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Organizing and Mobilizing Filipino Migrant Women in Canada PDF Print E-mail
Written by Cecilia Diocson   
Wednesday, 18 June 2003 16:46
Organizing and Mobilizing Filipino Migrant Women in Canada


Today, I am going to share with you our work at the Philippine Women Centre of British Columbia (PWC) and at the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada (NAPWC). I will share some of our important political struggles and groundbreaking researches among Filipino women migrants and immigrants especially those Filipino women who came to Canada under the Live-In Caregiver Program or LCP. Despite its proven negative impact on Filipino women, this program continues to be touted by some Canadian officials and recruiting agencies as giving Filipino women a very good opportunity at eventually becoming Canadian citizens and hence, must be continued.1

Today's Migration and its feminization

Whenever the Philippine Women Centre of BC or its representative is invited to speak at various seminars and conferences, it always makes the point to emphasize the context of the migration of Filipino women. Most, if not all, of these women leave to work in foreign countries not mainly by choice but by economic necessity. Together with other women from the South, these Filipino women are forced abroad as a result of social and economic dislocations in their countries of origin brought about largely by corporate-driven globalization that keeps siphoning off human and natural resources from the South into the centers of global capitalism in the North. Propelling this globalization is the intrinsic logic of capitalism as an economic system that continuously expands and seeks market for its surplus product and capital and utilizes the cheapest labor and raw materials available in order to sustain its accumulation process.2

In the last couple of decades, there has been a significant increase in global migration. A major aspect of this global migration is its growing feminization. This growing trend in the feminization of migration is a reflection of the state of underdevelopment of women in developing countries despite decades of support programs for women and development. That many highly educated and professional women are leaving to work in other countries attests to the failure of the economy of their country of origin in absorbing the growing number of working women. Unable to earn decent income appropriate to their education and training, many of these women look to other countries as lands of opportunities to improve their quality of life and economic status.

But, these migrant women too often find out that their potential for development is stalled since, in many cases, the host country is unwilling to grant recognition for the profession or training that they have learned and trained for in their country of origin. And this stalled development is further made difficult to overcome because of social and structural barriers such as racism and arbitrary immigration policies. Thus, teachers, nurses or accountants end up as domestic workers or caregivers. Over a period of time, they become de-skilled and give up trying to recover their lost profession and training - eventually leading to further underdevelopment.

Filipino Migrant Women and our work at the Centre

At the Philippine Women Centre, our work with Filipino domestic workers has spanned a period of over 15 years. Within this period, we have come out with various researches, studies, campaigns and policy dialogues on behalf of these women workers. We have also tracked the composition of foreign domestic workers that have entered Canada from the period when black Caribbean women constituted the majority of foreign domestic workers or FDWs to the present period when Filipino women have become the majority. We have studied the background of these women who, in the earlier period until the 1980s, have relatively lower levels of education. Beginning in the middle 1990s, one major change in the qualification requirement of the FDW program is to require these women to have at least a two-year level of college or university education. And lately, we are studying the implications of the program that prefers FDWs who have undergone training in nursing and/or health care. These continuing studies are being pursued in the light of a rapidly changing environment where global migration continues to grow even in the face of spreading economic protectionism and tightening up of borders especially in advanced capitalist countries since the event of September 11th.

Academic studies and researches have shown that international migration of workers into Canada is structured by an interweaving of economic, political and ideological relations mediated by the Canadian state through its immigration program. Just like any advanced capitalist country, Canada opens up its borders to migration in response to the dynamics of the supply and demand for labor in the process of capital accumulation and in the context of global economic competition. 3 As the Canadian economy continues to grow, it draws out women from the household and accommodates them in the workplace where their labor power becomes commodities for sale. While this brings women into the public sphere of production, this also creates a demand for replacement labor in the private sphere of the household.

But instead of instituting a universal day care system to address the needs of women who are leaving the home to join the workplace, the Canadian state's response to this economic restructuring is to import cheap but highly educated and relatively skilled foreign domestic workers. This confers several advantages both to the Canadian state and Canadians who can afford a foreign domestic worker. In the immediate term, the Canadian state earns revenue through the processing of migration documents and subsequent taxation of these foreign domestic workers. Meanwhile, rich and middle class Canadian families get the benefit of reduced taxes since the wages of their foreign domestic workers are legitimate expenditures subject to tax exemptions. Poor, working class women who are in need of universal day care are left to fend for themselves trying to juggle the twin tasks of earning a living and maintaining a household. In the long term, these foreign domestic workers help provide a stable base of cheap "reserve army of labor" that keeps wages down and ensure continuous accumulation of capital. Thus, the foreign domestic worker is functional to the maintenance of the existing capitalist system in Canada.

On the other side of the ledger, the sending country also benefits much from its export of foreign domestic workers. In the case of the Philippines, Filipino domestic workers who worked in other countries help keep the Philippine economy afloat through their remittances and also reduce unemployment. As well, they also help lessen social dissent which are likely to intensify if they had not been able to leave and work outside the country. Hence, both sending and receiving countries have mutual interests in supporting a foreign domestic workers program that helps maintain and sustain their existing economic systems.

Modern slavery and surface perception

Social research and academic studies have affirmed that migration continues to play an important role in the economic and social development of Canada, especially in terms of the growth of the labor force and replacement of the rapidly aging working population. But unlike direct immigrants, foreign domestic workers continue to be required to work for two years within three years prior to qualifying for immigrant status. Our studies at the Philippine Women Centre have shown that these two year requirement has become a heavy burden among foreign domestic workers who lose their jobs amidst the intensifying economic slowdown that the world is going through today. There is growing evidence that as more of these women are unable to complete this requirement, Immigration Canada has become much more arbitrary and quicker in deporting them including their Canadian-born children - a violation not only of their human rights but also of the citizenship rights of their children. In this context, it is obvious that Canadian-born children of FDWs are not considered part of the "imagined" Canadian community. 4

Policy dialogue with government agencies for the abolition of the mandatory live-in requirement continues to be front and center in the struggle of FDWs and their advocates. This mandatory requirement is the essence of their exploitation as cheap labor and provides the condition for modern slavery. This permits employers to have domestic workers that provide either free labor or below minimum rates of pay beyond the legally mandated hours.

In the last couple of years, we have noticed a new trend in the acceptance of foreign domestic workers that is reflective of Canada's changing demographics and the looming crisis in its health care system. Whereas in the past, the Live-in-Caregiver Program or LCP takes care mostly of household work and children, there is now a growing accommodation of the elderly and people with disability under the program. Since it is more expensive to take care of this sector of the population under the existing health care system, the LCP has been importing foreign nurses to care for these people. But unlike in the past where these nurses come and work as nurses, today, they are allowed to come only as foreign domestic workers. While there is a crying need for more nurses in the health care system, foreign-trained nurses who are still under the Live-in-Caregiver Program cannot work as nurses even after they had already passed the required nursing board exams.

This expanded responsibility of "quasi-extended health care" beyond child care and household work has transformed the Live-in-Caregiver Program into a program that we at the Philippine Women Centre call "from cradle to grave or from strollers to wheelchairs." This foray of foreign domestic workers into the realm of "extended health care" could only be the beginning of a slow erosion of the distinction in the economy between "public sphere - hence, supposedly more productive and offers relatively good wages - and "private sphere of the household - hence, less productive and offers low wages." At the Philippine Women Centre, we believe that this is another wedge towards the privatization of the health care system along with its attendant implications.

There is a perception, and some researchers are even likely to confirm this, that foreign domestic workers are finding the live-in caregiver program beneficial to them and their future and that they are thankful that Canada has such a program that gives them the opportunity to eventually become immigrants. This perception must be seen in the context of the past experiences and reality of these women. On the surface, it may look that the LCP is an improvement in their lives, given their experience of poverty and lack of opportunity in the Philippines. But as one digs beneath the surface, a much more nuanced picture about the LCP emerges. These women are aware that they do not have much choice if they want to escape a life of deprivation and poverty. They understand that within the context of their experience and reality in Canada, the Live-in-Caregiver Program does not offer them much of a bright future. That is why they could not wait to get out of the program immediately after completing the 24-month mandatory requirement. One domestic worker said: "We know that, under the LCP, we are like modern slaves who have to wait for at least two years to get our freedom. But we have no other choice." Why foreign domestic workers have to go through this rite of passage of modern slavery prior to qualifying as immigrants is not a rhetorical question. That these domestic workers happen to be women of colour fuels further the issue of racial discrimination. Hence, women of colour working as foreign domestic workers is an important woman question where the interface of class, gender and race conveniently merge at the expense of these women.

FDWs: A challenge to the women's movement

A cursory review of the history of the women's movement since the late 1960s would show that foreign domestic workers or FDWs hardly benefited from the political and economic advances that many women of the North had attained. While studies have been made about their conditions of work and their exploited situation, the women's movement has not translated these findings into campaigns for the betterment of the FDWs. In the case of Canada, the beneficiaries of these gains are Canadian women who came mostly from relatively privileged class backgrounds. Even affirmative action programs are viewed as granting positions to women of colour not by virtue of their hard work and individual ability, but because of special privilege conferred on them as members of a minority group. The history of the women's movement in North America has been one of exclusion in relation to foreign domestic workers and their struggle.

Within the context of this historical exclusion, foreign domestic workers have to rely mainly among themselves and their advocates to advance their struggle for equality and proper place in Canadian polity and society. For instance, in the 1970s, Caribbean women had to initially fight for the right to stay and become immigrants. This was a major struggle and continues to be so, even today, since the Canadian state still refuses to grant foreign domestic workers right of landing or resident status to FDWs upon arrival.

As the corporate-driven globalization of the economy continues to open up borders between and among countries in the interest of international capital, there can be no argument that foreign domestic workers will continue to be functional to the capitalist system. And as they become part of the "reserve army of labor" or compete with other workers for available jobs, they help maintain or even push down low wages and ensure capital accumulation.

The women's movement in the North as part of a greater movement for social change and transformation is today confronted with the challenge of responding to the condition and struggle of foreign domestic workers. It cannot anymore ignore the reality that these women, many or most of whom have come from the South, are now a growing part of the working women in the North and that their presence is impinging on women's struggle for gender equality. In fact, the link of FDWs to their countries of origin in the South makes them a very important ally in the international struggle and solidarity against corporate-driven globalization. To continue to ignore these women and their issues will hardly make way for a revival of a vibrant and militant women's movement in the North. There is therefore a need to re-conceptualize the women's movement especially the movement in the North.

The Need to Organize women migrant workers

Our organizing work at the Philippine Women Centre takes into account certain fundamental and interrelated issues that provide the basis for our long term and immediate programs of action. It is only through a deep and continuing understanding of these issues that we can develop correct strategies of resistance in the context of our reality in Canada.

We can generally group these issues in three separate but interrelated areas of concern. The first area of concern is to understand our history of migration and its connection to the continuing struggle of the Filipino people for national democracy. The second is to understand the general nature of the Canadian state and society and the third is to understand our migration within the context of imperialist globalization including its history and its impact on the peoples of the world. In other words, concrete analysis and understanding of our condition serve as the basis in the development of our strategies of resistance and in organizing women migrant workers.

The history of our migration to Canada must be seen within the backdrop of the economic crisis in Philippine society and the people's response to this crisis. We are part of the over 8 million Filipinos forced by this crisis to leave for abroad. It is imperative for us to understand the root causes of this migration and to realize that the solution to the problem of Filipinos leaving for abroad lies in the struggle of the Filipino for national democracy. And as Filipino migrants and immigrants, we are part of the continuing history of the Filipino people and their national democratic struggle.

As Filipinos in Canada, we look at Canada from the perspective our history of migration. It is in this context that we understand "why we are here" or "what we are here for."

As well, there are certain things that Filipino migrants and immigrants must understand about Canada and its history. Canada is a product of the historic pattern of conquest and colonization of the American continent by Europeans over five hundred years ago. Its consolidation as a Canadian state and society came about through immigration and the subjugation of the indigenous or first nations peoples.

Globally, colonialism along with capitalist industrialization intensified the rapid accumulation of capital that reached its peak towards the end of 19th century. This is the highest development of capitalism that is now known as imperialism. In the case of Canada, it has become an advanced capitalist country that exports surplus products and capital and imports cheap labor power from less developed countries of the world.

To maintain its global hegemony, modern capitalism or imperialism continues to divide the working class and immigrants. In Canada and other advanced capitalist countries, racism has been and continues to be one of its most effective tools in dividing the working people and immigrants.

For migrants and immigrants of color like us, racism is part of the history of Canada that will continue to be embedded in our individual and collective memories. This is the context of our reality as Filipinos in Canada. We are a minority people of color in an advanced capitalist country that tries to remain competitive in a global capitalist system that is in crisis.

While our presence in Canada must be seen within the backdrop of the economic crisis in Philippines and the reality of the Canadian state and society, it must also be considered in the context of global developments today and several decades ago. After a devastating Second World in the 1940s, a relatively rapid economic growth and recovery took place in the advanced capitalist countries of the North. But this period of relative growth and prosperity was happening mainly in the industrialized countries of the North. The Third World countries of the South were experiencing underdevelopment and economic crisis. Imperialist globalization has seen to it that these countries of the South continue to be dumping grounds of surplus products and capital from and suppliers of cheap migrant labor and raw materials to countries of the North.

In the case of the Philippines, the inability of the neo-colonial state and institutions to implement long term genuine economic development has caused people to migrate initially, from the rural areas to the urban centers of Manila and other cities and eventually, to other countries of the world. The failure of the Philippine economy to absorb its growing labor force is compounded by graft and corruption, the phenomenon of "crony" and bureaucrat capitalism and the structural adjustment programs imposed by global financial agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank.

Hence, the crisis in Philippine society, the need by Canada for cheap immigrant labor to sustain its capitalist economy and the intensifying crisis of imperialist globalization - these are the factors that would largely explain our history of migration and our presence in Canada today.

Strategies of Resistance

Our strategies of resistance flows directly from our understanding of our history and our present reality in the Philippines and Canada within the context of imperialist globalization. Generally, these have two basic interrelated components and are concretized through our general task of educating, mobilizing and organizing our Filipino migrants and immigrants in Canada. The first is the struggle for our rights and welfare as migrants and immigrants and the second is the struggle of the Filipino people for national democracy with a socialist perspective.

In looking after the interests of Filipino immigrants and migrants, we draw them into our side, into our organizations. In doing this, we are able to convince them of the correctness of our work and, hence, solicit their support and direct participation in the struggle. Working for our rights and welfare is answering the direct and actual needs of migrants and immigrants. It is like answering the demand of the peasants for land in the Philippine countryside.

In concrete terms, I would like to share with you some of our past and continuing activities drawn around the general task of educating, mobilizing and organizing our community.

Educating task

In the main, the tasks of educating our community revolve around the issue of understanding our history of migration and the issue of understanding our specific struggles as migrants and immigrants. We study and educate ourselves on our history of migration into Canada as this expresses our direct experience and reality. We also study and educate ourselves on specific issues that directly affects us such as the Labor Export Program of the Philippines, the various laws and executives orders relating to overseas workers and the Live-in Caregiver Program. And we also keep ourselves updated on current events in the Philippines and of Filipino immigrants in other parts of the world. This includes the study of human rights and the people's continuing effort at establishing a just and lasting peace in the Philippines.

Over the years we have conducted several studies and research about Filipino migrant workers and their condition in Canada using the Participatory Action Research Methodology. This research methodology has not only served to deepen understanding of our community and further enhanced our influence and leadership. Its action component has been an effective tool in bringing about changes in our community and sustaining our work. These research and studies include topics on the housing problems of domestic workers, stalled development of Filipino nurses doing domestic work and Canada as the new frontier for Filipino mail order brides.

A major part of our educational task is to encourage immigrants to visit the Philippines and integrate with the workers, peasants and other progressive sectors of Philippine. For us, this is an effective means of understanding the history of the Filipino people, their struggle for national freedom and democracy and establishes the link to our history of migration.

Mobilizing task

We have mobilized Filipino immigrants along different issues both relating to our reality in Canada and the Philippines. This mobilization involves petitions and demonstrations in front of the Philippine consulate with such demands as the scrapping of double taxation, opening of the consulate during the weekends, granting of certain free services for migrant workers and uniform fees for renewal of passport and other services.

We have also conducted sector and issue specific mobilizations especially as regards the struggle for our rights and welfare. The youth sector for instance, are in the forefront in the struggle against racism and discrimination as this impacts directly on their experiences. The migrants continue the struggle for the scrapping of the Live-in Caregiver Program, which we have described as an anti-woman and racist program of the Canadian government. And the struggle of the Filipino nurses who are doing domestic work to be accredited and accorded the right to practice their profession has mobilized and raised the consciousness of hundreds of them around this issue and gathered a host of supporters and sympathizers. We have also helped more than a hundred of these nurses pass their accreditation exams - thus, making them eligible to practice as nurses and yielding concrete benefits for them in terms of higher wages and salaries, self-esteem, and genuine development. Through our human rights groups we have campaigned against human rights violations in the Philippines as well as against the unjust deportations of Filipino immigrants as in the cases of Melcah Salvador and Acier Gomez.

The Purple Rose Campaign against trafficking of Filipino women and children continues to gather global support after we first launch this in North America. Trafficking of women including the phenomenon of mail-order-bride has now become the third most lucrative business in the world after traffic in arms and drugs. This continuing campaign activity followed on the heels of the First Consultation of Filipino women in Canada in 1999 that was subsequently followed by the first national consultation in Canada of Filipino migrant workers held in Winnipeg in August of 2000. We initiated two major conferences in 2001: first, we had the national consultation of Filipino youth in Toronto where we had a representative from the youth organization in the Philippines come as speaker. Then, we held the historic first North American consultation of Women of Philippine ancestry in Seattle where over 200 Filipinos, mostly young women, from the US and Canada attended. Rep. Liza Maza and some Filipino visitors from other parts of the world attended this occasion.

Part of our mobilization is building alliances and international solidarity among Canadians and other peoples of the world. We are also doing advocacy for migrant workers through engagement and participation in various international and academic conferences where we put forward our campaign for the ratification by other countries of the UN Convention for the Protection of the Rights of Migrants and their Families.

Organizing task

A most important aspect of our organizing work is to link up directly with Migrante International. This provides a direct link between our work in Canada and the Philippines and it recognizes our being part of the national democratic movement in the Philippines. Migrante International is also our source of information about Filipino migrants and immigrants and their struggles or organizing work in other parts of the world.

Our organizing involves building different sectoral mass organizations just like in the Philippines. We have organizations of women, youth and students, migrants and human rights groups advocates. These groups have their own specific programs based on their specific issues and reality. They also maintain their own links with their counterparts in the Philippines and build solidarity and alliances with other progressive groups in Canada.

In effect, our strategies of resistance reflect our reality as migrants and immigrants in Canada and our participation in the struggle of the Filipino people for freedom and democracy. Its two components of the struggle for our rights and welfare and the struggle for national democracy express both the link with the struggle of Filipinos for national liberation and our international solidarity with other peoples in the struggle and resistance against imperialism.

This history and understanding of our local and global realities have become our basic tools in organizing and mobilizing our community for our rights and welfare. Not only have we organized locally, but have built a nationwide organization that continues to educate, mobilize and organize Filipino women all across Canada. The National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada also lobbies and make representations in various Canadian government agencies for public policy changes that would help improve the status of Filipino women - especially those under the Live-in Caregiver Program. We have done and continue to do research in collaboration with academics from various colleges and universities on issues related to foreign migrant workers which we use to further engage the Canadian government to seriously looks at the flaws in their immigration programs and policies.

June 2003
Bangkok, Thailand


  1. Mellejor, Ayan, "Canadian Prefer Filipino Nannies" (Davao City, Philippines, Inquirier News Service, Aug. 27, 2002).
  2. Diocson, Cecilia, 2001. "Setting the Context of the Traffic of Filipino Women" (2001 Metropolis Conference, Rotterdam, The Netherlands).
  3. Singh Bolaria, S. Social Issues and Contradictions in Canadian Society (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada Inc., 1991). 4 Records at the Philippine Women Centre showed that more than 10 women have been deported from Canada over a period of 2 years for non-fulfillment of the 2-year live-in requirement under the LCP.

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