FOREIGN WORKERS SHUNNED
It is surprising we do not hear of more cases similar to the one involving Vanessa Tamondong and Honorato Peralta. The Filipino couple, who entered Canada under the now-controversial Temporary Foreign Workers program in 2009, thought they had done everything they could to build the foundation of a future life in Canada: They worked hard at their jobs (sometimes taking on multiple duties to make ends meet), and they followed the rules in hiring an immigration consultant (on their employer’s recommendation/insistence, they said) to handle their application for permanent residency. Their future in their new country was bright. Or so they thought. Last Wednesday, the mood was decidedly different at B.C. MLA Mable Elmore’s office. That was where Tamondong and Peralta made their public plea after their permanent residency application was denied due to inaccuracies in the work addresses they filed, in addition to other false information provided in the forms. The couple is now holding the consultant and their former employer responsible, and Elmore is asking for federal and provincial labour ministers to intervene.
Especially heart-wrenching is the fact that the couple — married in Canada — now has a two-year-old son who has known nothing but the Canadian way of life. With Peralta and Tamondong unable to work for the past three months, their loss of status in Canada could potentially mean the end to their pursuit of citizenship — a process that has already taken them years.
No matter who is ultimately at fault, the fact is, barring a change of heart on Ottawa’s part, the family will have little choice but to return to the Philippines, where they will have to decide whether to try to emigrate again (although Canada would not likely be the destination, since temporary workers cannot enter the country for four years after they leave).
The challenge facing temporary workers like Tamondong and Peralta is that they are completely unfamiliar with Canada — its systems, its laws, and its social orientation. They are especially vulnerable to bad advice because it is almost impossible for them to discern otherwise. And, as they are not guaranteed to become permanent residents or citizens, society — for the most part — does not step in to help them because, technically, they are not Canadians.
And therein lies the fundamental conundrum in our temporary workers policy: We want the economic
Many of these workers — especially those with young families — viewed the temporary workers program as the first step toward permanent residency, and the closing of that door (through either official rule changes or mistreatment by shady immigration industry representatives) can only be seen as a slap in the face.
benefits these workers bring, but we don’t want to help them with their status while they are here. It flies in the face of what Canada holds itself out to be — a dynamic, accepting, multicultural society, built by immigrants over multiple generations, and respected globally for our values.
Over the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile incidents regarding temporary workers, both here in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada. The contention from some opponents of the program — that it is abused by employers to bring in cheap labour at the expense of hiring Canadians — led to federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney tightening the rules dramatically in June. Since then, Ottawa says it has seen a 75 per cent reduction in foreign worker applications.
But to a community of workers who may or may not have a full view of what’s going on, the rule changes can feel like a move to sweep temporary workers out of the country, after they have worked long and hard for the betterment of Canada’s economy. Many of these workers — especially those with young families — viewed the temporary workers program as the first step toward permanent residency, and the closing of that door (through either official rule changes or mistreatment by shady immigration industry representatives) can only be seen as a slap in the face.
It has already triggered emotional reactions from some communities. “Disposable labour” was a term used by activist groups like Migrante B.C.
Migrante is a Filipino community organization, and its involvement in cases like Peralta’s and Tamondong’s isn’t surprising. The temporary workers issue — while it affects all foreign communities in Canada — likely impacts the Filipino community disproportionately. At last count, there are about 662,000 Filipino-Canadian citizens, the thirdlargest visible minority group in the country. But there are countless more who are here on a temporary basis — the Commission on Filipinos Overseas puts the total number of people of Filipino descent in Canada — citizen or not — at close to 852,000.
The Philippines is renowned for providing robust labour forces outside its borders, and it is common practice for family breadwinners to work abroad and send money home. Officials estimate overseas remittances back to the Philippines may account for as much as 13 per cent of the country’s GDP.
But these workers’ impact on Canada is also sizable: Officials estimate Tagalog was the fastestgrowing language in the country from 2006 to 2011. While it is hard to gauge precise numbers in terms of financial impact, the Filipino community has contributed much to the social and economic fabric of Vancouver, the province of B.C., and Canada in general. Their presence in the service and homecare industries is practically unavoidable in everyday life.
And yet it is not often we hear from people like Tamondong and Peralta. And the myopia extends to our government representation: Elmore is the first and only B.C. MLA of Filipino background. For a community comparable in size to the Chinese and South Asian groups, the Filipino community’s public profile is decidedly more limited. And it may play a role as to why temporary workers — a significant number of whom are from the Philippines — do not often get their voices heard.
Which brings us back to the issue of the controversial temporary workers program. It essentially creates a shadow population of “not-quite-Canadians” whose lack of visibility in public society makes them easy prey. Many of them have no one to fall back on except community groups like Migrante. And with the organization’s own limited profile, it is hard for them to move the needle by themselves.
The future of this program should be up for more rigorous debate: Should our values allow for “almost-but-not-quite-Canadians” to exist? Should there be more attention paid to these workers while they are on Canadian soil? Should society consider integrating these workers into the mainstream community, or should they be kept in a blind spot? And should the focus be on having a more specific path to permanent residency for those who are interested to follow?
Because simply responding “too bad” to the likes of Peralta and Tamondong seems awfully un-Canadian.