Women as Guest Workers and Workers in the Tourist Industry - Exploitation or Instrument of Development?

As a development strategy, an international division of labour - based on natural advantages such as favourable climatic conditions and a plentiful supply of cheap labour - promised great benefits to all countries concerned. For this reason, many countries specialized in producing goods which due to their specific advantages would make them competitive on the world market. Without taking into account the different levels of development in the Third World countries, the following can be said of this strategy: it relegated the technologically backward countries to the position of mere exporters of raw materials and some semi-finished products and permitted only the technologically advanced states to rise to become producers of high-value, capital intensive goods and modern technology.

After it had become evident that this division of labour was incompatible with the interests of the developing countries, this concept came to be seen as an attempt by the North to keep the countries of the Third World in a permanent state of under-development. In order to reduce their dependency on expensive imported goods many countries of the South turned to a new development strategy - the creation of their own industrial base to replace imports.

However, the investment needed to acquire and maintain the necessary machines proved to be far higher than had originally been assumed. As many of the new companies were dependent on government support for their survival, their operating costs became a permanent strain on the foreign exchange reserves of the country. Apart from that the sector also suffered from the very outset due to the lack of domestic demand caused by an uneven distribution of income.

However, when the economic development in the South began to stagnate and poverty continued to increase, many Third World countries reverted to their old export strategy: except this time they called the procedure "export-led industrialization." This meant that they tried to convince foreign investors to move their manufacturing companies to the developing countries. In doing this they hoped to profit from the influx of capital and modern technology and boost their own growth.

As a consequence vehement competition broke out amongst the developing countries to attract the greatest share of foreign investment. Particular incentives such as tax exemption, unlimited profit transfer to the mother company, an appropriate infrastructure, quantities of raw material and a pool of cheap labour were the "weapons" they used against each other.

As was to be expected, the industrialized countries welcomed the new export orientation of the South. Investments from private business began to pour in, accompanied by generous support for the governments concerned. The significance for the export promotion programmes of the countries is often used as a justification for granting loans for infrastructure projects.

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Export of female labour force as a form of crisis management

One of the worst mistakes committed by most of the countries which operate an export-led industry is the one-sided approach they adopt. Whilst concentrating all their efforts on promoting the manufacturing industry they in reality create an enclave economy. The development in the rural areas where the majority of the population lives, stagnates. But it is precisely the impoverished countryside which supplies the factories with labour and the overwhelming majority of this labour force is made up of women.

Statistics show that in the export manufacturing zones of Asia, Africa and Latin America, in which the foreign companies are concentrated, 70 percent of all employees are women. "Women in South and South-East Asia are seen as obedient workers who can be easily manipulated and yet at the same time are very productive," it was established in a study (Mies 1986: 117). Despite inhumane working conditions, very low wages and even sexual assaults, many women still prefer working in a factory to living in poverty in the country.

The manufacturing industry, however, is not capable of absorbing the growing number of women seeking work. In addition to this, the battle for jobs is intensifying as better qualified women - both from rural and urban areas - are integrated into the army of job-seekers. However, many governments have found a simple solution to the problem of the rising unemployment rate which could lead to social unrest: the export of female workers. With their advantages over other workers - they are qualified, obedient and cheap - this section of the labour force has good chances on the international labour market.

One of the largest exporters of female labour force are the Philippines. Of the three million Filipinos who work overseas over half are women (WRRC 1990: 4). The trend toward a dominance of women amongst people working abroad began as early as 1987, when the proportion of male workers in the overall total of emigrant workers sank to 51.7 percent, whilst the share of women rose to 48.2 percent.

Statistics from the Philippine Ministry of Labour (quoted from the official Philippine development plan for women between 1989 and 1992) show the geographical distribution of women working abroad for this period as follows:

Near East

47.5 %


46.3 %

Europe/North America

5.3 %

Africa/Oceania and dependent areas

0.9 %

At 59.2 %, the majority of women are employed in service industries, with 75.9 % of these working in domestic service. The remaining 34.8% of all Filipinas working abroad are distributed across the other sectors of the economy. At 50.3 %, however, the entertainment sector is the major employer.

In 1982 the Philippine government launched a programme for the systematic export of female labour force with an official comment by the then president, Ferdinad Marcos: "Working abroad," said Marcos, "solves two major problems at once: unemployment and the balance of payment deficit." To this end the Philippines set up a special department within the Ministry of Labour with the task of developing "a coherent strategy for recruiting Philippine workers." So-called "marketing missions" travelled the globe constantly seeking new markets for Philippine workers.

As a result of these measures the unemployment rate had sunk to 8.3% by 1990 from 11.1 % in 1985. The number of people working abroad accounted for 34 % of the total work force (FEER 13 June 1991, 39). Apart from the welcome effect on the labour market, the export of labour since 1983 has enabled the Philippine economy to keep its head above water. By 1985 the money transfers from nationals working abroad had already become the country's second largest source of foreign exchange (CIIR 1987, 30). The sum alone which female workers send home each year amounts, according to cautious estimates, to 463 million US dollars (PDPW, 121), no negligible amount for a country which in 1990 had to pay 680 million US dollars in interest on its enormous foreign debt (FEER 13 June 1991, 39).

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Women in the tourist industry

Another area of the economy which developing countries began to promote when their import substitution strategy went into a tail spin is tourism. This development did not, however, appear completely out of the blue. As early as 1958 the US Department of Commerce and the Pacific Area Travel Commission had formed a special research group which travelled to countries in the Far East and Pacific to explore their development potential in the field of tourism. The so-called "Checchi Report," which summarized the results of the research, not only ascertained that tourism was completely absent from the region but also made enticing statements about the "spectacular effects" which a development programme in this field could have (Wood 1979: 274). Success was not long in being forthcoming. As early as 1958-1968, international tourism began to grow and by the sixties was able to establish itself as the world's largest single "export article" (Wood: 274).

In the years which followed, tourism as an instrument of development received the extensive support of international organisations. Some United Nations (UN) resolutions even welcomed tourism as a fundamental and desirable human activity, deserving the good will and support of all people and all governments. In addition to that, the World Bank group began to promote international tourism in Third World countries with development funds. Together with the International Development Agency (IDA), the World Bank supported the setting up of the necessary infrastructure for tourism and provided technical support. For example, an application for a loan for the transport sector could often be substantiated simply by calling it an important contribution to the development of tourism in a country.

UN estimates indicate that, after the export of crude oil, tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange for developing countries and has created jobs for some 50 million people (Nuscheler 1991: 108). In Thailand tourism is even the major source of foreign exchange. At an estimated three million US dollars per annum, tourism accounts for 5 % of the gross national product of the country and a third of all services (Schloßstein 1991: 196-197).

It is nevertheless also an undisputed fact that the development of prostitution is part and parcel of Thailand's tourist industry. Although it is illegal, it is in fact indirectly encouraged by the government. Reports say in this connection that a former Vice-Prime Minister of the country called upon the provincial governors to support the national efforts in the tourist sector by "promoting certain activities which some people may find distasteful or shocking because they are connected with sexual pleasures. This is, however, necessary in view of the jobs which will be created for people." (Mies 1986: 138; Schloßstein 1991: 197). According to official estimates, around 500,000 Thai women work as prostitutes, which is about one percent of the total population. Estimates by private institutions even put the figure as high as almost a million.

Similarly to the case of Thailand, tourism is the main source of foreign exchange for the Philippines. At 1.28 thousand million US dollars in 1991 (FEER 3 Sept. 1992: 40) it even brought in slightly more than the Filipinos working abroad, who in the previous year had sent home around 1.2 thousand million US dollars (FEER 13 June 1991: 42). Like in Thailand, prostitution is illegal in the Philippines. Nevertheless, it is estimated that there are approximately 250,000 prostitutes working there (WRRC 1990: 7).

In this context it is, however, important to mention that even before the plan to develop the tourist industry prostitution was a flourishing business both in Thailand as well as the Philippines and Vietnam. The presence of US forces and military bases in all three countries had long since made the region into the "Rest and Recreation Centre" for the soldiers stationed there.

Today, twenty years after the withdrawal of US forces from their bases in Northern Thailand, the US Pacific Fleet is still given an enthusiastic welcome when it enters a Thai port. When, for example, in Pattaya 8,000 US soldiers had shore leave and spent three million US dollars in the space of five days a hotel proprietor wanted the "decisive role which the US Navy plays in the local economy" to be acknowledged (Schloßstein 1991: 197).

Until recently, the largest US naval base west of Hawaii was Subic Bay in the Philippines. Since it was opened in 1904 this base has transformed the nearby city of Olongapo into the largest "Rest and Recreation Centre". When the ships of the US Seventh Fleet anchored in Subic Bay up to 10,000 US soldiers sought the services of between 15,000 and 17,000 prostitutes in the city of Olongapo. At the time of the Vietnam War, approximately 16,000 "hospitality women" - a euphemism for prostitutes - were registered in the city (WRRC, 7). The business brought in 500 million US dollars a year into Olongapo (Flamiano/ Goertzen: 125).

At the time of the withdrawal of the U.S.A. from Vietnam an estimated 400,000 prostitutes were working in Saigon, a figure which corresponds to the total population of the city in 1954 (Simbulan 1983: 252).

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In conclusion

It has become clear that in their desperate efforts to acquire foreign currency for their export-led industrialization programme various developing countries have discovered the female labour force as an effective way of acquiring foreign currency. In order to make full use of the potential at hand women are used in two ways: first to produce cheap export goods and secondly as export goods themselves, the women being sent to work abroad or in the tourist industry.

The women, however, scarcely benefit from this development process which they have helped to finance. With no job security and little social protection they are at the mercy of assaults from their employers. Attempts by the women working in the country to organize themselves are immediately quashed by repressive measures from the state. The women who take part in these attempts are dismissed. The situation is no better for the women who work overseas as domestic staff or in the entertainment industry. They too have no protection from arbitrary dismissal by their employers and they are kept silent out of fear for their jobs. They are an economic factor and yet powerless: that is probably the most accurate description of the situation of the female labour force.

Without radical structural changes to improve women's position in society their powerlessness will continue to ensure that the government will be able to determine what happens to these procurers of foreign currency. The powerlessness of the women only reinforces the state in its desire to consolidate its absolute control over the female workforce.

In the light of these circumstances will women in developing countries manage to perceive their chance to change their role and cease being a mere instrument of development and become active participants? The struggle to transform society is difficult and tiring. Don't you women of the industrialized countries want to participate in the process?

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Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) 1987. The Labour Trade. London. Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), various issues.

Flamiano, Dolores/Donald Goertzen (eds.) 1990. Critical Decade. Prospects for Democracy in the Philippines in the 1990s. Berkeley, California

Menzel, Ulrich 1993. Geschichte der Entwicklungstheorie. Hamburg

Mies, Maria 1986. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. Women in the International Division of Labour. United Kingdom.

Nuscheler, Franz 1991. Lern- und Arbeitsbuch Entwicklungspolitik. 3rd edition, Bonn

Philippine Development Plan for Women (PDPW) 1989-1992 Schloßstein, Steven 1991. Asia's New Little Dragons. Chicago.

Simbulan, Roland G. 1983. The Bases of our Insecurity. A Study of the US Military Bases in the Philippines, Manila.

Women's Resource and Research Center (WRRC) 1990. Information Kit on Filipino Women, Manila.

Wilhelm Schwerdtfeger

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek | 12.1. 1998

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