Edeline Agoncillo sends up to $1,400 of her wages to the Philippines every month and keeps only a few hundred dollars for herself, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The money Agoncillo sends without fail — a remittance, it’s called — ordinarily comes from cleaning houses in Edmonton. It supports her elderly parents, her daughter, her son and his child.
During the pandemic, as work dried up, she drew on the federal government’s $500-a-week Canada Emergency Response Benefit to support not only herself, but also her family across the Pacific.
“They have to eat every day; the medication of my parents has to continue every day, and nobody sent their money, just me,” Agoncillo said.
The Agoncillo family is like many in the Philippines, where one in 10 households relies on a relative overseas. Remittances are a huge part of the global economy, exceeding foreign direct investment in low- and middle-income countries for the first time last year.
But then the pandemic struck and The World Bank made a gloomy prediction in April that these transfers would plummet by 20 per cent this year because of COVID-19.
Migrants often give more when their home countries are in crisis. But with the pandemic pummelling economies everywhere, economists thought the flow of money would slow down. Initially, it did, but remittances largely recovered by the middle of the year.
People may be earning less, but they are still sending money home.
“We don’t really have a choice,” said Marjorie Villefranche, director of Maison d’Haïti in Montreal, describing the responsibility of the diaspora to send money back to Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Agoncillo was scared to work when the pandemic started, and families didn’t want her to clean their homes. When she does work, she asks her clients for their deposit-return bottles to make an extra $30 to $40 a week.
She has been sending her parents about 30 per cent more each month since March, because one of her sisters, who is jobless in Dubai, can no longer help. Agoncillo can manage because she lives with two others and she spends as little as possible on herself.
“I’m very deprived,” she said. She asks only that her family pray for her.
Remittances sent from Canada amounted to more than $36 billion in 2018, based on data compiled by the Canadian International Development Platform. Four out of every 10 Canadian residents born in a developing country support loved ones overseas, according to Statistics Canada research.
Pressure to send money has increased during the pandemic as governments worldwide imposed crippling lockdowns, many without emergency relief programs that wealthy countries such as Canada offered.
Canadian incomes have also fallen, putting those helping relatives abroad in a tight spot.
Some migrants dip into meagre savings to find money, said Ethel Tungohan, a professor who studies migrant labour at York University in Toronto. Remittances are “not just an economic contribution, but a sign of love and care,” Tungohan said.
Visible minorities are primary senders of remittances, government data shows, even though they have experienced more unemployment due to COVID-19 than other Canadians. The August Labour Force Survey found that approximately one-third of Filipino and Latin American families, as well as more than one in four Black households, were struggling financially.
Financial support from the government has also played a role in sustaining remittances. The CERB was a lifeline for Agoncillo, and thus her family in the Philippines, for five months.
The Haitian community has also benefited from government support. Haiti depends on its diaspora: remittances in 2019 amounted to 37 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Canada is the third-largest source of funds.
Federal pandemic programs eased the pressure on Haitian-Canadians, Villefranche said.
Not all migrant workers qualify for government support. Marco Luciano, the director of Migrante Alberta, a Filipino migrant advocacy organization, points out that undocumented migrants can’t access federal benefits and have taken on extra jobs.
“They had two jobs. Now they have three jobs. And many of them are unstable jobs because of the shutdown,” said Luciano.
Because of migrants’ efforts, the Philippines and Haiti have registered only modest decreases in money transferred. The Philippines, which received $1.35 billion from Canada in 2019, reported a decline of only 6.6 per cent between January and August. Remittances bounced back in June.
Data is similar for Haiti. Transfers from Canada have decreased by only four per cent during the pandemic, according to economist Manuel Orozco of Creative Associates International, a Washington-based international development organization.
Agoncillo requested more hours from her employer when the CERB ended in September. But then she was exposed to COVID-19 when cleaning the house of a client who subsequently tested positive. Her results came back negative, but under Alberta’s public health guidelines, she still had to stay away from work for 14 days.
Agoncillo says the experience has been stressful: “I need my job. I need my job.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2020.
Bryony Lau is an independent researcher on conflict in Southeast Asia. She is currently a fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto.
Bryony Lau, The Canadian Press