You Can’t Eat “Gratitude”: Why Canada Needs Filipinos Who Speak Up For Workers’ Rights

Originally published by Sulong UBC, an affiliate of ANAKBAYAN-Canada. Reference: Lara Maestro, Sulong UBC (sulong.ubc@gmail.com
Banner photo of Unite Here! Local 40 strike c/o Castanet.
“We’re in this together.”This is the slogan the world has rallied behind to encourage us all to be kind, be supportive, and be there for each other as we adjust to the “new normal” of living in a global pandemic. It is also the idea behind Kapit-Bisig, a nation-wide community-care and mutual aid network organized by Filipinos and allies across the country, of which Sulong UBC is proud to be a part. But as many of us have come together to weather the storm of COVID-19, other sectors of our community have instead relished in attacking our own through cyberbullying and harassment.

If you are a member of the Filipino community who spends any time online, chances are you have seen Rosemary Barton’s CBC interview with a Filipina Unite Here! Local 40 labour leader. Even if you haven’t, you may have heard of the nasty comments, the vicious takedown videos, the fake Facebook pages impersonating her and the Facebook groups calling for her deportation that have dogged her since her interview. For a segment lasting only five minutes, made up of utterly reasonable remarks, she seems to have attracted the ire of the worst internet trolls. The saddest part? Many of them are our own kababayan.

 

It would be great to say that such a vitriolic reaction from our fellow compatriots is a surprise, but as a progressive youth and student organization affiliated with ANAKBAYAN-Canada (and therefore, Anakbayan-Philippines), we’re no strangers to the type of internet attacks that she is currently experiencing.

Sulong UBC strongly supports all those activists and organizers leading our community, who act with courage despite the negative reactions they face from other segments of the Filipino community. While we won’t link to those reactions here, we think it’s worth addressing some general themes that have emerged in the comments from this recent incident that are especially deserving of a rebuttal.

Character Assassination

This is an easy one, so let’s just get it out of the way – statements disparaging people’s speech, appearance, or lifestyle are all lowest common denominator cheap shots that wouldn’t otherwise merit comment except for the fact that these types of attacks are disproportionately leveled against women, especially women of colour. That these comments are coming from our own kababayan, even other Filipinas, speaks to a colonial mentality that values white speech patterns over those of immigrants, and an internalized misogyny that is overly critical of vocal women. To be clear; if a white guy had been interviewed as a union rep, he would never have faced this much judgement.

A common sentiment from many of these cyberbullies is that immigrants should just “be grateful” for the financial support provided by the government under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), because the government “doesn’t owe us more than $2,000” and that $2,000 is “more than enough.”

 

First of all, union leaders and labour activists are more than aware of the amount of remuneration required to sustain a decent standard of living in Vancouver and they are justified in pointing out that CERB is not enough. Based on a forty-hour work week CERB amounts to just $12.50 an hour, which is less than the minimum wage in BC, and much less than what a living wage should be in Vancouver, which is the second-least affordable city to live in the world.

 

Secondly, the idea that workers, especially immigrant workers, should be grateful for the opportunity to live and work in Canada, is a complete misunderstanding of labour migration and how it benefits not only labour brokerage states like the Philippines but also receiving countries like Canada. The Philippines continues to be one of the largest source countries for recent immigrants to Canada and remains one of the top source countries for temporary foreign workers. These numbers show that, contrary to the notion that immigrants come to Canada because “they need Canada,” the opposite is actually true – without immigrants and migrant workers like so many of our kababayan on the frontlines and maintaining essential services, countries like Canada would be unable to function, especially during a pandemic. Canada needs us, not the other way around.

Further, demanding that workers repay their “debt of gratitude” to the government with “understanding and support” is nothing more than a tactic to silence legitimate criticisms that everyone has a democratic right to make. You can’t eat gratitude. You can’t pay rent or bills with gratitude. You can’t take care of your family with gratitude. And nobody ever won the right to make a fair and just livelihood with gratitude.

Activism is Not a Crime

 

Perhaps one of the richest ironies to come out of the sea of negativity surrounding the interview is that immigrant workers shouldn’t complain because they’re “no longer in the Philippines” and they should be thankful for the rights and benefits enjoyed by workers in Canada that are unavailable to workers back home.

It is every worker’s right to demand just and favourable working conditions, fair compensation, and labour protections. These rights have been hard won by the labour movement of unions and labour activists working with grassroots groups and community organizers, and they haven’t been won through gratitude; they’ve been won by workers being vocal about their rights.
The harassment labour leaders face here is part of the same anti-worker, anti-people rhetoric faced by unionists and labour leaders in the Philippines. The contradiction of these detractors telling us to be grateful for the rights workers have in Canada, while reproducing the same patterns of violence that persecute workers demanding those rights in the Philippines, can’t be ignored.What gall to say that the government owes the people nothing, that we are in no position to complain, when in fact a democratic government owes its power to the people, and it is their duty to provide for the people.
Instead of tearing down our own kababayan, we should be directing our energies towards truly supporting each other against the common systems that oppress us. Instead of demanding that Filipinos here should be grateful for whatever we receive because it’s “better than in the Philippines,” we should be asking ourselves why our compatriots back home don’t have access to the same rights. Instead of saying that the government doesn’t have a responsibility to care for our families while we’re abroad, we should be asking ourselves why Canada wants our labour, but doesn’t value us enough as people to grant us status and allow us to keep our families together. Instead of harassing, cyberbullying, and trolling a woman who is only exercising her democratic rights as a worker, while paying lip service to “unity” and “togetherness,” we should actually be uplifting and supporting those members of our community who are standing up for all of us.
Canada lost almost two million jobs last month, with 396,500 jobs lost in BC alone. Be part of a movement that is actually supporting our community, instead of trying to tear it down.
Sulong, kababayan – we’re in this together.

 

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