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Book Review: The Labor of Care: Filipina Migrants and Transnational Families in the Digital Age

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Edited by Rochelle Jones, Wednesday, 3 Apr 2019, 11:02

Book Review

By Xenia Rochelle Jones, X4846713

Dr. Umut Erel & Prof. Parvati Raghuram (PhD supervisors)

FASS, The Open University

Book Details

Title: The Labor of Care: Filipina Migrants and Transnational Families in the Digital Age

Author: Valerie Francisco-Menchavez

Publisher: University of Illinois Press, ISBN 9780252041723

Year: 2018


Since the early 1900's, Filipinos have migrated outside the Philippine islands to seek work abroad. The slow trickle to countries like the US and HongKong however turned into mass migration in the 1960's via systemic recruitment by the American military and civilian agencies for Filipino professional and non-professional labor. By the late 60's and the 70's the boom in oil in the Middle East necessitated the importation of foreign labor, primarily construction workers, engineers, nurses and domestic workers to support the economic boom in countries like Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait while Greek and Scandinavian shipping companies began to recruit Filipino seafarers en-masse. By then, millions of Filipinos have found employment abroad and the country has established bilateral agreements with the Filipino labor seeking nation. The contraction of the Philippine economy under the leadership of then Pres. Ferdinand Marcos also necessitated the need for employment options of which working abroad become key due to better pay rates in comparison to the Philippines. Nurses for example get 6 times the pay they get in the Philippines if they chose to work in the US. By 1974, the Philippine Department of Labor has put in place measures and policies that manage the active and systemic migration of Filipinos for temporary employment abroad (Medina & Pulumbarit, 2012) via Presidential Decree 422 which managed the recruitment and placement of what became known as the OFW - Overseas Filipino Worker. By 1978, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) was established which by 2013 estimates that there are around 10.2 million OFWs around the world (CFO, 2013) with the US hosting around 3.13 million OFWs, a percentage of whom have established themselves and their families permanently in the US. 

New Forms, Traditional Family Dynamics

The act of working far away from their families meant being removed from their families and the communities and the social elements this encompasses. This is certainly true from the 60's to the early 2000's. The arrival of web 2.0 however has allowed for OFWs included (Caguio & Lomboy, 2014) around the world to access technologies that allow them to be easily accessible to family back home via the Smartphone, laptops and PCs. With The Philippines being crowned as the 'most online' country in the world by the Digital 2019 report from Hootsuite & We are Social (Aguilar, 2019) where Filipino users spend an average of 10 hours and 2 minutes online daily, digital expertise and connectivity is social fact for most OFW families, supported by the proliferation of mass produced local Smartphone brands like Cherry Mobile and MyPhone (Kaila, 2018), who offer a brand new Smartphone that allow for apps like Facebook and Chrome from Php 1,500 (around £21). This connectivity and digital literacy (Adobo, 2018) becomes the basis of Francisco-Menchavez's (2018) book, "Labor of Care". Where once migration moved in one direction - the OFW abroad where they worked and remittance/money to their families back home - the advent of globalization and accompanying technologies of the digital age like Facebook and Skype has transformed this previous dynamics. For Francisco-Menchavez (2018), the Filipina OFW, in terms of the role she plays in the family back home as well as in the communities she is a part of, either back home in the Philippines or in the US, inhabits a more involved, more accessible and connected space. Facebook, Skype and video recordings have become everyday tools that allow the OFW to perform particular roles for family back home, as a mother, daughter, wife, partner, friend as well as members of certain community groups. Long distances are bridged daily in the digital space where their interaction with those left back home happens, face to face, in real time. Thus while sundered, they are linked and Francisco-Menchavez (2018) argues that emotional bonds are maintained and intimacy and relationships take on new forms, innovations that allow to support traditional family dynamics.

Consisting of an introduction, 4 in-depth chapters summarized in a concluding chapter, the book is a study in presenting research-based patterns and emergent meanings, drawn from Francisco-Menchavez's (2018) 5-year engagement and collaboration with a group of working OFW mothers in the US. In this context, the author is not just an outsider looking in as she herself identifies with the Filipino-American migrant subgroup, herself having once been an undocumented migrant (pp. 173) having sought opportunities in the US otherwise not available to her in the Philippines. This gives the author a certain 'depth of feel' and a far more comprehensive access to her subject's cultural and social positions - she speaks their language; she has gone through her own version of family separation and experienced its effect. Her study investigated the sacrifices, emotional and material consequences and roles recasting' brought on by family separation. Her multisited-ethnographic approach allowed her to investigate in 3 sites - 'in real life' in the US to collaborate with her subjects, 'in real life' in the Philippines to further investigate the complexities of OFW families by getting to know her subject's family members and how they relate to each other, in particular with their 'physically removed' OFW family member, and 'online', when they communicate and meet using digital technology. While Francisco-Menchavez (2018) does not at all declare the 3 sites implicitly, this is emergent in her work, with the 'online' site being that transformational element that bridges and allows for recasting of roles that still support traditional family dynamics.

Francisco-Menchavez (2018) writes that her multi-sited ethnography is a 'participatory theatre' where her study is rooted in becoming 'implanted' (pp. 176). This follows the vein of traditional ethnography related to the idea of the 'field'. Essentially, she went 'out there' in spaces and places where she met her participants and related sources of information (i.e. the participant's friends and relatives) not only to interview them but to observe and take part in the discussions. Francisco-Menchavez (2018) after all identifies as one of them - she is an OFW and shares the same language and socio-cultural background to her participants. To Massey (2003), a researcher goes out in the field with an abstract construct of her research - the phenomenon is not 'out there' waiting to be discovered for if knowledge is the product of discourse and interaction, then the spaces and places where knowledge is produced is within language. So Francisco-Menchavez's (2018) spatial field is both physical (in that she goes to places to meet her participants to observe and interact with them) and abstract (in that meanings can only be established  by giving voice to ideas, experiences and hopes which in Francisco-Menchavez's study relate to sacrifices pertaining to separation, sundering and through the use of digital technology, reconfiguring familial dynamics once again).


In page 49, Francisco-Menchavez exemplified this reconfiguration of family dynamics and use of digital technology as a tool for multidirectional care in the case of Jing, a Filipina mother living and working with her family in the US. In text message exchange between Jing and her brother Boyet, they planned how to do family chores - buying groceries, picking up the kids from school (Jing's and Boyet's), gathering everyone in time at home to celebrate a birthday - that of Tetet, Boyet's wife. The difference is that Tetet is in New York in the US and the family greeting her and making her feel their love and care is in the Philippines. Tetet in this story related is the OFW who is working out of the country to earn more than she would in the Philippines to support her family. The sacrifice pertained to is not being together in the general sense of the word - the sundering of families. But through Skype, mobile communications and related technologies, Tetet is in their everyday lives - they constantly communicate at particular hours of the day with Tetet, Jing and Boyet accessible to each other and to their children. As such, even with the time difference, a birthday has been celebrated together, at least in a third space - online. Additionally, within this dynamic, there is a reversal of roles - Boyet has become the primary caregiver to their children and he constantly works hard at making sure the needs of his family, his wife included, are met. Constant communication with regards to food, rest and well-being are directed at Tetet and while she reciprocates similarly, the central figure holding their relationship together is Boyet - now the family 'nurturer', primary caregiver. This family dynamics is played out online, in digital spaces they occupy to be 'together'; if home is a 'space' to be together with family to communicate and bond, then the virtual spaces they all come together online as a family has taken the temporary place of home where their bonding, meaning making as a family, takes place. Francisco-Menchavez retells the difficulties of each in adjusting to new roles, especially since they were unconsciously taken up in the process of Tetet's being 'away' to work.  The phenomenon of decentering is not new but in her book, Francisco-Menchavez (2018) carves it out as it occurs, as it plays out, and with the narratives of her participants told to her via their kuwentohans (the Filipino tradition of intentionally coming together to gossip, sharing experiences and stories), she built a thick and descriptive data source from which patterns of multidirectional care, decentering and abstracted, digital-based new family dynamics emerge. 

Creativity in Multidirectional, Multigenerational Kin Networks

A set of emergent pattern presented itself in many of her subjects where among families, especially extended OFW families with a number of family members working in various sites around the world, intimacy rather through rivalry takes place. This is exemplified in the case of Rita (pp. 65) who came from a family with members in each generation migrating abroad for work. Her mother was an OFW and she and her siblings followed the migrant life course too, with her mother's life as template. As they worked to keep their mother involved in domestic affairs back home when she worked abroad, so did they try for Rita too - constantly informing her of  what is happening in their home, and involving her in decision-making for certain family concerns and events (i.e. parties). With digital technology, they managed the sundering and engaged in activities that saw them pitted against each other - for their parents' approval. In Filipino families, the acknowledgement of parents over the success of their children is an ideal many strive to and success at work as well as in personal life is paramount. Competition however happens within the context of a constantly communicating family, each members becoming entangled and co-dependent on each other so that left-behind aunts and uncles become surrogate parents for left-behind children and OFW parents through various strategies including digital technology co-parent with them. The co-parenting element is subject to creative-adaptation of technologies and means that allow for adjustment to accommodate the sundering, regular Facebook chats as well as fighting and then making up included. Rita for example made the arrangements for the family's fiesta (an event that celebrates the Feast Days of the Patron Saint of the town where households in the town throw open their doors to offer food and drinks to visitors) digitally, remotely executing her plan through use of technology and her kin network, with her siblings going the extra mile to operationalise her plan even though she, Rita, was not with them even though she was in the Philippines at that time as she was quarantined due to her suffering from chickenpox. They did it to make her feel 'in', so that emotionally and on terms of family responsibility, she did not feel the sundering. That 'being sequestered and quarantined' chickenpox event is seen as a testament of Rita's inclusion and influence to family events and activities, and her place in the dynamics.  The sundering, be they completely cutoff from physical contact but just next door, or being abroad and faraway altogether is not seen as a barrier to being a part of the kin network (pp. 66). As an OFW Rita sends money to provide, her siblings meanwhile through the kin network give her that orientation, that feeling of connection, of belonging and an all important purpose. Rita's mother was an OFW, with some of her siblings working in Israel and the rest in the Philippines. As a multi-generational OFW family, the care practices thus is multi-directional with migrations per generation, starting from her mother and is likely expected among Rita's and her siblings' offspring. Competition is also an observed pattern among Rita and her siblings, in terms of what they bring to the table, with their activities and contributions for the family 'back home' detailed in communications, in their exchanges. Francisco-Menchavez (2018) posits that Rita's staunch fulfillment of the role of provider and any other related jobs assigned to her that she can do even through the sundering in her kin network is due to the fact that she sees it as replacing her original role. For mothers, for daughters like Rita, working as an OFW means that she is giving up the job of being a nurturer and caregiver to her family to whoever is left home who takes it up. The sundering, the separation, according to Francisco-Menchavez (2018) incites in families like Rita's the need to be creative in providing multidirectional care, a creativity that requires commitment for all involved to ensure that the care network in that transnational family works and the needs of each are still somewhat provided for inspite of the sundering. 


Much can be learned from Francisco-Menchavez’s (2018) work. The multi-sited ethnographic approach is inspired in that aside from the ability to observe her subjects in certain settings through instances and periods of sunderings, separations, connections and reunions, she is able to observe the similarities and uniformities of needs, commitment and enthusiasm over role-taking and creative adjustments of family members that while sundered are bridged or brought together someplace in the digital world. She observes them physically separated and yet networked virtually, digitally. She traces communication efforts in multigenerational OFW families handling multidirectional  kin networks and the care-chain for family members from the use of tapes in the 80’s to the active ‘live’ exchange using the digital technology of today. Her narration of these activities detail not just the difference in media but also hint at what I take the creative license to describe as social dynamics kin impact. The tapes from the 80’s were message delivery systems that allowed parents to reach out to their young, or for the young adults – to reach out to their parents back home. As speakers in the cassette tape, they have listeners in their audience at home. Naturally, the audience at home can reply via tape recorder too. If meaning and new knowledge emerges from discourse, it can be argued that listening only allows for suggestions – it remains to the listener if they will further discuss what they heard with others for that subject to enter a discourse and create new meanings. It can of course be argued that if the listener for example is taking up information from the tape as sacrosanct, then everything contained will be taken up as accepted knowledge. 

The digital spaces that families of today inhabit online however – they are not limited by time and distance. Delivery of information and exchange of ideas are instant, especially in the case of video calls. Conversation happens in real time, so that sunderings does not equate to speaker and listener but rather speakers and listeners engaging in an active, real-time exchange. I would argue that while the former has an impact in the social dynamics of those in the kin network, the latter promises to be far more transformative in that regard as showcased in Francisco-Menchavez’s (2018) work – in there, her subjects engage in ‘live exchanges’ so that it felt as if the family is still in one space, active in each other’s lives, in real time. In 80’s, even with telephones, sunderings separated, in the present sunderings still physically separated but due to digital technology, the labor of care in the kin network in transnational families has been creatively addressed so that the families can see each other, can connect not just once a week but throughout the day, informed and in touch and a constant part of each other’s lives. The complex reorganization of families and unique kin network care patterns in each of her subjects are contextualized and situated but throughout the generations of migrant families made more evident in the digital spaces they meet is the role of family in the kin network – families, nuclear or extended, anchor OFWs, the migrant workers. The configuration, the roles of members change but notion of family as a group of people who look after each other is at the core. The creative adjustments are meant to allow for sunderings as well as to ensure that the anchor of family remains. While there are certainly some subjects that have seen the anchor of family as a kind of difficulty to their own personal growth, the details included by Francisco-Menchavez (2018) point to the Filipino notion that family is of the greatest importance as a steering guide to policy. After all, sunderings are borne to provide for the family back home due to what has become a remittance-reliant national economy. Throughout the book, the subjects interviewed see their migrant worker selves as individuals who are ‘sundered’ from family and have willingly accepted the difficulty of the separation as doing so gives their family better lives. With 10% of the Philippine GDP (Schnabel, 2018) drawn from Personal Remittances from OFWs (around $31.29 billion in 2017) and with the OFW culture now fully ingrained in Philippine society, the sunderings will likely continue. But just as the sunderings continue, new ways of connecting, creative ways of maintaining care connections and kin networks will emerge. While this position is not explicitly presented by Francisco-Menchavez (2018), the patterns of family roles reconfiguration and communication in multigenerational families she interviewed showcases this kind of adaptability and creativity, where today’s digital society has created transformative virtual sites for OFW families to be ever more connected and involved, a part of each other’s daily lives.

I recommend this book to those with an interest in studying migrant lives, especially those with a focused interest in the OFW phenomenon and the care-chain involved in multigenerational, multidirectional kin networks. I believe it is also an interesting read to those interested in digital sociology as even with a rather focused subject of study, digital lives are put on display and vivisected, connected to ‘real life’ sites and the digital tools used where tangible exchange and transformations happen to affect real life in real time, fulfilling elements of the visions of ‘digital sociology’ offered by Marres (2017) in his seminal book ‘Digital Sociology’. In it he has enumerated what he sees as 3 general visions of digital sociology:  1- that is transactional, not artificial, traceable and naturally occurring, 2- that it allows to contextualize and fill gap the great divide of data so that while it is able to allow for macro analysis of massive populations, it can also facilitate detailed description of social life at a micro-level, allowing for a kind of scaleless study, and 3- that it is a game-changer as new forms of data capture via social media and related technologies allow for new forms of interactivity that redefines ideas of social networks, social analysis and forms of intervention. The exchanges taking place in the digital spaces inhabited by Francisco-Menchavez’s (2018) subjects showcase natural exchanges, the kind that take place between family members as accorded their role in family units, the exchanges via streaming video chats are not artificial even if they are facilitated with the use of digital hardware and platforms, exchanges are traceable and transactional; while she provides details from the ‘kuwentuhans’ with each of her subject, data from each of these can be fed into qualitative data analysis software like Nvivo to undertake macro-focused thematic analysis to study the larger Filipina OFW population and lastly, I do believe that her work showcases examples of digital-sociology being a game-changer in that within the digital sites families ‘live’, they directly intervene and affect each other, even with the sunderings, circumventing the geographical and temporal gap so that new forms of interactivity ask us to look into possible new ideas that constitute social media and social analysis. I feel that Francisco-Menchavez’s (2018) work is impactful not just in her subject of study but in the evolving field of digital sociology too. 

Word Count: 3671


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