Friday, July 24, 2009

The spiral of silence

Filipinos have oftentimes been portrayed as “bakya” or tasteless or kitsch for their fondness for things others would consider tacky such as movie idols who don’t know how to act but can sing and dance. Generally, we are also blamed for our “crab mentality,” i.e., the instinctive urge to pull down someone on the rise. Also for our selective display of loyalty or clinging steadfastly to our own groups at the expense of building a bigger and cohesive social unit—we call it “tribalism.” We criticize our government and our political leaders and think of them as corrupt, incompetent and untrustworthy, after we have elected them time and again to office.

Some of these criticisms are well-founded, while others could just be outbursts of frustration from both our national and individual inability to rise to greater heights. It’s quite easy to blame our frailties as a people and use them as a scapegoat for our failures and shortcomings.

Some people find this fault-finding unproductive and would simply be content with even symbolic efforts to improve our lot. They would chastise others for being critical and advise them to stop from further wounding our national psyche. However, this sanguine attitude has its downside because it suppresses constructive criticism and silences those who may have different opinions but who would rather not say them aloud for fear of rejection or isolation, or worse, reprisal.

A German political scientist, Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, propounded the theory that one is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority. She called this concept the spiral of silence.

Let’s examine how this spiral of silence theory works in a chat group, mindful of how the Internet has decreased social isolation by allowing people to expand their social networks and giving them more opportunities to stay in touch with others. We shall assume that the Internet has truly revolutionized the process of communication by making it easier and freer for people to connect with others.

Anyone can post messages in chat groups today, and only an individual’s private notion of taste and decorum would regulate such flow of communication, although this has not prevented others from posting their infantile proclivities. Opinions can be posted in chat groups on issues ranging from the political to the most mundane. Those who are generally highly educated, or who are fluent or more affluent, and the few other cavalier individuals who do not fear isolation, are likely to speak out regardless of public opinion or how the chat group behaves. In a sense, this is a vocal minority. The rest of the members of the chat group may either keep their silence or refrain from airing their opinions because they fear being isolated and rejected by what they perceive to be the “ruling majority.”

Let’s further assume that an opinion was posted in a certain chat group criticizing the Santacruzan and parada ng lechon during the celebration of Philippine Independence Day last June 12 in Toronto. The gist of the criticism was based on the propriety or even relevance of the Santacruzan and parada ng lechon, both being vestiges of the Spanish colonial past and do not portray the true meaning of independence. No comments from the members of the chat group were elicited by the opinion piece, obviously because the criticism’s trajectory was aimed at the organizers of the Independence Day celebration, all prominent members of the Filipino community and some of whom are friendly and quite close to many members of the chat group. One can surmise that nobody dared to comment for fear of isolation or rejection from both the organizers and members of the chat group. Thus, it was easier to embrace the spiral of silence rather than become the object of criticism and rebuke.

Used to its extreme, the spiral of silence theory is as much a measure of protection as it is one of oppression. The theory applies only to moral issues that tend to evoke passionate responses, thus it can be used to contain social unrest over highly controversial topics. On the other hand, when used deliberately, it becomes a method for manipulation, control and coercion.

The Internet is supposed to have overcome the spiral of silence by freeing people from isolation. However, it could also trigger social withdrawal as evidenced by low peer response in the chat group. As others are wont to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of isolation and rejection, this may lead to their eventual withdrawal from participation. The same thing can happen in the larger social setting when people become disengaged from their community; they lose interest and start to withdraw as active and participating members of their larger society.

When people fear isolation, they feel shackled, not free to speak up if they hold dissenting views. Thus, we find people restricting themselves to having conversations with only like-minded individuals, or only about safer issues, or even refraining from joining the conversation altogether. In the end, this hinders diversity and equality of participants and prevents different viewpoints from fully blossoming into a democracy of ideas.

The fear of isolation or even humiliation inhibits others from joining in the discussion especially if there are members of the group who tend to dominate, and to some extent, bully others to submission to their beliefs. Instead of engaging with others in discussing difficult issues, the dissenting members will now feel they don’t belong—they have been cast aside as outsiders—and thus withdraw in silence.

Where there is less taunting among members in the group, the tendency to conform is reduced. People who would like to dissent feel freer, more at ease to express their views because they don’t have to endure the derision and ridicule from the vocal few. Yet, the spiral of silence works because some people believe consciously or subconsciously that the expression of unpopular opinions will lead to negative repercussions, especially if an active subgroup in the chat group feeds on embarrassing and humiliating others with ad hominem arguments, name-calling, or totally inane and irrelevant remarks.

L. Dahlberg wrote in The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Information, Communication and Society that “The blindness of cyberspace to bodily identity ... [is supposed to allow] people to interact as if they were equals. Arguments are said to be assessed by the value of the claims themselves and not the social position of the poster.” His main argument, therefore, is that the Internet has made it possible to liberate people from the social hierarchies and power relations that exist offline or in actual face-to-face communication.

Cross-cultural differences may quite possibly affect one’s willingness to speak out, thus the theory of spiral of silence has some limitations when applied in non-Western cultures. Filipinos for that matter, more than others, are inclined to gauge the opinion climate when deciding whether to speak out. This is also perhaps engendered by some—or the majority among us—who keep people from speaking out believing that doing so is mere rabble-rousing and a negative thing to do. That it is better to act rather than simply talk.

But without criticism or thoughtful analysis of our strengths, weaknesses and differences, we’ll never be able to identify opportunities for improvement. We can’t simply just say “Let's find positive attributes in ourselves rather than flog and inflict wounds,” and expect the magic formula for redemption to appear. I prefer the stance of Hu Shuli, the founding editor of Caijing, a widely-circulated Chinese biweekly magazine when justifying her magazine’s role in acknowledging China’s authority (in relation to freedom of the press) while at the same time fighting prudently to improve it.

According to Shuli, Caijing is like a woodpecker, forever hammering at a tree, trying not to knock it down but to make it grow straighter.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The importance of being earnest

The English dictionary gives us three meanings of the word “earnest” and they all seem related: serious in intention, purpose or effort, showing depth and sincerity of feeling, and seriously important. These are three very important adjectives sorely missing today in public life and in our personal relations with others.

We could, for instance, say that it was for lack of earnest intention or effort on the part of the city government of Toronto to settle its differences with the striking union that the garbage situation in the city continues to stink as long as the garbage collectors are hell bent in prolonging their strike. Or it could be the reverse that the striking city employees are damn earnest about their labour demands that continuing their strike is important to them in order to put across their message. If all three connotations of being earnest are present in the life of our city, this is certainly not the kind of “earnestness” that we city denizens want, especially during these muggy days of summer.

Many times in our relations with others, we seem to forget about the importance of being earnest. We tend to sidestep the objective truth in favour of our emotions, which could be influenced by our proximity to those we usually interact with or favour with our personal biases. Sometimes our loyalty to our group or devotion to friends clouds our understanding of others or their intention behind the statements they make. It is easy for us to dismiss a contrary and unpopular stand on certain issues which we believe might tarnish the sanctity of our relations with like-minded friends. Thus, it is easier to go with the flow rather than to engage in an earnest dialogue for fear that doing so may disturb the comfort zone we have established with friends or colleagues.

Oscar Wilde, in the last play he wrote, The Importance of Being Earnest, was not just making a clever play on words. While the title of his play suggests honesty (or earnestness) should be the rule of the day, the plot really hinges on the telling of not-so- little-white lies. Written in 1895, Wilde’s “earnest” evoked a variety of complex associations which historians, sociologists and literary critics alike deemed as typifying the Victorian mindset. Wilde’s play offers a biting, although understated, criticism of the institutions and values at the end of the nineteenth century, at the time when Britain was the world’s greatest colonial power. Yet, it was the earnestness of the British exploitative class, industrial and colonial systems that enables the life of leisure portrayed by the play’s main characters. Jack Worthing, a character in the play, when asked about his politics, replies, “Well, I am afraid I really have none,” though the Liberal Unionist Party he supports defends the colonial status of Ireland.

This reminds me of the intense hatred of some individuals against any gathering that is politically motivated, or anything, even if only minimally, that would have the colour of provoking a discussion of both sides of an issue. As if relations in reality are neutral and dispossessed of conflict, yet the same people would be the first to jump and pounce on others espousing a difference in opinion. They would not accept that intellectual disagreement can be healthy, and quick to stamp their feet and object to what they perceive as challenges to their set of beliefs. It’s almost like saying they have no politics so long as everybody stays in line.

While tolerance could be the centrepiece of the liberal mind, strangely, it can also be its paradox. Liberalism enjoins tolerance of divergence of viewpoints, and leaves it to the democracy of ideas to decide which shall prevail. Ironically, the end-result is often the demise of toleration itself, because those who adhere to their hard principles and uncompromising views, whether in political, moral or religious respects always—if given the opportunity—silence liberals, for liberalism by its nature threatens the hegemony they wish to impose. The weight of a difference in opinion becomes heavier to bear when the majority is stacked against you.

Liberalism can turn some into zealots who would persecute others for not conforming to their way of thinking. If they think you have gone astray from the mainstream of their belief system, they would invite you to join the human race, not to save your soul but because they feel threatened. This is particularly true with bullying. It is the bully’s fear that begets intolerance, and intolerance in turn begets fear, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

A.C. Grayling wrote in The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life, “What underlies tolerance is the recognition that there is plenty of room in the world for alternatives to coexist, and that if one is offended by what others do, it is because one has to let it get under one’s skin. We tolerate others best when we know how to tolerate ourselves: learning how to do so is one aim of the civilized life.”

Being earnest in respecting others for their different views is becoming a lost art to many; quite incongruously, even in this modern age of high-speed communications. There could be tons of exchanges of opinions, but the static they create may still show an enormous amount of bigotry which is left to the privacy of individual judgments to process and expunge. It is more worrisome, however, when this display of narrow-mindedness is made in public, among chat groups for example, because through sheer majority of numbers alone, the articulation of a relevant but divergent viewpoint can easily be stamped out. Our own private system of intellectual censorship can weed out ideas our group instinctively detests and considers a threat to the dominance of our belief system.

As Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s play says, “[W]e live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces, in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” That, sometimes is our natural predisposition as a people, to keep our frivolous appearances, and true to our foremost cultural tendency, to save our face, rather than engage and welcome views from the opposite side for fear of being unmasked.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why do immigrants struggle finding work?

The significance of racial discrimination in the labour market has grown with the increase in the visible minority population, a trend that seems only likely to escalate. This was the finding of the Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement – Toronto (CERIS) in a study conducted in 2005 which also concluded that racial discrimination is evident in the experience of visible minorities in the Canadian labour market.

An individual’s personal account of racial diversity in his or her workplace, therefore, may not necessarily suggest that Canada has in fact begun to open up because recent studies indicate the contrary. While some firms have been more colour blind than others, by and large, the Canadian labour market is still a long way from demolishing barriers to integration and employment of visible minorities. One person’s success in his career mobility and integration in the Canadian labour market does not speak for everyone’s experience, majority of whom continue to struggle in finding a satisfactory fit between their education and skills with jobs available in the market.

Comments like Canadian employers would rather prefer hiring one of their own, being pure laine (although this term really refers to French Canadians), are still valid today. It takes more than being comfortable with the new work environment or having a profusion of confidence. Thus, immigrants who earned their MBAs or post-graduate degrees in Canada have better odds in the labour market than those only with foreign credentials (who said an MBA is not a guarantee in life?).

According to another study made by the Metropolis British Columbia (MBC) – Center of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity, while Canada has the largest per-capita immigration rate in the world, there is a lack of immigrant assimilation because recent immigrants are struggling in the labour market and most often are not integrating into the high-skilled labour market. This is happening despite efforts by the Canadian government to attract immigrants who will.

Why do skilled immigrants struggle in the labour market?

The MBC study deployed thousands of résumés in response to online job postings across a wide set of occupations and industries around the Greater Toronto Area to investigate why Canadian immigrants who were allowed to enter Canada based on their skills struggle in the labour market. Résumés were designed to represent recent immigrants under the point system and as well as non-immigrants with and without ethnic-sounding names. In addition, the applicants were selected in random based on where they received their undergraduate degree, and gained their work experience, whether in Toronto or another foreign city, and whether they listed being fluent in multiple languages (including French).

Four main findings were produced by the MBC study.

First, those applicants with English names, Canadian education and job experience received interview requests more than three times higher compared to résumés from recent immigrants with ethnic-sounding names, foreign education and work experience.

Second, employers valued experience acquired in Canada much more than if acquired in a foreign country. When the foreign résumés were changed to include only experience from Canada, the call-back rates went up significantly.

Third, résumés listing four to six years of Canadian experience, whether an applicant’s degree was obtained in Canada or abroad, or if the applicant obtained additional Canadian education, did not have any impact on the chances for an interview request.

And fourth, Canadian applicants that differed only by name had substantially different call-back rates. Those with English-sounding names received inter¬view requests 40 per cent more often than applicants with ethnic-sounding names.

Overall, the study shows that there is considerable employer discrimination against applicants with ethnic names or with experience from foreign firms. This would squarely match with the anecdotal experiences of majority of visible minority immigrants. They’re not getting hired because they lack Canadian work experience, and most employers have gatekeepers that block off applicants with strange ethnic-sounding names. Studies like this more than validate the belief of some individuals that lacking Canadian experience is simply a code for being different, in speech or appearance; that in fact it is one way to discriminate based on racial background.

It is also apparent from the study that Canadian employers do not value foreign education as much as they value Canadian education, contrary to Canada Immigration’s point system which in essence must treat any degree from any institution the same. It could be that foreign experience is treated as inferior to Canadian experience because less is known about the employer and tasks involved. Thus, the need for accreditation or recognition of foreign diplomas and work experience becomes even more important if immigration has to play a vital role in providing Canada with a source of highly-skilled and educated workforce. It will also validate the utility of using the point-system approach in evaluating the desirable characteristics of potential immigrants. Without the implicit and effective recognition of foreign education and training, Canada’s point system does not appear to be having its desired effect.

Oftentimes, non-recognition of foreign credentials results in immigrants abandoning their careers and starting over with whatever jobs they get first just to survive. The long waiting time and cost of applying, including going back to school, also have discouraged many immigrants to submit to accreditation and assessment of their credentials.

But not everything is lost because Filipinos with the right credentials, meaning a high mix of education and skills, can continue to lobby, pressure or petition the Canadian government and provincial professional regulatory bodies to adopt policies that would recognize their credentials and speed up the process of accreditation and recognition. That is, if they can form a strong and united front. If alumni from different Philippine universities and colleges can be so enthusiastic in holding sports competitions among themselves every summer that they show up in the hundreds, they can use the same umbrella organization to petition the government to adopt sensible and effective standards of equivalencies in education and work experience. The same group could be the backbone of a dynamic Filipino movement for accreditation of their foreign credentials.

While the rules for accreditation in the regulated professions like doctors, dentists or lawyers are already available, still the waiting time and cost of applying may be reduced. It is more precarious in the non-regulated occupations, for which more than the majority of the immigrant population would fall, because it is up to employers to determine whether an applicant’s foreign education and work experience match with Canadian credentials.

While majority of Canadians disapprove of racism and racial discrimination, discriminatory practices in employment are likely to be concealed to avoid criticism. In fact, racial discrimination is likely to be hidden where it exists, although there are many who believe that it simply doesn’t exist insisting that the greatest of all Canada’s strengths is tolerance. However, research and studies conducted about discrimination in employment suggest reasons to be sceptical about such overly optimistic view.

It becomes a more precarious situation when discrimination in employment is systemic, i.e., built into organizational structures and processes, and often involving informal activities which by nature are elusive and difficult to identify. One study identified that systemic discrimination may include informal practices such as informal selection based on unnecessary qualifications (the requirement for Canadian experience, for example), and informal recruitment systems (through word of mouth or networking where networks do not extend into minority groups). Many of these practices, at first blush, are not discriminatory when implemented, but become so with the changing racial composition of the labour force.

An informal network of members, for instance, which envisions re-branding themselves as a community of global professionals and would limit job postings that target only the very high-skilled and educated professionals may have the best of intentions but actually may become a willing instrument for systemic discrimination in employment. In being very selective only of job postings for high-end professionals, this group excludes many recent immigrants whose credentials may be evaluated lower than Canadian qualifications for no fault of their own, but due mainly to systemic discrimination in the labour market.

Systemic discrimination devalues the human capital of thousands of highly qualified newcomers, many of them qualified professionals and trades people. They have been enticed from their home countries by an aggressive immigration policy that promises the potential to improve their lives and to succeed as contributors to a modern economy. Yet, many of them have been consigned to precarious employment in low wage sectors because barriers in the Canadian economy deny them the opportunity to use their skills and be compensated commensurate with their training and experience.

Left unchecked, racial discrimination will continue to impair Canada’s ability to avail the best of its human resources. Action is needed and the time is now for all levels of government, employers and those who regulate professions and trades to address the challenge posed by employment discrimination, and eliminate the barriers to equal access to employment and professions and trades.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lechons, our national pride, on parade

Where else do you see roasted suckling pigs, better known as lechons, paraded during a cultural event in North America but in the City of Toronto? This year, about 30 lechons were marched in a parada ng lechon at Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto to celebrate Philippine Independence Day last June 12.

A Hispanic-style cuisine, lechon originated from the Spanish term, which means roasted suckling pig. Lechon is a popular cuisine in the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America and, of course, Spain.

The most common way to cook Philippine lechon is to roast a whole pig or piglet over charcoal or wood. The pig is then drenched in oil using a brush. In provinces in the Philippines, the brush is made out of banana leaves tied to a long wooden stick. Brushing the pig with oil makes its skin pop and crunchy.

This parada ng lechon in Toronto may be first in North America but it has its origins in the town of Balayan, Batangas, in the Philippines, a Tagalog province about two hours drive south of Manila. This tradition started in 1906 when the town of Balayan decided to feature a parade of lechons as the centre stage of the town fiesta every June 24th, the feast of St John the Baptist or “Pista ni San Juan.” It is the only town in the whole Philippines where roasted pigs or lechons are paraded during the town fiesta. The roasted pigs are paraded like beauty queens around town, much to the delight of spectators including thousands of local and foreign tourists who flock to this southern town every year for the parade.

But why lechon?

The roasted pig has been traditionally the main course during fiestas or any major gathering in the Philippines. It is not unusual for lechon or a whole roasted pig to grace any Filipino fiesta table. The parada ng lechon in Balayan started as an old thanksgiving custom, as lechon is always at the centre of merry-making whenever someone finished college, got wed, got elected to office, became a lawyer or doctor or when one recovered from a grave illness and attained good health.

On the day of the parade, hundreds of lechons are gathered in anticipation of the celebration of the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. After the roasted pigs are blessed, along with the townsfolk in the name of their patron saint, the lechons are paraded dressed in wigs, sunglasses, raincoats, or as boxers, Katipuneros, beauty queens or according to whatever theme the participating social organizations choose.

As it is the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, there is the usual custom of “water-sprinkling” where people douse water at each other, a tradition called “basaan.” Kids play with water guns of all sizes and fire trucks are free to hose down anyone – all in the spirit of thanksgiving.

The sheer madness of the occasion is enough to arouse mischief among pranksters who would toss water or beer over the lechons, drenching not only the lechons but also the bearers and onlookers as well. Some will even dare to snatch a free sample of the roast pig’s prized crispy skin. To prevent this from happening, some participants cover their lechons with barbed wire.

After the parade, the lechons are then brought back to their respective club headquarters for a festive celebration of drinking and feasting. As an occasion of thanksgiving and sharing, organizers give away sliced chunks of the lechons to the crowd.

However, whether the main rationale for bringing this tradition of parada ng lechon to Toronto is to commemorate thanksgiving for achieving our independence from Spain remains a question. Perhaps it was more the pure mayhem of marching roasted pigs to attract people’s attention that inspired the Toronto organizers of the Philippine Independence Day celebration.

Food has always been an integral part of celebration of cultural events. At best, the organizers could have presented different tables or stalls featuring samplings of Filipino food and delicacies, including lechons cut up in ready slices to be given away. But to parade these roasted pigs uncovered, especially when the threat of influenza H1N1 or the swine flu is still with us, is a bit insensitive and reckless. This call for caution, however, is not meant to spread the wrong impression that pork should not be eaten at all because pigs carry the H1N1 virus. Rather, the parade of lechons, we believe, should never take away the significance of the Independence Day celebration from displays of patriotism, love of country, or service to the nation.

Achieving our independence from colonial Spanish rule is not just an ordinary day in our country’s history. For the first time, being free meant we can rule by ourselves. It should therefore be an event we should proudly and appropriately commemorate, not by holding a Santacruzan or marching with lechons on the street, which only rekindles our enslavement to the vestiges of our Spanish colonial past. Somehow this tells us we have never been really independent: imitating our former masters only perpetuates our further abasement. Our national hero Jose Rizal once said the subjugation of Filipinos turned them into “a race without mind or heart.”

Independence Day should be a time to look back in our history as a nation. To remember those who took great risks to free our people from the bonds of a colonial and oppressive government. To remember our heroes who fought to create our country like none other. From the first uprising against the Spaniards in 1574 by Rajah Lakan Dula to the proclamation of our independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, by Emilio Aguinaldo from the balcony of his home in Kawit, Cavite.

Take the example of the Americans when they celebrate the fourth of July. They have a parade which consists of several bands, fife and drum corps, floats, military and special units, giant balloons, equestrians, drill teams and national dignitaries and celebrity participants. It’s a parade that draws the attention of Americans to the real meaning for their holiday—a patriotic, flag-waving, red-white-and-blue celebration of America’s birthday.

On a smaller scale, how about Mexican-Americans who will celebrate their mother country’s independence on September 13, 2009 (not Cinco de Mayo) in Minneapolis? They have even identified their purpose in celebrating Mexican Independence Day: to empower and promote Latino business in the Twin Cities; to provide financial assistance for higher education to the Latino volunteers who help organize the celebration; and to educate the community about Mexican history.

As usual, they will have a parade (not a Santacruzan or parada ng lechon), booths featuring sponsoring organizations, local Latino businesses, food vendors, schools, churches and nonprofit organizations serving the Latino community.

Costa Rica’s Independence Day celebration is another example worthy of emulation. Their celebration is very family oriented, without the military overtones that used to dominate their parades before Costa Rica gave its army the boot more than 55 years ago. No more sights of fighter jets and tanks. In their place, there is a procession of children from all the nearby schools, from kindergarten to high school. The children wear traditional dresses in vibrant colours crafted by their mothers who walk the street with their little ones, and once in a while dart about to fix the things that mothers like to fix. This is a great way to educate the children about their country’s history and independence, not through a Santacruzan and a parade of lechons.

The same goes for Colombia where celebrations centre on traditional regional folk dances and music, and revolve around Colombia’s flag. In Finland where they have a similar flag-raising tradition at Tahtitorninmaki (“Observatory Hill”), their celebration is much more austere and low key. Many people in Finland mark the day by lighting two candles in their windows—a custom with historical significance—since it symbolizes their silent protest against Russia. It is, however, a much more elaborate commemoration in Israel to mark David Ben Gurion’s declaration of an Israeli state on May 14, 1948. The celebration includes an official ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem with a speech, flag ceremony, a march and the lighting of the twelve torches, the torches representing each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Filipino-Canadians in Toronto, especially the organizers of Independence Day festivities, seriously need a lesson in history to make our celebration more meaningful, eventful and truly memorable. Our children and future generation deserve better.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Beauty contests: Filipino culture or mad tradition?

Whether at home or abroad, only Filipinos can claim that their love of beauty pageants and singing contests is a significant part of their culture.

Here in Greater Toronto, where close to 200,000 Filipinos have settled in this affluent metropolis in the Dominion of Canada, that’s exactly what the spokesperson of one of Toronto's prominent Filipino community organizations claims. And that is without batting an eyelash, no shame or any guilt at all.

In her own words, “In Toronto alone, we have quite a number of beauty queens, as well as many singing idols and sensational singers.”

Seriously speaking, is this penchant to parade our women—young or old—as beauty queens an important attribute of Filipino culture? Undoubtedly, singing is a widespread talent among us that we can proudly say to the world we are indeed a country of talented singers—not just of pop music but other genres as well, including operatic or classical arias.

We will grant the Toronto spokesperson the benefit of the doubt that singing contests reflect well of our culture because love of music is a fine art that is cultivated like culture itself. But beauty pageants and queens, that’s a totally different story.

Perhaps as a form of madness or idle pastime, for Filipinos beauty contests produce beauty queens who are admired and treated like stars or celebrities wherever they go. For ambitious and pretty women especially, participating in beauty contests could be the quickest way to climb the social and economic ladder.

One Filipino newspaper writer and beauty expert wrote: “A beauty title is a good credential on a lady’s resumé! It’s also a sure passport to getting job offers, be it in modeling, in the movies or even on television.”

Beauty contests are just about everywhere in the Philippines, or anywhere where Filipinos have settled in the world. In the Philippines, three Binibining Pilipinas, one Mutya ng Pilipinas and five Miss Philippines are crowned every year to represent the country in international beauty competitions. This is not even counting so many other “Misses-whatever” who are proclaimed in schools, in offices and in remote barrios and farflung subdivisions. No wonder, beauty pageants have become a national pastime, right up there with boxing and cockfights.

During the recent Pistahan Santacruzan organized by the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) in time with the celebration of Philippine Independence Day, a procession of 14 beauty queens highlighted the event, each queen representing a biblical or historical character carrying a symbol of her character. Not to be outdone were Miss Manila 2009 and her entourage of runners-up all dressed up for the parade at the Nathan Phillips Square.

What was the connection between Santacruzan and commemoration of Independence Day in the first place? It would have been more apt to parade all the different flags symbolizing the Filipino revolts against Spain or the transformation of the Katipunan flag. Somehow the organizers have lost their sense of history that they had forgotten what June 12 really meant to Filipinos.

But to deem these beauty queens as a reflection of Filipino culture is rather out of taste and shows an utter lack of understanding of cultivated behaviour which underlies one’s culture. Do these beauty pageants and beauty queens represent a way of life that we could be proud of? Just because these beauty contests are held from year-to-year does not mean they are a Filipino tradition that we can transmit from one generation to the next, and thus develop as a vital part of our culture. Have we really stooped so low that in the estimation of other people Filipinos have become a beauty pageant-crazy nation? Continuing to cater to this predilection only magnifies our collective low self-esteem—that there’s really nothing we can be proud of but our “Miss-whatever” contests or “Reynas” as our most important social function.

As part of our culture, do beauty contests perform a relevant and useful function in our community?

Beauty contests reinforce the notion that women should be valued mainly for their pulchritude or physical appearance, and thus puts tremendous pressure on women to look beautiful by spending time and money on fashion, cosmetics, hairstyling and even cosmetic surgery.

Our collective love for beauty contests can be traced to our people’s malleability to product and commercial advertising, popular films and television series, and other forms of media manipulation that idealize a certain type of beauty as a standard for all women.

Naomi Klein in her book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, argued that women’s insecurities are heightened by unrealistic images of beauty. She wrote: “Every day new products are introduced to ‘correct’ inherently female ‘flaws,’ drawing women into an obsessive and hopeless cycle built around the attempt to reach an impossible standard of beauty.”

True enough, images of beautiful female bodies everywhere, in magazines or on television, make a lot of women insecure about their own appearance such that they are more likely to buy beauty products, new clothes, and diet aids. Thus, the need to worship beauty queens, today’s ideal and perfect women.

Beauty contests can put undue pressure on women since they promote an ideal to which only a minority can realistically aspire to, but which adds to the pressure for all women to conform. This in turn can be harmful to women by encouraging dieting, eating disorders and cosmetic surgery, or simply by making them feel inadequate and unattractive.

For the most part, beauty contests promote an unrealistic and shallow standard that sets the norm for future generations to be “like beauty contest winners” if women want to be regarded as beautiful, thus negating the importance of a more profound understanding of beauty. Critics and feminist groups argue that beauty contests are degrading both to the viewer and the contestant, comparing them to a cattle market of women.

This reminds me of a story about a group of researchers who generated a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions. The researchers found her back too weak to support the weight of her upper body, and her body too narrow to contain more than half a liver and few centimetres of bowel. Their logical conclusion: a real woman built that way would suffer from chronic diarrhea and eventually die from malnutrition.

Perhaps, one beauty queen a year is enough. That’s not too taxing to our sense and sensibility. But to parade 14 of them every year is insane and—to proudly proclaim to all and sundry that beauty pageants are part of Filipino culture—betrays a lack of understanding of our deep cultural heritage.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Caregiver dilemma a labour issue

A Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is expected to be passed by the New York State Legislature and signed into law by Governor Alexander Paterson soon. The first of its kind in the United States, the proposed bill would amend New York state labour law and guarantee the over-200,000 nannies and housekeepers in New York a living wage, overtime pay, sick leave, severance and health benefits, and protection from employment discrimination.

Here is a sensible piece of legislation that Filipino nannies in Toronto can use as a model in their struggle to be treated like real workers. Right now, the utmost concern of Filipino nannies is to achieve immediate landing status as soon as they arrive in Canada to work as live-in caregivers. But that may be a short-sighted solution because permanent status is not a magical wand that will remove all the vestiges of slave labour, including abuses and exploitation that characterize the nature of work that nannies do.

Even as temporary workers, nannies and caregivers should also fall within the ambit of labour protections and basic employment standards. While their conditions of stay in Canada are subject to the federal immigration act, the Ontario government, however, must ensure that their working conditions meet provincial employment standards and that they are also protected under provincial laws. The government doesn’t need to wait for them to be given permanent status before they are covered by labour protections and employment standards. That’s why a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights makes sense.

Many nannies and caregivers, after gaining permanent status in Canada, have continued to stay on with their jobs. Not many have transitioned to new careers or to jobs for which their college education prepared them for. Because they have families and even relatives to support back home, many are unable to upgrade their skills in order to move up to better-paying jobs since this also entails money. And waiting for the better opportunity to come by is not always that easy. Given their circumstances, patience is oftentimes also a very trying task. Thus, those who have found reasonable employers who treat them fairly well would stay on with their jobs or transfer to similarly good employers performing the same menial tasks as a nanny or a caregiver. With good employers, most Filipino nannies don’t complain of doing the lowly tasks as caregivers even after they have become permanent residents or citizens.

What they don’t realize is they are still outside the protection of labour laws and standards no matter how humane their employers treat them. They may no longer stay and live with their employers, but that doesn’t change the very nature of their work. Working in private homes as housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for the elderly, these domestic workers remain isolated and unprotected because in these workplaces fundamental labour standards and protections do not apply, not even in theory.

Domestic workers are “an invisible segment of society,” according to Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Harlem), the sponsor of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

While they spend much of their lives taking care of others, domestic workers are the most exploited of society’s army of labourers. Every day, 200,000 domestic workers in New York make it possible for their employers to go to work. Yet, most are employed without a living wage, health care and basic labour protections. It was a deeply personal issue for Assemblyman Wright because his grandparents were both domestic workers.

New York’s horde of domestic workers has the same litany of complaints as their counterparts in Toronto. Working in their employers’ homes makes domestic workers uniquely vulnerable to abuse. They routinely endure verbal abuse, dehumanizing treatment, and exploitation. In some cases, they are physically abused or sexually assaulted, forced to sleep in quarters unfit of human habitation, and stripped of their privacy and dignity. The epidemic of workplace abuse is common to all domestic workers everywhere, whether in New York or Toronto.

Although majority of domestic workers are immigrants, their labour situation is not an immigration issue. Whether they came from the Philippines, Trinidad, the Bahamas, or from countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America, the same conditions of labour exploitation exist.

One of the aims of New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is to put an end to the historical exclusion of domestic workers from state labour protections, which in all probability have motivated employers to subject them to abuse and exploitation. The Bill of Rights for domestic workers lays out a comprehensive set of rights based on the unique conditions workers in private homes face. Aside from enjoying for the first time the benefit of labour standards and protections, it will also compel employers to treat nannies and caregivers not as servants, but as what they are: real workers.

Nothing has been heard of the proposed Ontario legislation to regulate employment agencies after the wake of the Ruby Dhalla “nannygate” scandal. Perhaps, the private bill initiative fell short of a genuine and most effective solution to Toronto’s caregiver crisis. Or maybe, the members of the Ontario legislature are conflicted about their role in this caregiver problem, thinking that the issue is primarily an immigration matter and should therefore fall in the hands of their federal counterpart.

Even among advocates of caregiver reforms, there is a contradiction of purpose. One group would like to scrap the Live-In Caregiver Program and end indentured servitude once and for all. Another group prefers to continue the program but give nannies and caregivers outright permanent resident status to prevent abuse and exploitation.

One can understand the scrapping of the Live-in Caregiver Program because it only accentuates the slave-nature of the work of a caregiver and perpetuates the notion that the Philippines is a compliant source of modern-day slaves for affluent families in the West.

On the other hand, those who wish to come to Canada for better employment opportunities and prospects of a good life find the Live-in Caregiver Program an easy gateway to permanent residence and citizenship, which Filipino nannies in Hongkong, Singapore and the Middle East can never hope for.

But the caregiver crisis in Toronto and in all of Canada is first and foremost a labour problem. Approaching it from the very narrow standpoint of immigration alone will not bring about an effective solution. The rights of our domestic workers should not be treated like a ball which one legislature can bounce to another. Our representatives in parliament, whether federal or provincial, should at least accept that nannies and caregivers also deserve fundamental labour rights and protections and begin to evolve genuine legislation that recognizes the important role of these invisible workers in our economy.