This Saturday, Staff Writer Samantha Seiff and Daily Editor Rania Borgani attended an event hosted by Barnard College and the organization Damayan entitled “Pandemic Tales: Uplifting the Voices and Organizing of Filipino Migrant Workers.” The event sought to “amplify the disproportionate impact that the pandemic had on the immigrant Filipino community in New York.”

While the pandemic has been hard on us all this year, its disproportionate impact on communities of color is undeniable. Damayan, an organization that helps Filipino workers fight for their labor, health, and immigrant rights, has been working hard to provide its members with the necessary support during the pandemic. For example, Damayan delivered groceries, PPE, disinfectants, and other needed supplies throughout the pandemic. They have also obtained 51 trafficking visas for its members, reunited 31 families, and helped over 36 members escape abusive employers. During the Spring 2021 Semester, Damayan and Barnard College partnered up, creating a comprehensive report exposing COVID-19 inequities regarding the mental health and economic difficulties of marginalized workers. Specifically, the report seeks to magnify the voices of Filipino domestic workers (both documented and undocumented) and labor trafficking survivors. 

Perhaps an elite academic institution and grassroots anti-trafficking organization seem an unlikely partnership. However, this collaboration of Barnard College with Damayan has allowed for the creation of what Professor of History Premilla Nadasen called a “first-of-its-kind” report on racial and socioeconomic inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This report, which crucially engages stories from frontline workers and grassroots organizations in addition to quantitative research, is intended to “humaniz[e] the statistics, and illuminat[e] the impact of exclusion from government protection” in a pandemic world. 

This Barnard x Damayan collaboration has been made possible by the College’s “Barnard Engages New York: Collaborative Partnerships to Promote Sustainable Change” program, colloquially known as “beNY.” Students enrolled in this Spring 2021 Semester course, aptly entitled “Pandemic Tales,” have thus had the opportunity to engage with “worker leaders and labor trafficking survivors” to forge their report. Some of the students involved in this course include Sharmie Azurel (BC’23), Andre O’Quinn (CC’22), Areej Qadeer (BC’23), and Hana Kaur Mangat (CC’22). These students shared their reports’ findings in the first portion of the event.

After hearing from these “Pandemic Panels” students, event attendees then heard first-hand from labor trafficking survivors. One such testimonial came from Alfred, who emphasized how critical Damayan’s function as a grocery distributor has been during the pandemic. The Damayan member also shared that “Damayan linked [him] to a mutual aid group to pick up medications from the pharmacy” due to the “strenuous situation in New York City during the pandemic lockdown.” Alfred feels as though him and his wife know that “[they] will succeed because [they] have Damayan on [their] side as [their] ally.” 

Alfred is not the only Damayan member whose life changed after joining. Another member, Bainie, bravely shared in her testimonial the intense labor conditions she endured and put up with for many years working as a housekeeper. She would work upwards of 18-hour days with little compensation, making her hourly pay $0.26 an hour. Bainie’s job was also very physically-taxing as her household duties were nonstop. Her employer was also “unkind” and “constantly yelled,” creating a mentally strenuous environment. Bainie explained how eventually, her “body and mind” could not endure such harsh conditions, so she left. It was not until joining Damayan that she realized she had been a victim of labor trafficking. Thankfully, she now feels safe at Damayan; she knows they have her back and “changed [her] life.” 

Born in the Phillippines, Joyce gave the final testimonial of the night. Growing up, her mother had left to work in Hong Kong, so Joyce made a fierce promise to herself to eventually become the breadwinner of her family. In December 2015, she got a job at a hotel in the US. However, to come and work she had to pay a Visa fee and airfare, forcing her to borrow money. Joyce quickly realized her job entailed more than the responsibilities originally communicated to her. She was constantly exhausted, and it was clear to her that the job contract was not being upheld. Not only was she physically and mentally exhausted, but she also missed her family, as they were far away—another struggle for Filipinos with transnational families. However, Joyce felt like she couldn’t leave her job due to the money she borrowed. Thankfully, she found Damayan who helped Joyce with her case against the hotel, and also acted, according to Joyce, as a “second family” who is “always right there.” 

Once the testimonials portion of the event had concluded, Damayan Co-Founder and Executive Director Linda Oalican raised the important question: “where do we go from here?” Though this query is unsettling to ponder, Oalican nonetheless encouraged her Zoom audience to consider the uncertainty of the pandemic’s state in coming months. Over a full year after the onset of COVID-19, Oalican asserted that “we might need to learn how to live with a deadly virus,” and affirmed that Damayan is preparing for this possibility. 

But how is Damayan preparing? Damayan has come up with numerous demands for New York City and the State of New York that would better help immigrant communities within the city. One of the organization’s requests is to allocate tax dollars to supply food, PPE, emergency cash, and medical fees (including mental health-related fees) to New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status. Damayan also wishes for hazard pay for essential workers, particularly domestic workers (babysitters, nannies, housekeepers, caregivers, etc). Finally, Damayan calls for a dedicated fund for excluded workers—immigrant workers not included in any federal government emergency relief fund—in NYC. Thankfully, Governor Cuomo allocated $2.1 billion for excluded workers in the city and state, which will hopefully be beneficial to many.  

Damayan’s ability to outline its demands for audience members highlights an important facet of the event. Professor Nadasen stated that the purpose of her class was to “flip the script on campus-community partnerships.” Typically, the intersection between academia and community support is often “extractive;” researchers either gather the needed information, and then leave, or base their work on the vulnerability and needs of the poor. Instead, Professor Nadasen purposefully constructed her course in conjunction with Damayan to further its mission. Nadasen decentered academic expertise in favor of listening to the organizers and labor trafficking survivors, thus creating a more equitable partnership. 

Evidently, the structure of the event mirrored the structure of her course; being able to listen to students, organizers, and survivors provided a multifaceted view of the report. Rather than simply reading statistics, participants learned about the tangible impacts of COVID-19 through personal stories as well as quantitative figures and research. The fact that the presentation’s organizers spoke in both English and Tagalog throughout the event made this report feel like something more than merely a presentation of findings; rather, the report seemed to represent a new way of building solidarity and expanding one’s understanding of the Filipino migrant experience. 

Lastly, came the Q&A portion of the event in which one student asked how non-Filipinos might become involved with Damayan. Riya Ortiz, the Damayan lead organizer, and case manager, explained that Damayan makes regular informational posts on its Facebook page. She encouraged students to become informed on the “signs of labor trafficking and how you can help fight it.” Ortiz also directed prospective volunteers to Damayan’s online volunteer form, as the organization utilizes volunteers and interns to research policy as well as manage communications. 

Oalican contended that Damayan needs “allies to help do our work” and address the “concrete issues” discussed throughout the presentation. 

Another way to aid Damayan’s effort is by spreading the word within school communities. Ortiz asserted that Damayan does “a lot of speaking engagements,” so informing any “student groups” of Damayan’s mission is an especially impactful tool. 

If you are interested in reading the report created by Barnard’s “Pandemic Tales” students and Damayan members, you may do so on Damayan’s website.

event flyer via Barnard Events