How janitorial work became so excruciatingly inseparable from the Filipino-Canadian identity

How janitorial work became so excruciatingly inseparable from the Filipino-Canadian identity

The 29 Capilano University cleaners won their campaign, but for the 22 who are Filipino, raising wages and health benefits are only half the battle
Carlo Javier // Editor-in-Chief
Illustrations by Erika Medina

I. Catharsis

The cold afternoon of Feb. 19 felt just like any other day would. Eight of Capilano University’s night-shift cleaners sat together in the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) Members Centre, but because not everyone can fit in the lounge’s partitioned two-couch space, two of them had to grab a barrel chair from different areas of the room. It didn’t matter that it would disorganize the lounge, because later that evening, one of them will have to come back and clean it all up.

The cleaners were an hour early for their 4:30 to 12:30 p.m. shift, but some of them kept their coats on. Nearly everyday, the cleaners congregate in the lounge for a fleeting moment of catharsis. Most – if not all of them – came to campus straight after their morning jobs, and these short bursts of relaxation are almost as precious as sleep itself.

Other than the simple fact that the lounge is a central location, there is neither rhyme nor reason as to why the cleaners congregate in the lounge nearly everyday before work. Once they’re “clocked-in” they will all ultimately disperse to their respective stations. It could be all the way up to the northernmost end of the campus at the Bosa Building, or down to the complete opposite at the Sportsplex. What stands out, is how the lounge offers a bit of a snapshot of the cleaning they do every night.

The Members Centre is one of the school’s premier student spaces. There are other amenities available in the Maple lounge, but the library location offers a centrality that Maple’s isolated building couldn’t ever dream of matching. Every mid-afternoon, these student spaces also turn into a caricature of any typical teenager’s bedroom. Unattended bags and arbitrary pieces of clothing are littered all over the carpet floors, half-empty bottles of pop and half-eaten plates of food waste away on cone-shaped side tables and the ambience is a mix of chatter, typing and a healthy dose of snoring. There is a lack of seating every afternoon, but often, it is not because of the sheer volume of students in the lounge. Instead, it’s almost entirely due to the lack of spatial awareness. Students mindlessly sprawl all over the couches – both on the tucked-in side sofas and brazenly on polygonal seats at the very centre of the lounge. Space is not the problem, it’s just a matter of understanding the idea of the public sphere.

All eight of the cleaners who arrived an hour early for their shift are Filipino – they often tend to be. Twenty-two of the 29 CapU cleaners are Filipino, and in the Greater Vancouver area, 65 per cent of all cleaners who work in schools, malls, office buildings and other spaces are Filipino. This is a number confidently estimated by Leo Alejandria, a former janitor himself, who now works with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2 and the BC chapter of Migrante – a global non-profit organization that fights for the rights of immigrant Filipinos.

The cleaners in the lounge kept to themselves. Some of them carried out their own mini-conversations, while others browsed through their Facebook pages. There were familiar faces, like Cherish Lazo and her father, Marciano. One person that was noticeably absent was Delia Tanza.

“She’s not here yet,” one of the cleaners told me.

As “normal” as the day seemed, there existed a noticeable air of relief. As if a certain weight had been lifted from the cleaners’ shoulders. The Feb. 19 night shift almost never happened.

Illustrations by Erika Medina

II. “Its not the minimum, but we feel okay.”

On Feb. 13, the CapU cleaners unanimously voted to go on strike on Monday, Feb. 19 – marking the boiling point of their ongoing dispute with employer, BEST Service Pros. However, late on Thursday, Feb. 15, the planned campus walk-off was averted after the two parties reached a then-tentative bargaining agreement. When Tanza arrived in the lounge around 4 p.m., she received a little bit of a hero’s welcome from her colleagues. Tanza was in Birch 205 – the room where it happened.

“Holy cow.” Those were the two words that Tanza could muster when BEST presented their final offer to the bargaining committee. It was not a denouncement of the pitch, in fact, it was an exclamation of relief. The new agreement addressed the primary demands that the cleaners put forward, namely wage increases, health benefits as well as paid sick days. Though BEST did not accommodate the exact designated BC living wage number ($20.62), Tanza said that their committee was satisfied with what BEST provided in terms of benefits. “It’s not the minimum, but we feel okay,” she said.

Since their partnership with SEIU Local 2 and its Justice for Janitors campaign was permitted in June 2017, Tanza has emerged as one of the more prominent figures from the cleaner group. The 53-year-old mother of one was front and centre at a November demonstration outside of President Paul Dangerfield’s office, where she spoke to dozens of supporters, including the Student Worker Alliance Group, about their plea for higher working standards. She has become a frequent contact for local publications covering the situation as well as a constant figure in the negotiations.

Though successful in terms of compensation and working conditions, the cleaners’ campaign may have inadvertently cast a spotlight on an underlying truth that exists in the cleaning workforce: how did custodianship become so inseparable from the immigrant Filipino identity?

The victory solves the day-to-day challenges that CapU cleaners face on the job, but what cannot be overlooked is the very significance of the fact that the campaign not only existed – it also managed to garner the support of numerous stakeholders in the CapU community. It is a conscious and concentrated effort to counter the increasing and troubling racialized identities of Filipinos in Greater Vancouver. It provides an opportunity to bring a group of people that have routinely been disenfranchised, since the dawn of the Lived-In Caregiver Program (LCP) from the periphery, to the conversation.

III. What we lost overseas

Tanza spent the entirety of July 2016 in the Philippines. Coincidentally, that was also her last vacation. She first immigrated in 2006, splitting the next four years of her life between Dubai and Hong Kong. In 2010, Tanza moved to Canada, entirely because of her desire to bring her son abroad and gain access to better education, healthcare and simply, a better life. Her husband remained in the Philippines and will likely never step foot in Canada.

What she may not have known then, is crystal clear to her now. For her to best provide for her son, she would have to just about extinguish the life she once knew. “They [Filipinos] see Canada as a good country, as heaven, but it’s not, you need to work, you need to down your pride,” Tanza said. “You need to really accept your life here, that this is it. In order to live, you might have to work at the very bottom to provide for your family.”

Tanza’s days often start at 6:30 a.m., when she wakes up to get ready for her morning shift taking care of an elderly person, in her position as a caregiver. Part of her morning is also spent ensuring that her son is ready to go to school. He is 16 now and the Grade 10 student aids his mom by helping with the cooking. At 9:30 a.m., she works as a caregiver, with shifts ranging from four to five hours. By 4 p.m., she’s at CapU.

Tanza has been cleaning at the University for three years. She has been stationed in the third floor of the Birch building the whole time, and now knows the layout of the floor like the back of her hand. So much so that she can list the rooms, the number of labs and offices off the top of her head. Recently, she has also taken responsibility of part of the second floor. Night shift ends at 12:30 a.m., and like most of the cleaners, Tanza takes public transit to and from work – increasing her work day hours from 12, to 14 or 15 depending on traffic. Around 2 a.m., it’s lights out. On weekends, she’s at the Lynn Valley Care Centre, working as a caretaker and a housekeeper. “I’m tired, yes, but this is it, this is my life,” she said. “It’s normal.”

Her son routinely encourages her to drive, at least it would decrease her daily working hours, but Tanza knows better than to increase her spending. Owning and maintaining a vehicle could eat up one of her salaries. “I want to provide him with good education, it’s not only for me right now,” she said. “I’m old already, sooner or later I’ll be retired. So, I just focus on earning money, provide daily needs, renting, the insurance that I have to pay, MSP, everything.”

The paradigm shift was most evident to Jeepney Payemyem, a 58-year-old Filipino cleaner at CapU. Before moving to Canada in 2016 to join his family, Payemyem led a lengthy and decorated career in the firefighting industry, eventually achieving the rank of Fire Captain in his near two-decade stint in Saudi Arabia. To this day, he still remembers one of his most eye-opening calls, one that occurred about 20 years ago. There was not much you could do when a plane was engulfed in flames. After all, firefighters can’t put out a fire if it’s high up in the sky. The protocol then, according to Payemyem, was to let the plane crash, and grimly, count the bodies. He remembers crying along with his colleagues as they navigated through the chaos of a plane crash, some of his coworkers cited the ashes as the reason for their tears, but Payemyem knew no one really had a heart of stone.

Payemyem is both tough and articulate. His work in firefighting has helped him build a tough, no non-sense exterior, but he’s also down-to-earth, even jolly on occasion. He has developed a rapport with some of the security workers on campus, possibly because he’s often stationed in Arbutus, but also because security has been a part-time job of his, since moving to Canada. Initially, he had a short four-month stint working security at the Vancouver Drydock. Now he maintains a weekend security job on top of his four days a week at CapU, as well as his new maintenance position at a property building. “Just to keep the ball rolling,” he said.

“It’s hard for me to change,” he admitted. The lifestyle in Canada has been vastly different for Payemyem. Even beyond his starkly different income as a fire captain, compared to his income here, Payemyem has also noticed differences in treatment – especially perception.

In his security job, he often gets questioned how a Filipino like himself managed to do security, especially at his age. “I hear it from anybody, sometimes you meet somebody, they will always say, ‘Filipinos are cleaners’,” he said. “When I was at my security job, they will always look at me and say, ‘oh he’s a Filipino, and he’s in security?

Stereotypes have their own nuanced process of manifestation, evolution and normalization. The Filipino caregiver stereotype was a tragic by-product of the massive influx of Filipina caregivers in the 90s and early 2000s. The association of custodianship with Filipinos grew out of the difficulty of transitioning from a lived-in caregiver to more skilled positions.

Most Canadian workplaces do not recognize education and experience obtained from other countries, much less one from Southeast Asia. Because of this, former caregivers are forced to go back to school to upgrade. While this sounds like a straightforward solution, the challenges that stand in the way are a little more complicated. Many caregivers, especially the ones who came from the first boom of the LCP, were never paid – their remuneration often took the form of room and board. Most of them were then forced to find a part-time job that was easy to apply for and do, but also flexible.

Caregivers worked their primary responsibilities in the morning and daytime, then cleaned in the evening – not many had the time, opportunity, or money to go to school

South African professor and critical race theorist, David Theo Goldberg, is one of the authorities in the concept of racialization – a sociological term used to describe the process when a group of people, bound by race, are bestowed with a social identity manufactured by external forces, as opposed to self-assertion.

Canada’s relationship with the Philippines is built almost entirely on the foundations of the LCP. The LCP was created in 1992 as an evolution of the Foreign Domestic Movement (FDM). The program created a two-pronged benefit: one, with a lived-in caregiver, Canadian families will have little issues with having two working parents. Two, once a caregiver completes their 24-month contract within four years, they become eligible to apply for permanent residency.

Decades later, the LCP have brought a massive influx of Filipinos to the country – along with other races, too – but with it, came seemingly unyielding stereotypes.

IV. “I’m a professional, too.”

On Mondays and Fridays, around 8 p.m., Eymard Caravana makes his stop at the Capilano Courier office to clear out the garbage bins. Most Friday evenings, he sees the newspaper staff working away on the impending issue. Caravana is stationed at the Maple and Bosa buildings. He often starts his shift in the basement of Bosa, then he goes to Maple, cleaning the whole building’s singular level. From 9 p.m., to 9:30 p.m., he takes a break. After Maple, he makes his way back to Bosa, this time he cleans the main floor. To end the night, he rechecks over everything he did, wary that the number of late-staying students could have already tarnished the work he’s done. “I’m a professional, too,” he said. “I do my job right.”

On Friday, Feb. 23, the Greater Vancouver area was put on a collective halt after a day-long steady stream of snowfall. Though the rest of Canada may scoff at 30 cm, that much snow is enough to render much of Vancouver effectively incapacitated. By noon, the 239 Bus from Phibbs Exchange to CapU had completely given up. That evening, Caravana made his usual rounds to the Courier office. Due to the weather, only half of the staff was able to come in. Caravana, who had to make the 45-minute walk from Phibbs Exchange to CapU, admitted that the hardest part of working that night was moving giant bags of garbage from a building to the dumpsters. Especially since snow on campus stopped getting plowed by 4 p.m.

I left the Courier office at 11:30 p.m., not risking a later departure as the snow continued to fall. Prepared to walk from the school to Phibbs Exchange, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the 239 Bus had been making its regular trips up to CapU. More surprising, was the number of people on the bus that late in the snowy evening. A dozen Filipino cleaners were on the bus, all of whom managed to make it to their jobs despite the unforgiving weather. The lack of students made their jobs easier that Friday, allowing them to leave an hour early from the night shift.

There was a clear feeling of elation on the bus. The campaign was won, wages were increased from what Tanza described as “poverty wages” to more acceptable compensation and among other benefits, the cleaners had secured paid sick days. Yet there they all were, on a night where much of CapU – and the rest of the city – called in sick.

Before the bus could make its slow and careful descent, a couple more cleaners managed to make their way through the snowy campus. One Caucasian cleaner made it just as the bus driver started the engine. The last one to make it was Caravana, almost nearly missing the bus. But no one can blame him for double-checking the floors at Bosa, he was just doing his job.

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