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Following the dream

PHILIPPINES. Bacoor, Cavite. 2013. Real estate advertising billboard standing on top of a slum. Many poor Filipinos see foreign work as their only way to climb on the economic ladder out of poverty. Camella, the real estate developer, with their small, cheap, and entry-level single-occupant housing, cater to the returning migrant worker market. Their website has the slogan: "We are here to give the Filipino the best reason to come home."

Bacoor City, Philippines

“I came across this advertisement dominating a slum in Bacoor City, just south of Manila. The slogan of Camella, the real estate developer, is ‘We are here to give the Filipino the best reason to come home’, and there are many of these companies building housing all over the Philippines to cater to the market of the returning overseas worker. There’s this dream of living in your own house in a quiet neighbourhood with a little bit of space and escaping the poverty. It just gets so extreme when you see this dream planted right on top of these poor people’s housing.”

Recruitment agency, Mabini Street, Manila

“The Philippines sends a lot of workers to the Gulf and there are whole streets like this one – Mabini Street in downtown Manila – which are filled with recruitment agencies for jobs in the region. People step in and make incredible sacrifices – they sign up to work abroad for many years when they’ve never left the country before, to stay for an indefinite time period to somehow improve their lot.
It has become kind of a normal thing to do. It’s almost expected of you. And people take out big loans in order to go. They end up paying middlemen huge fees in order to get a slot on a plane to the Gulf.”

Training centre for domestic workers, Manila

“Before arriving in the Gulf, many Filipinos go for two or three weeks’ training at one of the many places offering domestic worker training courses. They get examined in things like bed-making, shoe-polishing and childcare and they have to pass. The atmosphere is one of combined hope and fear. A lot of these women have children at home that they’re leaving and it’s a very emotional thing to do. At other times, they can be light-hearted: they’re all in the same boat. There’s a sense of trepidation because often they don’t know which country they’re going to at this point. They might be going to Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar or Saudi Arabia.”

Learning how to wipe a baby’s bottom, Manila

“Renea Bugacia, the teacher dressed in pink, is an incredibly warm person, very charismatic. She sees her role as being to prepare these girls as much as she can for what awaits them. Practical things like how to wipe a baby’s bottom, but also how to deal with the loneliness, with having the mother of the family mad at you because you’re not doing a good enough job. How do you tackle that? How can you get some strength to keep going? That kind of thing.”

Domestic worker dormitories, Kuwait

“These Filipinos have recently arrived in Kuwait. They’ve spent a couple of days acclimatising, getting over jet lag and staying in these dorms. This is the day they’re taken for placement. They go to the Al Rhumi mall  around the corner, which is filled with placement agencies where Kuwaitis can browse through catalogues, pick out a maid and walk away with her there and then.”

Placement agencies, Al Rhumi shopping mall, Kuwait

“It’s not the kind of place that is very welcoming for photographers so I had to sneak around a bit but I managed to shoot this one group of Filipinos being placed. I found this particular situation somewhat disturbing because it had this certain ring to it of these women being commodities. They’re just sitting there, hoping someone picks them from the catalogue based on their presentation on a page. Some get picked right away, others sit around for a while. But demand is such that nobody sits around for too long.”

“To varying degrees, these women are aware that once they get to the Gulf, they can end up in fairly lonely situations. The ones that go to do housework end up living with the families and have very little free time, and there can be major language and cultural barriers. A lot of horror stories about mistreatment are told to Filipinos by their friends in the Gulf. And a lot of people confront the same type of problems when they get there. There’s a big adjustment when they arrive.”

“I took this shot [below] right outside Manila international airport. The majority of people coming and going here are guest workers: they even have their own reserved areas at the airport. It’s a very emotional place because many of the people arriving have not been home for several years. These reunions are going on all the time. This was a guest worker from the Gulf seeing her sister for the first time in two years. On the one hand you have people saying, ‘this is a case of modern slavery’, flying out to do menial work and leaving your family behind. Whereas the other take on it is that these are people who want to improve their lives and that going abroad and working in a mall in Kuwait City sure beats the grinding rural poverty of the Philippines. It’s very hard to tell this story in black and white.”


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