IN DEPTH Philippines exporting labor and sex
By William Sparrow
BANGKOK - Although prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, sex remains a
thriving industry both domestically and abroad. Many Filipinas ply the world's
oldest profession in an attempt to overcome crushing poverty and the oppressive
economic crisis gripping their homeland. Even Filipinas who work overseas
legally - as maids, nannies or in other legitimate occupations - often find
themselves turning to the sex trade to supplement meager incomes and to send
money home to the Philippines to support impoverished family members.
The Philippines has a bustling sex trade with much variety. Small bars and
clubs serve locals - often taxi drivers, laborers and even local teenagers
looking to solve their virginity - and employ women from poor rural areas who
"service" clients for as little as 200-400
pesos (US$5-$10). More glitzy
establishments cater to foreigners, especially in areas such as Makati, Pasay,
Ermita or Angeles City where GRO's (Guest Relations Officers) can be known to
charge as much as 2,000-3,000 pesos ($50-$75), even for a "short time"
A recent visit to Makati, the business district of Manila, found bars packed
with scantily clad girls, many adorned in thong bikinis or lingerie and
gyrating enthusiastically to Western pop music. Several were equally
enthusiastically about grinding their nearly naked bodies against male
customers' in hopes of enticing a business arrangement. The enticement is
obviously doubled when two girls set upon a customer, but the 6,000 pesos or so
required to take them out can have a cooling effect.
More "off the beaten track" places can be found throughout the Philippines,
especially any place catering to foreign tourists, which is just about
everywhere. Prices in these venues range from 1,000 - 2,000 pesos ($25-$50),
but the price tag is often enough for an overnight companion.
Prices aside, the sheer volume of sex workers in the Philippines is staggering.
The most recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated
that as of 1998 there were as many 500,000 women working in the sex trade.
The ILO report also estimated that some 150,000 Filipinas were working in Japan
as "entertainers". In a 2005 interview with the Philippine Star a woman
explained the realities of working there: "I used to work in Japan. I was there
only six months. We enter as entertainers, but most of us have to earn through
The Japanese Government was placed in Tier 2 in the 2007 United States
Department of Stateís Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying
with the Trafficking Victims Protection Actís minimum standards for the
elimination of trafficking, but making "significant efforts" to do so. Japan's
significant effort appears to be largely based on a few arrests and limiting
the number of entertainer's visas to about 80,000 - 100,000.
The Philippine government's own policies regarding overseas contract workers
(OCWs) only helps to encourage the flow of women working abroad. But the
situation in Japan is hardly unique: the popularity of Filipina OCWs is also
evident on any Sunday afternoon on the streets and parks of Hong Kong. As
Sunday is traditionally a day off for OCWs, hundreds of thousands of Filipinas
meet to socialize with their compatriots. While many work as household helpers,
a visit to Wan Chai - Hong Kong's red light district - makes it obvious that
some Filipinas are moonlighting in the sex trade.
One such woman told Asia Times Online that she was a domestic helper, but
frequented clubs to sell sex to mostly expatriate clients. "Yeah, I come to the
bars sometimes to look for some extra cash from the customers for short time
sex. In just a couple hours a few days a week I can easily double my salary",
said the 23-year-old, who added that she was lucky to work for an employer who
let her come out a few times a week.
"Some girls only get to come out on Sundays, it is not as easy for them. Even
then some have strict curfews from their bosses. One girl had an ex-employer
who would only let her out on Sundays and then she had to be back by 7pm. When
the girl asked the employer 'why', the boss said, 'If you go out to the bars
you'll get pregnant and then I'll have to find a new maid.' Can you imagine
that?" she said.
"If nothing else I can see some friends and have a beer, maybe get lucky and
make some money. It is always good when the US fleet is in town; I have had as
many as three customers in one night," she said, appearing truly pleased by her
"I want to send money back to my family in the Philippines and save some for
myself. I don't get much as a maid so this helps me earn more," she said as she
placed her hand on the thigh of an Asia Times Online' reporter.
The standard proscribed wage for a domestic helper is HKD$3,480 per month
(roughly US$450). Working the bars can mean serious income for girls who charge
usually a minimum of HKD $1,000 for a "quickie".
The situation for underpaid domestic helpers is consistent across Asia; not
just in Hong Kong, but also in Singapore, Australia and Malaysia. From Shanghai
to Dubai, young Asia women, frequently Filipinas, end up featuring prominently
in the local sex scene.
The international migration of Filipinos seeking work has been prominent for
decades. In the Philippines, labor is the top export; the government has long
encouraged the practice by offering assistance in getting overseas jobs. One
such perk is that OCWs are given "first grab" at land purchases in certain
areas, with mortgages being subsidized by the government at low interest rates.
Asia Times Online reported last month that the Philippines' central bank
estimated that migrant workers would send home at least $14 billion in 2007.
This makes the Philippines number three in the world for foreign remittances,
behind only Mexico and India. Each year funds sent from abroad represents
almost 10% of the country's annual GDP.
Some portion of the money sent home, while it is hard to calculate to an exact
amount, is no doubt coming from exporting Filipinas not only for labor, but
also for sex.
William Sparrow has been an occasional
contributor to Asia Times Online and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly
column. Sparrow is editor in chief of
Asian Sex Gazette and
has reported on sex in Asia for over five years. To contact him send question
or comments to Letters@atimes.com.