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As May draws to a close, we wanted to take the opportunity to share a short story from an Alberta publisher and writer. Today’s Sunday Short —“Disposable Double Double Lives,” by Mila Bongco-Philipzig — is from Beyond the Food Court: an Anthology of Literary Cuisines, edited by Luciana Erregue-Sacchi, 2020, and reprinted here by permission of Laberinto Press.
Disposable Double Double Lives
In 2014, a week after my son turned fourteen, he started working at a fast-food counter in Edmonton City Centre Mall. At that time, the food court was located in the basement, and all the fast-food stalls formed a circle around the middle seating area. There were Filipino temporary foreign workers (TFWs) working in almost all the stalls. I knew only one of them, but the Filipino workers in the food court all knew each other. Quickly, they learned about my young son working at McDonalds.
About three weeks after my son started, I waited to pick him up until past the mall’s closing time. All the stalls emptied, and the grilled gates were drawn to block off the food court area. I had no way to know where my son was. I peered through the grills worriedly until a Filipino custodian came out with a mop, saw me, then deliberately walked over. He said my son was still inside, washing up the floors and kitchen sinks at McD. I had never met this man before, yet he knew me and my son and took the time to assuage me.
As I frequented this food court to pick up my son, I got to know more of the Filipino foreign workers there. Truly heartwarming to me, they repeatedly said that they were keeping an eye out for my son and that he could have freebies from them. During his breaks, he could walk through the food court and would get offered a cookie here, some tacos there, a slice of pizza, some teriyaki beef with rice—what a treat! I felt we had stumbled upon a community invisible to most Canadians, but which brought back memories of growing up in a little village in the Philippines. The summer I was five, my siblings and I stayed with our grandma. In the wet market, we knew exactly which stalls to go to for free stuff: a free coconut bun or a square of kalamay (sticky rice), a glass of sago and gulaman, or a stick of banana que (fried, sugared plantain). Once, we even got free rubber slippers! Only later did I find out, these people knew our mother left us earlier that year and were actually giving us little tokens of affection. I felt the Filipinos working at the food court were doing the same for my son whom they had never met before. What were the chances that the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” would play out in a Canadian food court for us? I was also elated to find out that many of the TFWs cooked extremely well and accepted orders. Suddenly, I had access to traditional Philippine food that was not readily available in Edmonton at that time: pancit palabok, molo, laing, bicol express, kare-kare, dinuguan, menudo, mechado, chicken pastel, empanada, cassava cake, sapin-sapin, turon, and so on. I started eating lunch more and more often in that food court, enjoying traditional Philippine food, as well as sharing memories and stories with my heritage community. And without knowing how to cook myself, I became a star at potluck parties.
After I helped one of the TFWs gather documents and write a letter to obtain a visitor visa to Canada for her mother, some other workers came to me for assistance in documentation, letter-writing, and understanding policies on employment, benefits, and becoming a permanent resident in Canada. I got to know them better as they confided in me more and more. I was dismayed and alarmed to find out about their plight as TFWs. Many of them had gone into debt in order to pay some placement agency to come over. The TFWs had left parents, siblings, spouses, and children, putting their lives on hold for the chance to work for low or minimum wages in Canada. Each and every one came hoping to become a permanent resident at the end of their contract, and to bring the rest of their family over to Canada. Unfortunately, it was not made clear to them that this would be extremely difficult, and in many cases impossible.
When Canada started the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP) in 1973, its main objective was to fill short-term labour shortages for live-in caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers, and skilled workers in the fields of IT, nursing, research, and so on. I myself came on a student visa in 1984 and after completing a master’s degree, was eligible to apply for permanent residency.
Starting in 2002, however, changes in the TFWP added recruitment in the Low-Skills category. The change to include low- and minimum wage occupations was a major turning point from Canada’s traditional immigration policy that allowed temporary foreign workers to eventually apply for permanent residency.
Under the new policy, the direct path to Canadian citizenship was gone. TFWs now entered the country with temporary contracts tied to one particular employer. In order to keep a work permit, renew a contract, or be eligible to apply for permanent status, they needed the support of their employer—a vulnerable and exploitable position to be in. As a result, TFWs were often scared to speak out about exploitative work, unacceptable living conditions, and the precariousness of their status in Canada. TFWs often found themselves in cramped living conditions, for example, five to seven people sharing a two-bedroom basement, paying rents far higher than market value to their employers as the money was automatically deducted from their pay. Some were not paid for overtime worked, were compelled to work over holidays, and often refused adequate time off. Some TFWs were required to do additional manual work for their employers outside the scope of what they were hired for. Some found themselves in small towns where they had to endure racial slurs and disdain. Yet despite these hardships and injustices, there seemed to be an unending supply of Filipino TFWs in the food courts and fast food diners in Edmonton, and to some degree, all over Alberta. Indeed, from 2000 to 2011, there was a noticeable increase in the numbers of TFWs in Alberta: it jumped from around 9,500 in 2000 to over 65,000 in 2011. At the peak of TFW hiring between 2007 and 2011, the Philippines was the largest source of international migrant labour for western Canada, providing people to work mostly as meat packers, food counter attendants, and hotel room service staff.
In addition to the 2002 changes in the TFWP, the rapid rise of Filipino TFWs in Alberta can be attributed to the following factors:
a) the oil boom in Alberta circa 2005–2014
b) the expansion and fast-tracking of temporary workers in the fast food, hotel, and meat packing industries in 2006 onwards
c) Tim Hortons’ pivotal role in shaping the Stream for Low-Skilled Occupations (S-LSO), as well as its target recruitment from the Philippines
d) the systemic complicity of the Philippine administration for international labour brokering.
The Philippine government played an active part in providing migrant workers internationally, and to Canada specifically. Since the 1990s, the Philippines had increasingly benefitted from the remittances sent by overseas workers. The government started to intentionally research global labour markets to identify anticipated shortages. TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) was established to provide training programmes to align with the global demands, purposefully creating culture-and industry specific Filipino workers appropriate for export to host destinations. In her book, Marketing Dreams, Manufacturing Heroes: The Transnational Labor Brokering of Filipino Workers, Anna Guevarra shows how the Philippine state and employment agencies actively marketed and manufactured a social imaginary of the Philippines as the “Home of the Great Worker.” It was subtly instilled among Filipinos that they should be disciplined and loyal migrant workers because they had the responsibility to their country and families to support and sustain this manufactured image of the “Great Filipino Worker.” Instead of systematically addressing the lack of opportunities and unacceptably high unemployment in the country, the Philippine state deliberately instilled desires in Filipinos to work overseas, hailing them as modern-day heroes for consistently sending back remittances which have propped up the economy.
But more than just being able to work and send money back home, many migrant workers dream of relocating permanently to a country more developed and affluent than the Philippines for a better life for themselves and their families. With this mindset, Canada had always been at the top of work destinations for Filipinos, second only to the US and high above countries in Asia and the Middle East. The migration history between Canada and the Philippines in the 1960s and 1970s—when Filipinos came over as nurses, garment workers, live-in caregivers, and eventually became permanent residents— created the prevalent thinking among TFWs that migration to Canada was almost guaranteed at the end of a work contract. The desire to migrate permanently to Canada resulted in the pervasiveness of Filipinos coming over to work as TFWs in Alberta starting in the early 2000s until the present. The strong preference for Canada among the Filipino TFWs played into the hands of Tim Hortons’ need for “suitable” fast food workers. Around 2006, Tim Hortons convinced the Canadian government that there was a labour shortage in the tourism/ hospitality industry in western Canada. Tim Hortons lobbied aggressively and succeeded in having low-wage occupations be included in the TFWP. This gave rise to the Low-Skilled Pilot Project (LSPP) which later became the Stream for Low-Skill Occupations (S-LSO). Tim Hortons’ involvement was so crucial and conspicuous that Aida Polanco Sorto, an Assistant Professor in Labour Studies, writes in her doctoral thesis that, “over the years, government bureaucrats jokingly referred to the LSPP or S-LSO as the ‘Tim Hortons Programme’” (Behind the Counter: Migration, Labour Policy and Temporary Work in a Global Fast Food Chain p. 33). Many studies and articles have since indicated that there was no actual labour shortage but that fast food and hotel staff positions attracted only “undesirable workers”—students, older people, or newcomers—who were not motivated nor fast enough, or who would resign when the work became difficult. The newcomers specifically were not yet attuned to the Canadian culture or not linguistically capable of fast-paced or customer-facing work.
Tim Hortons recognized quickly that finding willing and motivated workers from the Philippines was as easy as it was profitable. Not only were Filipinos culturally and linguistically equipped for Canada, but there were lots of highly qualified, able-bodied, docile, and loyal workers to choose from since many Filipinos were eager to work in Canada. The national stereotype of the “Great Worker” fed the Tim Hortons counters so effectively that the company increasingly took over the direct recruitment of workers from the Philippines, bypassing recruitment agencies and taking over their franchises’ applications.
Tim Hortons could have recruited from any part of the world but recruited more than 50 percent of their workforce from the Philippines. By 2010, 77.76 percent of its workers recruited from abroad came from the Philippines. Tim Hortons could be choosy and still import the best, most desirable workers for difficult, minimum wage jobs.
But why were Filipinos so eager to work for low pay in frigid Alberta? Work was scarce in the Philippines, and the standard of living was far lower than in Canada. Even at minimum wage in Alberta, TFWs could earn more here to support their families back home (for comparison, the median wage for a high school teacher in Metro Manila in 2015 was $400.00/month). And ultimately, Filipino TFWs were prepared to disrupt their lives and families for the elusive promise of being able to settle permanently in Canada, a belief based on previous immigration history between the two countries. The end of the oil boom in Alberta in 2014 and the weakening of the economy exposed how disposable TFWs truly were. In 2015, changes to the TFW program introduced more bureaucracy and longer processes, shorter work permits, no contract extensions, as well as provisions that clearly prevented TFWs from being able to settle here. No matter how long a TFW had previously worked in Canada, the message was clear: they now had to leave. TFWs’ lives and status became even more precarious as some were caught in between the policy changes, employers failed to comply with new documentation requirements or processes, jobs became scarcer, permits expired, extensions were not allowed, the nomination for skilled worker status became more stringent, and so on. The changes caught many TFWs unprepared. Some had given birth to a child while in Canada but were nevertheless not allowed to stay. Some chose to stay anyway to join the underground economy, cognizant of the lack of jobs in the Philippines or needing to repay the money borrowed to come over. Undocumented, they became further marginalized and open to exploitation. Now there is a COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing is imposed. By April 2020, almost everything declared a non-essential business is closed, but businesses that supply the food chain must remain open. There is an outbreak at the Cargill Meat Plant in Alberta. Over 900 workers have been infected, and two people have died. Seventy percent of workers in the meat plant are Filipinos. There is backlash against the community from Canadians who believe the TFWs were responsible. The Filipinos feel unfairly blamed for the outbreak, as comments are made about carpooling and intergenerational or multi-family households. Workers claim that proper PPE was not provided, physical distancing was not enforced, and they were required to show up for work even if they were sick. After the plant is closed for a week, there is pressure to go back to work even though there are no reassurances that proper measures and changes will be applied to prevent further contagion. The workers— many TFWs, some undocumented—are afraid to lose their jobs but are also anxious about getting sick and dying.
The pandemic throws into focus who the essential workers are outside of healthcare services and utilities: meat packers, grocery staff, custodial workers, cleaners, fast food attendants, and others in similar occupations that pay mostly minimum or low wages, many of them filled by TFWs. Data from the UK and USA indicate that there is a higher rate of contagion and death among ethnic minorities, but Canada does not yet collect race-based data related to COVID-19.
The precariousness of migrant lives intensifies where illness and death are the potential results of working and living conditions over which they have no control.
I have lost touch with many of the TFWs I met downtown when the City Centre mall food court underwent renovations in the summer of 2015. Even before that, there was already a lot of turnover as contracts expired and other TFWs took their places.
The new food court in downtown Edmonton opened in November 2016 at the top floor of the mall with soaring skylights, bright, white tiles, and modern tables and seats. It was three times bigger than the old one. There were still Filipino TFWs but noticeably much fewer.
Meanwhile, I had established close ties with Migrante Alberta which is part of an alliance of Filipino groups across Canada helping to address the worsening conditions for foreign and migrant workers. In the middle of a pandemic, the City Centre Mall food court is eerily empty and quiet as only some stalls are open for take-out.
None of the background chatter in Tagalog nor the ethnic dishes and bursts of laughter shared in the old space. My son is now enrolled at the University of Alberta and I have since moved to another job and gotten a promotion. But my TFW friends were not as lucky. There is neither permanence nor upward mobility afforded to TFWs. Federal and provincial policies regarding migrant workers consistently favour the employers. Foreign workers are mostly deemed replaceable, as disposable as the cups for our double doubles.
“Disposable Double Double Lives,” by Mila Bongco-Philipzig. From Beyond the Food Court: an Anthology of Literary Cuisines. Ed. Luciana Erregue-Sacchi, 2020. Reprinted by permission of Laberinto Press.
Mila Bongco-Philipzig has published five illustrated children’s books, three of which are bi-lingual (Filipino-English). She has also translated children’s books (German-Filipino) and published her poetry, short stories, and essays in various publications in North America and Asia. Mila is very active in organizing, as well as volunteering for, community events. She is active in groups promoting human rights, as well as inclusion and diversity.