Friday, January 15, 2010

Recognizing ourselves

According to psychologists, misattribution is one of the seven fundamental “sins” of memory’s transgressions. Misattribution is usually associated with false recognition, and oftentimes, Filipinos are culpable of this sin.

In November 2008, I wrote a story a friend told me regarding a group of Filipino nannies recruited by a Toronto employment agency to work as live-in caregivers in Toronto. Most of the nannies were recruited in Hongkong and promised work visas to work in Toronto.

Toronto is the dream destination of every Filipino woman working overseas as a housekeeper or nanny. Unlike other countries, a live-in caregiver in Toronto has a pathway to permanent residence, and eventually to Canadian citizenship. More than fifty per cent of Filipino Canadians in Toronto have come to Canada by this route.

However, the nannies had no clue that their work contracts were a fraud. There was no work waiting for them upon their arrival in Toronto. Their agent housed them in a cramped basement and forced them to take on temporary jobs without pay in exchange for accommodation and food.

My friend who also heads an advocacy organization for Filipino live-in caregivers cautioned me to keep mum about it. The nannies were caught in a dilemma whether to report their situation to the authorities or face deportation. They approached the Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Toronto but only to be told there was nothing they could do with their problem. The Labour Attaché said it was up to their agency to comply with their contractual agreement.

With their deportation looming should they tell Canada Immigration, the nannies decided to accept their fate. In March 2009, their story came out in the Toronto Star, one of the city’s mainstream newspapers.

Last December 12, 2009, the federal government announced changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program that included the Juana Tejada Law and an extension of another year for caregivers to apply for permanent residence upon completion of their work contract. The province of Ontario similarly passed legislation that will give protection to caregivers from unscrupulous employment agencies which were also prohibited from charging nannies with placement fees.

But the best part of this story is how Filipinos gave due or false recognition to those who help in improving the plight of our nannies.

Remember the Philippine Labour Attaché? He arranged a special dinner to recognize an investigative reporter (not of Filipino descent) of the Toronto Star for his series of articles exposing the bogus hiring of nannies and other temporary workers in Toronto. No recognition was given to my activist-friend who was the source of the reporter’s stories and who fought and still fights for the rights of the stranded nannies. Local community newspapers and other advocacy organizations, which covered and supported the nannies’ plight, were also ignored, as if they did nothing to help their kababayans in need. That same Labour Attaché who told the nannies before that nothing could be done about their situation.

Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister for immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism was showered with praise when he announced the changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program last December 2009 in a meeting attended by leaders of the Filipino community. Some of the leaders even cried in jubilation reassured that employment agencies will now be watched closely and that caregivers could now bring up their complaints without fear of reprisal from their employers.

Juana Tejada, who died from cancer shortly after acquiring permanent status, was honoured with the adoption of a law named after her. Mr. Kenney was called a “champion and a hero” by his new army of Filipino supporters.

Not to be outdone, the president of a Filipino alumni association in Toronto splattered his unabashed gratitude on a lawyer who helped in shepherding Tejada’s case before Canada Immigration. He even called the lawyer “the prime mover” and “main inspiration” of the movement for caregiver reforms. It would have been remarkable if his services, as a gesture to a dying woman, were pro bono.

Gene Lara, a community organizer in her senior years, took Juana Tejada under her wings when the latter’s application for permanent residence was refused because of her stage 4 colon cancer. Gene gathered all the local community journalists to publish Juana’s sad story and lobbied ferociously to have Juana’s health care coverage restored.

Meanwhile, a leader from another community organization questioned why Juana insisted on staying, instead of going home to the Philippines where her family and relatives could look after her. That same leader must now be grinning widely in praising Mr. Kenney for making the Juana Tejada Law possible. How about Gene Lara? Nobody remembered what she had done for Juana. Mila and Oswald Magno, the couple who started the worldwide petition for the Canadian government to grant Juana’s dying wish, were also relegated to oblivion.

When the stranded nannies wanted help, Pura Velasco, a diminutive woman and former nanny herself but a steadfast and untiring advocate for Filipino caregivers took their cause, wherever and whenever it was possible to air the nannies’ indignation and appeal for public understanding and popular support. Along with other nannies and former caregivers, Pura took to the streets and organized protest rallies before Canada Immigration and the Philippine Consulate in Toronto. Did anyone recall Pura’s efforts? Nobody remembered what she had done, just like Gene Lara.

The most ardent supporters of caregiver reforms in Toronto are activist-organizations like Migrante Ontario and the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), yet community organizations that never really extended meaningful support to the caregivers’ cause like the Philippine Independence Day Council (PIDC), Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) and Kalayaan Cultural Community Centre got priority billing for recognition.

Filipino community leaders in Toronto are giving too much credit to politicians. The changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program are very small. In fact, they do not address the real concerns of caregivers for genuine reforms: 1) an end to the live-in requirement and 2) immediate permanent resident status for caregivers. The first is at the core of the exploitative nature of work in the homes of their employers. The second, the federal government would not accommodate, for fear that it would encourage them to switch work and leave their contracts earlier. If the caregivers were given the option to work as live-in or live-out, that at least is a huge and partial victory for them.

Protection from abuses of employers and employment agencies is long overdue.

Nannies have long been excluded from provincial protection because the law is not clear in the first place. While caregivers are subject to federal immigration law, labour protection is a provincial jurisdiction. Nannies have become victims of two levels of jurisdiction that kept passing the responsibility between them.

The Juana Tejada Law (not really a law but a regulation) serves a symbolic purpose, and is not the general rule. How many nannies would be in a Juana Tejada condition but only a miniscule number? This is already addressed in the law which allows applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, exactly the reason in granting permanent residence to Juana Tejada.

Yet, our own Labour Attaché, who is supposed to look after the interests of overseas Filipino workers, and our community leaders would not hesitate to pay homage and tribute and even hail as heroes and champions those that did not directly have a substantial role in achieving these minor reforms.

This reminds me of the first EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986 where the business sector, the Roman Catholic Church and the moderate groups took ownership of the people’s protest against the Marcos dictatorship when it was about to fall. National democratic groups and their worker, peasant and student allies who were responsible for continuing the difficult struggle against the repressive Marcos regime were displaced and pushed aside. The heroes of that revolution were now the opportunist military officers who crossed over to the side of the people, the business leaders who switched allegiances because Marcos was about to be overthrown, and the Church which removed its blessings on the government it used to cuddle.

The same phenomenon is repeated in Toronto, and possibly in other places, too, where Filipinos gather and live. From our history, we could cite Aguinaldo, a member of the ilustrado class who took away from Bonifacio, the unschooled Katipunan leader and from the working class, the leadership of the revolutionary government. In smaller situations, we probably have the same behaviour repeated many times over. Why so? Perhaps, the answer lies deep in our hearts. Our small omissions have metastasized into a collective failure of memory as a people.

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