Agency Amidst Structures in Migration: Stories of Filipina Domestic Workers in Dubai

Stories from three female domestic workers from the Philippines who tried to survive abuse at the hands of their employers in the UAE allows for a balance in seeing the OFW phenomenon from the structural and agency lenses.

This is part two of New Naratif’s research series on OFWs. Read part one here.

Trigger warning: Mention of employers’ abusive behaviour.

Angie woke up at 5:30 a.m. She was running entirely on adrenaline and anxiety, as her employer had not been giving her food for days. Last night’s memories of having to settle for white rice so stale she had to wash it several times only further solidified her conviction. And so, she began. 

Escape was the only thing on her mind as she quietly prepared in her room, being so careful as not to make a single peep lest her courageous escape be thwarted. She was advised not to carry anything for the risk of being sued by her employer for stealing. So she slipped into five shirts, four pairs of socks, and her newest rubber shoes. She put on thick makeup and a hijab, even though she didn’t know how to tie it properly. I must not get caught, she kept telling herself, or her employer’s wife would beat her up again.

I must not get caught.

It was a typical Dubai morning in May, and it felt like the very sun seemed to be observing her every move, casting down an intense spotlight of heat and humidity that followed her every step. Angie walked many miles until she eventually reached a big grocery store, where her friends who would help her were waiting. They had to be discrete. If anybody is seen helping her abscond, whether via CCTV or by the naked eye, they would be guilty of breaking UAE law and could be sued by her employers.

At least, they were supposed to be waiting…

Angie’s heart trembled as she reached the store. It was already the appointed time, but her friends were nowhere in sight. More and more time passed, and the sun became angrier each minute. Angie became even more nervous. Thoughts of being caught and having to turn back raced through her mind. 

What vile punishment would be awaiting me this time? She tried to shrug the thought off and pretended to be window-shopping, wondering if this was normal for other young women like her.

“How much is this?” Angie asked a salesperson, a fellow Filipina, about a dress she was carrying. 

Oddly, instead of answering her question, the salesperson directed her to the toilet. The salesperson followed her to the toilet and described a local Emirati, a police officer, and asked her urgently, “Does your employer look like that?” 

Angie said yes, shocked.

She was told to hide in one of the toilet’s cubicles, as her employer was inside the same grocery store looking like he was searching for someone. That must be the reason why my friends are gone, she thought. Her employer had confiscated her phone and may know their faces. They must have asked the salesperson to help.

After around two hours of being confined to the toilet stall, the salesperson returned. She told Angie that her employer had just left, but other police officers were still in the area. She gave Angie directions to the taxi stand and where to take the taxi to. 

To avoid suspicion, she told Angie to look ahead while walking and never to look back or sideward. It was the longest three-minute walk Angie had ever made. Minutes after the taxi left, Angie broke down sobbing. 

Angie is safe now.

Understanding Agency

Actions taken by migrants like Angie to improve or even save their lives have often been neglected by migration scholars in favour of studying the conditions that shape these actions. This was how Filipino migration scholar Filomeno V. Aguilar, Jr. described the field in the early 2000s. Such emphasis, he argued, portrays OFWs as victims and dovetails with colonial depictions of Filipinos as subservient people. 

Aguilar asserts that Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)—temporary migrant Filipinos whose stay abroad depends on employment—are also knowing subjects, capable of understanding and acting on their surroundings that are shaped by the structures of labour migration. He argued that OFWs weigh the risks and benefits of going abroad, actually decide to go abroad, evaluate their working conditions, and take action accordingly (Aguilar, 2014).

The present explainer follows “The Philippines’ Dangerous Dependence on the Exploitation of Its People”, which focuses on the economic, political, and social-cultural conditions that gave rise to and have shaped labour migration from the Philippines. In that article, I argued that labour migration provides benefits to migrants’ families and even the Philippine economy in the short term. However, it causes severe long-term problems for migrants, their families, and the country as a whole—even as it benefits local elite, foreign, and Philippine government interests.

The first explainer focused on structure, defined as the context where economic, political, and social phenomena occur and become meaningful. It pertains to the order of relations in these spheres of activity and the “political institutions, practices, routines and conventions [that] appear to exhibit some regularity.” Meanwhile, the present explainer focuses on agency, which means the actions or conducts of humans and their capacity to take action and achieve their intentions consciously, and implies “a sense of free will, choice or autonomy” (Hay, 2002, p. 94).

The Philippines’ first National Migration Survey (NMS) in 2018 can instructively be viewed from this dual lens of structure and agency. On the one hand, employment was the reason for 89% of Filipino migrants’ first travel abroad and 83% for their travel in the last five years. It outnumbered attending school or reuniting with children and parents. This fact points to the structural factors behind labour migration. 

Reasons for Filipino migrants for their first travel abroad, from the Philippines first national migration survey 2018. Most move for employment, decided by the immediate family or co-decided by partner.

On the other hand, 73% of first-time travellers and 74% of those who have travelled before but have travelled again in the past five years say that they decided to travel abroad on their own, more than those who say that they decided with the prodding of their spouses or immediate family. This fact points to the human agency in migration in the context of structural factors.

Migrant Filipinos who experience involuntary work arrangements (violations of employment contracts or agreements, withholding of travel documents, and limitations to physical mobility). Experienced by 15% of international migrants and 23% of Filipinos who have been both international and internal migrants.
Contrasts with only 3% of internal migrants and 2% of non-migrants who did. Source: Philippine Statistics Authority & UP Population Institute, 2019

At the same time, more Filipinos who undertook international migration reported experiencing involuntary work arrangements—violations of employment contracts or agreements, withholding of travel documents, and limitations to physical mobility—than those who stayed in the Philippines. While 15% of those who have travelled abroad only and 23% of those who have travelled abroad and locally report experiencing such arrangements, only 3% of internal migrants and 2% of non-migrants do so. It can be said that this is one of the ways that structural factors, in turn, shape even Filipino migrants’ exercise of their agency and subjectivity (Philippine Statistics Authority & UP Population Institute, 2019).

These statistics illustrate a quote from Karl Marx that is often unpacked in discussions about the relations or dialectics between agency and structure: that humans make their own history, though not according to their desire alone or to conditions that they make, but based on “circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” And so many Filipinos exercise their agency to migrate because of existing conditions, chief among which is the lack of decent jobs in the country, even their exercise of human agency in migrating abroad is shaped by conditions in migrant-receiving countries. As the data on involuntary work arrangements show, they may aspire to get good working and living conditions, but they do not always get these abroad.

In migration scholar Nicole Constable’s classic Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers, first published in 1997 and with a new edition in 2007, she presented how Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong took agency over their lives by seeking improvement in their working conditions which, for domestic workers are incidentally also their living conditions.

Constable examined practices ranging from outright resistance to “accommodation, passivity, or acquiescence” (2007, p. 13) or what she calls “subtle forms of resistance” (2007, p. 166). She also argues that “foreign domestic workers, on the whole, cannot be described either as passive pawns of exploitation or as active subjects who successfully resist control and discipline” (2007, p. 203). Foreign domestic workers used strategies such as employing humour and other “discursive forms of resistance”, showing deference to employers, engaging in activities that helped them temporarily forget their plight, and asserting collective demands that consider their employers’ situation.

Asserting Agency

Constable’s argument informs this explainer in following the stories of three domestic workers who suffered abuse at the hands of their employers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE): Angie*, 32, from the Southern Tagalog region in the Philippines; Lorie*, 49, from Metro Manila; and Zelda*, 39, from Central Luzon. 

Angie and Zelda belong to the biggest age group among Filipinos with international migration experience, 30 to 39 years old. At the same time, Angie and Lorie hail from the two biggest migrant-sending regions in the country, Southern Tagalog and Metro Manila, respectively (PSA & UPPI 2019). They were all referred to this researcher by a help desk for distressed OFWs operating in Dubai.

The UAE, meanwhile, is one of the top destination countries for OFWs who travel abroad for the first time and those who have travelled abroad previously and in the past five years. While almost half of the NMS respondents who wanted to work abroad are still undecided about their destination countries, the UAE is third among those who already have a country in mind, following the US and Canada (PSA & UPPI, 2019). 

Given that the circulation of stories about a migrant-receiving country is influential in encouraging Filipinos to choose that country for work, it can be inferred that the UAE enjoys a good reputation among OFWs in the country and their networks in the Philippines (Pertierra, 1994; Aguilar, 2014).

Step 1: Recruitment and Risk

The Philippine government has given private recruitment agencies a big role in hiring OFWs for overseas work (Tigno, 2014). Since 2006, as part of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government’s “Supermaids” program, these agencies have been barred from collecting placement fees from prospective domestic workers (Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, 2016). This regulation, however, is seldom followed in reality, and overcharging is a normal state of affairs (Asis et al., 2020). 

As a result, OFWs often resort to borrowing money or selling properties (or both) and continue to pay off their debts for months after working abroad. Many prospective OFWs are also victimised by illegal recruiters who take their money and run and by predatory money lending companies that impose onerous terms for loans.

Contrary to the government-preferred route, however, Angie, Lorie and Zelda came to Dubai—in 2019, 2021, and 2018, respectively—without a working visa and carrying only a tourist visa. They did not pay any placement fee, only their aeroplane tickets costing more than US$ 700, which is lower than the usual placement fee, but which they still borrowed money for. 

While Lorie and Zelda were still in the Philippines, the recruitment agency told them they would contact them when they were already in Dubai. A recruitment agency approached Angie when she was already in Dubai and offered her a job.

In Dubai, they were kept in a house owned by the agency. They were forbidden to leave the house. They were then told that an employer had chosen them and that the employer would come to pick them up. 

When, months later, they asked their employers to cancel their contracts and allow them to transfer to new employers, their employers scolded them and told them to pay first the AED 19,000 (more than US$ 5,000) that was paid to the recruitment agency in order to get them before they leave.

Throughout the process, all three had doubts about the recruitment agencies and the arrangement for their employment. Angie asked many questions to the agency representative when they met in the Philippines and was told that a police general backed the agency, so she did not have to worry. At that point, Angie was already raring to work abroad, and the guarantee—told to her in secrecy—only strengthened her decision. 

All three drew confidence from their previous overseas employment experiences: Angie in Kuwait and Jordan, Lorie in Kuwait, and Zelda in Qatar. They all knew that there were risks in trusting recruitment agencies, especially because they were not undergoing the usual process. However, they decided it was better to take risks than continue being jobless in the Philippines. They were all motivated by the thought of their children—and in Lorie’s case, even grandchildren—going hungry.  

Step 2: Employment and Abuse

Unfortunately, Angie, Lorie and Zelda all suffered maltreatment at the hands of their employers. This included ordering them to work for more than eight hours a day, resulting in just a few hours of sleep; denying them days off; giving them delayed wages or wages lower than the AED 1,500 (US$ 408.39) minimum salary stated in their contracts; denying their passports and other important documents.

Individually, they also suffered particular forms of maltreatment and abuse. Angie was locked up for days a few times and was kicked in the foot once by her employer. Lorie suffered scratches from her employer’s wife when she refused to surrender her cell phone. Angie and Lorie were denied their cellphones and not given decent food to eat for some periods, and both were threatened with imprisonment and death by their employers. Compared to Angie and Lorie, Zelda considered herself lucky that she experienced “only” overwork at the hands of her employers.

Angie, Lorie and Zelda experienced the common forms of “involuntary work arrangements” mentioned in the NMS and more. All three mostly kept their heads low about the overwork and the usual problematic general working conditions. Throughout their ordeal with their employers, and especially during moments of abuse, they kept telling themselves to be strong for their children. 

Maltreatments experienced by Filipinos with both international and internal migration experience. 63% – denial of travel documents to prevent from leaving
57% – violations of work contract/agreement
29% – limitations to physical mobility
22% – being forced to carry out any work against their will 

Not shown by survey: verbal, emotional and physical abuse.

Source: Philippine Statistics Authority & UP Population Institute, 2019

Step 3: Reasserting Agency and Taking Control

A Born-Again Christian, Angie kept praying to God. She said she prayed in different parts of the house that were visible to her employers, hoping her employer could see that she really wanted a change in her situation. Meanwhile, Lorie talked about doing her best and leaving her situation up to God. 

The huge influence of Filipino religiosity on the experience of migration has often been commented on (Gonzalez, 2018). Constable states that “domestic workers… advocate religious solutions to their difficulties as a substitute for attempting to enact change” (2007, p. 192). As can be seen in the following, however, Angie and Lorie’s religiosity goes hand-in-hand with their efforts to change, not ignore, their conditions.

Concerning abuse, the three undertook different forms of action. One form was talking back, although they avoided shouting and used a pleading tone. When Angie’s employer accused her of stealing an old picture, she asked him why she would steal such an object. When the employer threatened to do a fingerprint test, she dared him to do so. When her employer kicked her, she told him she would call the police the next time he did that again.

Because she was not given days off, and her underwears were already old and loose, Lorie decided to buy panties and bras online. Lorie’s employer got mad after finding this out, seeing the delivery arrive through the CCTV cameras around the house. He brought Lorie to the police station, accusing her of giving the house’s location to strangers. 

Lorie brought her old panties and bras to the station and pleaded for understanding. One police officer in the station put his arm around her employer and walked him away. While her employer was away, one of the police officers told Lorie that police officers would not simply side with her employer just because he was a local. The police officer gave her the contact number of the UAE Labor Department, telling her to communicate with the office when the situation worsens.

Zelda never talked with her employer about her employment and living conditions. After two years of overwork, however, she asked her employer to cancel her contract and let her find another employer. Because her service had been excellent, her employer tried to convince her to stay, but Zelda had made up her mind. 

She reminded her employer that she was forced to wash and iron clothes because the workers hired for these jobs stopped reporting to work. She also reminded him that he did not fulfil his promise to increase her wages in payment for being a tutor to his two kids. Even if she did not mean it, Zelda reasoned with her employer by telling him that he had been generally nice to her, but she would now like to find a better job.

Meanwhile, due to their employers’ abusive history, Angie and Lorie tried to prepare for worsened conditions to ensure their survival. They both informed their families back in the Philippines about what was happening to them and told their families to contact government agencies and migrant organisations if they became incommunicado for days. They also used their little knowledge of the Arabic language, which they hid from their employers, to understand how their employers thought of them.

Angie searched for the password for the other wi-fi networks in the house, just in case she was cut off, which did happen. When she was denied food after the heated argument a week before she escaped, she got an old pack of rice that she ate to survive. 

When her employer’s wife apologised to her through Whatsapp after she scratched her breast and body when she refused to surrender her cell phone by hiding it under her bra, Lorie screen-captured the apology and sent it to her trusted friend. She thought these could serve as evidence in the future.

The three tried to find ways to ease their suffering, aside from praying to God for Angie and Lorie, and thinking about their children for all of them. When locked up in a room, Angie talked to a teddy bear about her thoughts and feelings. She wondered whether she was going crazy in doing this, but realised it helped her organise her thoughts. Lorie found joy in her employers’ children, whom she took care of and who became sweet to her. The children told her they worried when their parents were angry at her and gave her the idea of escaping. Zelda kept thinking about the day her contract would end and enjoyed eating fried chicken from a famous fast food chain once or twice a month. 

All of them ultimately sought help. Angie contacted the Philippine Embassy in Dubai, which advised her to become more understanding of her employers. She and Lorie contacted a help desk for distressed OFWs, which listened to them, allowing them to blow off steam and advising them on courses of action to take. Lorie contacted the UAE’s Labor Department. Despite Zelda’s relatively good relations with her employer, she did so as well. The agency provided Lorie with a Filipino-speaking operator and acted swiftly on both cases. Ultimately, this government agency forced their employers to let them go.

However, Lorie’s employer told her he would send her passport and other documents via Whatsapp. She replied that she would not leave without the documents and had to call the UAE’s Labor Department again before the documents were returned to her. Upon leaving the house, her employer’s wife ran after her and took all her valuables—jewellery, clothes, and money. She knew of many cases where employers accused domestic workers of stealing—in the infamous Parti Liyani case in Singapore, for example—and chose her freedom over getting back her things. 

Illustration by Townsunder.

Aftermath: Angie and Lorie

Traumatised by her experience, Angie decided to go back to the Philippines after her “great escape.” She was still anxious minutes before the aeroplane left Dubai in the middle of 2021. The government recorded an average of more than 6,000 OFWs who were repatriated every year from 2009 to 2015, except for a spike in 2011 because of the US-led war in Libya. It says that the majority of those repatriated came from the Middle East (DOLE, 2017).

Upon her return, Angie faced a lack of government support and employment opportunities, which are common problems that confront returning OFWs. She applied for the government’s financial assistance for OFWs who were laid off from work during the pandemic but failed to receive this. 

Before the pandemic, only 4% of OFWs who returned to the country received any form of government support. This is particularly painful for Angie, as she was not able to keep or save money during her stint in Dubai. One-third (33%) of migrants who returned to the country have reported that they do not have sufficient financial resources to meet their families’ basic needs (PSA & UPPI, 2019).

Unable to find a job, Angie made one as a tutor to students in her neighbourhood. In this respect, she is similar to 51% of returned migrants who faced difficulties, mostly finding a job, upon returning to the country (PSA & UPPI, 2019). A study among OFWs who returned to the country because of the Covid-19 pandemic showed that almost half of the respondents wanted to emigrate because of a lack of career prospects (Garabiles & Asis, 2022).

Lorie decided to stay in Dubai. For two and a half months, she worked odd jobs, from being a cashier in a school to taking care of a dog to babysitting a newly-born to selling meals in the streets. She was hoping her college secretarial degree would land her a job, so she applied for the many posts she saw on Facebook. One company turned her down for being overage, but the owner asked her to work for him. Now, she is earning AED 4,500 (US$ 1,225) a month, working eight hours a day, and enjoying days off. She now looks forward to Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, which entailed overwork under her previous employer. She does not need to be awake for longer hours in order to prepare food for her employer and his guests.

While all three sought strength and inspiration for their actions from their children, Lorie, a single mother of seven and a grandmother of four, did so the most. For years, scholars have been studying the impact of migration on the relationships between parents and children, and so far, “[o]verall […] research findings are either mixed or inconclusive about the perceived negative impacts of migration on left-behind children” (Asis & Feranil, 2020, pp. 4-5). This can be attributed to fathers, grandparents and other relatives taking over parents’ role to their children, resulting in reconceptualisations of the traditional notions of what a family is and the roles of family members (Asis, Huang, and Yeoh, 2004).

What is clear among Angie, Lorie, Zelda, and other OFW mothers, however, is that labour migration has made them find ways to establish regular communication with their children to maintain loving ties with them and be able to monitor and guide them. Modern Internet-based means of communication have facilitated this, giving birth to what one migration scholar called “Skype mothers and Facebook children” (Francisco, 2018). 

Facebook is popular in the Philippines, but the video call feature of Facebook Messenger is banned in the UAE, prompting many OFWs there to use VPN. This is the context that explains why confiscation of cell phones and denial of Internet connection constitute a cruel punishment for domestic workers, and Lorie and Angie fought these. Despite having only a few hours to sleep under her previous employer, Zelda used to wake up one hour earlier, at around 4:00 am in Dubai, on days that she would call her children.

Aftermath: Zelda and OFW activism

Illustration by Townsunder.

Like Lorie, Zelda stayed in Dubai. As she had consistently sent her entire salary home, she had no money at first after leaving her employer. An activist in the Philippines since her college days, she joined a help centre for distressed OFWs in Dubai, advising distressed OFWs even when she was distressed herself. 

The help centre was created in 2003 by a mix of OFWs who were activists in the Philippines and plain kind-hearted OFWs. Members of the help centre and her friends supported Zelda for more than two months when she was jobless. They often feigned body aches, stress, and fatigue, and asked Zelda to massage them, a skill she learned in the Philippines. This was their way of giving Zelda some help, as she was too shy to ask for and receive money.

Now, she is getting AED 3,500 (US$ 953) in salary and AED 500 (US$ 153) in monthly food allowance. She is asked to work for only eight hours, which she sometimes increases because she is very thankful to her employer. She enjoys days off and has a fully-furnished room. She proudly says that her efforts yielded not only better working and living conditions but also more time and energy for helping fellow Filipinos through the help desk and other means. While she was endorsing cases before, she now handles these and has become more active in advising OFWs in need and in other efforts to help fellow Filipinos. 

Zelda describes the work of the help desk as doing what the Philippine government fails to do while telling the government what to do. For example, the Philippines’ overseas labour officials told distressed OFWs who came to Dubai on a tourist visa that since they did not follow the official employment visa process, they had no right to complain. Zelda says the help desk assists Filipinos who are in that situation and tells labour officials that they have to protect all Filipinos abroad without exception.

She says members of the help desk tell labour officials to “have more heart” for OFWs in distress. For example, officials often cite settlement agreements between domestic workers and employers as proof that domestic workers are in good or acceptable condition. Zelda says labour officials should dig deeper and listen more to the domestic worker, as she often speaks from a position of fear, not confidence, and disadvantage, not equality with her employer. She also said that when domestic workers and OFWs complain, the context is often sacrificing for too long, not of privilege.

Thus Zelda and friends are engaged in activism based on “migrant citizenship,” in which migrants claim their rights from their home states. This is different from postnational models of citizenship theorised by scholars, where rights are no longer anchored on membership in a national entity and where migrants demand their rights from migrant-receiving states or international bodies (Rodriguez, 2011, p. 59). 

This kind of citizenship and rights claiming have identified the following issues faced by migrant Filipinos in relation to the Philippine State: neglect of OFWs in distress, cuts in the budget for OFW programs and agencies, state exactions, and dismal rights and welfare programs (APMM 2015).

Members of the help desk are not altruistic supermen towards distressed OFWs either, says Zelda. They want to share information and knowledge among OFWs, and Zelda says it is a source of personal joy and satisfaction when those they have helped take the initiative to at least advise other distressed OFWs about what to do in particular situations.

Zelda says the help group educates OFWs about several things, including their rights, laws in the UAE, the Philippine government’s labour export policy, and their struggles to change Philippine society. It encourages and supports OFWs in fighting for their rights. Furthermore, it empowers migrants and their families to change Philippine society to end labour export and forced migration.

  • A package of measures regarding Filipino domestic workers abroad starting in 2006. Implemented by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, illustrates the Philippine State’s policy of exporting labour.
  • The impetus for the program was the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. The war required the repatriation of some 30,000 Filipino domestic workers from Lebanon.
  • Not letting a good crisis go to waste, Arroyo seized the opportunity to rebrand Filipino domestic workers big-time while making it appear that she is taking care of their welfare and interests.
  • “Upgraded domestic helpers with a higher price” was how one of her officials described her vision. Filipinas will be trained to become Supermaids who are competent not only in cooking, cleaning, babysit ting and other usual domestic worker tasks, but also in saving children while escaping fires and facing other emergencies (Javellana-Santos, 2006).
  • They will also be able to provide first aid, ensure children’s health, care for pets, among others (Guevarra, 2014). To become Supermaids, they will undergo more intensive training under the government’s Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) (Javellana-Santos, 2006).
  • The idea is to make Filipinas more competitive compared to domestic workers from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries that accept lower wages, as well as inculcate in them the need to improve themselves (Guevarra, 2014).
  • The Supermaid packaging went hand-in-hand with Arroyo’s branding of the Philippines as “home of the great Filipino worker”.
  • The program also constructs “a racialized and gendered form of labour power and comparative advantage” that “aims to position Filipinos as the ideal global care labour” (Guevarra, 2014, p. 131).
  • Another measure in the program is the removal of placement fees for prospective domestic workers abroad (APMM, 2016). This, however, has yet to be observed in practice, and overcharging remains the norm (Asis et al., 2020).
  • Yet another measure in the program that feigns protection for Filipina domestic workers is the imposition of the minimum USD 400 monthly salary in 2006 (Chee, 2019). Protests immediately greeted the Supermaid policy, centering on prospective domestic workers’ payments for the training -- another extraction by the government and a burden on domestic workers (Constable, 2007).


As shown by the stories of Angie, Lorie, and Zelda, migrants do exercise a scale of agency in relation to, or against, the big structures and institutions that shape labour migration. Stories of the three domestic workers examined here show that they calculate the risks and the benefits of their actions, study their environment, keep themselves sane and strong, and carry out actions to survive and improve their working and living conditions. These actions are especially called forth in the UAE, which is not a signatory to many international human rights agreements but is shown here as having a Labor Department that is somehow responsive to foreign domestic workers’ woes. 

The three domestic workers talk back or keep silent, depending on the situation. They are aware of their actions’ consequences, prepare for them, and ask for help. In most cases, their actions have served them well, allowing them to at least survive, improve their employment and living conditions, and even enable their activism and service to fellow migrants.

Some formulations made by scholars, however, go too far in trying to counter or balance analyses of labour migration that focus on structural factors. They have presented migrant Filipinos’ human agency as equally responsible for their plight, asserted that they are participants in their victimisation, or depicted their agency as negating their victimhood by structures and institutions. This research did not follow these assertions that swing the pendulum too far in the direction of the agency and away from the structure. 

Indeed, there are dangers to overemphasising the agency of domestic workers and migrant Filipinos in relation to structures and institutions in migration. Filipinos have a favourite saying, “Habang may buhay, may pag-asa,” or “As long as there is life, there is hope.” As long as migrant Filipinos remain alive, all their actions, habits, thoughts, and feelings can be construed as exercises of their human agency. 

Focusing on the agency too much may set a very low standard for human life and dignity. As when a former president, irate at the complaints of survivors of a supertyphoon, mockingly said, “Buhay ka pa naman, di ba?” or “You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

There is something morally amiss in simply hailing Angie’s agency in escaping from her employer while being silent on the structures that brought about this situation in the first place.

At the same time, it is clear that the importance of discussions about the relationship between agency and structure and their relative importance lies not only in explaining social phenomena but in changing these. It is instructive that Marx himself, the foremost analyst and critic of the structure that is capitalism, started his formulation of the relationship between agency and structure with the assertion that humans make history. While focusing on agency’s role in migration is not enough, the agency is crucial in understanding and changing the phenomenon.

Ultimately, it is not a question of agency or no agency and, therefore, structure—but what kind of agency and agency for what ends. Agency that leaves intact or strengthens labour export and neoliberal economic policies? Or agency that challenges these policies or provides an entry point to challenging these policies through helping compatriots, for example? “Inspiration porn” or stories of activism and resistance?

It is thus fitting that while this essay started with Angie, it ended with Zelda. When Zelda says, “Ang OFW mismo ang bubuhay ng pag-asa” or “It is the OFW who will themselves enliven hope”. She means not only working for better working and living conditions but for a better society. 

There is a need to not only escape the situations caused by the structures and institutions of migration but to confront them and work to change, even abolish them. It includes tasks that demand activism, protest, and resistance, which are precise forms of human agency that many Filipino migrants and Filipinos are currently practising.

What’s Next?

  1.  Support foreign domestic workers’ actions to improve their working and living conditions and claim their rights. These rights include the right to living wages, minimum rest days, and non-discrimination. In some cases, this means supporting foreign domestic workers to find help to end employment from abusive employers.
  2. Support migrant workers’ efforts to form organisations at the grassroots level to lay claim to their rights, bearing in mind that in some contexts, even citizens are denied such freedoms. While the national migration survey states that a small minority of OFWs belong to organisations, there are efforts among OFWs in most migrant-receiving countries in this direction.
  3. Support foreign domestic workers’ demands on their home country governments to give them protection abroad, even if this means standing up to migrant-receiving countries.
  4. Support foreign domestic workers’ education and action pertaining to migrant-sending countries’ economic, political, and social structures that cause and facilitate labour export.
  5. In working for workers’ rights in migrant-receiving countries, strive to cover migrant workers, including foreign domestic workers, in these rights. Many migrant organisations are working for unity with unions and labour organisations in migrant-receiving countries.  Such unity will help foil attempts to divide local and migrant workers and further exploit both.
  6. Filipinos, demand that your government to take responsibility. Send this article to politicians. Tell them about the many challenges faced by Filipino domestic workers. Support calls for an end to the labour export policy in favour of increased domestic economic growth and job creation. We recognise that this is difficult to achieve.  However, it is only by generating genuine agricultural and industrial development to create decent jobs at home and provide for the basic needs of Filipinos that a significant solution can emerge.

*Angie, Lorie, and Zelda’s real names have not been disclosed to protect their identity.


Aguilar, F.V. Jr. (2014). Migration revolution: Philippine nationhood and class relations in a globalized age. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.

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Agency amidst structures in migration: Stories of Filipina domestic workers in Dubai

Publication Year: 2022

Author Teo S. Marasigan

Editor Wailiang Tham, with additional editing by Alif Teh, Bonni Rambatan, and Fadiyah Alaidrus

Illustrator Townsunder

Graphic Design Ellena Ekarahendy, Mufqi Hutomo

Funding This article is supported by Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Grant C12.22_2021

This research report, excluding its illustrations, is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit All illustrations are property of their respective illustrators.

Please cite this report as Marasigan, Teo S. 2022. Agency amidst structures in migration: Stories of Filipina domestic workers in Dubai. New Naratif.

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