Through photography, migrant Filipina care workers share their hopes and fears while working during COVID-19 – Toronto Star

One of the photos taken by a Filipina care worker for “Matatag: Filipina Care Workers During COVID-19.” The photo exhibit will run until January 2022 at the A Space Gallery in Toronto.

By Celina GallardoStaff Reporter

Sun., Oct. 31, 20213 min. read

Handwritten messages from loved ones, a cup of coffee beside a laptop showing an English proficiency test, a plant bud just starting to sprout from a pot of soil. These were some of the things Filipina care workers photographed for a new photo exhibition now on display in Toronto.

Matatag: Filipina Care Workers During COVID-19” is a photo series by migrant Filipina nurses, personal support workers and caregivers working in Canada that explores their experiences as front-line workers during the pandemic. Matatag, which means “firm and strong” in Tagalog, consists of 30 printed photos taken by Filipina care workers that invite viewers to see things from their perspectives, as well as a slide show of all of the 78 participants’ photos.

When it comes to talking about essential workers during COVID-19, Filipino community members found that Filipina care workers were rarely included. Ethel Tungohan, an associate professor of politics at York University, wanted to change that.

Tungohan led the project alongside other scholars, researchers and community organizers from Migrants Resource Center Canada and GABRIELA Ontario, a feminist organization led by Filipino women.

Through Matatag, Tungohan wants people to understand the hopes and struggles of Filipina care workers and demand for policies that protect them. The researchers behind Matatag also have a petition to reform health-care systems to address burnout and employment precarity, specifically for workers of colour.

Tungohan found that front-line workers were commonly described as “resilient” or heroic during the pandemic, but words like these had different meanings, depending who was using them.

“We’re against the romanticization of resilience (that) tends to be used by policy-makers — it tends to absolve them of their own responsibility in leading this situation to unfold the way it has,” Tungohan said. “But we are here to celebrate women who formed their own community … to fight back against the situation they’re in.”

Early into the pandemic, Tungohan also noticed that conversations around essential workers focused primarily on doctors and nurses. It left out professions like personal support and home care workers. And these were the jobs of several Filipino community members that the researchers knew.

So Tungohan wanted to amplify these voices by exploring what Filipina care workers are going through during the pandemic directly from their perspectives.

One of Matatag’s participants, a personal support worker the Star has granted anonymity to due to fear of job reprisal, told the Star that what she loved most about the project was all the stories she heard from other Filipina care workers during kwentuhan, or storytelling, sessions. These sessions, facilitated by the team behind Matatag, ran from July 2020 to this August.

“When you hear the stories, they are horrible,” the participant said. “There are things behind closed doors that we never know. Nobody knows that it’s happening.”

One story that stood out to the participant was from a nurse who was in charge of three floors by herself at a nursing home. She photographed the heaps of garbage she had to deal with, the pile littered with disposable masks.

These stories further pushed the participant to share her own experience so that Filipina care worker experiences are no longer hidden in the dark. For the project, she took a photograph of a picture she has of her granddaughter, who lives back in the Philippines.

Since moving to Canada 13 years ago, she hasn’t gone back home to see her family. And her chances of travelling to see them are even lower during COVID-19.

“For me and other migrant workers also, when we work with our clients, we treat them as our family but we cannot even go home and hug our own family,” the participant said.

Matatag is currently at the A Space Gallery and will run until January 2022.