This is the first blog post in a series written by the 2023 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. Amira Axelle Miel is a senior majoring in political science with a minor in music.
Axelle Miel standing in in the Plenary Hall of the Philippine House of Representatives in Quezon City, Philippines
Introduction and Overview
Through the help of the Duke Libraries Summer Research Grant and the Deans Summer Research Fellowship, this summer I undertook a research project that aimed to illuminate the overseas labor migration phenomenon in the Philippines in two ways. First, I wanted to visualize the occupational composition of the overseas workforce throughout history; second, I was interested in exploring the different government agencies involved in overseas employment.
I was drawn to this topic because being from the Philippines, I have seen firsthand how people turn to overseas employment out of necessity, often at a high personal cost. Overseas labor migration began in earnest in the 1970s as a short-term solution for the human capital surplus at home and a simultaneous global demand for labor after the Middle Eastern oil boom. Though initially meant as a temporary labor program, the country continued to churn out Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) at a steady rate as Filipinos increasingly realized that they could earn higher wages by working the same job abroad than if they had done it at home. Not only that, but lower-skilled jobs outside the country sometimes paid even better than higher-skilled jobs in the Philippines.
This persisting wage premium and lack of comparable opportunities for economic mobility in the Philippines have resulted in a contemporary narrative painting OFWs as “modern-day heroes” who sacrifice years of their lives away from their community all so that they could better support their loved ones financially. It is estimated that two million OFWs go abroad for work every year and that the remittances they send back home to their family comprise 10% of national GDP.
Specific project goals
Something that particularly interested me going into the summer was a statistical report that I saw dating from 2021 stating that 43% of OFWs worked in “elementary” or unskilled occupations. I had also heard about an apparent justification and endorsement of the personal costs of being an OFW, especially among those in lower-skilled work. I then became curious about the general occupations in which OFWs were employed abroad. I wanted to know – has our overseas Filipino workforce always been skewed towards elementary workers? What other jobs do OFWs work in that we don’t hear about?
Additionally, despite the pervasiveness of overseas employment in the Philippines, there is currently no clear explanation of the different government agencies involved in the lengthy process of becoming an OFW, from finding work to being deployed abroad to returning home for good after your contract. Even official government sources do not have this information available online – the newly created Department of Migrant Workers, which handles all affairs relating to overseas work, is still in the process of merging directives from different agencies and does not have updated information on their website. I wanted to understand for myself who the key actors were in this bureaucratic process.
I published my findings in this Notion site, where I go in-depth into how I investigated both of these project goals. You can read about my methodology and data by visiting the link. In the rest of this blog post, I will reflect on what I’ve learned this summer and my future plans.
Total Number of Overseas Filipino Workers by Occupation over Time (1993-2019). See more findings in the Notion site
Learning #1: Honing my data science and visualization skills
One thing that I had hoped to accomplish with this project was to develop my quantitative research skills. For most of my Duke years, I focused on qualitative research as I felt I was stronger in that area. However, I have increasingly come to appreciate the importance of quantitative methodologies; thus, I decided to challenge myself to use data science to answer my questions about OFWs and their occupations. Over the summer, I learned the fundamentals of Python as I initially wanted to create graphs using the coding language. However, due to time constraints, I ended up using Tableau, a data visualization software, to make and publish my charts. I am quite proud of the work that I did and plan to continue studying Python and other coding languages!
Learning #2: The limits of labeling and grouping humans into numbers
Other than working with data science, my occupation visualization project allowed me to reflect on the limitations of quantitative research. In a past class, I learned about how statistics often reduce multi-dimensional humans and human experiences to mere numbers. I also learned that the categories that we use to define people in surveys, censuses, and reports contain biases that impose judgment on marginalized groups and paint an inaccurate picture. Consequently, I was especially aware of the implications of the labels in my own project.
Because I was working with data concerning people’s jobs, I wanted to make sure that each occupation group, regardless of their income or education level, was not described in a condescending way. One thing that I knew I didn’t want to do was to use the term “unskilled workers” to describe people doing routine and/or physically taxing work. “Unskilled workers” is seen in literature and legislation, but I believe that every job involves a skill of some sort, whether that is dexterity, endurance, communication, critical thinking, or creativity. Instead, I changed it to “elementary workers.” This is similar to the term “elementary occupations” that is also commonly used to describe similar jobs, but I felt that “occupations” was impersonal and dehumanizing. I acknowledge that the descriptors that I ultimately decided to use are not perfect, as they still operate within a hierarchy that reflects our capitalist economic systems, but I am proud of the intentionality with which I approached something that I would have previously overlooked before coming to Duke.
Learning #3: The importance of bottom-up research
Lastly, while I primarily used statistics and academic literature to answer my research questions this summer, I complemented these sources with an internship at the Philippine House of Representatives, where I was primarily involved with the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs. It was by meeting people who were actively involved in and were working on issues relating to OFWs that I got to understand which needs were most pressing and which problems I should be focusing most of my academic efforts. Consequently, I am ending my summer with the renewed conviction that scholars should conduct research with both their feet firmly on the ground, not from within the ivory (or Duke blue) tower.
I had intended this summer project as a preliminary research stage for my political science senior thesis, which was supposed to be on overseas migration. The Libraries’ research grant allowed me to delve into data, but also be around advocates and politicians who were doing the much-needed work in the field. This allowed me to paint a richer picture of overseas labor migration.
However, my time working with these politicians led me to discover a topic that was more compatible with my own research interests and theoretical experience – local political dynasties. For decades, Philippine politics has been dominated by families who pass on government seats to different members over generations, with the goal of consolidating wealth and power. These dynasties are a big reason why inequality is still quite high in the Philippines – and consequently, why overseas migration is still so prevalent today. Thus, I am now writing my senior thesis on policymaking differences among political dynasties in the House of Representatives. Though it was not what I initially set out to do, I am genuinely excited for what I will find, and I am grateful that my summer experience led me in this direction.
I look forward to making the most out of my remaining time at Duke, always with an eye towards using my studies to impact my home country of the Philippines.