Gina Bahiwal: Fighting On

Community News & Features Feb 10, 2017 at 5:27 pm
Photo courtesy of Toronto Star

Photo courtesy of Toronto Star

OFW Advocating for Temporary Foreign Workers

Almost deported, but for Gina and others, the fight is still on

By Pet G. Cleto

On Sunday, January 15, 2017, Gina (Gregorgina) Bahiwal, former social worker turned farm worker, was to be deported back to the Philippines. She was judged to be illegal because she was way past the 4 in-4 out rule created by the Harper government, and although the rule was rescinded by the Trudeau government last December 13, 2016, her case was already judged as falling under the rule. The rule forced out of Canada temporary foreign workers who have worked here for four years without being able to get permanent residency, and obliged them to remain in their countries of origin for four years before they could apply to work here again. This scheme in effect assured Canada of a steady supply of cheap labour through temporary workers, making them “permanently temporary”. Worse, it also forced many to go hidden and illegal, hoping to survive somehow and send money back home.

On January 13, just 2 days before her deportation date, Gina was told by the federal government that she would not be deported after all and was instead given a temporary resident status. This enables her to remain legally in Canada and work, while waiting for the result of her application for permanent residency under Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds.

On the phone, Gina’s voice comes across with the warmth – a voice that has been engaged for many hours discussing problems or speaking up to employers, recruiters or government personages. It’s evening- she must be tired from a full day of work, but she was enthusiastic about the interview.

Many new facts and issues surfaced in the interview. Some passages:

The Philippine Reporter:
Tell us about your first years in Canada.

Gina Bahiwal: When I arrived in 2008, I worked in Leamington for almost 4 years, in vegetable packing. When the 4 year in-4 year out rule came out, I went to BC, to Dawson Creek. I wanted to apply for the BC Provincial Nominee Program, but they didn’t sign my papers for that.

TPR: Let’s get to that later. How did you become an advocate for migrant workers’ rights?

GB: I became one in 2009. I met several advocacy groups then- some were Pura’s (Velasco) group, Justicia ((Justice for Migrant Workers). I learned that there are so many things that are prohibited, yet people are doing these. By then, I was already helping workers about the additional fees recruiters were asking, and also about housing issues. Recruiters were asking fees to renew our two-year contracts, even when we were just over the first year. They were asking for $2500. per worker. I told them I didn’t have to pay them that much, because I could do it myself. I already knew people who could help us do that then. The recruiter said she would remove me from the list of LMIA applicants, because I was a union organizer. I was only fighting against injustices!

TPR: I read that you were also an organizer of the march in Leamington.

GB: In 2011, I helped organize the march from Windsor to Leamington, and spoke regarding the exploitation of workers in the farms. But you know, there’s also another big problem. In my first years, we were invited to Christmas parties in Toronto, organized by some remittance agency. In my second year (2009) of going to these parties I was told that people from the Philippine Consulate wanted to speak with me at the party. My friends were afraid to meet with them, but I went ahead because I wanted to tell them about our problems regarding these excessive fees of recruiters. They said if I really wanted to fight them, I must promise I would not back out from the fight. Of course I said I wouldn’t . The next thing I know, this recruiter,Mike Galpin, the counterpart in Canada of our recruiter in the Philippines, calls me up to say he knew all about what I told the Consulate people, and threatened me he would use his contacts at the Philippine Embassy.

TPR: Did you check that with the Consulate?

A Consulate official called me to ask me about going to Windsor, so I asked him why the recruiter knew about our conversation. He denied that anyone told Mike . When I saw him (Consulate officer) in Windsor, and asked him again, this time he said, why don’t you just look after your own self first, instead of looking after others?

TPR: So what happened to this offered help?

I completely lost trust in them so I stopped contacting them. They also didn’t communicate with me anymore. At least I tried to reach out to them.

TPR: Were you ready for these problems when you left the Philippines? Someone had commented in an ABS-CBN interview that you knew all these things beforehand, and maybe he meant that’s why you knew how to deal with them.

Photo courtesy of Toronto Star

Photo courtesy of Toronto Star

GB: That comment is so hurting, because we were in fact victims of the sudden announcement of the 4-4 year rule. Many of us had to go to many places like Saskatchewan and BC so that we could try for the Provincial Nominee Programs there, which is information given us by the advocacy groups we knew.. Like so many others, I didn’t know anything. No one of us knew that there are rules to which you should comply. All the advice I got in the Philippines was from the recruiters. They said when somebody interviews me about what I paid to come here, I should answer: I paid nothing.

TPR: And so you became a volunteer with Justicia?

They asked me, and I agreed to become one.

TPR: And then you went to BC when the 4-4 rule came out. What job did you find there?

At Holiday Inn. A housekeeping job. For almost 2 years. But my application for the Provincial Nominee Program was denied.

TPR: You went there first and then applied there for the program?

GB: Yes, since they require 9 consecutive months of work for the same employer in the province for you to be eligible. I needed to know from the groups here about contacts in BC because I knew I would find problems there again.

TPR: Did you have experience doing advocacy work in the Philippines?

GB: I was a community organizer with the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), Ifugao Branch. We were organizing farmers and farm workers. But the organizing wasn’t like what we do here. Mahirap din ang kalagayan ng mga farmers doom, pero iba yung mga problema dito. Basically, I was assigned to rural areas.

TPR: So what happened in BC?

GB: I continued my advocacy there. There were problems you couldn’t avoid so you should really help. There were issues like it was in Ontario. I was trying to help a co-worker, a Filipina who came from Taiwan, working for another hotel, who was brought in by the same recruiter who helped reach BC. She was then just newly arrived- just three months and was really in need of help.

TPR: You paid this recruiter?

GB: Yes, $1,500. We were four in all who came from Toronto.

TPR: You said you also worked in another job.

GB: In MacDonalds, their problem was the exploitation by employers. Their employers didn’t want to give them application papers for PNP. So they got recruitment agencies to help them, for $5,000. The problem was, there was an income bracket: singles could make it with their minimum wage income, but if they have families , they couldn’t make it. So many couldn’t make it because they had families and their income was insufficient.

Were there many who helped you in BC?

David Ferry, a labour consultant. I also was referred to the West Coast Domestic Workers.

TPR: Let’s talk about your success – your campaign to stay in Canada.

GB: Justicia helped me with that. First, Patty Collar, a consultant in Windsor, helped me get a legal aid certificate, so that I could pay a lawyer to help me file my case. Mr. Lee was my first lawyer. Then Justicia fundraised for my legal fees, and I decided to ask Mr. Richard Wasana to be my lawyer because we had heard he was very good. The government had already told me I was to be deported, sent me my notice of deportation so I applied for Permanent Residency on Humanitarian & Compassionate Grounds (H & C).

TPR: I’ve been told that when you file this application, you’re protected from arrests, deportation, etc,

That’s not true. Especially in my case, because I was already given a deportation order.

TPR: Whar about the other temporary worker who also had a campaign and lost?

GB: He asked for help way too late- he was going to be deported the very next day.

Why do you think you won?

I think it’s because I was active in working for justice. I was also one of the two from the Temporary Workers’ Program who spoke as witnesses before the Parliamentary Committee that was studying the TFWP. ( Gina also appeared in the documentary The End of Immigration, helped organize the J4MW Pilgrimage to Freedom in 2011, and spoke at a press conference on Parliament Hill for the launch of the 2016 J4MW Harvesting Freedom campaign.)

Yes, many people know you!

I’m glad so many supported me! I had so many letters of support I couldn’t print them all!

:What can you say about the government’s announcement about their action based on the recommendations of the HUMA parliamentary committee?

Ok, the part about the 4-4 rule being removed is great. I have my case as an example of victimization by this rule at the HUMA hearing. But …It’s so short! That’s funny that they have to disclose the rest only when the budget comes out, because – is it the budget that’s the problem? How much does it take to put a law into motion? Why is it so difficult for them to listen and act? We’ve fought for so long .
TPR: Who are you helping now?

Some people who tried to get employed here by direct hire, so they won’t be charged recruitment fees. I spoke with some employers, and then Marco (Luciano of Migrante Alberta) gave me some application forms to fill out for them. I finally got them their work permits and entry visas. But then I was told by the Consulate that there were new requirements from the POEA! Their papers had to be authenticated by a recruitment agency the Philippines! They had to pay the agency $500 US for authentication, and they had to present that authentication certificate to the POEA! This was already under the Duterte administration.

What would you advise to our fellow Filipinos?

Don’t be afraid – go to the Canadian Immigration website so that you will know the rules. If something wrong is being done to you, report that! Don’t think you owe recruiters anything, even if they say you should be grateful they brought you here- you’ve paid them several times over! If they threaten you, report them! If you know it’s wrong, fight for what’s right.

TPR: How do you think the fight for migrant workers should be carried out?

We should also make our government in the Philippines do something about our conditions here. First, they should monitor how we are and find out how they can help us. They should know what’s happening between the employee, the recruitment agency, and the employer, and correct the exploitative and abusive ways by which the two victimize the employee! I always thought that was the proper duty of consulates and embassies, but that’s not the case, sadly.

What about the campaign for TFWs here?

GB: We must continue to fight for permanent residency upon arrival and open permits instead of employer-specific contracts. Why should there be a difference between skilled workers and unskilled workers, so that there are so many limitations for the unskilled? We’re all workers here! Why is it taking them so long to hear our difficulties?

TPR: Are there any conditions attached to your Temporary Residence permit?

GB: It’s essentially an open work permit, and the only thing I can’t do is study. I keep updating my H&C file, putting in new articles and letters. They say my case is strong. I hope and pray it is.