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18.01.2021

To Rest is To Care, to Care is To Work

Acknowledging quarantine life as a work activity, Philippines-based writer Alice Sarmiento remembers rest as a form of resistance to the market logic that exploits us all.

The words Pahinga ay trabaho, or “To rest is work,” make a simple claim: that to rest is to care, and to care is to work. They appear at the beginning of a 42-minute video that was first installed by artist Tanya Villanueva in 2018 at the Project 20 art space in the Philippines. Written across the back of her child Olive’s neck, the words appropriate the hyper-masculine style of inner-city gangs and tattoo parlors, at odds with the lush greenery and billowing fabrics of Villanueva’s staged resting place. A more direct translation of pahinga would be “to breathe,” as in to catch one’s breath or to allow oneself to breathe.

The installation consists of two parts, the video component, Invisible Work Performing, and a supporting text Safe Space Sacred Space. The claim at the beginning, defining rest as a form of work, is only complicated by conditions under capitalism in which the only work acknowledged is that wherein there is visible activity as well as time and energy spent, conditions that not only subsume the frenetic production and financialization of the art world but conditions that have no place for the two sleeping figures in the video. Within these conditions, to rest becomes a form of resistance.

So much of the work I do as a writer falls outside these same conditions and their dependence on visibility, especially when I consider how I spend my mornings cleaning, preparing food, and making sure everything and everyone in my home is okay and accounted for, instead of writing this essay. Or rather, being unable to focus on work in a messy home, I held the essay between my ears as I performed the labor that was just as necessary to get the essay done; this on top of the thinking, pacing, sleeping, and resting that also contribute to its production but are rarely ever accounted for. I am a freelance writer, I work independently. That is what I tell people. But while these are not really seen as viable forms of employment in the Philippines, they still supersede the work that takes up most of my time, which is the work I commit to managing my home: work that is unpaid, unwaged, and done for love.

Indeed, the hardest part of writing this essay was finding the time to write it.
Recently, there has been a resurgent interest in what has long been referred to as social reproduction, commonly known as “Women’s Work”. As Silvia Federici asserts in Wages Against Housework, women’s work, or the work we are expected to perform for love, is just another form of slavery, “one of the most pervasive manipulations, most subtle and mystified forms of violence that capitalism has perpetrated against any section of the working class.” And while some strides have been made past the conditions under which Federici was writing, for many women (especially in a conservative country like the Philippines) this simply is not the case.

Care is gendered. Women have historically defaulted to bearing a majority of the domestic burden, often doing 2.6 times as much domestic work than their partners.[1] The lockdown imposed to curb the virus has only increased the weight on their shoulders, if not in terms of activity, then as a feminist economist, Nancy Folbre asserts, in terms of responsibility.[2] Despite the expanded role our homes play in an age of telecommuting and other forms of working remotely, the work that goes into making a home is still undervalued and often unseen, its worth often appraised as “love” or “patience” and deemed natural (and thus, exploitable) to women.
As anyone who has ever been tasked with caring for a home or a loved one can attest, it is not easily divided into measurable tasks, but often comes as bursts of washing, straightening, preparing, maintaining, scolding, listening, negotiating, picking up, putting away, and loving that arise throughout the day. “[D]oing is not the whole story,” Folbre explains, “being present, available, on-call, and taking responsibility for others is typically far more time-consuming than specific acts of helping.”

This immeasurability contributes to the nature of care as voided work, making the home—and by extension the family—something of a voided product, despite its indispensability to the heterosexual reproduction of society.

For the Philippines, the void is at the scale of global industry, wherein women are not only expected to manage their own homes, but many are also expected to be breadwinners for their families by managing the homes of others. Humor writer Jessica Zafra made a glib take on this in 1994 for her newspaper column Twisted, in which she made “A Simple Proposal for World Domination”.[3] She wrote: “All over the planet, from the Galapagos to Gstaad, from the Thames to Timbukthree, there are Pinays [short for Filipinas] who cook, scrub, babysit, wash, and do chores for foreign nationals. There are Filipino domestic helpers in the palaces of Arabian nobility, in the households of heads of state, corporate honchos, media moguls, and movie royalty.”

What Zafra proposed (in good humor for its time) was a coordinated sit-down strike, in which the millions of Filipinas employed as household help abroad simply refuse to work. “They shall sit in their rooms watching TV while the phones ring off the hooks, the dirty washes and laundry pile up, the dirt ring spreads in the tub, and the babies bawl their lungs out,” she described. “We would literally hold the world hostage,” Zafra fantasized. However, what Zafra also exposed early on was the very problem of treating the problems of feminized global labor export as a mere subject, reducing its human cost to a faceless “they” at whose expense the country (or “we”) would extensively profit. In the process, Zafra also failed to acknowledge the myriad ways that the country already has profited—to the tune of over 20 Billion US dollars in 2019 alone.[4]

The large-scale industrialization of labor rendered invisible began as a state program under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 70s. It aimed to generate foreign exchange from workers’ remittances, quite literally keeping a floundering nation’s economy afloat. In 1983 (under President Corazon Aquino) the agencies created by Marcos to manage the transnational movement of workers launched the Bagong Bayani or New Economic Hero Awards, reframing migration as an act of patriotism and thus attaching national significance to the income-earning activities of its constituents.[5] The awards undoubtedly deflected criticism aimed at the Philippine government for failing to provide viable sources of employment on its own shores, with migration taking the blame for the separation of families and cases of abuse and exploitation faced by the nation’s women while they were employed in foreign households.

This state-backed valorization of migrant workers, a majority of whom criss-cross the globe as care workers (nurses, nannies, teachers, home managers, and professional caregivers to name a few), confirms its role in the gendering and racialization of social reproduction, casting Filipina women into this role with the consolation of celebrating their heroism. As Zafra affirms through satire, Filipinas do have a role to play in the lives of global powers; however, they are relegated to managing the willfully hidden and purposely mundane parts of these lives. And with it, they are made invisible.

When the novel coronavirus hit many of the nations and city-states in which Filipina women work, the scale of the phenomenon became apparent on Philippine shores as the contracts of thousands of overseas Filipino workers were abruptly ended, immobilizing them in another kind of sit-down strike, albeit far from what Zafra imagined. Forced to repatriate after several months in quarantine, they were given the acronym ROFs or “Returning Overseas Filipinos,” and they filled Manila’s airports before being held again in nearby hotels and other designated isolation facilities, often at their own expense. This gave way to another crisis in May of 2020, as the lockdown was eased to give way for domestic travel, and many more took this as their cue to return to their hometowns. Combined with the workers employed in Metro Manila,[6] bus terminals and seaports were packed with people trying to return home to their provinces.

While the dependence on overseas contracts is familiar territory for academics and critics, less attention is given to the scale at which Filipinos outsource care labor to those based outside of Metro Manila. The crisis wrought by their exodus grew big enough for the Philippine government to coin another term to add to its pandemic lexicon: that of “Locally Stranded Individuals” or LSIs, defined as “foreign nationals or Filipino citizens in a specific locality within the Philippines who have expressed intention to return to their place of residence/home origin.” Made visible amid the crisis was the dependence of Metro dwellers on this privatized and woefully unregulated labor force, as well as the inadequate measures took to ensure they not only live, but move with dignity in the cities that depend so heavily on their time, energy, and bodies. Despite the imposition of guidelines for physical distancing, LSIs huddled in transport hubs and under makeshift awnings, hoping for a chance to leave the city and return home.

There are connections to be drawn between being homebound, being on strike, and being stranded, their borders as porous as those found between the work of making a home and making a living. The pandemic only magnifies these connections, as crisis after crisis continues to unfold not just with the immobilization of workers in and out of Metro Manila, but in their taking of the novel coronavirus on a grand tour of the country. Watching the LSI crisis unfold onscreen crystallizes visions of what happens when care labor—already undervalued, underpaid, and classified as unskilled—is relegated to the logic of the market. There it was on our screens, no longer tucked away in the privacy of people’s homes, but filling stadiums and spilling into streets.

When Tanya and Olive Villanueva staged a 42-minute performance by simply resting their bodies in the peace of their garden, it was part of their insistence on these connections between working and care, between art and life. They not only claim the right to refrain from visible activity but actively resist it by staging their refusal as a guide for others. As both dialogue and interruption, Villanueva inserts another set of images into the frame, images which are made to move by massaging the skin on which they are applied. Whether deliberate or accidental, the only movement portrayed is that of care.

“An octopus garden. An open sea. A house. A convict’s studio. A mosque. Home,” reads the text at the end, describing the images Villanueva sourced online, of spaces held safe and sacred; spaces which, in her words, “rested” on their bodies as temporary tattoos. At the end of her text is a reference to Leonard Co, a Filipino botanist who was murdered in 2010 by government troops.

“The headline reads: a memorial amid trees for botanist killed in army fire.
It said: He died with his boots on, his life cut short in the middle of the forest he loves.”

While there is some importance to dignifying the labor of care in the eyes of a society that has historically undermined its value, Villanueva shows how there is more to be gained in reclaiming space, so that we (or our children) might build it on our own terms. She closes her text by asking, “Who gets to see a sacred space created?”

The question, perhaps, is relevant to anyone stranded in a world built not only by somebody else but for somebody else. Where women are tasked with the endless maintenance and care of other’s creations, Tanya and Olive Villanueva reverse the steps that were taken in the Biblical making of the world. The first step towards reclaiming space, they seem to propose, is to rest.

Notes

  1. Julia Carpenter, “The unpaid work that always falls to women,” in CNN, February 21, 2018. Available here.

  2. Nancy Folbre, Care Talk: Feminism and Political Economy. Available here.

  3. Jessica Zafra, “World Domination,” in TODAY, 24 November 1994. Available here.

  4. Ralf Rivas, “OFW remittances hit record high of $33.5 billion in 2019” in Rappler, February 17, 2020. Available here.

  5. Seori Choi, Crossing the Border, Carrying the Weight of the Nation, 18th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association in Adelaide. 5-10 July 2010.

  6. Metropolitan Manila officially the National Capital Region (NCR), is the seat of government and one of three defined metropolitan areas in the Philippines.

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