A photo of Evangeline Cayanan and her daughter McKenna Rose.
Evangeline Cayanan and her daughter McKenna Rose. Credit: Migrante Alberta

June is Filipino Heritage Month, and for the almost one million Canadians of Filipino Heritage, June is a month of cultural pride and celebration. June 12 also marks Filipino independence from the colonial rule of Spain. 

Despite the festivities, Filipino communities cannot fully shed the trauma on our people. As the month draws to a close, the Filipino struggle continues. 

“Today many Filipinos suffer the consequences of Canada’s labour programs that create second class workers without rights and protections,” said Nova Porquia, vice chair of Filipino migrant’s rights group Migrante Alberta. 

Porquia said that many of the Filipinos in Canada came to work. The work permits and programs available to bring in migrant workers leave many people vulnerable. Canada has grown more reliant on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) to address labour shortages, according to a report released by Statistics Canada in June. 

The TFWP program has been criticized by migrant workers for its exploitative nature, especially for its use of employer-specific work permits, which tie a migrant worker to their employer. This means workers who are terminated have precarious status. Many Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs) who face abuse are threatened with deportation. This silencing allows many workplaces to exploit and mistreat TFWs.

Evangeline Cayanan, who does work with Migrante Alberta, is just one of many migrant workers who suffered due to difficulties with work permits. 

Cayanan came to Canada as a TFW under an employer-specific work permit. While at her job at a bakery, Cayanan said she and the other TFWs faced harassment. 

“They were making fun of us, the Canadian staff there, because we are brown employees. We had a team who made fun of us in front of everybody, even guests and customers,” Cayanan said. 

The contract that Cayanan signed was also not being followed, she said. The contract said that Cayanan would get 40 hour work weeks but Cayanan said she only worked about 20 hours.

Cayanan and her colleagues complained about the treatment and were then fired from the bakery, putting their work permits at risk. 

Cayanan continued to face unfair treatment from employers while struggling to get status in Canada. Cayanan said her applications for residency were refused in 2018 and 2019. 

Cayanan now faces deportation, Migrante has launched a petition to keep her in Canada. Though this could make things easier for Cayanan, there are still many people who struggle because of the TFWP. 

“I’m not the only one who is in this situation,” Cayanan said. “We have a lot of people in this group, but they are really scared to show up.”

Filipinos and immigrants in general are essential for the Canadian Labour market. Statistics Canada reported this month that immigrants made up 84 per cent of the growth in the labour market during the 2010s. According to another report by Statistics Canada released in 2021, Filipinos have among the highest employment rates nationally. As Canada turns to immigrants as a way to fill labour gaps, many Filipinos are crossing the ocean to answer the call only to be met with mistreatment.

“Employer specific work permits are technically legalized slavery,” Porquia said. “A migrant worker is not allowed to work elsewhere regardless of the condition of work. That means even if the employer is abusing and exploiting a migrant worker, they do not have resources to file a complaint. Because filing a complaint for them means deportation. And if migration is only the way for their families to survive, a migrant worker will stay silent amidst the abuse. It is virtual slavery. A migrant’s survival is at the mercy of their employer.” 

To change jobs under employer-specific work permits, the new employer needs permission from the government of Canada to hire the worker. As well, employers must give notice before terminating an employee to allow time to look for a new job. The government of Canada has also implemented temporary public policies that allow workers to work in new jobs while their work permit application is being assessed. 

While these policies can help TFWs, many people still face terrible working conditions, like Cayanan did. 

“When I reminisce and backtrack about all the experiences that I had, it really makes me so emotional. The pain is still there,” Cayanan said. 

Cayanan continues to work with Migrante for migrant rights, despite staring down the barrel of deportation. Cayanan said she does this work not only for herself and her daughter, but for future generations of Filipinos. 

Filipino Heritage Month may be ending, but Cayanan’s struggle to stay in Canada, her struggle for Filipinos’ rights and her struggle for the rights of all migrants continues.

Gabriela Calugay-Casuga

Gabriela “Gabby” Calugay-Casuga (she/they) is a writer and activist based in so-called “Ottawa.” They began writing for Migrante Ottawa’s radio show, Talakayang Bayan, in 2017. Since then, she...