The recent street protests by Tamil supporters in Toronto show their passion about their politics. Young children marched together with their parents like one big family affair, their thoughts and fears foremost for relatives in Sri Lanka who were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers.
A few months back, Canadians of Tibetan descent marched on the streets of Toronto demanding for a free Tibet, a country now under Chinese control. Before this summer Olympics, in fact, Tibetan protests were held in several big cities around the world.
Israel’s onslaught at the Gaza Strip also brought thousands of pro-Palestine demonstrators on the streets condemning the attacks as a disproportionate response to Hamas violence against Israeli settlements.
All politically driven, the success of these street demonstrations impinged on the government of Canada’s response. In all instances, Canada kept its distance and avoided direct involvement. Yet, Canada as a society has been invariably engaged with the aims of the protests through the media and public forums.
While there is no accurate way to gauge the success of these protests, we witness how protest organizers effectively mobilized people to join the marches on the streets and generated buzz in the media about their demands. If the number of protest participants and pages of opinions generated in the media are determinants of success, then these protests are successful by any means even if their long-term demands are not achieved.
Perhaps this has motivated some Filipino groups in Toronto who are planning, although quite reluctantly, to persuade Filipino-Canadians to join a street protest demanding the ouster of MP Ruby Dhalla from the federal parliament. The embattled MP was accused by two Filipino caregivers of being an abusive employer, asking them to perform work outside their contracts and even withholding their passports. Parliament is now investigating whether MP Dhalla has violated certain immigration requirements in contracting the services of the two Filipino caregivers, and whether the allegations of abuse are well-founded.
Before what is now known as Canada’s “nannygate,” some employment agencies in Toronto were exposed by the press to have offered bogus jobs to prospective nannies from the Philippines. Women from the Philippines have been recruited in exchange for money, but when they arrived in Canada, no jobs waiting were available as promised. The women were forced to work in jobs arranged by their employment agencies under oppressive working conditions. The Ontario government has responded with a proposed legislation to require registration and licensing of nanny agencies and offered a hotline where nannies can phone in their problems without fear of reprisal.
It was during one of the public meetings held by the Ontario government to gather feedback from caregivers on the proposed legislation that MP Dhalla was exposed by two Filipino caregivers who were encouraged to speak up because of the promise of no reprisal.
As a whole, the Filipino community does not seem affected by this current nanny controversy. Abuses by employers and employment agencies have already been documented in the past and advocates for caregiver reforms have been vigorously demanding changes in the immigration law that would allow caregivers permanent resident status as soon as they arrive in Canada. Their temporary status has been argued by the caregivers as the root cause of abuse because they have no other choice but to give in to the wishes of employers and employment agencies during two years of work as live-in caregivers. All of them would like to gain permanent residence after completion of their contracts and eventually become Canadian citizens, a privilege they will not achieve working overseas in Hongkong, Singapore or in the Middle East.
Previous demonstrations were staged by caregivers in their attempts to raise public awareness on their plight but these were mostly participated by the caregivers themselves and a few supporters from labour groups. Notably absent were Filipino-Canadians who have snugly settled in Canada.
There are at least two probable reasons to explain the low turnout of Filipino-Canadian support for the caregivers.
One, among Filipinos in the Philippines and those who have become Canadians and successfully integrated in their new society, caregivers are considered lower in social and economic stature. This prevailing attitude may even be true among former caregivers who have become Canadian citizens. While caregivers are not unheard of even in the Philippines, they are usually young women plucked from the rural areas in order to take care of the children of well-to-do families in the cities. They are therefore treated as members of the servant class. Those who have achieved success in their careers and enjoyed a level of comfort in life would tend to distance themselves from people or conditions that they perceive as lower than their new stature. This may be difficult for some Filipino-Canadians to accept, but deep inside them is a condescending attitude towards their fellow Filipinos who have not achieved their level of success.
“Nanny lang naman kasi siya,” is a common expression that one hears. “She’s just a nanny.”
The second reason goes to the root of apathy among many Filipinos towards political issues, particularly those who are relatively successful and have settled well in middle-class comfort. As a community, Filipinos in Toronto are more concerned about things that will satisfy their basic economic needs and will promote their status or image. They will not take risks to align themselves on controversial issues.
For instance, there are extra-judicial killings in the Philippines and rampant human rights abuses, but unlike the Tamils in Toronto, Filipino-Canadians will not march in the streets to demand a stop to all these killings. Or when a Filipino woman was raped by an American soldier and thousands in the Philippines have been demonstrating for the scrapping of the Visiting Forces Agreement (an agreement, not a treaty, that allows U.S. military personnel in the country), the same incident meant nothing to Filipinos in Toronto and it might even be a butt of jokes to some macho Filipino men.
Some members of a Toronto association of graduates of the premier educational institution in the Philippines, a state university that produces most of the country’s leaders, are more interested to hear a Philippine senator speak about his aspiration to become the vice president of the Philippines. When was the office of vice president ever deemed an important elected position?
This senator has not achieved anything significant during his term in Congress except being married to a Filipino megastar who is also visiting Toronto to perform in a live musical concert. When an outspoken member of the opposition in the Philippine Congress visited Toronto last year to speak on human rights abuses and the growing number of disappearances and civilians being killed, did members of this alumni association listen to him? Too bad, this opposition member of Congress wasn’t married to a popular movie star.
When the two Filipino women came out in the open about the abuses committed by MP Ruby Dhalla, some so-called community leaders immediately seized the opportunity to voice the Filipino community’s displeasure and even volunteered to testify before a parliamentary committee investigating the allegations. Where were these community leaders when the caregivers and other advocacy groups were demanding for reforms in the Live-in Caregiver Program? Or when the caregivers exposed the illegal practices of recruitment agencies? What would these community leaders testify to when other advocacy groups are much more engaged and knowledgeable with the problems of caregivers and their demands for reforms? Or was this just a perfect opportunity for self-promotion?
There could be a street protest of caregivers soon to highlight these workers’ demands for reforms. Mostly caregivers will attend as usual, with a handful of participants from labour groups and sympathizers from advocacy groups. But expect no community leaders around unless television coverage is guaranteed and they would be chosen to speak.
Would it be a better idea to stay home this time, rather than join a political sideshow in parliament where the party in power only wants to discredit a member of the opposition, and not to listen to the demands of the caregivers for reforms? Filipino caregivers will be served well by their advocacy groups by continuing their efforts to persuade the government that it’s about time to legislate reforms. They have been largely on their own, and have been successful in conveying their demands without much help from a community that will never be quite ready to pick up the fight for them.