Filipino Front-Line Workers Risk Their Lives To Keep Canada Running

Al Donato

“Deep in my heart, I was afraid. Because I don’t really want to die. I really want to come back home safe and sound.” 

Duds Miranda works on the killing floor of JBS Foods meat-packing plant, a job he’s held since coming to Canada from the Philippines last fall. More than 600 workers at the facility in Brooks, Alta. have tested positive for COVID-19, making it the second largest outbreak at an Alberta meat plant, following one at Cargill

Miranda was among those cases last month. He spent weeks self-isolating in his room, protecting his roommates from the virus. They are all fellow Filipino temporary foreign workers, new enough to Canada that their first winter here began with bragging about snowfall to those abroad.

Miranda has since recovered and is returning to work soon, optimistic about increased safety measures at his workplace. But the fear remains over re-infection and how severe that might be. 

“I’m always thinking about my family back home. I’m always thinking, ‘I have to survive,’” he told HuffPost Canada.

Duds Miranda, a Filipino meat plant employee in Alberta, says he's looking forward to returning back to work. (Photo: Duds Miranda)

When Cesar Cala and other Filipinos in Alberta learned about the circumstances of meat production workers like Miranda, they reached out with information about medical resources and donations of essential items. But they soon heard concerns from Filipino migrant workers about their workplace conditions.

“We’ve become ad hoc advocates for the workers,” said Cala, a Calgary community leader, who’s involved with Action Dignity

Filipino grassroots groups across Canada have stepped up to deliver groceries and donate protective gear to those on the front lines during the pandemic: meat plant workers, health-care providers, grocery store staff, support workers in nursing homes, cleaners. But those efforts belie the need for structural and policy changes to truly help a community that’s hyper-visible on the front lines, but whose troubles are largely unseen.

Apart from Manitoba, Canada doesn’t track racial data in COVID-19 cases, nor are there official numbers on how many Filipinos are on the front-lines. But several Filipino Canadians organizers told HuffPost Canada they’ve observed a disturbing trend: Filipino communities may be disproportionately affected by the pandemic because they’re estimated to make up a sizeable number of Canada’s front-line workers. Of front-line worker deaths, Filipinos have been among those in the headlines: Christine Mandegarian, Warlito Valdez and Victoria “Vicky” Salvan

According to Kapit-Bisig Laban COVID’s Montreal chapter co-ordinator Allan Matudio, many community members have at least one family member on the front lines or are on it themselves.

U.S. and British media coverage has highlighted the plight of Filipina nurses, for example, but such focus on the racial element of front-line work has not been as in-depth in Canadian coverage. 

What makes the Filipino experience of essential work different than some other communities? On top of the challenges of being newcomers, they may often be supporting multiple households and therefore have more financial constraints.

When Miranda got sick, he told his family back home, except his mother. Her worry would be too much for him, he said.

“I know my mom will [worry],” he said. “She’s very emotional.”

Now that he’s recovered, his whole family knows what he’s been through. “Take vitamins, drink water,” they tell him. They’re just as happy as Miranda that he’s working again, which will mean money will start being sent back once more. 

Many immigrant front-line workers in Canada may relate to Miranda’s experience: living with concern over their own safety, but toiling in high-risk sectors with confirmed COVID-19 cases anyway, because they need to send money to their loved ones in who live outside Canada.

As Statistics Canada reports, more remittances were sent to the Philippines than any other country in 2017. This “economic lifeline” is considered a huge motivator for many overseas Filipino workers who choose to move to Canada.

“Kapit sa patalim,” or “Holding onto the edge of a knife,” is a Tagalog idiom that comes to mind when Cala reflects on their situations, especially undocumented migrants or those with precarious work statuses. 

‘Linked arms’ are filling gaps

Essential workers in quarantine are unable to shop for themselves. Filipino meat plant employees have been unfairly turned away from stores in southern AlbertaMiranda credits advocacy group Migrante Alberta with helping organize groceries deliveries and comforting homemade meals like arroz caldo made by sympathetic volunteers. But more significantly, Miranda said he and his roommates were brought to tears by the compassion from complete strangers.

“We’re very lucky … you’re not thinking of the value of the things, you’re thankful of the effort exerted,” he said. “The concern they’re sharing is very [emotionally] overwhelming.” 

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One of Miranda's roommates unpacks toilet paper and food donations, arranged by grassroots group Migrante Alberta. (Photo: Courtesy Duds Miranda)

Food is just one element of assistance offered by groups like Migrante Alberta, co-ordinator Jay Zapata told HuffPost Canada. Recipients are especially grateful for culturally appropriate food, like rice and fish, that they may not find at their local food banks, Zapata said.

Migrante Alberta is part of the national coalition Kapit-Bisig Laban COVID-19 Canada, which gets its name from “linked arms,” a popular Tagalog phrase of solidarity. The network connects relief initiatives in Canadian cities, such as helping people apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and distributing care packages.

Other issues are more geographically unique. Migrante Alberta is lobbying the provincial government to provide health care for uninsured peopleMatudio told HuffPost Canada that informal French tutoring sessions with youth, who often serve as translators for their parents, are highly requested in Montreal. 

‘Romanticizing’ Filipinos hides need for reform

Cala commends the speed and efficiency of these emerging aid networks, but worries that focusing on those temporary solutions can obscure the cause of long-standing problems. For example, workplace safety complaints may point to employer issues that weren’t caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but have been accelerated by it.

“Filipinos are seen as model immigrants, right? We do work, we hunker down, we’re invisible,” he said.

Ethel Tungohan also cautions against “romanticizing” the relief efforts. The York University assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism has written about the stigmatized, economically vulnerable experiences of Filipina newcomers in Canada’s caregiver and personal support worker programs.

Vulnerable temporary foreign workers often work and live in substandard conditions, and are exploited by their employers. Their work is considered essential, but as people, they’re seen as “disposable.”  

Cala notes that returning “back to normal” might mean the current outcries against corporate employers over illnesses and related COVID-19 deaths, like that of Armando Sallegue , will be “swept under the rug.” 

In some ways, this is already happening. Tungohan points out that the Calgary Herald recently ran the headline “Meat plant disruptions cast long shadow as summer barbecue season heats up.” (It’s since been changed to read “Meat plant disruptions begin to impact supplies in stores.”)

“It’s awful. We’re more worried about barbecue than lives? That invisibilizes what happens on the worksites,” Tungohan said.

So what should long-term pandemic solutions for Filipinos in Canada look like? Tungohan and fellow researcher John Paul Catungal underscored the importance of nationally connected COVID-19 racial research to inform the pandemic relief responses rolled out by governments and social service agencies.

Filipinos are seen as model immigrants, right? We do work, we hunker down, we’re invisible. Cesar Cala

Catungal is a professor at the University of British Columbia who works with the Vancouver-based Tulayan Filipino Diaspora Society. He points to U.S. data that shows the devastating impact of the virus on Black and Latino populations. Canada may have anecdotal information and an approximation of who is on the front-lines from sector data, but there is no nationally led initiative on racial analysis related to the COVID-19 crisis. Black Canadians have led efforts to push public health officials to start collecting data, but the federal government has yet to take action.  

The usefulness of this data can improve relief efforts, Tulayan reports. For example, a low number of cases for a marginalized racial group where they work in high-risk sectors may point to a lack of testing. Tracking who dies and who recovers from a racial standpoint can also lead to addressing potential gaps in the medical system.

“[COVID-19] doesn’t discriminate, but we also know that COVID-19 takes place in a societal context where race matters,” he said. “It shouldn’t be surprising to us that race affects the distribution of infections, death rates, recovery rates … A good starting point is to have race and ethnicity data. Because we cannot respond to that which we are unable to name or see.”

Without that structural analysis on racial data, Catungal worries that scape-goating will pit others against Filipinos they see as “vectors of disease.”

The perception that Filipinos are culturally hard workers to a fault — to the point where their attendance at work and presence in neighbourhoods is seen as putting others at risk — is something that Catungal said was echoed by Alberta’s chief medical officer. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said last month the “strong ethic” in Cargill’s Filipino workers meant they wouldn’t “let sniffles get in the way” of clocking in.

What’s missing from the public official’s statement, Catungal said, is the context around why Canada’s Filipino front-line workers are still working: remittances and their responsibilities to take care of those back home.

“If they get sick, they jeopardize their capacity to be in Canada legally,” he said. “Filipinos aren’t [not] hard working by virtue of their culture, it’s because they have to be.” 

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.