Friday, February 05, 2010

In our winter of discontent, hope (still) springs eternal

Hot exchanges in two chat groups where I am a member threw me off-kilter recently. I thought of their significance in light of the current historic moment that transplanted Filipinos face in their lives, or in the onset of their lives as émigrés in a foreign country. I am referring to the two worlds we live in now: the homeland we left where the locals are now preparing to elect a new leader of the country, and the other, which we have embraced as our new community, including the problems of integration, whether economic or otherwise.

Here in Toronto, a group of young Filipino professionals have initiated a program to help fresh immigrants in finding the right jobs that matched their skills and desiderata. A laudable effort, but the group hobbled from the starting gate in belittling those who have succumbed to the economic pressure of finding ways to support their families by accepting low-end jobs, such as working at a Tim Horton’s coffee shop. One of their young promoters even wrote: “Your Canadian career does not begin at Tim Horton’s.”

Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s and other similar establishments have become of late the job sanctuary for many new Filipino immigrants and women workers who are moving on from their jobs as nannies and caregivers. Women immigrants from South Asia and Latin America have also found the coffee and doughnut shops more welcoming than other employers.

Naturally, some were piqued by the suggestion that working at Tim Horton’s is somewhat degrading. Tim Horton’s is certainly not the ideal place to start one’s career, especially if one had good academic credentials and quite an enviable record of work experience. The young members were simply telling that one should know how to get the right job if they have the skills to write their resumes, select potential employers and undergo successful job interviews. Not to jump instantly on a Tim Horton’s job offer and be trapped there for the rest of your career.

While this group of concerned and adrenalin-pumped young people may be right in identifying the practical set of skills needed to break the glass ceiling, somehow they appear naive, if not out of touch with reality with the immigrant experience.

New immigrants have to struggle against institutional and systemic barriers to employment, such as racism and discrimination, lack of fluency in the English language, non-recognition of foreign academic credentials and work experience, and issues like deprofessionalization or de-skilling.

Every immigrant has a different story to tell: how many doors they tried knocking to get an interview; the thousand and one employers they had to send their resumes to; the many temp jobs they tried out just to get the needed work experience; how only a few lucky ones get employed in their profession and training; and how many unlucky ones are still waiting for their dream jobs while continuing to flip burgers and serve coffee and doughnuts. Those fortunate enough to find the jobs they want may have upgraded their education here, perhaps with an MBA, or as Philippine-educated lawyers, doctors or dentists, went back to school. Or perhaps, they just have better street smarts than the rest.

In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Manila, a few of my old friends from high school continue to debate the future of our country as our citizens ponder who to vote for president in the coming May election. Election or not (a holdover presidency is still a menacing possibility), almost everyone thinks politics stinks and our country is not going to change for the better any time now or even during this century. One wonders where Senator Francis Escudero is when the country needed him. Or how an intelligent, honest and humble attorney like Alex Lacson, who is running for senator, could perhaps be the best bet for this hoped-for dream.

While everybody seems to fault our rotten political system, someone from our high school group thought the system is too strong and that the real problem is fighting it. Although he liked Alex Lacson, he was afraid that Lacson could be gobbled up by the system and thus likewise fail. My classmate added in hindsight that to achieve real change, it must begin at the grassroots, that it is impossible for change to start from the top. Which brings us to the popular notion during the U.S. presidential election in 2008 that Obama represented change that will not come from the top-down. The idea was reinforced by the reality that institutional roadblocks such as partisan gridlock and self-interest of lobbies would not be affected by a mere change of leaders at the top. Obama symbolized a fraction of the leverage needed to make a fundamental change.

Howard Zinn, author of the famous book, A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980, also said, “If there’s going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.”

But after a year in office, Obama still has to overcome the heavy influence of powerful special interests. His critics now are saying that the insider disease (now that he has settled in Washington D.C.) has taken over him. Obama’s health care proposal, now a compromise, is at its deathbed gasping for breath. The Wall Street bailout has failed to jumpstart the economy and unemployment keeps on soaring. Unless Obama partners again with the American people as he did during his campaign, he is not going to be able to deal with the crisis of his presidency.

Central to all these seemingly unrelated thoughts is the idea that hope springs eternal in the human breast. As the German philosopher, Ernst Bloch, author of the massive work The Principle of Hope argued, hope is a basic condition of our existence to imagine a better future even in our darkest hours. Without that possibility, we cease to be – we cease to have any reason for being.

Our political system in the Philippines might be totally banged-up. But it does not mean hope is lost. There is always a new sense of possibility even in the abyss of hopelessness.

Even to a Filipino server at Tim Horton’s. It is not a shame that he or she could find work only at this place when once upon a time he or she was a corporate executive in the Philippines. This is just a short phase or a small step in a continuum of jobs, successes and even failures.

Each time, we are faced with this same question: What is the order of things at the moment?

Without an objective analysis of what needs to be improved, it would be hard to convince anyone that change is necessary. Yet, critique by itself rarely inspires people to act. We need something more to fight for as well as rile against. This is where hope comes in, as it becomes a necessary complement to criticise and seek ways to change the order of things.

It is not enough to understand how bad our political system is. We have been choosing our leaders through a democratic process called election since time immemorial, yet we often end up short. There must be something wrong in our electoral process, or perhaps the entire system, but change must start somewhere even if it takes forever.

Perhaps the answer lies in shifting from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government that will force political parties to radically alter themselves and take a stronger role. Accompanied by an electoral system based on proportional representation, changes in electoral behaviour may bring about bigger changes in political parties. I am not entirely in favour of a constitutional change, but at least this is an idea we can tinker with.

We must move towards an idea that can provide a better alternative vision and galvanize people to act towards its realization. As a Chinese proverb says, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

The same goes for our new immigrants in search of the right jobs that would help them realize their dream of a better life.

It is not enough for newcomers to equip themselves with the right set of practical skills to navigate the labour market. They must also join in solidarity with social justice groups in demanding the eradication of institutional and systemic barriers to equality. If they concentrate on the trappings instead of the core issues that keep immigrants from being hired and recognized for their knowledge and skills set, they will forever stay in the margins. They will forever nurse hurt egos and always get short-changed because they have failed to make their voices heard or put up a stand as a strong, determined, and united force.

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