Truck Drivers and Chambermaids: The Traces of History Connect


Børsbygningen, Copenhagen, Denmark (Wikimedia Commons)

Guest blogger: Nina Trige Andersen

It is not often that the plight of Filipinos in Denmark reaches the Philippine public, remote as Denmark is in the global map of a diasporic nation, which for more than a century has been sending workers abroad. Recently it happened, however, as the news of 22 Filipino truck drivers being “rescued” from “deplorable conditions” by Danish authorities made it to the media in both countries.   

The story of how Filipino truck drivers are treated in Southern Denmark was reported by the trade union magazine Fagbladet which had interviewed anonymized workers and published their self-produced videos of life inside the camp they are living in near the city of Padborg.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer could then report that the Philippine Embassy in Oslo had collaborated with Danish authorities regarding the case, and that Labor Secretary Bello III had instructed Geneva-based labor attaché to immediately proceed to Denmark to monitor the situation of the OFWs.

A few days before the news hit the Philippine public, the labor market-website A4 and the cross-border journalist-team Investigate Europe have published statistics that showed how the numbers of permits to truck drivers from non-EU countries have risen with one third between 2016-2017, and that most of these are recruited through Poland and Lithuania, from where they due to EU-regulations can drive trucks anywhere in the member states – without being covered by labor laws of the countries they labor in. 

This is all legal, but the reason Danish authorities took action in the case of the Filipino truck drivers was the conditions under which they were living: According to their permits they are supposed to reside in the countries through which they were recruited (for instance Poland), but instead some are living in the trucks and some in a “slum camp” on Danish territory with no basic amenities. At this time of year in Denmark, temperatures reach 5° in the night and will soon go below zero.

While investigative journalism can uncover realities of how non-EU workers, including Filipinos, are exploited and maltreated within the European market, one does not have to be an investigative journalist to figure out what the consequences will be when these stories break.

The employer in question will possibly be fined, maybe even sentenced to prison if the offenses are grave enough – and can be proven in court – but the heaviest costs will nonetheless fall on the workers. From being maltreated while working, they will lose their jobs and the so-called rescue operation will most likely be to send them back to the place they had left to find work.

In the contemporary political and economic logics of the European Union exploitation of labor – particularly migrant labor – is the rule rather than the exception, and this exploitation rests on the deportability and disposability of labor.

This contemporary situation in Europe have been decades in the making and has been orchestrated in close relation to economic and political developments in the Philippines, including the institutionalization of labor export.

What most people are not aware of is that Philippine labor has been recruited systematically to Denmark since the 1960s. This was during the so-called guest-worker era of Europe, when the economy was expanding rapidly.

As described in my article A Philippine History of Denmark: From Pioneer Settlers to Permanently Temporary Workers” (2017) published in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, labor recruitment from Philippines to Denmark took place with mediation of Philippine labor officials already before the adoption of the Labor Code of 1974, which is often identified as the starting point of state brokered labor export in the Philippines.

In fact, the “Filipino Pioneers”–as the first generations that arrived in Denmark call themselves–came between 1960-1974. While the year 1974 marked the expansion of labor export in the Philippines, in Denmark the year 1974 conversely marked the end of formal labor import from non-European countries, when Denmark – as well as many other European states at this historical moment – adopted a general ban on first-time work permits to workers from so-called third-countries due to economic crisis and rising unemployment. 

However, as the case of the truck drivers show, labor recruitment to Europe from for instance the Philippines never came to a halt in practice. Instead, migrant labor has been recruited on still more precarious terms. 

Much research in the guest-worker period of Europe focus on the recruitment of men from particularly Turkey, Pakistan and former Yugoslavia to the manufacturing industry of Western Europe, but a significant part of the migrant workers recruited were in fact women to the service sector, and a significant part came from South East Asia. In the case of Denmark, Filipinas – as well as Filipinos – were not least recruited to work at the Copenhagen hotels.

The Filipinas working as chambermaids in Copenhagen were also exploited as employers tried to circumvent labor laws and local collective agreements, utilizing the fact that migrant workers often have less access than local workers to knowing and upholding even the formal rights they do have.

Among other things, many Filipina chambermaids were cheated for holiday payment and overtime payment – until they started self-organizing, and finally got the attention of and support from the union of hotel- and restaurant workers, HRF/RBF.

In the 1990s Filipinas in Denmark made history by waging labor struggles at several major hotels in Copenhagen – the d’Angleterre, the Sheraton, the SAS hotels and others – fighting outsourcing schemes, illegal dismissals of unionized workers, intimidation from management, and «pirate cleaning», and by creating Filipino Network in RBF which was the first migrant self-organized structure within a Danish trade union.

That Philippine and Danish authorities can and will improve conditions of Philippine workers laboring in Denmark is doubtful: The methods employed are within the institutional logics of deportability, disposability and replaceability.

Already in 1979, the Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB, today the POEA) spoke about their effort “to diversify placements by encouraging the hiring of semi-skilled workers who are easily trained and replaced” (italics added, quote from OEDB Annual Report 1979), and this has also always been the receiving state approach to migrant labor: that it is and should essentially be replaceable.

State authorities may react to reports of specific cases of maltreatment – if the cases reach the public – but most often in ways that, in the best case, place the workers back where they started.

History shows that the only mechanisms which truly improve the laboring lives of migrants, including Philippine workers in Denmark, is their own networks, as well as the local trade unions in the region in which they work.

In the recent case, one of the Philippine organizations in Denmark, BUKLOD, have already decided to share half of their fundraising for their annual Christmas Party with the in total around 200 Filipino truck drivers living in camps in Southern Denmark.

BUKLOD’s Christmas Party will be held at Hotel Scandic (former Sheraton) in central Copenhagen, where many Filipinas have found work since the hotel opened in the early 1970s. This hotel was in the 1990s one of the main battlegrounds for Philippine labor struggles in Copenhagen, when Filipina chambermaids self-organized within the trade union HRF/RBF – today merged into 3F (United Federation of Danish Workers), which also organize within the transport sector.

The traces of history connect. May the Filipino truck drivers, and other migrant workers, be able to utilize these connections to improve their conditions, when all other odds are against them. 




nina_trige_andersen1685Nina Trige Andersen is a historian and journalist and manages the online archive A Philippine History of Denmark. She is the author of “Profession: Filippiner. Kvinder på arbejde i Danmark gennem fire årtier” [Profession: Filipina. Women at work in Denmark through four decades] published by Tiderne Skifter in 2013. Her forthcoming book, Labor Pioneers will be published by Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2019.


Read Andersen’s article “A Philippine History of Denmark: From Pioneer Settlers to Permanently Temporary Workers” in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints volume 65, number 1.



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