TFW changes send some Filipinos home

When Antonio Pega moved to Dawson Creek in 2003, most of the Peace Region's Filipino community could meet at an average-sized house.

They would often pack friend's homes for birthday parties and other occasions. For Christmas and Halloween parties, the house was full to capacity.

Now, a single house is too small to fit all the Filipinos in Northeast B.C. As president of the South Peace chapter of Kalipi, a Filipino-Canadian social organization, one of Pega's responsibilities is booking halls to host those same parties.

Pega has been part of a massive influx of Filipinos to Canada, in particular the north. But a set of reforms to the controversial temporary foreign worker program, which allowed many Filipinos to come to Canada in the first place, could mean the steady influx of Filipinos to Canada could taper off. Pega believes smaller gatherings are likely in his community's future.

Last month, employment minister Jason Kenney announced a series of major reforms to how Canada regulates temporary foreign workers. The government temporarily cut the fast food industry's access to the program in the spring after several high profile instances of abuse. The program, which is intended as a last resort for employers unable to find Canadian workers, was in several cases being used as a cheap source of reliable foreign labour.

For business owners in the Northeast, the reforms mean new fees and new scrambles to find workers in an already tight labour market. For foreign workers, it means new limits on who can hire them and a drastic reduction in the number of permits the government makes available for low wage jobs.

Overall, the government plans to reduce the number of temporary foreign workers in low wage jobs from 31,099 to 16,278 between now and 2016. That means many workers will likely have to return home.

The Philippines are by far Canada's largest source of temporary workers. In 2012, there were 48,735 temporary Filipino workers in Canada on positive labour market opinions, the study required to certify an employer could not find Canadians to hire (Mexico was the second largest source, with 24,175) .

It is with some sense of pride that Pega says around 10 per cent of Filipinos live outside the Philippines.

"Filipinos are used to moving. I didn't hear any upset reaction whatever [to the new limits on the program,]" he said. "Life must go on, and the Filipinos must find another opportunity. That's just the cycle."

Others are less sanguine about the changes.

"[Filipino workers] have gotten used to living here. They're going to be displaced," said Mar Bandelaria. "They're scared."

Bandelaria's path from temporary worker to permanent resident is summed up in a single block of 8th Street. She began work at Inn on the Creek. Now, in a house just next door to the inn, Bandelaria runs a certified Canadian immigration consultancy. She recently had to deliver bad news to a couple whose permits were expiring: they would have to go home.

"I want to help them, but there's only so much I can do," she said, adding a number of acquaintances and friends of friends have already returned to the Philippines.

Those in Canada looking to renew their permits are most likely to have to return to their countries. Workers on more recent permits have been told to wait and see by their employers.

Temporary foreign workers were never guaranteed permanent residency, but for workers of Pega and Bandelaria's era, the path was somewhat clearer than it will be going forward

Pega's life, like those of many Filipinos, has been shaped by acronyms. He came to Canada as a TFW after his wife found work through the LCP - the Live-In Caregiver program. In 2001, that program brought in more than 2,000 Filipinos, mostly women, to work as nannies and caregivers for Canadian families. The Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) allowed him to stay in Canada as a permanent resident.

Pega grew up in the city of Laguna, south of Manila, the Filipino capital. In his home country, Pega had bachelor's degree in forestry. But a shortage of jobs led him to Canada, where his credential was not accepted by the professional foresters associations. At first, Pega was forced to take low skilled work, washing dishes and working in food service (Pega has since found work with a forestry firm, after completing a certificate program at Northern Lights college.)

Like Pega, many Filipinos in Canada are overeducated for the work they're doing. Florentino Artista, for example, has worked as an aluminum smelter in Dubai, a gas station manager in the Philippines, and a glass installer in Dawson Creek. His degree from a Filipino university is in computer science. Like Pega, he is now a permanent resident, and believes migration is part of the Filipino psyche.

"Filipinos are flexible, we're everywhere in the world," he said. "We go out to work for our families."

Pega, Artista and Bandelaria have all been able to stay in Canada through the PNP, which allows employers to sponsor employees for permanent residency. Some labour groups say that makes temporary workers too dependent on staying in their employer's good graces, but for the workers, entering the program is often a best case scenario.

Bandelaria believes an improved path to permanent residency for those who are already in Canada would benefit everyone.

"If you at the temporary foreign workers who have become permanent residents, these are people who have bought houses, bought cars," she said. "I don't know of any Filipino or foreign worker who doesn't want to work and just gets some payment from the government. These people are just here to work, work, work."

But at the end of the day, Bandelaria understands there's little Filipino workers can do when their permits expire.

"I would always advise them that if they really have to go, they have to go," she said.

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