Advocating for Canada’s Kababayan
Migrante Manitoba - part 2
By Jon Malek
In my last column, I introduced my interview with Diwa Marcelino in August 2014. Diwa is the program coordinator of Manitoba’s regional chapter of Migrante, an organization that advocates for the rights and well-being of temporary foreign workers in the province. In the previous column, Diwa told us about what Migrante Manitoba is, the organization’s membership, and their core mandate. This issue will explore some of Migrante’s operations and how people can help Migrante’s central mission.
It may be surprising to some that there is a significant number of Filipino temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Manitoba. The exact numbers are not clear, but as of 1 December 2012 there were around 5,000 Filipino TFWs working in a number of industries. Some of these industries include the service sector (gas stations, food service attendants, hospitality services), and the pork and poultry industry. Other than Winnipeg, Filipino TFWs also live in Steinbach and Neepawa.
It may also be surprising to some that there is an unfortunate and unacceptable amount of exploitation faced by some TFWs (not just Filipino) in Manitoba, as across Canada. As an advocate for these workers, Migrante performs a vital role for those who suffer abuses in the Temporary Foreign Worker program because it is not easy for these workers to stand up for themselves. Law protects Canadian citizens when it comes to voicing concerns regarding employment conditions, but as migrants whose status is temporary in nature, “a lot of them are reluctant to stand up for their rights publicly,” says Diwa. As advocates for these workers, “the role that we have in Migrante is to be that voice.” Being temporary workers, their employment status is not protected as it is for Canadians and their jobs can be terminated easily, resulting in deportation.
When TFWs arrive in Manitoba, they may not initially know about Migrante. As Diwa explains, though, the extensive involvement of Migrante in the Philippines exposes many OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) to this organization and the existence of regional chapters. However, in many cases TFWs are referred to Migrante Manitoba, whether by other Canadian chapters of Migrante, lawyers, politicians, or family members. In recent years there have been many changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program so that, as Diwa stated, what one may know in June might not be applicable by September. As an organization devoted to advocating for TFWs, Migrante Manitoba has established a certain expertise in helping temporary foreign workers, making it a common point of referral for cases.
As mentioned above, Filipino TFWs work across Manitoba and Migrante Manitoba is active in many of these regions. In addition to specific cases that are brought to them, Migrante engages in proactive workshops across the province, especially in Southeast or Northern Manitoba, although much of their work concentrates in mainly southwestern or southeastern areas. Migrante Manitoba may also become involved in cases that go beyond the border, such as in Saskatchewan, as the nearest chapter west of Manitoba is in Red Deer, Alberta.
Many cases that Migrante Manitoba deals with have to do with injuries, such as punctures, stab wounds from using a knife, or safety concerns with things such as moving lines. As well, there are complaints about wages, overtime pay, or vacation time. As Diwa states, these are common concerns of workers in Manitoba but “in their case, the issues are a little bit more pronounced because, for instance, if they get injured, a lot of cases [that Migrante is involved in] are workers being told they are fired and have to be sent home, which is illegal.” In many instances, TFWs are ineligible to receive employment insurance, despite the fact that they pay into the scheme like all workers in Manitoba. For those working on farms or in the hog industry, for example, the use of chemicals and the ability or inability to wash hands is a concern. In addition to what should be basic health and safety conditions, TFWs face exorbitant recruitment fees, sometimes as high as $5,000 to find employment.
When TFWs find themselves in a poor employment situation, they do not have the freedom to simply find other employment, as this process may take up to six months and, if they publicly voice their concerns, they risk termination of employment and deportation. Plus, they have recruitment debts to pay and families at home relying on their income. It is because of this that Migrante Manitoba performs such a vital role, advocating for the basic human rights and dignity of foreign workers who contribute significantly to the Manitoban economy. When I asked what he felt were the most pressing issues for TFWs in Manitoba, Diwa replied that “they don’t have the same rights as Canadians or permanent residents,” including the right to move freely from one job to another. While one may argue that, as non-Canadians, they are not eligible for such privileges, it seems that this is less about privilege and more about basic human rights. In the literature on labour migration, it is generally agreed that mobility is and should be a right extended to all, whether foreign or not. What worsens the situation is that, while being denied many privileges afforded to Canadian workers, TFWs are required nonetheless to pay taxes and premiums such as employment insurance while not benefiting from such services.
As Diwa said in the interview, the work of Migrante Manitoba is not just reactive, but is also holistic. It involves creating relationships with different stakeholders such as government officials, lawyers, and other organizations so that, when they are faced with a situation, they can react appropriately and promptly. But more to this, Diwa and Migrante Manitoba endeavour to spread awareness about what issues migrant workers face. As has been the case throughout Canadian history, it is when the wider public becomes aware of abuses or injustices in the immigration system that meaningful change can happen. I ended our interview by asking Diwa what the most important points he would want to get across to the wider Manitoba community about migrant workers. His response was that, first, there needs to be awareness of the issues that migrant workers face, and secondly that there needs to be more empathy to their cause. Diwa said “these workers contribute a lot to the Manitoban economy, but they also on the other hand have sacrificed a lot. They are experiencing family separation, sometimes they are experiencing depression, and [they are] basically divorced…from their lives or the people that they had. I think we need awareness, if we can help them in some way to create laws and pressure government to create more equitable laws concerning the lives of migrant workers, for instance, regulations that protect them, or regulations that would equalize their rights as workers.”
This, I think, is an issue that deserves the attention and concern of all Canadians, especially as Canada strives to be a defender of human rights on the global stage. While there is much that needs to be reformed with the current system, Diwa states that migrant workers do not need much. “They come here to actually help us but there are some things that we can do to help them back.”
Empathy and understanding go a long way in forming the foundation for meaningful change. By spreading awareness and advocating for the basic human rights of Filipino TFWs, Migrante Manitoba and all those involved with it exercise the democratic prerogative that must be utilized to enact change. As with the case in Canadian immigration history, it is such movements and organizations that make Canada a better place.
There are many ways that one may become involved in Migrante Manitoba. They have a Facebook page under Migrante Manitoba, where information regarding their events and activity is posted. Their toll-free number is 1-800-559-8092. The website for Migrante Canada is www.migrante.ca and has resources, information on campaigns, and related links.
The transcript of my interview with Diwa Marcelino will be made available on my webpage, www.pearloftheprairies.ca.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program. Jon’s research endeavours to document the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community through archival research and interviews. Jon is happy to hear from community members interested in sharing their experiences of life in Winnipeg. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and information on the project can be found at www.pearloftheprairies.ca.