The Portsmouth Activist Priest Standing Up for Filipinos During COVID-19

Father Claro Conde, Parish Priest of the Corpus Christi with St Joseph diocese in Portsmouth, has been raising awareness about the British-based Filipinos who have died from COVID-19 and providing moral and spiritual support to their loved ones. S&C Co-founding Editor and author of a book on the contemporary Philippines, The Realm of the Punisher, Tom Sykes reports.

Fr Conde has converted the lounge of his North End home into a shrine to the approximately 80 OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who have succumbed to COVID-19 in the UK. In front of an altar adorned with British and Philippine flags is a wall of photographs of the deceased, most of whom worked in the NHS.

‘When these people were very ill their families could not visit them in the wards,’ says Fr Conde, peering at the photos over his half-moon glasses. ‘I was willing to speak to the victims and their families by phone and say prayers for them. That provided some relief.’ Fr Conde, 65, has also been conducting masses live on Facebook for the benefit of friends and family members abroad.

Several factors are behind the disproportionately high number of Filipino deaths, in Fr Conde’s view. ‘It may be a fault of our culture that we cannot say no when we are asked to do things like extra shifts at work,’ he says. ‘One of the youngest victims, a male nurse, worked and worked until he collapsed and died from his symptoms. He needed to earn money to send home to his family in the Philippines.’

2.2 million other OFWs across the world – 40% of whom are employed in healthcare, domestic labour and menial jobs – are under similar pressures. In 2019, foreign remittances to the Philippines amounted to $33.5 billion or 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. This burden is borne mostly by women, who account for 56% of all OFWs.

A further challenge facing the Filipinos Fr Conde supports is that they must pay a share of their salary to the agencies that arranged their employment in the UK. ‘During the last Labour government, the hospitals would cover these fees,’ he says. ‘But then Theresa May changed the regulations and made the workers themselves liable. Now people come to me and complain they are in debt before they have even started working.’

Fr Conde’s shrine also commemorates domestic servants who were exploited and abused by unscrupulous bosses. One such woman died of COVID-19 in the family home she worked in because her visa, which was ‘tied to’ her employer’s, made her ineligible for NHS treatment. Again, had the policies been different, she may have lived, believes Fr Conde.

‘In the 1990s, such migrant labourers who came to the UK could have their own passports,’ he says. ‘That meant they were freer to change jobs if they were mistreated. The “hostile environment” reversed that.’

Advocating for domestic workers was amongst Fr Conde’s first duties when he relocated from Iloilo City in the Philippines to the UK in 1994. ‘I translated for a Filipino Muslim woman who did not speak very good English or Tagalog [the national language of the Philippines],’ he says. ‘The wealthy Saudi family she worked for would tie her up in their kitchen. It was slavery and I could not believe it was happening in England!’

The family was never brought to justice – and nor have any other Saudis for such crimes, according to Fr Conde. ‘I think this is to do with Britain wanting to maintain a good relationship with Saudi Arabia,’ he says. ‘The arms deals alone are worth billions.’

For a clergyman of Fr Conde’s background, there is no contradiction between clerical duties and political activism. Trained in left-wing liberation theology in the 1970s, Fr Conde spent his early years as a priest living in the poorest slums and villages of the Philippines. ‘This led me to “a situational analysis”: an understanding that poverty is not created by God, but caused by the structures of our society, by greed, by political power and ultimately by capitalism,’ he says. ‘Jesus was always on the side of the poor and the marginalised.’

Before moving to the UK, Fr Conde campaigned against the Marcos dictatorship, which was overthrown in 1986 by a popular struggle involving the Philippine Catholic Church. However, the modern British Catholic Church is not so progressive, Fr Conde has found. ‘Young priests here are trained in a traditionalist and conservative way.’ This is representative of a wider conflict in the Church between the ‘Christian socialism’ of the current Pope Francis and ‘the pro-capitalist’ ideology of British and American Catholics, according to Fr Conde.

Is Fr Conde optimistic about the impact of his prayers, counsel and activism in this difficult time? ‘We lobbied for the COVID-19 compensation scheme for nurses,’ he says. ‘While it cannot bring anyone back from the dead, it is positive.’

‘We must stop more Filipinos dying. That means proper PPE, no more overwork, no more mistreatment.’

Photograph by Moshe Tasky.

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