New publication: Filipino domestic workers & seafarers in the time of COVID-19

The early days of the pandemic had everyone feeling trapped. But for many ‘essential’ workers, it was more than a feeling. It was a reality.

A new paper by alumna and University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow Vanessa Banta, and professor Geraldine Pratt, gives voice to the experiences of Filipino temporary foreign workers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, the study was conducted in partnership with the B.C. Migrant Workers Centre.

Banta and Pratt spoke with Filipino domestic care workers who were in Canada on temporary work visas, and with seafarers on ships in the Burrard Inlet who were also impacted by the pandemic.

Both groups of workers experienced significantly restricted movement and a feeling of ‘imprisonment’ in their places of employment due to the pandemic. For domestic workers, their immigration applications were severely impacted — being delayed by months and even years due to both the pandemic and, they feel, the state’s disinterest in supporting care workers as a group to become permanent residents of Canada.

Due to the nature of their visa tying them to one employer, domestic care workers experienced a significant decline in conditions as they remained at the mercy of their employers in order to stay in the country. Some were forced onto ‘implied status’ in Canada — where their initial work permit had expired and their permanent residence application had not been processed in the timeline promised by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada — and lost their universal health coverage as a result.

For crew on cargo ships, access to healthcare on board felt nonexistent, and they lived in terror of contracting COVID-19. But they also felt trapped on board, with shore leave significantly reduced or outright banned in many locations due to pandemic restrictions. The researchers spoke with men who worked contracts of up to 12 months without any leave. The ability to contact loved ones was intermittent, and on-board recreation facilities often non-existent.

Both groups, Banta and Pratt argue, represent a significant workforce rendered invisible in daily life, and even more so by the pandemic.