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Canada Doesn't Support "Essential” Migrant Workers

Enormous sacrifice is asked of Filipino healthcare workers, for example, but what is the government doing to support them?

by Mildred German

Filipino health care worker Warlito Valdez of Richmond, B.C. Valdez died of COVID-19 in April. Photo via GoFundMe/VancouverIsAwesome
Filipino health care worker Warlito Valdez of Richmond, B.C. Valdez died of COVID-19 in April. Photo via GoFundMe/VancouverIsAwesome

This article was written for International Migrants Day, December 18th.

Unceded Territories | As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for doctors, nurses, caregivers, and more healthcare professionals is rising globally.

In the U.S., 17.4 million people have tested positive for the virus to date, along with nearly 500,000 people in Canada. The healthcare systems in both countries are feeling the strain.

The U.S. has reported major losses among medical professionals, including Filipino nurses, who reportedly account for one third of the deaths of nurses in that country. Meanwhile, Canada is grappling to keep up with the labour demands in healthcare. The province of B.C. has announced its intention to hire 7,000 new healthcare workers.

However, Canada’s systemic racism and ongoing deskilling of immigrants and foreign workers is an old and worsening problem that, along with rampant racism, is making the situation even worse. Politicians such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have been making racist comments against people of colour and foreign-trained medical professionals. Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Teresa Tam, and Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Saqib Shahab, have faced racist comments from politicians who have faced no repercussions.

The Philippines has been globally hailed for the dedicated work by Filipino nurses and other labourers during the pandemic. Filipino migration worldwide is rooted in the Philippine Labour Export Policy (LEP) which has trafficked over 10 million Filipinos to work in over 170 countries over recent decades. This world-renowned role as a source of migrant labour and nurses is connected to the historical U.S. colonization of the Philippines, which included the implementation of English as an official language in the country and a shift to U.S. standards in education. The Americanized education system has historically trained Filipino nurses to serve in the U.S.

Filipinos are also overrepresented in Canada’s health and care work. Dr. Ethel Tungohan is the Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism, and Assistant Professor of Politics and Social Science at York University. In her book, Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility, Dr. Tungohan explains that the Philippines is the “Empire of Care.” She reports that there are stereotypes in Canada of all Filipinos being caregivers, and these notions dominate in Canada’s nursing and caregiving professions.

However, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, are these stereotypes positive or negative? As “essential” workers keep facing systemic racism, family separation, precarious work conditions, and housing issues, the pandemic has only escalated the violations against many migrant and “essential” workers. The increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in farms, food establishments, processing plants, and long-term care facilities not only expose the reality of Canada’s most precarious workplaces, but also the dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs foreign and migrant workers do that many Canadians do not want to do.

The risk of COVID-19 in workplaces has prompted many migrant workers and advocates to call for proper housing accommodations, PPE, access to healthcare services, and permanent status. The lack of political will to meet these demands reaffirms that Canada’s “essential” workers are treated as sacrificial workers mandated by the government to work. Dr. Tungohan’s use of the concept of necropolitics applies here, describing how governments can use social and political power to dictate how some people may live and how some must die during the pandemic.

“If there was political will, then perhaps the government would have given workers more than $1,500 to ensure workers’ protection,” Dr. Tungohan explained in an interview with the Media Co-op. “Perhaps they would have allocated more inspections of workplaces to ensure employers are following guidelines to ensure workers’ safety.”

The response to COVID-19 has made systemic racism plain for all to see, and foreign and essential workers continue to face barrier after barrier as they work during the pandemic. The Canadian government’s $50 million to help Canadian employers with the cost of quarantine for temporary foreign workers does little to directly help foreign and essential workers. Employers, not workers, are the beneficiaries of these funds, and of the $1,500 eligibility per foreign worker to cover the costs of complying with the mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival in Canada.

Canada’s dependence on racialized bodies and labour has left these “essential” workers, their families, and communities “sacrificial” amidst COVID-19. Canada's treatment of its "essential" workers is tragically illustrated by the experience of the Filipino community with the death of the 47-year old Filipino health care worker Warlito Valdez. His untimely death exposes Canada’s treatment of its “essential” workers.

Dr. Tungohan argues, “What we’re seeing is that in a pandemic, essential workers are actually sacrificial workers. So what that means is that you have people, like Warlito, who was found dead.”

Valdez, a healthcare worker, husband, and a father in B.C., tested positive for COVID-19 and was denied medical care. His his wife discovered him dead, alone in their home. Valdez was hailed as a hero, but his wife and family have to face the trauma of the ordeal, the aftermath of his death, and the financial difficulty of losing a provider and breadwinner due to COVID-19.

Valdez’s wife has asked what support the government is giving. This question and Valdez’s death have exposed that there is a lack of support from the Canadian government to essential workers, who are mandated to work amidst the pandemic and may possibly die.

With Canada’s long history of failing to extend the protection of rights and welfare to all workers, there remains no word and no support from the government in response to the dead and dying workers and their families amidst this pandemic. As Canada seeks to rebuild its economy with its depleted workforce, Dr. Tungohan explains that Canada recruits economic migrants to keep its industry going.

As the Philippines also struggles with its own COVID-19 crisis in the middle of the hazards of climate change and the war on drugs, export of healthcare workers and nurses have been affected and even halted by the Philippine government. This opens the reality that Canada does not have an endless supply of workers.

“One question that remains is, how about migrant workers who are already here,” Dr. Tungohan points out. “Why can’t they work, especially those who are non-status? Use them”.


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