Filipino migrant workers in Canada worry about jobs, health during Covid-19

Marites N. Sison

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Filipino migrant workers in Canada worry about jobs, health during Covid-19
Many Filipinos are laid off after all non-essential businesses closed down as part of efforts to stem the pandemic

TORONTO – For three weeks now, it has become part of Sol Pajadura’s “quarantine routine” to call members of Migrante Canada who have been laid off after the provincial government ordered all non-essential businesses to close, and asked residents to stay home March 23 in an attempt to help slow the spread of Covid-19.

“Worried na ang lahat (Everyone’s worried),” said Pajadura, who chairs Migrante, an alliance of Filipino migrant and immigrant organizations in Canada.

Pajadura herself has been laid off, but since she is now a permanent resident, she will have access to either the Employment Insurance (EI) or the emergency relief fund set up by the Trudeau government in response to the pandemic.

But for others who are undocumented, and whose source of income has been interrupted and who could potentially have no earnings for months, the situation will be nothing short of a nightmare.

“Most work under the table as cleaners, as caregivers, or they make sandwiches that are sold in restaurants,” she says of Migrante members in Toronto who are undocumented. With the devastating impact of Covid-19 on jobs and the entire economy stretching for months, they worry about not having any money for rent and food. “They’re not entitled to benefits because they have no status,” she said.

Marisol, a member of Migrante, is one of those undocumented Filipino migrants. She came to Canada over a year ago after being lured by a recruiter’s promise of a good job as a mushroom picker, only to end up working under what she describes as slave-like conditions. She, along with 3 others, left that job and their case against the recruiter and the mushroom farm is pending.

Even without a work permit, she managed to get a job caring for a child. But because schools have been closed and the child’s parents are staying home, they didn’t see a need for her services. Her part-time cleaning job has also been cancelled. “Nag-iingat sila (They’re trying to keep safe),” she said.

How to pay rent?

Without any income for 3 weeks now, she has spent sleepless nights thinking about how to pay the room that she rents for $400, and how she can send money to her family in Calamba, Laguna.

Lahat halos ng perang kinikita ko binibigay ko sa kanila (I give them most of my earnings),” she added. She used to remit about $500 a week to support her two children and her mother. “Kung di ko sila mapapadalhan, di sila makakasurvive (If I don’t send them money, they won’t be able to survive).”

There are many others  in the same situation as her, according to Marisol, and so despite her own challenges, she joined Pajadura in checking up on other undocumented Filipinos. “We give each other updates. Kahit ako nasa ganitong situwasyon isa pa rin ako sa mga nangungumusta. (Even if I’m in the same istuation, I’m one of those who call them,” she said. “Nararamdaman ko na kailangan nila ng kausap. (I feel that they need someone to talk to).”

There are no available statistics on how many Filipinos are undocumented, or for that matter, how many people have no authoritized migratory status in Canada . A City of Toronto report  cites studies estimating  anywhere between 20,000 and 500,000 undocumented people living in Canada.

In the absence of income support for thousands of undocumented workers and temporary migrant workers, Migrante and members of the Migrant Rights Network, have launched a campaign urging the Trudeau government “to make sure everyone receives the income support they need, regardless of their immigration or previous work status.”

Migrante has also formed a task force to help undocumented Filipinos navigate assistance that could be available to them, such as access to food bank, and free healthcare, and to possibly launch a fundraising campaign for them.

Uncertainty for care workers

But undocumented Filipino workers are not the only ones feeling the pinch.

Filipino care workers who arrived here with work permits, are worried about losing their own jobs and status. If they are suddenly let go by their employer, it will affect their own chances of completing the two-year employment requirement for applying as a permanent resident, said Jhay, a care worker who arrived in Toronto from Manila in 2018.

There are also questions about what their status would be once they’re laid off, said Janet Tan of the Caregivers Action Centre (CAC). While they would have access to EI once they get their record of employment, their status is tied to their employer. “They can’t just work anywhere,” Tan said.

For live-in careworkers, the problem will be compounded by the fact that they would need to find a place to live if they are let go. The question remains about who will assume the cost if they have no choice but to go back home, she added.

Many worry about their own health and safety. “What if their employers get sick? This is a great concern, especially for those who are live-in careworkers and have nowhere to go,” said Tan.

For Filipino careworkers who still have jobs, the pandemic has opened opportunities for exploitation by employers, Tan noted.

Insensitive employers

A number of live-out careworkers have told the CAC that they are now being required by their employers to stay home with them, said Tan. “This leads to them working longer hours and having no day off, sometimes without pay,” she said. “Of course, being required to stay home during the pandemic is for everyone’s benefit, but isolation is difficult for them.”

There are also cultural differences to contend with. “Usually, during weekends, they buy their own food for the week. The employers don’t realize that they’re now inside their home and they don’t give them food,” said Tan.

Some careworkers have resorted to ordering their own food online, but employers, citing safety precautions, require them to leave the food outside for three hours before it can be brought inside the home, she says.

Others have resorted to eating biscuits for weeks on end. “ Yung isa nag-away na sila ng kanyang amo (There’s one who has fought with her employer), but she’s worried about her immigration status.”

Mental health

Those who are still able to work as live-out caregivers are not without issues. Jhay fears for her mental health because of her employer’s incessant demands.

Her employer demands that she not go out during her days off, not even to buy food, so she is forced to  buy groceries online, which are more expensive. Each week her employer interrogates her also about her roommate’s whereabouts, she said. And since her employer’s entire family is now home, Jhay said she’s at everyone’s beck and call; disinfecting the home periodically has also been added to her chores.

While the Employment and Social Development Canada has guidelines on the wage and working conditions of  careworkers and temporary migrant workers, there are no clear mechanisms for holding them accountable, according to CAC community organizer Diana Da Silva.

Naiipit na ang mga workers noon, nadagdagan pa ng virus (The workers have already been squeezed before, now the virus has added to that),” lamented Tan.

Frontline workers ‘vulnerable’

The pandemic’s impact on migrant workers and those in precarious work situations has highlighted the CAC and other migrant group’s call for landed status upon arrival for careworkers and other migrant workers, said Tan.

In the absence of permanent resident status, migrant workers are often treated like disposable labour, she added.

Tan, who has worked as a careworker expressed the hope that the Canadian government “won’t abandon us in this pandemic situation.” Careworkers left their own families behind to take care of Canadian families, she notes.

Migrante Canada has also expressed concern for Filipinos who continue to work in the frontlines. In a statement, it cited the Covid-19 outbreak in Lynn Valley Care Centre, a private facility in British Columbia, which is staffed mostly by middle-aged Filipina-Canadian nurses and personal support workers, who work on subcontract and are not unionized.

“As of March 21, 35 residents and 19 care workers tested positive for COVID-19,” and there have been 11 deaths in the facility, it noted. “Because of the outbreak, health care workers who worked casual shifts in multiple facilities were directed to work at only one facility which meant not only a severe cut in the income of these workers but also, a reduction of staff in the other facility.”

COVID-19, said Migrante, has exposed “the need for systemic changes in the health sector such as improved wages and benefits for workers and the need for unionization instead of privatization.”

In Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta, many Filipinos also work on the front lines of essential services like warehousing, logistics and food processing, where they are “particularly vulnerable due to their work conditions,” said Migrante. “For many years, organizers have been raising this issue of packed workplaces. With the onset of the pandemic, these same work conditions come to the fore while we ask workers in these sectors to step up and take the risk for us under the ‘white-collar quarantine’ policies.”

The pandemic highlights the need for worker protection, “especially for precarious, low-waged and migrant labor, not only for our kababayan but also for other migrant and racialized women workers,” said Migrante. Worker protection means having access to EI, paid sick leaves, healthcare and other benefits, it added.

Marisol, for her part, expresses the hope that the Canadian government will offer some emergency support for undocumented migrant workers like her, and offer them a pathway to  legalize their status. She notes that undocumented workers like her also pay tax when they shop, rent, and commute.

Walang workers na gustong mapunta sa ganitong situwasyon. Kung papipiliin kami, gusto namin legal ang status namin dahil merong peace of mind, (No worker wants to be in this kind of situation. If we were made to choose, we would want to have legal status so we’ll have peace of mind),” she said.

She also hopes that society won’t judge her and other undocumented migrants.

Alam n’yo naman ang situwasyon sa Pilipinas. Nakikipagsapalaran kami dahilan sa pamilya. Lahat tayo nagmamahal sa ating pamilya. Huwag sana nilang husgahan ang mga undocumented. (You know about the situation in the Philippines. We are taking our chances here for our family. We all love our families. I hope they don’t judge those who are undocumented).” – 

Marites Sison is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. She can be reached via Twitter: @maritesnsison




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