Friday, January 13, 2012

The Bilog Life in Japan: An Overview of Issues and Challenges

When a migrant worker leaves for work, he voluntarily inflicts on himself a form of solitary confinement, sucking out all that is familiar to him, all things on which his life, up to that point of departure, has depended on.

Unable to communicate in the local language, he struggles to recapture in the foreign land some sense of the old, the usual. Food is relegated to the simplest (fried everything), to the essentials (boiled everything), that is, until he can read food labels properly, at which time, he can then progress to maybe stewed or sautéed dishes. Family contact is, at best, 1% of the intensity with which Filipino families are famous for. The use of the internet and high-tech communications can never replace human touch, a deep glance at a child's eye, a warm, tight hug.

Life for a migrant worker very quickly degrades into a dry, empty existence. Drag oneself out of bed, coffee for breakfast, off to work, toil for long hours, come home dead tired, drink, sleep. The robotic routine repeats itself day in and day out, and at the end of the first year, the migrant worker's vitality is all but totally jettisoned. Conjugal intimacy becomes a figment of his imagination.

The migrant worker is lonely and alone. Can it get any worse?


The irregular migrant worker suffers all that a regular one does plus three other seemingly insurmountable human conditions.

First, he lives in constant fear that he can be arrested anytime, and, in a blink of an eye, his world will come crashing down on him. Perpetually looking over his shoulder and second-guessing every move he makes, public places are shunned, personal histories never narrated. The lesser the people who know him the better it is. He intentionally makes himself invisible to society. He is essentially, non-existent. He is not there.

Second, he can forget ever seeing his family again, and for any human being, any family man this strikes at the deepest recesses of the heart and soul. His family is essentially dead to him, and he, to them, unless he turns himself in (or gets regularized through some stroke of cosmic luck). Regular migrants can go on vacation when they can't bear any longer the separation. Irregulars are forced to numb out the pain of missing their families through any means they can: drinking, prayer, and for others, extra marital relations.

Alone, in constant fear and cut-off permanently from his significant others, we now come to the third, possibly the heaviest cross of the irregular migrant: he is unwanted. We are social beings, and at the very core of our humanity is an intense need to belong, to be recognized, to be acknowledged.
The Filipino migrant worker can conquer the loneliness, bravely face the fear of arrest, and suffer the pain of his self-ostracizing -- all in the name of eking out a living to be able to feed the hungry mouths that depend on him.

Despite the irregular migrant's simple goals, the society in which he finds himself in essentially wants him out. It uses him, and his physical strength as labor inputs, yet, in the same breath, denies him acknowledgement of his existence.

Host societies stamp the term "illegal" on the unwanted migrant yet how is it that smaller national boundaries - on which a country's constitution is narrowly applied - supersedes the bigger boundaries of the earth, where a wider human law prevails?  Might the unstoppable forces of globalization force us to view irregulars as simply geographically-displaced breadwinners on a mission?

One in every ten Filipinos is a migrant. Majority of Filipino migrants leave primarily to work. Remittances reached a whopping US$16.4 billion in 2008, 4th highest in the world and unchallenged in most of Asia.

This proud patriotism comes at a high cost. Children, indeed, are wrested away from crippling poverty yet they struggle to rebuild a life without a defining, loving anchor, one or both parents. The migrant worker, torn from all things familiar, suffers untold desolation in a foreign land. His once vibrant life quickly degrades into a dry, empty existence.

Can it get any worse? Yes.

Too conveniently forgotten is that, disturbingly, one in every five Filipino migrant workers is irregular, that is, TNT ("Tago Ng Tago" in the vernacular), literally translated as "always hiding." Public places are shunned, personal histories never narrated. He is physically there, but essentially non-existent. His family is dead to him, and he, to them, unless he turns himself in and is deported back home. Forcibly numbing out the pain of all these, he confronts yet his greatest cross: he is unwanted, denying his intense need to belong, to be recognized, to be acknowledged. Yet the Filipino heart and spirit is resilient in adversity, persisting against all odds - all in the name of eking out a living to feed the hungry mouths that depend on him.  He is a displaced breadwinner, surviving unwanted - at all costs.

What makes a migrant illegal: the person, his actions, or his context?

Migrants who have no permission to stay in a host country object to being called illegal migrants. If the host country's rules or laws (the migrant's "context") require migrants to have permission in order to continue staying within its borders, then not having permission is, in fact, an illegal or unlawful act, that is, an act prohibited or not authorized by law.

The issue is the association of the word illegal with the word criminal. Illegal migrant is taken to mean criminal migrant. Can the things that illegal migrants do -- backbreaking, honest, hard work to support a needy family back home -- be considered crimes? This is the central argument of those that repel at being referred to as illegal migrants.

All crimes are illegal. But not all illegal acts are crimes. Rape, murder and plunder are crimes. The perceived severity of the act -- or the degree to which it goes against widely accepted societal norms -- is key to an act being considered a crime. Which widely held societal norms does migration without permission violate?

Compounding the issue are the naming practices currently in use. The name given to the person who commits a crime (i.e. rapist, murderer, plunderer) refers more to the crime he committed rather than to the person himself. But why does the term "illegal migrant" refer more to the migrant himself (or the person himself) being illegal? The term illegal migration seems to be less contentious (than the term illegal migrant) because it focuses on the act and not on the person.

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 and past Filipino irregular migrant workers during a 36-month period of intensive participant observation, a number of innovative and practical survival tactics and strategies were identified.  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 use Japanese names and have learned to 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 Filipino residents lend their identities to 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 to insurance coverage and remittances reach the Philippines without using the formal banking system.  The local ethnic network 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.  Legal Filipinos 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 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. Necessary documentary evidence is manufactured, wiping clean records of a previous marriage in the Philippines, thus now allowing a marriage to a Filipino legal resident or Japanese national.   The former example of regularization is authentic, the latter, bogus.  A Bilog will take any kind of regularization as long as it allows him to continue to work 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?

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