Obrero (worker) is a film about Filipino construction workers temporarily migrating to Christchurch, New Zealand for the earthquake rebuild. The project is comprised of three media formats: the documentary film, the interactive documentary (i-doc), and a social media page. Aside from using multiple platforms, Obrero also employs a transjournalistic mode of representation, expanding the reportage of labour migration through different documentary formats.

The project aims to contextualize the culture of labour migration in the Philippines by featuring Filipino builders in Christchurch as documentary participants and the Christchurch disaster as a backdrop to its narrative. More importantly, it aims to stimulate social transformation by providing media platforms that explore the issues, struggles and realities confronting our modern-day overseas workers.

Labour migration has been a persistent feature of post-colonial Philippines, stretching from oil rig workers in the Middle East in the 1970s to contemporary domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore. New Zealand, however, was not usually on the radar of most Filipino workers until the 2011 earthquake struck.

The movement of workers is important for both sending and receiving countries as economic issues, public policies and the social impact of labour migration transcend geographical boundaries. This interactive documentary tackles a series of resultant issues:

  • New Zealand has been and is marketed by migration intermediaries such as recruitment agencies as the ideal overseas destination for migrant workers – underlining the promise of high wages and path­ways to residency.
  • Private recruitment agencies charge high placement fees. While the ‘no placement fee’ policy has been strengthened through an agreement between New Zealand and Philippine Governments, this research shows that workers are still charged high recruitment fees.
  • Because migrant labour recruitment is often dominated by private agencies, it is challenging for government actors to regulate, monitor and ensure ethical recruitment processes.
  • The layered process of migrant recruitment also generates further vulnerabilities. If workers are exploited at the very point of departure – paying huge loans and other fees – the chances that they will keep mum about further exploitation are also increased given their little resources and urgent need to send money home. Hence, it is not surprising to hear the narratives of exploitation that reverberate in the news media – workers living in crowded accommodations, pay discrimination, and racism at work.

There is a tension within the Philippines concerning, overseas Filipino workers. They are often portrayed as ‘heroes’ of the nation because of their contribution to economy. But at the same time, their absence has social consequences given their sustained separation from their families. From a source-country perspective, labour migration is both a ‘gain’ and a ‘loss’ – workers gain financial benefits from working overseas but at the same time the emotional costs are also high and often enduring.

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