By Charlize Alcaraz

Under the sweltering heat of the Philippine sun in 1991, Mike Fernando and his three siblings’ hearts were pounding as they awaited to board their one-way trip from Metro Manila to Toronto.

He was 11 at the time and couldn’t fully grasp why his parents made him and his siblings leave the country until he was older.

“They wanted us to have a better life…We had a better opportunity and a better chance of a better life,” Fernando said, adding that job opportunities are very different in the Philippines and in Canada and that he feels “blessed to be here in Canada.”

Although the plane he boarded brought him to the promise of a better future, he said his heart was heavy remembering what he left behind in the Philippines. 

This is a common experience for many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who leave their loved ones in search of “better opportunities” in work and school, as Fernando put it. For him, it was his aunt, Norma, and his grandparents who had taken care of him when his parents had previously left for Canada a couple years ago without the children to establish themselves first.

Now a sales representative for Enagic, a water technology company, Fernando, like many OFWs supporting their relatives overseas, is giving back to his grandparents and aunt by using remittance services to financially support them.

“When we were young we were actually in need, we didn’t come up very wealthy or anything,” he said. “So when [I] started earning money, I wanted to give something back to them… for taking care of us.”

Since his grandparents passed away last year, he now only supports his aunt on a monthly basis. However, Fernando also said that he’s been sending more money than usual, as his aunt has also been affected by the challenges brought on by the pandemic.  

People in Canada sent $1.079 billion to the Philippines in 2020, almost as much as the $1.08 billion that was sent in 2019, CBC reported. On a global scale, OFWs sent $42.8 billion to the Philippines in 2019 alone, said Zaldy Patron, consul general for the Government of the Philippines, to CBC. 

And yet, more than 42 per cent of Filipino Canadians reported job losses or cut hours, according to a Statistics Canada survey report. 

There’s something to be said about the Filipino community and their high level of generosity, said Wayne Jopanda, the associate director of Bulosan Center for Filipino studies at University of California, Davis.

“There’s a different sense of community that we not just cherish, but also long for…especially in times where we feel distant from the rest of our families”

He saw it in how his grandparents would invite other Filipinos they just met at the grocery store on the same day to play mahjong with them and make kwentuhan, or conversation in Tagalog.

“There’s a different sense of community that we not just cherish, but also long for especially in the diaspora, especially in times where we feel distant from the rest of our families,” Jopanda said. 

Fernando said that financially supporting his aunt wasn’t “bestowed upon [him].” It was a conscious decision he made for himself. 

“I took it to myself and saying, ‘Hey I want to give back to them..Here’s what I’m willing to give,’” he said. 

Mike Fernando talking about him supporting his aunts in the Philippines and visiting them regularly before the pandemic. (Charlize Alcaraz/T•)

The last time Fernando visited his aunt’s house was December 2019 during the holiday season, and all the memories of him playing with his siblings and cousins would rush in.

“It’s very homey. It’s not big, but it’s just right,” he said.

His aunt’s house holds special memories, including Fernando, his siblings and his cousins watching shows on the living room television and sitting on the cold, tiled floor to play with cards in the sala, or living room in Tagalog. 

Along with these memories, the smell of his favourite Filipino food would envelop the air. The scent of tinola – a Filipino chicken soup with papaya chunks and spinach along with a broth flavoured with hints of ginger and soy sauce – invites him. 

Whenever Fernando visits his old town in the Philippines during the Christmas season, the love and hospitality from his community shine brighter than a parol, a Filipino ornamental lantern used for Christmas celebrations.

“When you get there by December, already [celebrations] are happening and everybody’s jolly… Everybody’s calling you to eat food at their place as you walk down the street,” he said. “It’s completely different from here.”

The Philippines’ longstanding tradition of exporting workers was established in the 1970s when the local economy was stagnating and rising oil prices opened a doorway for contract migrant labour in the Middle East, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Then-Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos established the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration that provides contract labour directly to foreign employers and governments. 

According to Jopanda, the system taught Filipinos to work abroad to not just pacify worries of unemployment and underemployment in the country, but to also have them send money back to the Philippines.

“It was forced upon us to be understood as being tied to our productivity, tied to our labour,” he said.

OFWs are not to blame for the need to go look for a “better life” in a foreign country, and they deserve safe and financially secure employment, especially during a pandemic that’s causing widespread job losses, Jopanda said.

“It’s the systems in place that’s continued to milk the labour and take advantage of our OFWs,” he said. “They regard them as modern-day heroes — as they should be — but at the same time they’re not protecting them as they should be.”