TORONTO—The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought untold losses for migrant Filipino workers and has worsened their economic and social conditions.
This was the consensus of three panelists who shared their experiences and views at the Malayang Kapihan: Labor and Migration Under COVID-19 online forum Sept. 4.
The panel included Jesson Reyes, managing director of Migrants Resource Centre Canada; Dr. Ethel Tungohan, assistant professor in the Departments of Political Science and Social Science at York University; and Dolores Balladores Pelaez, chairperson of Migrante-Hong Kong.
“The global pandemic has exposed what is already a vulnerable situation,” Reyes said.
In fact, he said, the Philippine government has been inadequate in responding to the plight of overseas workers.
“Instead of focusing on adequate health and social services, the Duterte government has doubled down and intensified reliance and dependence on foreign rulers and masters, putting the interests of the ruling elite and new cronies first, and consequently putting behind the needs of the marginalized sectors of society, including overseas Filipino workers.”
“In the words of our worker-kababayans,” said Reyes, “they’ve been ‘treated as garbage’ by the Philippine government.”
In Canada, he continued, “it has exposed a policy that has been historically ‘anti-poor and anti-migrant’ among visible minorities.”
Reyes said a July Statistics Canada study reported that the economic fallout from the COVID pandemic has resulted in 42 per cent of Filipino-Canadians experiencing “a strong to moderate negative financial impact” compared with other groups. (https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00042-eng.pdf?st=lDKe821K)
“This is consistent with what we are seeing on the ground,” Reyes said of their clients—from caregivers to workers at the Migrants Resource Centre. “Many have been laid off. Those who have kept their jobs as frontline workers have experienced difficulties coping with the challenges.”
He cited cases of a Filipino migrant worker dying from COVID-19 in Brampton, Ontario, and workers contracting the virus while working at a meat plant in Alberta and in mushroom farms in Ontario. These workplaces he said, “have been considered essential but their management have not deemed it essential to put safety and security of workers in place.”
More than 60,000 undocumented Filipino workers living in Ontario face extreme difficulties as well, said Reyes. “Not only psychological and emotional stresses because of job loss, but also because of the loss of their mobility to look for jobs.”
In Hong Kong, said Dolores Balladores Pelaez, chairperson of Migrante-Hong Kong, close to 200,000 overseas workers and workers in transit, have been affected by the COVID pandemic.
“More than 12,000 workers have lost their jobs these past two months. Yet, we haven’t received any financial assistance or support from the Philippine government.” Stranded workers waiting for work permits and visas have not been provided accommodation in their time of need.
The Hong Kong government has not helped ease the workers’ conditions either, Pelaez said. “It has aggravated the situation because of discrimination, isolation, and the sending out of workers back to their home countries.”
“We have been working long hours before the pandemic,” said Pelaez, who has been working in Hong Kong as a domestic worker for the past 25 years. “Now we are working twice or thrice the number of hours. All the members of our employer’s family are at home, so we have to provide all of them all the services that they need.”
Workers cannot balk at the strenuous and hazardous working conditions for fear of reprisal from employers.
Neither the Philippine government nor the Hong Kong government has addressed the issue, she said.
“Instead of having one day-off a week, workers have been encouraged by the Hong Kong government to work the whole day seven days a week.” Since they are not in their own place but at their employer’s house, workers find it difficult to take a rest or to relax from the long hours at work.
“These things are happening without any question or action from our Philippine government,” Pelaez stressed, “That’s why we are pushing the Philippine government to address the bad situation of workers in Hong Kong.”
Dr. Ethel Tungohan says her study on migrant care workers in Canada has revealed that COVID-19 has worsened the workers’ already precarious working conditions and bargaining power with their employers.
“When their employers get laid off, the caregivers don’t get paid,” Dr. Tungohan said. “We also have employers working from home, and thus expect their employees to work 24/7. We have employers limiting their employees’ trips to the park to rest or to the type of food they eat.”
Likewise, Dr. Tungohan said, there is immense worry among care workers about their citizenship application in Canada. Aside from the two-year work requirement, care workers are also required to update their education to be approved for permanent status.
Because of reduced bargaining power, said Dr. Tungohan, “employers have asked their employees to sign waivers that they won’t blame their employer or the Canadian government if they get COVID, which is a complete violation of Canadian labor law.”
For workers in long-term care facilities, Dr. Tungohan said, the problems “have magnified.” Since these workers depend on multiple short-term contracts to survive, “the government mandate to limit their work in one care facility has depleted their income.”
Most pervasive, she said, “is the idea that Filipino care workers are to blame for spreading COVID!”
“People say that because these workers usually go in groups or live in extended families or work even if they are asymptomatic, that they are responsible for the virus.”
Other issues such as housing discrimination against workers or workers being forced to live in bunkbeds in care facilities to limit the spread of the virus need to be addressed as well, she said, “especially when neither state—receiving or giving—government is doing something to address these concerns.”
The September 4 meeting, moderated by Dr. Amber Heckelman, was organized by the British Columbia convenors of Malaya Canada to learn more about the situation of overseas Filipino workers in Canada and globally under COVID-19.
Malaya means “free” in Filipino and seeks to broaden Canada-based support for the cause of freedom and democracy in the Philippines.
Malaya Canada will launch their movement on September 20, with Filipino American philanthropist Loida Nicolas-Lewis slated to speak on “The State of Democracy, Sovereignty and Justice in the Philippines.”
VIDEO Link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/MalayaCanada/
Patty Rivera writes from Toronto, Ontario.
Jesson Reyes, Migrants Resource Centre Canada
Dr. Ethel Tungohan, York University
Dolores Balladores Pelaez, Migrante-Hong Kong
Economic impact of COVID-19 among visible minority groups
From Statistics Canada (StatsCan) COVID 19: July 6, 2020
“The crowdsourcing questionnaire further asked participants about the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to meet financial obligations or essential needs, such as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and groceries. Most visible minority groups had higher shares reporting a strong or moderate negative financial impact of COVID-19 than White participants (23%, Table 1).
“The share was particularly high among Arabs, West Asians, and Filipinos (42% or higher). Arabs and West Asians had the highest poverty rates prior to the pandemic, while West Asians and Filipinos had the highest rates of job loss or reduced work hours.
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