had become clear by then that the government was incapable of responding to dynamic global labor markets as nimbly as the agencies.36 In 1982 the OEDB, NSB, and other administrative offices were merged into a new Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which is currently the primary entity involved in the regulation of overseas employment. Among the POEA’s responsibilities are licensing recruiting agencies, regulating the recruiting process, marketing Filipino labor to other countries, approving manpower requests from foreign employers, and monitoring overseas labor and political conditions.

Demonstrating the central importance that the Philippines places on labor brokerage as a means of raising capital, the code also called for mandatory remittances of foreign exchange earnings by labor migrants.37 In this regard labor export has been a great success, with both the number of OWFs and amount of remittances exploding over the ensuing four decades. According to government estimates, in 2015 there were roughly 2.4 million OFWs working abroad.38 The following year remittances from OFWs hit a record high of $26.9 billion, which represented nearly 10 percent of the country’s total GDP.39 Indeed, President Arroyo was scarcely exaggerating when in 2006 she called overseas Filipino workers “our greatest export” and “the backbone of the new global workforce.”40 Her rhetoric echoed that of her two immediate predecessors, Joseph Estrada and Fidel Ramos, who lauded OFWs as “economic saviors” and a “major pillar of national development,” respectively.41 This last claim is more debatable as there is little evidence that labor export constitutes a viable development strategy. In fact, since the 1970s the Philippines has grown at a substantially slower pace than other emerging economies in the region such as Thailand, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The primary driver of labor export for the Philippines has been the insatiable demand for labor by oil-rich countries in the Middle East. In 1975 just 1,500 overseas (p.43) workers (representing 12 percent of total OFWs) were deployed to the Middle East. By 1983 more than 300,000 Filipinos (representing more than 80 percent of total OFWs) were working in the region.42 Beginning in the late 1980s East and Southeast Asia also emerged as a substantial destination as newly industrializing countries in the region, especially Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia, turned to foreign workers to make up labor shortfalls in their export-oriented manufacturing enterprises. Filipinas were increasingly recruited for domestic work in the region as well. With the relative decline of this labor flow since the early 2000s, the Middle East has regained its position as the predominate destination for Filipino labor. In 2015 more than half of the 2.4 million OFWs worked in one of four Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates [UAE], Kuwait, and Qatar).43

As massive as Filipino migration to the Middle East is, it represents just a portion of the broader labor import-export assemblage linking workers from poor South and Southeast Asian countries with Gulf petro-states. In 1985 the foreign workforce in the six Gulf countries exceeded 5 million, with laborers from India and Pakistan providing the largest contingents of labor.44 Twenty years later, an estimated 17 million foreigners worked in the region.45 There are few jobs that this massive workforce does not do, from highly remunerated occupations like banking and petroleum engineering—typically conducted by European or U.S. “expats”—to low-paid jobs in retail, construction, and domestic care that most workers from Asia are recruited to perform.

This labor import-export dynamic is critical for understanding the prevalence of military workers from South and Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The reason for this is that many of the largest military subcontractors are based in the Gulf states. When these subcontractors look for labor, they turn to long-standing and well-established recruiting pathways and firms. One example of this is Dubai-based PPI, which employed nearly 4,000 workers from the Philippines at various bases in Iraq in May 2004.46 When KBR approached PPI the previous summer, the latter’s CEO, Neil Helli-well, immediately reached out to Anglo-European Services (AES), the oldest licensed recruiting agency in the Philippines. According to AES’s director, Gilbert “Nicky” Arcilla, his relationship with the British-born Helliwell goes back to the 1970s “when I was selling workers for him in Saudi Arabia.”47 Thus it was natural that Helliwell turned to AES when faced with the problem of assembling thousands of workers for PPI’s contracts in Iraq in the span of a few months.

Scholars have generally attributed the introduction of the Philippine labor export policies in the 1970s to increased globalization and the rise of neoliberal policy prescriptions advocating deregulation, free trade, and privatization.48 Representative of this viewpoint is Rodriguez’s claim that “in a neocolonial, (p.44) neoliberal state like the Philippines, labor brokerage functions to address the failures of so-called ‘development.’ It is a peculiar kind of ‘trickle up’ development as individual migrants’ earnings abroad become a source of foreign capital for the Philippine state. The Philippine state remains committed to drawing direct investments from foreign capital through neoliberal economic reforms; however, it also heavily draws on ‘investments’ from its very own citizens.”49 While the rise of both economic globalization and neoliberal nostrums in recent decades are certainly relevant, I believe greater attention should be given to earlier policies and practices devised to facilitate the export of labor—especially military labor during the Cold War—as these provided critical institutional antecedents for later developments.

This is not to say that earlier labor migration histories have been given short shrift. As Rodriguez observes, “The labor brokerage system in the Philippines is in large part a result of the U.S. colonial legacy in the Philippines.”50 The clearest example from the colonial period concerns the sugar plantations in Hawaii. As noted above, several elements of this labor system, such as the creation of a Bureau of Labor to regulate recruiting and contracts, foreshadowed those instituted in 1974. Another pertinent case involved training and placement of nurses in the U.S., particularly through the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP), which was established in 1948. The EVP was originally intended to be an exchange program that would enable participants from around the world to work and study at sponsoring U.S. institutions before returning home. In the early years most exchanges took place with Northern European countries. But by the late 1960s Filipino nurses “began to dominate participation in the program.”51 In 1965 Congress passed a new Immigration Act, which loosened restrictions on immigration from the Philippines and other countries in Asia and established a preference system for “members of the professions and scientists and artists of exceptional ability” and “skilled and unskilled workers in occupations for which labor is in short supply.” Five years later amendments to the EVP made it easier for participants to change their visa status from visitor to permanent resident. Between 1966 and 1978 approximately 7,500 EVP participants adjusted their status. Thus by the mid-1970s export of Filipino nurse labor to the U.S. was a well-established phenomenon, the significance of which was not lost on Marcos, who in a public speech delivered shortly before his 1974 presidential decree described it as “a market that we should take advantage of.”52

Enrollment of Filipino labor by the military during the early years of the Cold War, whether as Navy stewards or logistics workers at bases across the Pacific, is also an important part of this story, and deserves greater consideration, for two reasons. First, between independence and 1974 this constituted a substantially larger flow of overseas workers than other well-known examples, such as the export (p.45) of Filipino nurses. In Guam alone nearly 28,000 Filipinos were recruited to work on military projects by the late 1940s.53 Second, as Colleen Woods and Alfred Flores have recently shown, the Philippine state worked closely with the U.S. government and private contractors to manage labor flows, developing policies and practices that were far more enmeshed with subsequent labor export institutions and law in the Philippines than is currently recognized. In 1947, for example, military construction contractor Morrison-Knudson secured permission from the Philippine Department of Labor to hire 6,000 Filipino laborers to work in Okinawa. To facilitate this process it reached out to the U.S. embassy, which negotiated an exchange of notes with Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, Bernabe Africa, that allowed military contractors to process and transport workers to “desired areas without further contact with the Philippine authorities.”54 In the case of Guam, labor recruitment was initially handled by Luzon Stevedoring, a transportation company founded by U.S. veterans of the 1898 war. Its owner, Charles Parsons, had lived in the Philippines for more than two decades and was close friends with the country’s president, Manuel Roxas. According to the U.S. embassy in Manila, Parsons secured Roxas’s approval to export Filipino labor to Guam in part “because of its salutatory effects on employment and the balance of payments,” illustrating that political elites in the Philippines appreciated the connection between labor export and foreign currency earnings well before the advent of neoliberal globalization.55

The tripartite relationship between the Philippines, the U.S. military, and contractors—which Woods persuasively argues is best understood as case of “transnational imperial collaboration”—deepened under the Marcos regime.56 In 1966 Marcos asked about the possibility of Filipino firms obtaining special consideration for military contracts in Vietnam.57 While this was rebuffed by the U.S. government, construction contractors like RMK-BRJ did turn to the Philippines as one of their main sources of foreign labor. By 1969 approximately 20,000 TCNs (primarily Filipinos and South Koreans) were working at military bases in Vietnam.58 Almost 1,000 more were employed at Poro Point in the Philippines, constructing portable piers that were then towed to Vietnam for use as temporary port facilities.59 In contrast to Guam, where the principal attraction of Filipino labor for contractors was that they served as a low-wage workforce paid less than half the wage of native Chamorro employees, the TCN workforce in Vietnam consisted in the main of well-paid skilled laborers, earning—according to a survey conducted by the U.S. embassy—about $6,700 a year.60

In 1968 the U.S. and Philippines concluded an offshore labor agreement that provided guidelines on recruiting and employing Filipino citizens by the U.S. military and its contractors “in certain areas of the Pacific and Southeast Asia.”61 The agreement includes provisions concerning contractor and recruiting (p.46) documentation, remittances, transportation procedures, and employee benefits, including a minimum wage, holiday pay, vacation and sick leave, health insurance, severance pay, living quarters arrangements, and Philippine Social Security benefits. Although the agreement still remains in force, a 1992 ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the U.S. effectively gutted most of its provisions by deciding that the enumerated employee benefits are required for Filipinos directly employed by the U.S. military, but not its contractors. The decision rests on a distinction in the agreement between “employer” (understood as “United States military forces”) and “contractor” (defined as “enterprises … under contract with the United States military forces … ​who may wish to recruit Philippine citizens in the Philippines for employment or re-employment in the offshore areas defined herein”). Though the agreement states that “employment contracts between contractors and Philippine citizens shall be consistent with the standards and terms established in this Agreement,” the Fifth Circuit found that responsibility for ensuring this consistency rests with the Philippine government, not U.S. military authorities.62 Despite this later court decision the 1968 offshore labor agreement remains a direct—if little-known—precursor to the labor export system established by Marcos’s 1974 labor code, and the first of many bilateral agreements signed between the Philippines and labor-importing countries.63

Profiting from War

Just as Marcos sought favorable conditions for Filipino firms and labor in the Vietnam War, from the very outset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq Arroyo positioned her foreign policy to curry favor with the U.S. in hopes that Filipino companies would profit from the anticipated postwar reconstruction bonanza. Indeed, despite a distance of four decades, the parallels between these two episodes are striking, demonstrating both the durability of imperial and client-state formations and that “the foreign policy of the Philippines is intimately connected with overseas employment.”64 After Marcos was elected president in 1965 he decided—against substantial domestic opposition—to send a battalion of noncombat (engineering) troops to Vietnam as a show of support for U.S. war efforts. In exchange the U.S. agreed to increase economic and military aid to the Philippines, while military contractors set up shop in Manila, recruiting Filipino labor.65

Likewise, Arroyo joined the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq despite widespread domestic opposition and also agreed to symbolically support U.S. war efforts by sending a small contingent of noncombat troops. And as did Marcos decades before, she justified this decision in economic terms, arguing in April 2003 that companies from countries that joined the coalition would “get first crack at (p.47) the development efforts.” Even if this was not the case, her labor and employment secretary added, “I’m confident that if they’re looking for skilled workers, they’ll come to us.”66 A few days after Arroyo assured reporters that the Philippines would get “first crack” at postwar work in Iraq, she issued an executive order establishing a Public-Private Sector Task Force on the Reconstruction and Development of Iraq. This task force was charged with facilitating “the participation of Philippine companies in the rehabilitation and development of Iraqi infrastructure” and developing “procedures to expedite deployment of Philippine manpower and other services in the fulfillment of contracts.”67 Three weeks after the order the task force’s head, Roberto Romelo, was openly bullish on the potential windfall that Iraq represented. Traveling to Kuwait to pitch Filipino labor to U.S. contractors, he suggested that 30,000 workers in Iraq would be a reasonable baseline, due in part to the well-established Filipino labor presence in the region. “I’m quite optimistic because we have a track record. … ​Every one of the prime contractors I’ve spoken to say, ‘we’ve dealt with you before in the Middle East and we look forward to working with you again.’”68

Another factor in their favor, Romelo argued, was the rapid deployment of Filipinos the previous year to Guantanamo. “They needed it right away. Within one week we had people on a plane and on the way to Guantanamo.”69 The “they” he was referring to was the U.S. government, which reportedly reached out “directly to the office of President Gloria Arroyo” in March 2002 asking for help in quietly assembling a team of 400 engineers and construction workers that were tasked with building Camp Delta, the main detainment facility for extrajudicial prisoners in the “war on terror.”70 As it would the following year, the Philippine government worked with AES to speed up the hiring process for the benefit of PPI, KBR’s subcontractor for the Navy construction contract. Eventually the Filipino workforce on Guantanamo would grow to approximately 1,500 in number.71

Recruiting agencies like AES were among the biggest supporters of Arroyo’s decision to participate in the postwar occupation of Iraq. They were also the fiercest critics of her imposition of the travel ban in 2004, arguing that it violated the rights of those who wished to work in Iraq despite the risks.72 The agencies, led by AES, organized a series of public protests against the ban in August and September in a futile attempt to force the government to reverse course. Despite this both AES and PPI were feted by the Arroyo administration the following year for their success in facilitating the export of Filipino labor to Iraq, with AES given a “Top Performer” award that recognizes especially productive recruiting agencies and PPI presented the “International Employer Award” for “displaying continuous preferences for Filipino workers and providing them with excellent career advancement and a generous package of employment benefits.”73

(p.48) Ten years after this ceremony, while I was finishing research in the Philippines, interviewees were abuzz with news that recruiting agencies in Manila would soon be looking to source up to 400 workers to support U.S. military operations at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The headquarters for military operations in CENTCOM, Al Udeid was also the epicenter of the rapidly expanding air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.


(3.) Quoted in Go 2007.

(4.) Though rarely mentioned, the full title of Kipling’s poem is “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.”

(5.) This quote comes from Justice Harlan’s dissent in Downes v. Bidwell, one of the Insular Cases through which the Supreme Court decided the political and legal status of the newly acquired colonies and their peoples. The dissent can be found at http://www.supremelaw.org/decs/downes/Justice.Harlan.dissent.htm.

(6.) Kennedy is quoted in Eakin 2002. See also Go (2005), who argues that the Louisiana Purchase provided key political and legal precedents for overseas territorial possessions.

(8.) Poblete 2014, 106. For more on the recruiting process and experiences of Filipino laborers in Hawaii, see also chaps. 2 and 4.

(18.) In 1907 this comparison was suggested by an American officer following a visit to observe British forces in Agra, India. See Purviance 1907.

(23.) Quoted in, Dodd 1968, 41. Remarkably, the original draft circulated by the U.S. military in 1946 also tried to claim exclusive jurisdiction over U.S. personnel for any offenses committed while off base. This was a step too far for both Philippine negotiators and DoS officials, who convinced the military to remove this language. For a detailed account of base negotiations, amendments to the original agreement, and jurisdictional questions raised by a number of legal cases, see Berry 1980.

(25.) N. Williams 1987. According to a 1977 GAO report, pay for Filipino employees at bases ranged from 54 percent higher than prevailing wages for clerks to 111 percent for security guards. See GAO 1977, 6.

(p.205) (27.) On Guam, see Flores 2015; Woods 2016. Wake Island, according to one account, “hummed with activity” between the 1950s and 1970s, including a “large contingent of Filipino employees” brought in by a U.S. contractor. See Gilbert 2012, 310.

(29.) Bandjunis 2001, 194. For a detailed history of the U.S. military’s presence at Diego Garcia, see Vine 2009. Presently, roughly 2,500 contractors work at Diego Garcia, the vast majority of them Filipinos paid as little as $2,200 a year. See McQue 2017.

(31.) On U.S. empire and its overseas bases, see especially Chalmers 2004; Oldenziel 2011; Vine 2015.

(32.) Gregory 2006, 411. On Guantanamo, see also Kaplan 2005. On Diego Garcia, see also Vine 2009.

(40.) Paddock 2006. For a full analysis of Arroyo’s rhetorical positioning of OFWs as the Philippines’ primary global export, see Serquina Jr. 2016.

(47.) Quote comes from transcript of 2005 interview conducted by Lee Wang and Lucille Quiambao.

(52.) Excerpts from this speech are cited in Choy 2003, 115–16.

(55.) The embassy’s remarks are cited by Woods 2016, 143. See also Flores 2015.

(63.) For a full list of bilateral labor agreements, see POEA n.d.

(67.) Cited in Tyner 2005, 88.

(p.206) (69.) O’Connell 2003.

(73.) PPI’s award language is cited in Chatterjee 2009, 146. AES proudly notes their award on their website (www.angloeuropean.com.ph/#).