A professor at York University in Toronto, in collaboration with a Filipino social activist group, recently completed a study of the experiences of Filipinos in Toronto in entering the labour market. The first part of the study, conducted in 2005-2006, focused on gathering baseline data on Filipino immigrants, their educational attainment, professional training, work experiences, and their observations on the barriers to achieving their full potential in the labour market. It was followed by in-depth interviews of two focus groups in 2006-2007, one for the regulated professions, and the other, for no-licence required occupations.
This wasn’t a novel study of the experiences and struggles of new immigrants in the labour market. Previous researches have already been conducted on access issues, including studies of what helps or hinders immigrants seeking to enter their trade or profession in Ontario. One critic has wryly commented that the issue of access has been studied to death: so many recommendations have been made from these studies that all that appears lacking is action, or the will on the part of the government or bureaucrats to act on these recommendations.
So, what does this recent study of Filipino “deprofessionalization” contribute to our understanding of the barriers to access and integration into the labour market?
First, we need to clarify the concept of “profession” as it applies to immigration.
Here, we talk of engineers, architects, accountants, nurses, lawyers, physicians or physiotherapists, a list of occupations that are not included in Canada’s top priority targets for immigrants. Presumably, the study was referring to “professionals” who came to Canada either as spouses or under a lower occupational category. Truly, it would be very difficult for any Filipino from among these professions to access the market laterally. One has to pass accreditation, go back to school for a year or two, and undergo a period of apprenticeship like completing an internship in a hospital if you’re a doctor or a year of articling in case of a lawyer. But to lay the blame on barriers in entering these professions when you’re not accepted as an immigrant based on your professional qualifications is rather unfair, even if these barriers seem to be racially motivated.
Let’s take the licensing of foreign medical graduates, for example. Each year, close to 500 foreign graduates seek internships in Ontario; the number would vary depending on the level of immigration. But the government has to guarantee every medical graduate from the province an internship position and has restricted licensing of foreign medical graduates from 323 in 1985 to 24 per year after 1989.
Meanwhile, Ontario has been experiencing a shortage of doctors for general and family practice throughout the province. Although there may be several hundred physicians who cannot practise their profession in Ontario and could be tapped to fill in the vacancies, there is no sufficient number of internships available even if they pass the required examinations. No wonder that many foreign-trained physicians in Ontario are driving taxis for a living.
The Filipino study highlighted the class origin of most Filipino immigrants as one factor that militates against their integration into the labour market, which explains the fact that many arrive in Canada without significant financial assets. But this is likewise true for most immigrants who have chosen to move to Canada for better work opportunities. New immigrants usually arrive with only their suitcases. Harsh economic conditions in their home country most often drove them out in search of a better life.
Unable to upgrade their educational or job skills and saddled with the responsibility of sending financial assistance to their families back home, Filipinos find it difficult to compete for higher paying jobs and simply settle for whatever jobs that come up to survive. This inability is not a function of class origin, however. There is bitter irony in the argument that one chooses to leave his class origin only to be burdened by it when he competes with others in the labour market for his skills.
Asking respondents in the study what prevented them from achieving their full potential in the labour market does not necessarily yield useful and relevant information about barriers to jobs or trades, which are mostly institutional or systemic and of which most of the respondents may not be aware of. Separation from their families, for instance, is a natural result of working as a live-in caregiver due to their status as temporary workers.
Sending money to their families and relatives is also a much-abused scheme that is probably rooted in the nature of the extended Filipino family kinship system. Many of the husbands of these women who work as live-in caregivers in Canada have chosen to stay at home on the pretext of taking care of the kids, but in fact are content to depend on their wives’ incomes which in practical terms are much more than what their families would earn if the husbands also worked. There are many instances of family breakdowns when the wives find out that their husbands are spending the hard-earned money they send home for drinking and entertaining with friends, gambling, or keeping affairs with other women. These are responses which you will never get from this study; to avoid the stigma of shame, most women would rather keep these facts to themselves.
The study also failed to account that many live-in caregivers who came to work in Canada would not be successful in entering the domestic labour market in the Philippines had they opted to stay. If they went to pursue college education, it is highly likely that they did not take it from the best or most reputable schools in the Philippines, where employers usually put a high premium on where potential employees complete their education. With a high rate of unemployment and shortage of jobs, the prospect of gainful employment for these caregivers would be nil. When they become permanent residents and are able to sponsor their families here, they bring in family members whose level of skills and education is probably similarly very low, so these newcomers entering the labour market would yield very low expectations too.
It is disturbing to read observations made in the study about the impact of Filipino cultural traits in the workplace and how these norms reduce the chances of Filipinos for promotion and upward mobility in the managerial hierarchy. This again could be skewed by the sample of respondents chosen by the study, whose answers are predetermined by their present economic situations. If the study were to focus more on the difficulties of live-in caregivers or lower level-skilled workers, on the other hand, their personal reflections on career change or opportunities for upward mobility would by and large be limited by their own circumstances and thus may not reflect the current experiences of the larger cohort of Filipino Canadians in the workforce.
When we arrived in Canada in 1987, there was only one practising lawyer of Filipino descent in Toronto, a handful of doctors and dentists, and a sprinkling of education professionals. The ranks of our professionals have grown in numbers since the last two decades, with more Filipinos moving up in the corporate ladder, both in government and industry. If we include Filipino children who were born or raised and educated in Canada, the numbers of successful professionals and skilled-workers would be on the rise, debunking the myth of deprofessionalization which this study seems to suggest.
Canada has a history of preferring immigrants who look like its racial majority, and its immigration policies have always had a significant impact on the people who were allowed to come. In 1896, Canada only wanted peasants in sheepskin coat, born to the soil, with a stout wife and a dozen children. Back then the land needed to be tilled and white-bred farmers were considered good material for the rural areas.
There were periods in Canadian history marked with hatred of immigrants, particularly those belonging to races deemed unsuitable, or what they had termed the “Asiatic” race. A head tax was imposed on Chinese immigrants to deter them from coming to Canada after completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. In the 1930s, there was overt targeting of Asian immigrants, to the point of barring wives and children. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were also required to renounce their former citizenship before becoming Canadian citizens.
Canadian immigration policy began to open up in the mid-1940s, after the Second World War, but the government continued to refuse immigrants on grounds of nationality, ethnic group or customs. It was only during the seventies when multiculturalism was adopted that Canada truly opened its doors to immigrants and refugees from new-source countries. During this period, many women came to Canada under the Domestic Worker Program, the predecessor to the Live-in Caregiver Program, which has attracted a lot of Filipino women.
Today, immigrants are the lifeblood of Canada’s economy and society. More than one-fourth of Canadian immigrants come from developing countries and are visible minorities. The Philippines has also overtaken China as the primary source of Canadian immigrants and temporary workers.
Are there racial barriers to access to professions and trades for the foreign-trained in Ontario? The answer is both yes and no. Accreditation of credentials is a long process, sometimes quite expensive. While there could be some acceptable equivalency standards for foreign diplomas or work experience, the process is not yet fine-tuned to make it easier for immigrants to practise their professions or skills in the labour market. Indeed, much still needs to be done.
The immigrant experience is not unique to any specific race or nationality. What Filipinos have been experiencing is not a strange phenomenon. A country like Canada, a nation built on the shoulders of a dominant race, needs to be jolted once in a while to ensure that it honours its declared ideals with actual policies of multiculturalism and openness to all races.