What is GATS

The GATS and Migrant Workers’ Rights – Impacts on and Alternatives from Women

Panel Presentation by Cynthia Caridad R. Abdon, 13 December 2005
Ecumenical Women’s Forum on Life-Promoting Trade
12 – 14 December 2005, Hong Kong

I. What is GATS?

For the purpose of a common understanding (of what might have already been discussed)

1. One thing clear is that GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is one of the Agreements that the WTO is working on;

2. That it was first raised in the Uruguay Rounds from 1986 to1994 in the International Trade Negotiations (pre-WTO) – where developed/rich countries wanted similar trade rules on trade in services as the GATT ( General Agreement on Tariff and Trade) has (rules) on goods – this means a freer movement of services and service providers from one country to another

3. GATS formally came into effect on 1st January 1995 (it is now an international trade agreement or a WTO treaty) and it talks only of protecting the rights and benefits of top-level services

4. How does GATS operate? It has a Special Council on Trade in Services (CTS) [to oversee the operation, and whose job is to expand the scope and further liberalize trade in services.] It has a system of negotiation through Formal Request –and-Offer [a country who wishes to bring in services to another country will make a request and the receiving country will make an offer as to the extent to which it can liberalize the entry of services]

5. This current negotiation resumed in February 20001 because the underdeveloped/poor countries wanted to include as well, ‘rules to ensure that their citizens could take their labour into developed countries.’ and the negotiations further developed in the Doha Development Round in Doha, Quatar in 2001.

6. GATS operates in different “MODES”

“Mode” of supply refers to the means of delivering services to foreign consumers.

Where did the service supplier and consumer come from?
Where were they when the service was delivered?
There are Four Modes under GATS:

Mode 1 Cross Border Supply Services supplied by one member country into another country Software company in the USA supplying software services through mail or electronic means to consumers in Japan
Mode 2 Consumption Abroad Services supplied in one member country to a consumer from another country; the consumers, not the service, move in this case
Tourism services

Hong Kong University providing educational services to British students

Mode 3 Commercial Presence Services supplied through any type of business or establishment of one member country to another Nestle sets up its subsidiary company in the Philippines
Mode 4 Movement of Natural Persons Services supplied by nationals of one member into another country Those entering another country’s job market to provide services in that country, e.g. doctors, engineers

7. …and Mode 4 is an issue of contention:
while all member countries agreed to have such an agreement, there are at least two significant levels of understanding and interests:

the rich/developed countries would like it exclusive to high level positions i.e. highly skilled, managerial and executive in nature – which is what it is now;
underdeveloped/poor countries would like to include labor and employment.
A. What are the gendered ways in which GATS affects women?

The World Migration Report 2005 states that “migrants represent 2.9% of the global population. The UN Population Division estimates the migrant population in 2005 at between 185 – 192 million – up by 10-17 million from 175 million in 2000. Nearly half of them are female. However, the socio-economic and political visibility of migrants, especially in highly industrialized countries, is much greater than this percentage would suggest.”2

Nearly half of them are female. If we look at the region where we are now, in the receiving countries in Asia, a big concentration of female migrants is here by virtue of the stereo-typed nature of the work available for women: domestic work, entertainment and care-giving. [I have always refused to use “feminization” of migration without explaining the term in detail]

The increasing number of women migrant labor underscores the patriarchal, gendered definition of labor: domestic work is for women, construction is for men, and so on.

It attests to the number of female workers who are stuck in these roles. Roughly 50% of migrants in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Thailand are female; and there are 90% of them in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. In these receiving countries alone, about 33% are male migrants; 67 % are female migrants.

The demand for global stereo-typing of women to mostly menial jobs increases the outflow of women from underdeveloped countries to the developed ones, as jobs that are difficult, dangerous and dirty are those that its citizens refuse to take. Supply does not become a problem. The Labor Export Program of sending countries has made them most available in any form, at a cheaper price and with lesser benefits. Sending countries have been kept underdeveloped by the triad of globalization, namely, liberalization, deregulation and privatization, precisely for these human labor reserves. Thus governments of underdeveloped countries are efficient enough to systematize programs and policies that would ensure the free out-flow of human labor: there is The Philippines’ Magna Carta for Overseas Filipinos (1995); its OWWA Omnibus Policy; the Indonesia’s Law on Deployment and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers Overseas (2004)

It is, therefore, not that some sections of GATS affect women and some do not. GATS has a gendered notion of what a man’s or a woman’s work is, and therefore, women suffer the double-burden of “care-giving” – to her family and to the family she works for. Mode 4’s claim of protecting top-level services does not help the majority among the migrant women because there are less executives and managers who are women.

The whole issue of trade in services, and the whole of WTO for that matter, because of its gendered character are unequal, exploitative and asymmetrical. The danger of “feminized stereotyping of migration” exacerbates the process of forced labor migration itself.

B. Government attitude and treatment on migrant women

At the very onset, in the context of migrant workers in Hong Kong if not in the whole of the Asian region, WTO, GATS Mode 4 are already gendered, and therefore biased against women. It is not just the policy but the very context in which it operates is patriarchy. The policy is rooted in, and under-girded by patriarchy.3

Migrant workers in Hong Kong, for example, do experience the violent effects of GATS:

i. the infamous proposals exempting FDHs from maternity protection do exist;
ii. the two-week rule for foreign domestic helpers;
iii. the policy on barring FDHs from permanent residency,
iv. the renaming of the “minimum wage” to “minimum allowable wage” for FDHs.

Maternity protection deals only with women. For that proposal to be significant there must be a majority of women among the object of the proposal: in this case, they are the FDHs. Obviously, what these proposals mean is that they want to remove this protection on migrant women- only on migrant women.
FDHs’ visa were cut to 14 days upon premature termination of contract. What they have put in place from the onset was that permanent residency was prohibited to Foreign DHs.

Look at how the Hong Kong government deals with migrant workers: in 2003, the height of the economic downturn, it decided to cut the wages of the FDHs by HK$400 for the FDHs to share the societal burden. At the same time, it imposed a levy of HK$400 to employers of FDHs arguing that since they are capable of hiring foreign domestic helpers, they should pay a levy to the government. What is interesting here is that the amount that was cut from the migrant workers’ wages was the same amount that was levied from the employer. That was clear. What was tricky was the fact that the levy was used to take the wages of the migrants to the government coffers.

Migrant workers in Hong Kong are predominantly from underdeveloped Asian countries, majority are women, women doing domestic labour. As Hong Kong, like other migrant-receiving countries, continues to come out with anti-migrant policies, rules and laws, it exposes its racist, class discriminatory and gender-biased character.

Governments of migrant-receiving countries (GMRC) like Hong Kong come out with such policies not as solutions to the problems of forced labor migration, but rather for self-interest. It is their understanding of what is necessary for migration. Moreover, the governments of receiving countries encourage migration but on their own terms. Restrictive rules look like they are solutions but are in fact to control and protect the GMRC’s interest for better financial returns. Part of the game is to get the other country to give more.

This is the reason why in my view, many governments of underdeveloped countries are wrestling with powerful countries for Mode 4 to become an instrument for international migration to, in fact, make it a license for the expansion of their Labor Export Program (LEP.)

The Philippine government has deregulated export of labour through its Magna Carta for Overseas Filipinos [that by 2000, all welfare needs of migrants should be the responsibility of recruitment agencies — this was, of course, met with strong protests from migrant organizations] ;
It had considered, for example, the following: efforts to privatise the management of part of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) funds [by transferring portions of it to the Philhealth Medical Insurance Co — again, the migrant organizations protested that the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wanted to make a showcase that she gives welfare services to the poor in late 2003 out of the funds earned by migrant workers to gather vote for the 2004 election] ;
It liberalised LEP by allowing the “free out-flow” of Filipinos to destinations with unclear future: Singapore as tourists; as trainees to South Korea; these are positions and status that migrants would most likely end up as undocumented.
Indonesia’s Law on Deployment and Protection of Indonesian migrant Workers Overseas (2004) is a regulation that actually leaves the responsibilities of the government to the hands of private recruitment agents. It is deregulation of the labour-export programme. [Note that Indonesia looks at the Philippines as a model for its LEP] And in all of these haggling, none of the migrant-sending governments have ever made a move to include domestic work as a recognized work or labour even under UN standards.

But beyond GATS Mode 4, many of our studies, workshops and focus group discussions reveal that a great majority of the migrant women in Hong Kong come from peasant families.4 They were those who depended much on the products of the soil they tilled but were hit hard by the flooding of imported agricultural products much cheaper than theirs. The losses forced many of the women to try overseas work. But even if there was any good that would come out of GATS Mode 4, the fact remains, it is far too little, too late for:

a. the effects of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), the Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) and the Trade Related intellectual property Rights (TRIPS) have long invaded, and trampled on the rights of local peasants in their own backyards.

b. criminalizing the use of traditional herbal medicines to protect the property rights of big American businesses (pharmaceutical laboratories) have been effects that have long hit the peasantry, the majority of the underdeveloped population, half of them, women.

II. Consequences of global capital

Let me share with you one telling story:

During the first salvo of the Hong Kong migrants’ campaign against the WTO, this was in public, there was heavy rain, there were a couple of media people patiently staying on, watching, taking photos and video clips. One of them asked a migrant who was running to and from the backdrop to hold and fix it when strong winds come. He said: “what has WTO got to do with your being a domestic helper?” First, he presumed that she is a domestic helper. Second, either he was naive or he wanted to test her. I, too, was interested in what she would say. She looked at him, sort of indignant, and said: “Don’t you know that I am a product of this WTO? I never dreamt of being a domestic helper. But I had to leave my family because my salary at home would not allow me and my family to live decently. I’ve been here for more than six years now. I want to return home but I could not. No job awaits me there. Talk to me of savings… each time I attempted to start on a savings, the price of oil at home rises? I am stuck. I am a stock.

I share this story because it captures the profound consequences of global capital and its expression in GATT, in the WTO, in GATS Mode 4 namely remaking of women into identities and roles/functions that are conducive to global capital:5

A. The fusion of caregiving and breadwinning is one

When women took it upon themselves to help the traditional male major breadwinner at home to make both ends meet, she is driven into it by her care-giving spirit… she braved the unknown, she survived the exile; and unknowingly, greater power capitalised on her good nature. Breadwinning became her major responsibility not because the rest of the family refused to work but because jobs at home, if not scarce are contractualised. Wages are just enough to keep them alive to work for the next day.

Single women have supported their parents, siblings, siblings’ children and so on sometimes ignoring the fact that they, too, could raise a family of their own.

Mothers who care so much for her family sacrifice the pains of being away from them for the children’s subsistence and education… giving care to children, not her own knowing not until when. One realization in a focus group discussion in this research among women of different levels of social consciousness is that “women are so good at care-giving but they ignore their entitlement to care-taking. If women could see that they are entitled to this, there may be very few migrant women who would carry on.”6

B. The painful, not to mention, forced “exchange of husbands for dollars”

A migrant woman can opt to leave a job and return home if she believes that it is the only way that she can keep her family in tact. The other side of course is the children’s education, the upkeep of the family, the monthly bills, rental fees, daily subsistence. One is forced into making a “decision” in a very circumscribed situation. There aren’t any meaningful or just choices in that at all (after all). The double burden of women migrants being workers providing care and services to employers and playing their “expected role” of providing care to their family does not stop there. They are even expected to accept their partners who have had an affair. This extends to the point of accepting the blame for the women themselves having taken overseas work. This is patriarchy. The patriarchal character of the law as experienced by migrant women in cases of adultery and concubinage is quite obvious.7

What adds to this is the fact that it rests upon the woman’s shoulder the responsibility of ensuring the family’s future and keeping her husband, or, keep up with his infidelity. It doubles the burden twice over.

C. The reality of commodification.

When that woman in the first salvo for the anti-WTO campaign said “I am stuck(in HK)” … I am a stock…” I looked at her and she smiled at me sheepishly saying “di ba, ate? Para akong toilet paper sa tindahan? Kung mabili ka, okay. Kung hindi, diyan ka lang. At pag nabili ka naman, pagkagamit sa iyo, tapon ka na lang. Hindi ka naman kinukupkop.” [Am I not? I am like a toilet paper in a shop: if I am not sold, I stay in the shelf; if someone buys me, I get used and thrown away afterwards. I am not taken care of…]

It is one thing to be abusive, and it is another to abuse because you consider the other, an object, not a human being. Commodification is abuse of persons by reducing them to objects of exchange, as objects of unilateral desire of hedonistic pleasure.

Recruitment agencies deal with employers with certain promotions. Employers can avail of “well-trained, efficient Filipinas and Indonesians. If you are not satisfied, you can have a replacement free of charge within three months provided you send the previous helper back to her country of origin. You can have three trials.” The employer can have her choices, the recruiter gains not only double but could possibly be triple at the expense of the two domestic helpers’ lives and that of their family

III. How do migrant women respond to these? What do they demand as alternatives?

WTO is not just about governments unifying around the issue of migration. It is actually the battleground for domination of developed/rich countries to the underdeveloped/poor countries. More importantly, even though they are competing with each other, in the end, they all agree that global capital can and should be built on the backs and bodies of women. For the religiously inclined, one might say that The Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the U.S. … all of them believe in the same idol: capital.

What is at stake, fundamentally, is not the ‘flow of services’ (GATS), or maximization of profit (WTO), but rather, of the fundamental rights of peoples regardless of race, class, gender, to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the arena of migration as well as in the global arena women are forcibly kept in the stereotyped notions of women. Ignoring their capacity to liberate themselves, they are dumped in conditions where they would have no chance of seeing whole, thinking deeply and developing powerful resistance. I am sorry to disappoint those who think of women migrants that way, because in my more than 20 years of work with migrants, women migrants have learned how to live in a limited space, with limited rights, but, only to a limited extent…

they are developing a beginning to end exploitation.
In a context of dispersal, diffusion and dis-aggregation,

they are creating and recreating associations and advocacy groups
organizing in the context of traditions worth preserving, such as a community of hope when migrant women recognize the fact that they are a product of forced labour migration.
They are beginning to take control of their own life.

we see light as migrants are recognizing the importance of organizing,
we are confident in the demonstration of their ability to identify those that keep them exposed to exploitation;
we look forward to a bright future in their coming together as a force to contend with significantly minimizing if not totally eradicating forced labour migration.
In other words, the challenge about global capital is not through the government but the creation of a new specter that would haunt the world: a migrants’ movement, a people’s movement.


1 GATS Primer, FOE

2 World Migration Report 2005. International Organisation for Migration, June 2005

3 Several insights uncovered in the course of a joint research and advocacy project (2005-2006)the MFMW has with Prof. Lester Edwin J. Ruiz of the New York Theological Seminary.

4 “Women’s Encounter” – A Compilation of Workshops Among Migrant Women in Hong Kong (1990-2005)– MFMW-HK

5 Joint research and advocacy project (2005-2006)- Initial findings –MFMW and Prof LEJ Ruiz, NYTS

6 Ibid.

7 A woman is accused of adultery when she is married and is having an affair with another man not her husband; while concubinage is a married man living with another woman not his wife. But adultery could also be a man having an affair with another man’s wife.