Class Struggle: Filipino Immigrants and the Quest for Identity

Community News & Features Mar 1, 2005 at 4:37 pm

By Philip Kelly, Phd.
(Dr. Kelly is Associate Professor, Department of Geography at York University.)

What class do you belong to? How do you assess the class or social status of yourself and others? Is it a bank balance or an occupation that defines class? Or is it the size of your car or house? Or perhaps it is something less tangible, like an accent or an attitude? These aren’t questions that we often sit down and think about, but they are an important part of how we make sense of our identity, our self-esteem, and our place in society.

If belonging to a particular class in society was just something we chose to do, like selecting a flavour of ice-cream or supporting a basketball team, this would all be just idle academic debate. But in reality our society is unequal, and its resources are distributed unevenly across different groups of people. So thinking about class, and about why some people appear ‘entitled’ to more than the rest, is important.

It becomes even more important when we start to think about the faces of the haves and have-nots. Why are women, immigrants, and ethnic minorities systematically paid less and why do they tend to occupy lower status occupations in Canadian workplaces? Are class positions related to a person’s sex and ethnic origin? Have certain identities become associated with particular roles in our labour force and a particular status in our society? Most importantly for our discussion here, what does being Filipino or Filipina imply in Canada?

These are questions that I have been trying to explore over the last few years in a study at York University. Some of the answers come from statistics, so I will share some of these first of all. Filipinos have arrived in Canada in large numbers over the last few years. In the 1990s, the Philippines was the third largest source of immigrants to this country after China and India. Filipinos have also arrived with excellent credentials – over half have a university or college education (see Figure 1), and most have high levels of fluency in the English language.

Nearly half (43 per cent) of all immigrants from the Philippines have settled in Toronto, and they have integrated well into Canadian society and workplaces. Participation in the labour force is very high among Filipino men and women, and they are spread across almost all neighbourhoods in Toronto with relatively little segregation.

But that is where the good news stops. Many Filipinos arrived under the stringent discipline of the Domestic Worker Programme or Live-In Caregiver Programme. College-educated women face a process whereby they are de-skilled and de-professionalized. And Filipinos’ incomes are, on average, well below those for immigrants as a whole, and even further below the average for the Canadian workforce in general.

Filipinos are also heavily concentrated in just a few sectors of the economy – healthcare, childcare, and manufacturing in particular (see Figure 3). Within these sectors, they tend to occupy lower status positions – secretaries, nursing aides, and production workers, for example. There are success stories, of course, and there is a comfortable middle class of Filipino immigrants, many of whom arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. But the overall picture is not uplifting.

Top Ten Occupations for Male and Female Filipino Immigrants in Toronto, 2001

Male Filipinos                                        Female Filipinas
Clerical 3,370                                        Clerical 8,180

Sales and service 2,880

Child care and home support 4,160

Machine operators in manufacturing 2,515

Sales and service 3,285

Assemblers in manufacturing 2,515

Nurse supervisors and RNs 2,495

Technical jobs related to natural and applied sciences 1,895

Assisting occupations in support of health services 2,135

Professional occupations in natural and applied sciences 1,885

Professional occupations in business and finance 1,620

Trades helpers, construction and transportation labourers 1,095

Assemblers in manufacturing 1,300

Mechanics 1,025

Retail salespersons and sales clerks 1,280

Labourers in processing, manufacturing and utilities 980

Technical and related occupations in health 1,250

Professional occupations in business and finance 900

Cashiers 1,055

* Note: My source for all figures is Statistics Canada’s 2001 Census. ‘Filipinos’ are defined according to those who self-declared in response to the question concerning Visible Minority identity.

So we have a contradiction to explain – a well-educated, English-speaking, well-integrated immigrant population is being given ‘lower class’ work in the Canadian labour market. Is this a coincidence, or is there something about being Filipino that is limiting upward mobility? Has a Filipino identity become a lower class identity in Canadian society? This is a provocative question, and one that we should all think about – Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike.

To place the question in even starker terms, think about a visit to a hospital. It is now commonplace to see many Filipino men and women in a variety of bedside and support roles. But would your surgeon be a Filipina woman? We should be asking why that would be a surprise. Or go to a hotel and a Filipina might be making your bed. But if you ask to see the manager, who will you meet?

There are several answers to the question of why Filipinos seem to be occupying particular class positions in Canadian society. The most innocent relates to immigration patterns. As more than half of all Filipinos in Canada have arrived in the last 10-15 years, and they are still relatively young, we could argue that they are just making their way on the career ladder to higher positions.

Another explanation is the effect of the Live-In Caregiver Programme, which strictly limits the possibilities for advancement in the Canadian workforce at large, even after completing the programme.
These are both viable explanations, but to get closer to the realities faced by Filipinos in Canada, I have been conducting interviews and focus groups to learn about individual experiences. In these encounters I have heard about stereotyping and discrimination in Canadian society, and this surely is an important part of the explanation.

But what has surprised me is the way in which Filipinos have engaged in a process of self-stereotyping to explain their class positions to me. Admittedly, these have been ‘positive’ stereotypes – presenting the Filipino as ‘kind’, ‘nurturing’, ‘hardworking’, ‘non-confrontational’ and ‘modest’. But they are stereotypes of “the Filipino” nevertheless. I have heard them used to explain why Filipinos are concentrated in certain sectors – the obvious example being healthcare, which draws upon characteristics of ‘warmth’ and ‘kindness’.

I have also heard these stereotypes used to explain class positions in the occupational hierarchy. It is a short step from describing one’s identity with adjectives such as “modest” and “non-assertive”, to explaining why the Filipino would ‘naturally’ occupy subordinate positions in the workforce.

But if Filipinos do accept and articulate these stereotypes, what does it mean? I think there are two interpretations. First, Filipinos are turning to positive ethnic self-stereotypes to explain away disappointments in the job market. Ultimately, I think this is a self-defeating line of argument, but I can see how it helps someone cope with unfulfilled professional ambitions and wasted talents.

The second interpretation is that these self-stereotypes reflect an internalization of discrimination. This is very worrying, as it implies that there is an understanding ‘out there’ that to be Filipino is to be limited to certain types of jobs and certain levels in the class hierarchy.

And this leads us to my original question. If Filipinos are being held below their potential in the labour force, how do they themselves understand their class positioning? Or to put it another way, why do Filipinos stay in Canada to be subjected to this sort of marginalization?

My interviews and focus groups have suggested that several dimensions of life in Canada are appealing. The first is the nature of social institutions – healthcare, education, and pensions, for example. But also a more predictable, and less personalistic, relationship with the bureaucracy, the political machinery and the security forces. In short, a sense that things are done ‘by the book’. Some of my respondents even suggested that Canada is ‘classless’, presumably in the sense that everyone is treated equally. (Although recent events, especially the shooting of Jeffrey Reodica, led many to question how colour-blind and impartial the rule of law in Canada might be).

The second factor is the level of consumption that is possible in Canada with even deprofessionalised employment. Does a car, a house or apartment, and an affordable supermarket, make up for subordination in the workplace? If one can afford all the things that one aspired to in the Philippines, does this lead to a sense of achievement even if the job that pays for it is beneath one’s capabilities?

Asking about how Filipinos make sense of their class position also leads to other answers. Some take comfort from the similar circumstances of their kababayans in Toronto – even if they are in a degraded occupation, many of their compatriots are in a similar position, so there is no shame attached. For others, their high status back home in the Philippines is important. Being able to support their relatives there, and being hailed as those who “made it” when they return to visit, provides further comfort (and status) to compensate for subordination in Canada.

None of this dismisses the realities of Filipinos in Canada and the unfortunate position that many find themselves in. But it does bring us back to the question about class and status. How do Filipinos interpret these concepts? What is the comparison group that is used in establishing status and self-esteem? And where is this done – in relation to Canadian society, or in relation to the Philippines?

You will notice that in writing about these issues I refer to Filipinos as ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. I am conscious that I am an outsider and although I am an immigrant to Canada myself, I sit in a very privileged position. I am also conscious that however many people I talk to in focus groups, there is still a huge variety of experiences and opinions among Toronto’s large and diverse Filipino community. So I invite you to send me your comments on the questions I have posed in this articles, either directly ( or through the pages of the Philippine Reporter. Thank you for entering this debate!