Survival Strategies of Irregular Filipino Migrant Workers
[Title translation: “Bilóg” – literally “round”, refers to irregular migrants; “Hindi” – No; “Bukó” – to be found out. Thus “Bilóg, Hindi Bukó “ means “Staying Irregular.”]
History has proven that irregular migration is unstoppable. States have tried nearly all possible interventions at keeping migration within the parameters of the ‘regular‘ process, yet the irregular migrant still persists. It is also unclear if irregular migrants who are eventually deported choose to re-integrate back into the communities they left or if their resolve remains unaffected and they simply try again, departing for the same or another country at the first chance they get.
What can explain the futility of efforts at suppressing irregular migration? Is it simply the resiliency of the migrant to adapt to adverse conditions in the host country? Could certain societal factors germane to both the source and destination countries also be facilitating and/or hindering this adaptation?
Filipino irregular migrants are called “Bilog” which, in the Filipino vernacular, means round, signifying their lack of direction, their nothingness, their selective invisibility to the society which their cheap labor supports.
Through in-depth conversations with current, past and potential (future) Filipino irregular migrant workers during a 9-month period of intensive participant observation in a Northern City in Japan, Eljoma identified a number of innovative and practical survival tactics and strategies. These practices enable the irregular migrant worker to persevere in the host society, even thriving to hitherto unreached potential when a confluence of societal forces cooperate with his own investment of effort, diligence, sacrifice and guts.
In their workplaces, Bilogs gently leverage other available competing job offers to keep themselves on the active worker list. Bilogs are available for work 24x365, coming to work whenever asked, never questioning the type, time and payment. They consciously differentiate themselves from their co-workers, developing a unique technical skill that will spell the difference between elimination and retention in the hierarchy of worker preference. They explicitly study the cost centers of the business that employs them and, with that knowledge, surprise the owner with new ways to generate savings.
Tough restrictions and even tougher penalties on the hiring of irregular migrant workers lose their teeth as they get disempowered through the many layers of sub-contractors in the construction and demolition industries. The Japanese waste segregation culture enables an opportunity to showcase the Filipino ingenuity for improvisation and work efficiency and opens an additional income-earning window.
Without a legal identity Bilogs are formally shut out of essentially all critical, life-sustaining services, except access to food and access to work. A Bilog cannot rent an apartment and activate the necessary utilities. He cannot subscribe to a phone plan, or get an internet connection. He is not covered by health insurance nor can he avail of banking services.
Yet despite all these otherwise crippling handicaps, Bilogs persevere. Legal identities of others are borrowed by Bilogs, allowing apartments to be rented, utilities to be activated, prepaid phones to be used and internet to be accessed. Bilogs are able to charge health-related expenses on health insurance coverage of others. Remittances reach the Philippines without using the formal banking system. A local network of friends is the all-reliable, Bilog-enabler. Truly, no Bilog is an island.
All of the above are possible only because the Bilog stays undetected. This is achieved largely through proactive and preventive security practices that have evolved through generations of accumulated Bilog experiences. Most striking is an informal yet highly effective, virtual, early warning system. Friends currently traveling throughout a locality act as the eyes and ears of the Bilogs, advising them to avoid areas where they see random spot-checks being conducted by immigration authorities or where they sense increased police visibility or witness police crackdowns. A Bilog’s instincts are constantly on alert, knowing when incidents will automatically draw police visits (and being sure to depart from that area) and purposely avoiding travel paths that will intersect with known police visibility areas. For the Bilog, avoiding trouble is paramount.
Are Bilogs content with just staying without legal status? Ultimately, no. The single, most effective survival strategy is to get on the mainstream, to legalize one’s self. Bilogs avail of regularization windows when they are offered by the government, quite rarely at that. Most create their own legalization opportunities. The former example of regularization is really a matter of chance, the latter, a product of necessity. A Bilog will take any kind of regularization as long as it allows him to stay on in Japan.
If irregular migration cannot be stopped, what does its future look like? States will continue to suppress it and potential, current and past irregular migrants will continue to adapt and innovate – both operating within the current societal configuration. The tie breaker will be resolve, states powering theirs with resources, irregular migrants, with dire need.
Which side will prevail?