Filipinos believe they are better-off despite statistics to the contrary By Voltaire de Leon



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Filipinos believe they are better-off despite statistics to the contrary
By Voltaire de Leon

Did you know that Filipinos from landlord families who left for Canada in the 70s believe they’re better off working here than living the hacendero life in the Philippines? I know, it’s hard to believe that Filipinos would say that but that seems to be the answer York University’s Dr. Philip Kelly got from interviewing focus groups in the GTA.This, despite Immigration Minister Joe Volpe’s latest statement headlined in the Toronto Star Business Section: “Immigants’ skills ‘squandered’ – a headline that has been running for a quarter of a century – at least!

It surprised Filipinos attending his presentation “Class Identity and Filipino Transnationalism” at a packed room at the Munk Centre of International Studies last Friday, February 4th,. The usual suspects from the Community Alliance for Social Justice (myself included) were understandably skeptical about his findings.

Dr. Kelly did admit to being befuddled as well but the study is at its initial phase because more focus groups and more interviews were still to be done.

The 2001 stats were familiar because they sounded like all the previous census stats except just more disturbing. Pinays still outnumber Pinoys by a ratio of 7:5 because we were a major source of nurses in the 60s and caregivers from the mid-70s on. Class mobility was static, if not in retrograde, as Filipinos along with the rest of the worker population earned less on average than a decade ago. Especially galling is that we have among the most educated (more than 50% are college grads) of any community, among the most fluent in English, and yet earning among the lowest wages on average.

Filipino men are in nursing and health care aide jobs, as well as low-paying line jobs, at five times the average. At the higher end of the occupational spectrum, they are under-represented at 0.2 to 0.4 times the average. That is, if ten is the average number of lawyers or doctors or engineers across all immigrant communities, Filipinos only have two to four. This despite their high level of education and skills. That is, all things being equal among all immigrants, Filipinos are the most underrepresented in their professions.

This was borne out in previous census stats. Things have just gone from bad to worse.

But Dr. Kelly’s main thrust that afternoon was not about Filipinos being “poorly rewarded,” but how Filipinos felt in their change of class location from high in the Philippines to low in Canada. This was a very interesting and contentious part of his lecture.

We tend to identify themselves as unhyphenated Filipino, possessing among the strongest sense of nationality compared to other immigrant groups.; e.g., 78 percent of us have group identity compared to 51 percent of the Chinese. This fact came out in Kelly’s interviews as the focus groups identified traits of Filipino-ness like ‘very loving,’ fun-loving,’ ‘patient,’ ‘tolerant,’ ‘nurturing,’ ‘modest.’

When asked about their place in society now in Canada compared to what they were in the Philippines, the answers varied but positive. (Here I’m wildly paraphrasing Dr. Kelly who went through the presentation like a bullet train.):

‘I make more in a week as a clerk in Canada than a bank manager makes in a month in the Philippines. So I’m better off.’

‘I can drive my own car, eat at restaurants, own a house just like any rich man in the Philippines’

‘I get a lot of respect at work for what I do. I’m happy at work. I have dignity.’

‘In the Philippines some Filipinos may be better off than others. Here in Canada, we’re all the same. We all start from the beginning.’

Dr. Kelly’s study tries to figure out how we Filipinos (used here as gender-neutral) see ourselves as a class. It appears that the subjects in the focus groups believe that class distinctions have disappeared because:

* We are able to consume and are not limited by the usual class differences.

* We get respect at work regardless of the kind of work we do.

* We are all treated the same here regardless of our previous positions in the Pilipinas.

It may be – as some, including Kelly, suspect – that the subjects are rationalizing the fact that they cannot go further in their profession. By dissolving in their minds the objective class distinctions in Canada, they avoid facing the painful reality of having fallen to a lower class. In other words, they may be in denial. There is some truth to this:

When the subjects talk about trips back to the Philippines as ‘balikbayans’, they feel good about themselves because they are treated special as having come from ‘abroad’, the West, America, Canada. Guess what, the balikbayans feel valued as an exclusive class!

Kelly further ventures that class difference can be marked by the ‘cultural significance of living abroad’ – in the rich countries like Canada and the U.S.

He also poses the question of whether or not consumption (the ability to buy more than just the basics) erases class distinctions. Whether he meant the erasure exists in the mind of the worker or in his objective material reality, I am uncertain. His class analysis was novel to me as I’ve been away from academia for more than a decade and my class analysis remains the classic Marxian ‘who owns’ versus ‘who works’; that is, Capital versus Labour. Class ‘performance’ and ‘embodiment’ are concepts that Dr. Kelly uses and which I honestly don’t understand.



Filipinos criticized the limited sampling of his study so far – mostly immigrants from the early 70s — which resulted in a conclusion that we think are faulty: the notion that Filipinos feel they don’t belong to a class under or don’t suffer class exploitation. Interviews with Filipinos who are living in low-rent housing will likely yield different results. We’ll see.


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