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Hit hard by COVID-19, Filipino Canadians grapple with added pressure to send money abroad

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Honeylee and Jim Cooke talk about their initiative helping hundreds of families in the Philippines receive food and supplies during the pandemic.

The economic downturn triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on workers of racialized backgrounds, newly released data from Statistics Canada has shown.

But for some, the financial pressures of COVID-19 are coming from two sides. On one hand, job and income losses at home are making it difficult to pay the bills. On the other hand, the need to keep sending money to family and friends overseas has taken on a new urgency, as the pandemic ravages the economies of many poorer countries.

It’s a dilemma Filipino Canadians know all too well.

“The majority of the people that we talked to in our focus groups, as well as in our interviews, had lost employment or had decreased hours,” says Mauriene Tolentino, the Filipino youth fellowship co-ordinator at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, a non-profit group.

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In its first-ever labour force survey featuring race-based data in early August, Statistics Canada noted the labour force participation rate among Filipino Canadians was down a whopping 7.5 percentage points between July 2019 and July 2020.

The steep decline suggests that “a relatively large proportion of Filipino Canadians who lost employment as a result of COVID-19 have at least temporarily left the labour force rather than look for new work,” Statistics Canada said.

READ MORE: Canada’s migrant farm workers face fatal COVID-19 outbreaks, alleged mistreatment

But even as they struggle financially, many Filipino Canadians have redoubled efforts to send remittances to loved ones in the Philippines, where multiple pandemic-induced lockdowns have put a stop to 29 years of growth and plunged the economy into a steep slump.

“Especially for those Filipinos who are the main income earners for their families back home, you … have to send more money than usual because of what is happening,” says Clarissa Cacanindin, a financial adviser and insurance agent in Windsor, Ont.

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Filipino Canadians hit hard by COVID-19 economic blow

When one looks at the increase in unemployment rates amid COVID-19, Filipino Canadians have fared better than other racial minorities in Canada.

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While the jobless rate among South Asian and Chinese Canadians was up by 9.1 percentage points and 8.4 percentage points respectively in July compared to the same month last year, among Filipino Canadians it climbed a lower 6.2 percentage points.

But in Statistics Canada’s lingo, “unemployed” means workers who, while jobless, are available to — and usually looking for — work.

What stood out in the July data was the drop in Filipino Canadians’ labour force participation rate, which measures the proportion of people aged 15 and older who are either employed or unemployed.

READ MORE: Southern Alberta Filipino community ‘worried for our lives’ as members test positive for COVID-19

Tolentino isn’t surprised by the result. Many Filipino Canadians work in frontline occupations where personal protective equipment and hazard pay were slow to become available as the pandemic struck.

Based on data from the 2016 Census, Filipino Canadians have the second-highest proportion of workers in the accommodation and food services industry among visible minorities, with 14.2 per cent of workers employed in the industry. The sector experienced a 50 per cent decline in employment between February and April, the steepest of any industry, according to Statistics Canada.

READ MORE: Edmonton Filipino community rallies to bring groceries to quarantined meat-plant workers in High River

Nearly one-quarter of employed Filipino Canadians worked in the health care and social assistance industry in July, according to Statistics Canada.

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But many Filipino Canadian caregivers have jobs that often come with precarious income and hours, such as long-term care workers and agency nurses, Tolentino says.

Many low-income workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic struggled to search for employment and draft new resumes with no computer, Wi-Fi or a printer at home and public libraries closed, she adds.

“The only type of technology that they have access to is their phones,” Tolentino says.

That also made it difficult to access emergency income support programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) and youth summer jobs.

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Crisis in the Philippines

Compounding the stress of financial losses at home is a dire situation in the Philippines.

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The country, until recently one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, plunged into recession as a strict lockdown between mid-March and June left millions jobless.

But the Philippines’ shutdown of the capital Manila also came with police barricades, a curfew and draconian measures against those violating the new restrictions. The measures, which cut off millions of day labourers from their jobs, led to food shortages and protests.

In April, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a strongman known for a war on drugs believed to have caused thousands of deaths, said police and the military should adopt a shoot-to-kill approach to violent demonstrators.

“Shoot them dead,” the president said in a televised address.

But the militarized lockdown has not stemmed the spread of COVID-19. The country has so far recorded a total of more than 209,000 infections, one of the highest case counts in Southeast Asia, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

READ MORE: Spreading coronavirus a ‘serious crime’ in Philippines, Duterte says as cases spike

In August, the government was forced to re-impose a two-week-long lockdown in the capital and surrounding areas amid concerns the health-care system could collapse.

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The crisis puts an additional onus on ex-pat Filipino communities around the world, whose remittances count for more than nine per cent of the Philippines’ GDP, according to the World Bank.

The country has traditionally been among the world’s top recipients of remittances, with Filipinos around the world sending $46 billion in 2019.

The Philippines was also the No. 1 destination of remittances from Canada in 2017, with Filipino residents transferring $1.2 billion to relatives and friends abroad that year.

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Between a rock and a hard place

Worried about the well-being of loved ones in the Philippines, even some low-income Filipino workers in Canada are upping the amount they send abroad every month, according to Cacanindin.

She says she knows caregivers with an annual net income of less than $25,000 who would have increased their transfers from $500 to “at least” $1,000. That’s because they know the needs of family and friends in the Philippines have more than doubled, Cacanindin adds.

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And for some who lost their jobs, the only option to keep providing financial aid is to take on debt, she says.

“Some Filipinos I know have to borrow some money from other sources just to be able to send money in the Philippines.”

But the pandemic has also spurred the creation of community-based initiatives to support the most vulnerable Filipino residents in Canada, according to Tolentino.

For a time, Tolentino volunteered in a food-box program for Filipino residents in Toronto set up by Kapit-Bisig, a nationwide network of mutual-aid organizations whose name means “linking arms” in Tagalog.

That program, however, has folded amid a dearth of financial support, Tolentino adds.

“I’m still worried about the conditions of the people that we used to serve and that we used to communicate with,” she says.

One of the biggest lessons from the pandemic for Tolentino is that community-led initiatives are often the most effective at addressing racial inequalities in an emergency.

There is a lot of strength within the Filipino community,” she says. “There’s not just not enough genuine, meaningful financial investment” in those resources.