An Op-Ed by Joyce Valbuena ( Centre d’appui aux Philippines/Centre for Philippine Concerns )
First appearing at Montreal Serai and reproduced with permission
Montreal | One of the biggest challenges of migrating to another country is leaving your family behind. In most cases the reason is economics. If you are from a developing country, it becomes inevitable for at least one person in the family to go abroad to generate enough income to send kids to school, pay hospital bills, pay loans or land mortgages, be able to build one’s own house, or even just to be able to feed one’s family.
Being away, a migrant learns to cope with everything on his own. During times when a migrant faces dilemmas and prejudices, the love for the family gives him/her strength. When the strong typhoon Haiyan hit the province of Leyte in the Philippines, many of the migrants here in Montreal felt very anxious and worried about their families and friends back home. I felt heavy-hearted seeing photos and videos in the news of the devastation caused by such a catastrophe in my homeland. I was dismayed that the government had not done enough to protect the communities affected by the typhoon.
Also, when you migrate to another country, you bring some aspects of your culture and tradition that are as important to you as your family. However, what if these cultural values are suppressed in the new country where you have chosen to work or live? If wearing or displaying religious symbols, such as hijabs and turbans, are restricted, will you feel that you are being respected?
As a migrant, your ethnicity is usually considered by other people as coming from an inferior root – the smell of the food you eat, your hygienic practices, the accent as you speak, or when you communicate with a compatriot in your own language. Worse, you feel deprived of your rights to access basic services if only one language is used in social institutions such as hospitals, police stations and other public offices. How else can you seek help when abused by your employer or during an emergency if you cannot speak the prescribed language in the province where you live and cannot be accommodated in any other language?
More so, a migrant from a developing country does not have equal opportunities because his/her educational and professional experiences are mistrusted. For instance, even after having completed two-year contracts as domestic caregivers, migrants are often unable to practice their professions because their college diplomas are not recognized, despite the fact that they have worked as nurses or teachers in their native lands. Generally, most Canadian companies prefer employees with training certificates from Canada.
Meanwhile, many women migrant workers settle for jobs that are largely considered unskilled or low-status such as domestic care work. They are poorly-paid and compelled to endure exploitative working conditions. It is even more emotional for migrant mothers who leave their own children to look after those of their employers. Since domestic care work is not even considered a “real job” caretakers are excluded from benefits such as CSST [La Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail] and coverage and maternity benefits.
All these prejudices do not give relief and comfort to the worrisome migrants whose main intention is to provide a better life for their families.
The discriminating migration policies, such as the temporary foreign worker program in Canada, deny migrant workers their right to family life. Migrants should have a right to family life and to be reunited with their children. However, in this policy, temporary workers that Canada hires for specific work are sent back home to their country after four years. They have small chance to apply for permanent residency, and later on sponsor family members, because the selection requirements are stiff. The temporary foreign worker program is set up to bring cheap labor in to Canada where these workers are hired for low wages and no benefits. Because of their temporary work permits, they are often threatened and mistreated by their employers.
The number of temporary foreign workers has been steadily increasing in the past few years. In 2011, there were over 300,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, and in fact, more temporary foreign workers were accepted into the country than immigrants.
During the launch of the Temporary Foreign Workers Association (Association des Travailleuses et Travailleurs Etrangers Temporaires) in Montreal (November 2013), there were several stories that were shared of what is happening throughout Quebec and Canada. An article by BASICS Community News Service mentioned that an employer of one group of farm workers paid them an average of two hours of wages per day for over six years. Several workers complained about being tied to a single employer. One worker, whose company had laid him off for three months, explained that his work permit restrictions did not allow him to apply for other jobs, or for employment insurance. A group of workers also shared stories about their employer forcing them to rent apartments in his building or else be fired. Workers also shared stories of being told to apply on “single” status despite being married and having children back home placing their future plans to apply as permanent residents in jeopardy. Other workers shared stories about language barriers. They could not take French courses, nor could they access translation services within hospitals or some unions. These workers came from a range of occupations, and were employed across different cities in Quebec as farm workers, butchers, machinists, welders, translators, and lab technicians.
The need for genuine development in our homeland
In dire need of money to send back home to their families, many migrant workers succumb to multiple discriminations and precarious employment. They become vulnerable to unfair labor practices simply to ensure that they have enough money to meet their financial goals.
According to IBON International, remittance inflows to developing countries in 2012 were estimated to have reached US$401 billion. Top recipients of recorded remittance inflows were India ($69 billion), China ($60 billion), the Philippines ($24 billion) and Mexico ($23 billion).
In the Philippines, the overseas Filipino workers are dubbed as modern day economic heroes because their remittances save the local economy.
Whereas, in fact, the increasing diaspora of workers is a reflection of poor economic condition of the labor exporting country where migration is often touted as a catalyst for development. While migrant remittances can improve the local economy, it deprives the country from benefitting from the skills of its own labourers and professionals. The increasing exodus of labor weakens domestic economic foundations leaving very few opportunities for the people to improve the living conditions in their own country (IBON International, October 2013).
Migration becomes a global trend because of the increasing demand for cheap labor. Migrant workers are treated as cheap commodities with human rights being often violated because oppressive labor laws are tolerated by both governments of the sending and receiving countries.
While a migrant worker can give temporary relief to the economic situation of a family, in the long run this does not address a genuine development of the country because family members who are left behind continue to be dependent on remittances, or on other family members who, in the future would also migration to another land.
In the home country, there is a need to ensure sustainable employment and livelihood opportunities for everybody through national industrialization and genuine agrarian reform. Every family member should have free access to education, health care and other social services to ensure that the family is not placed in financial distress.
At the international level, governments must ensure to protect the human rights of all migrant workers, including their rights to safety, to express their own beliefs, to practice cultural traditions, and to access basic services amidst language barriers. Because, in the end, while migration can be a tool for development, one can question the kind of development it brings where labor exporting countries become increasingly poorer, and where migrants continue to face greater exploitation.
Joyce Valbuena is the coordinator of the Centre d’appui aux Philippines/Centre for Philippine Concerns, a Montreal-based solidarity group of Filipinos and non-Filipinos in Quebec who are concerned to end the situation of repression and exploitation in the Philippines. Joyce is a graduate student of Public Relations at McGill University.
M. Cooke. November 2013. Basics Community Service. Temporary foreign workers in QC launch their own association.
IBON International. October 2013. Migration and Development: A matter of seeking justice.
Declaration of the fourth International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR). October 4, 2013. New York, NY, USA.