ALABANG, Philippines - For many of Canada's Filipino temporary foreign workers, their journey began in much the same way.
Tasked with matching workers with available positions are independent employment agencies scattered throughout the Philippines.
Hired by companies to find employees for available positions, meeting with these agents is the first step for workers looking for employment abroad.
Last April, federal employment minister Jason Kenney put a temporary halt on the approval of new food service workers after high-profile cases of alleged abuse came to light, prompting a review of the controversial program.
With the moratorium entering its second month, employment consultant Benjie Rustia feels the pressure as he struggles against a backlog of halted applications, as a growing number of Canadian companies desperate for workers call upon Rustia to round out their schedules.
Much like his clients, Rustia is floating in the same limbo as everybody else, waiting for answers from the Canadian Embassy about the future of the program.
Sitting in his cramped office in a bustling suburb of the Philippine capitol of Manila, a lot of Rustia's day is spent explaining to disappointed workers that, like everybody else, he doesn't have any information on the status of their applications.
Rustia's office is located in a nondescript Alabang shopping plaza, squeezed between the local police detachment and a frenetically busy Jollibee fast food eatery, looking more like a Canadian consular office than an employment consultancy.
LOWERING STANDARDS FOR WORK
The requirements to enter Canada as a temporary foreign worker vary according to industry, but share basic requirements.To tend counter at your local 7-E;even, English language proficiency and extensive work experience are a must, including at least a year of restaurant management experience.
As well, post-secondary education in hospitality or culinary arts is a desirable trait.
"If you are a restaurant manager, then you are typically applying for a lower position in Canada," Rustia said. "Most of our clients -- they are qualified restaurant managers. They lower their expectations in order to get a job offer."
Competition for jobs in Canada is high. As a result, requirements for candidates to come to Canada are intense.
"The more related education a candidate has, the better their chances of getting approved," he said.
"There are certain minimum standards set by the government, and if you're an employer, you are obviously looking for the best person."
Rustia also processes work permit applications and negotiates the mountains of visa paperwork needed to enter Canada — a logjam that can delay the hiring process anywhere from six months up to a year.
As the moratorium drags on, the paperwork continues to pile up -- threatening to delay the process even longer.
While his clients are growing anxious over uncertain status of their applications, Rustia says employers in Canada end up paying the biggest price.
"Because of the moratorium, you'll definitely see businesses close," he said. "They can't afford to not have workers. Since they've stopped (accepting new workers), the Canadian restaurant industry is in danger."
MUSIC TO THEIR EARS
Canada is often the first choice for Filipinos eyeing work overseas — not for the wide variety of work available, but also because Canada has a reputation for being safe, welcoming and friendly.
"You don't have to sell Canada," he said. "For the Filipino, Canada is music to their ears."
Because of this, Canadian employers get first crack at the best workers. Rustia fears the longer the program remains in suspended animation, Canada will start losing out as capable workers are forced to go elsewhere for work.
For many Filipinos, working overseas is as much sacrifice as it is opportunity. As many foreign workers are female, being in Canada means leaving behind husbands and children — often for years at a time.
While it's a sacrifice most Canadians wouldn't be willing to reconcile, dismal job prospects in the Philippines coupled with a Canadian minimum wage that's twice what comparable jobs pay in the Philippines, the benefits of working overseas outweigh leaving family and children behind.
"The opportunities here are very low," Rusita said. "It's not an easy decision, especially in our culture. We're a family-oriented society, so it's a very hard decision to make."
While disappointed that Canada's quickly becoming a no-go zone for workers, Rustia said his clients respect the decision of the Canadian government and are pursuing other options.
"Their only other option is to work elsewhere," he said. "So workers who would have been sent to Canada are going to other countries instead."
While Canadian companies are by far Rustia's largest clients, the moratorium has expanded his portfolio of employers into Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore and the Middle East.
"We explain to our clients that working in Canada is not a right, it's an opportunity," he said. "We don't have a right to question the Canadian government's policy, so we do what we can."