‘Underpaid and undervalued’: Filipino communities face disproportionate impact from COVID-19

Pandemic brings systemic issues around remittances and migrant labour exploitation into sharper focus
Photo: Myn Bee Farnazo is a medical technologist supporting testing of COVID-19 patients at the Provincial Hospital of South Cotabato, Philippines. By UN Women Asia and the Pacific.
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Since mid-March, the enhanced community quarantine imposed on the Philippines’s largest island in response to COVID-19 has caused life to grind to a halt, closing down public transportation and most businesses and throwing people out of work.

The effects of this dire situation have reached Canada, as many overseas Filipino workers and families face the urgent need to send remittances home despite their own precarious situations.

Chris Sorio knows this pressure well.

Since his company, which produces medical and food packaging, is considered essential, the 61-year-old technician finds himself busier than ever. While his workplace can accommodate physical distancing, his daily commute and work routine have become anxiety-inducing because he has asthma and diabetes, putting him at higher risk of severe illness or death if he contracts COVID-19.

“Every day, from the time I get out of this building to the time I take the bus to go to work and go back home — I hope that every time I do this, I don’t get the virus,” said Sorio, who is also vice-chair of Migrante BC, an organization that advocates for Filipino immigrants’ and migrant workers’ rights.

“Honestly, I am terrified.”

This overrepresentation in particular sectors is not accidental.

But Sorio is even more scared when he thinks about the Philippines, where the strict lockdown has not only impacted people’s livelihoods but also brought a “militarized” environment as over 30,000 people have been arrested for breaking quarantine rules as of late April. As a result, he “very recently” sent money back to his relatives — outside of his usual four-times-per-year schedule.

Similarly, Migrante Canada chair Maria Sol Pajadura said she is sending almost $600 a month to help with food and medication expenses for relatives in the Philippines, even as her income fell after she was laid off from one of her jobs in Toronto.

“I’m not earning that much now so there’s double burden for us,” she said.

With COVID-19, the World Bank has projected a 13 per cent drop in remittances to the Philippines, amid an average 20 per cent decline globally. It’s unclear how much the flow of remittances from Canada to the Philippines has been impacted since the closure of non-essential businesses and services across Canada disrupted incomes.

But physical distancing measures are not the only source of stress, noted Sorio and Pajadura.

Instead, they pointed out that the pandemic is bringing systemic issues around remittances and labour exportation into sharp focus. Community organizers across the country are now using this heightened attention to push for better recognition of and support for Filipino and migrant workers, including undocumented ones.

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Systemic precarity

Filipino communities are likely seeing a disproportionate impact from the coronavirus due to their large presence in essential services, but Canada is not collecting ethnic- and race-based data for COVID-19 patients.

“Our experiential knowledge as members of our ethno-racial community and the circulation of stories of our community’s experiences of COVID-19 tell us that Filipino Canadians experience specific forms of vulnerability during this ongoing pandemic,” wrote John Paul Catungal, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, and RJ Aquino, director of the Tulayan Filipinx Diaspora Society, in a letter urging the B.C. Ministry of Health to collect racial and ethnic data.

“These vulnerabilities emerge from the racialized, classed and gendered ways that shape the place of Filipino Canadians, as migrant subjects of colour, in Canadian society.”

But workers remain fearful about how returning to their jobs could impact their health.

As the country faces a major nursing shortage, many of the gaps are being filled by thousands of Filipino migrant workers, whose skills put them on the front lines. At the same time, many more are doing similarly difficult work outside of the spotlight as caregivers and personal support workers in individual homes and long-term care facilities, many of which have seen deadly outbreaks.

Beyond healthcare, a large number of Filipino community members work as janitors, cleaners and agricultural and industrial workers — who are also now considered essential.

This overrepresentation in particular sectors is not accidental.

With a labour export policy in place since the 1970s, the Philippines currently has over 10 million workers abroad. Remittances form an integral part of the country’s economy, making up 10 per cent of its GDP. On the receiving end, Canada’s 2016 Census notes that the Philippines is the top place of origin for recent immigrants, making Canada a major source of remittances.

Many workers are drawn to the caregiver program, which allows for a path to permanent residency after two years of work. Despite a number of changes in the past decade, the program’s main structure and promise of permanent residency have been longstanding — since the early 1980s under the Foreign Domestics Movement, which was revamped as the Live-in Caregiver Program in the 1990s.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has also been an important source of migrant labour.

‘We do not have the luxury of working from home’

Under normal circumstances, many community organizers had already criticized the precarious conditions that this system creates for migrant workers.

“It’s designed to create cheap labour without regard for the living conditions of migrant workers that [are] coming from the Philippines,” said Marco Luciano, Migrante Alberta director.

“These migrant workers will come and look for the cheapest place to live so you end up with not just a cramped workspace but also a cramped living condition.”

During the pandemic, migrant workers now face even more stress, as their essential jobs force them to choose between their own health and work.

‘All of these federal and provincial measures should include migrant workers.’

As seen at Alberta’s Cargill slaughterhouse, site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the country, many have had to work in unsafe conditions. The 2,000-person plant, staffed predominantly by Filipino migrant workers, has seen nearly 950 workers infected with the coronavirus. Hiep Bui, a Vietnamese woman who worked at the plant for over 20 years, died as a result of COVID-19.

The plant was idle for two weeks in late April following news of Bui’s death, then reopened on May 4 with new safety measures. But workers remain fearful about how returning to their jobs could impact their health while also juggling worries about financial insecurity and how their status to remain in Canada could be affected by absences from work.

“Coming into the pandemic and the fact that the type of work that the Filipino community is doing is considered now essential, we do not have the luxury of working from home,” said Mohana Sarmiento, an organizer with the Philippine Women Centre of Ontario.

“The pandemic really exposes the gaps in how essential work pre-COVID-19 is seen as invisible, but now the pandemic uncovers what’s underneath and what’s really holding the Canadian economy together.

“It’s the workers [who] are underpaid and undervalued, and that’s where the Filipino community sits.”

‘No one is left behind’

Many community organizations are advocating for better healthcare and financial support for migrant workers.

Since mid-April, Migrante Alberta has been petitioning the government of Alberta to follow Quebec, Ontario and B.C. in offering free healthcare coverage for migrant workers, including those who have become undocumented due to job losses or expired permits. The organization also stresses the importance of addressing barriers like registration fees and bills and guaranteeing protection against deportation.

“It’s just a matter of time when an undocumented migrant will contract the the virus,” Luciano said.

“And for an undocumented migrant who’s very scared of even coming out and get tested, it really puts the person’s life at risk, but also the neighbours and the community at risk. … So it’s really important to to see that the healthcare of these undocumented migrants is also the healthcare of of all Albertans, all Canadians.”

Steve Buick, press secretary to Alberta’s minister of health, wrote to Ricochet that the province has expanded health coverage to include individuals with “implied status” waiting for extensions in application processing. There will be “COVID-related care for anyone regardless of immigration status, even if they do not have proof of residency,” he said.

Calling for a $2-per-hour raise, job security and personal protective equipment for janitors, Service Employees International Union Local 2 — which represents over 10,000 janitors in Canada, many of whom are migrant workers — has launched a campaign called From Invisible to Essential.

At a broader scale, the Migrant Rights Network — a Canadian coalition that includes Migrante Alberta, BC and Canada — and over 50 elected officials at different levels are calling on the federal government to provide income support for migrant and undocumented workers. In particular, this includes expanding the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to include those without social insurance numbers.

Employment and Social Development Canada did not provide comment by press time.

“All of these federal and provincial measures should include migrant workers. That is the most important thing,” Sorio said.

“We also advocate for regularization of the status of undocumented workers because the reality is — and we’re hearing this from the ground — that there are workers who are doing this work right now, who have lost their status, who have no status, and they should not be penalized for that because they are doing the work needed in Canada.

“We are pushing to make sure that everybody is included, that no one is left behind.”

‘Grow and thrive’

Beyond these advocacy campaigns, organizers also prioritize check-ins and mutual aid networks to support community members — especially with their mental health, as many “cannot afford to rest properly,” according to Sarmiento.

“Unfortunately, a lot of workers are also our older generation and the concept of mental health is not really something that’s talked about because as a community we’re on survival mode,” Sarmiento said.

“It’s such a privilege to actually get enough sleep, because you have to wake up and get to your next job to be able to survive living in Canada and also send money back to the Philippines. So it’s not something that’s really talked about.”

Some organizers are even relying on their work to momentarily calm their anxieties.

Organizers are also happy that their work has fostered community among Filipino Canadians and migrant workers

“Every day, we are in contact with our members and other organizers so I’m not really thinking of the virus and the financial problems that I have,” said Pajadura.

“I’m telling myself I have to be strong because if I won’t be strong, what will happen to these people who depend on me because I’m the chair of Migrante Canada? … I have to be strong and to think positively and to be optimistic on what’s going on.”

But amid all these stressors, organizers are also happy that their work has fostered community among Filipino Canadians and migrant workers. And in the long term, they hope the community will continue to be vocal in challenging systemic issues — at home and abroad.

“We never complain for a long time. We just want to keep quiet and just say, ‘We’re okay, we got this job. We’re doing something,’” said Sorio. “We don’t want to always really complain about it, but in this trying time, we have to really look at it and say, ‘You know, we have challenges.’”

“As a community, we don’t want to just survive. We want to really grow and thrive,” added Sarmiento.

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