This conversation is with Nina Santos, who identifies as a first-generation migrant from the Philippines and is a passionate advocate for ethnic communities, migrant rights and gender equality. Nina has been recognised by the Asian New Zealand Foundation and YWCA as a young person to watch! In this episode, Nina shares with us her work with the “Mind The Gap'' campaign and ethnic pay gap reporting. By the way this conversation is a bit special: it was recorded on my birthday and 15 minutes after Nina tested positive for COVID-19.
Elina: I was reading about you just earlier this morning, your submission form for the podcasts and just so many things that I want to ask you about Mind The Gap, your Philippines upbringing, all of it! It would be cool to hear about what your upbringing was like and what shaped you? What was your life in the Philippines like? Let's start there.
Nina: I only have really good memories of the Philippines. And that's all props to my parents. They, in a way, sheltered me from a lot of the hardship. But what they couldn't shelter me from was the realities of social injustice and corruption and just how hard it is to live there. And I know because my dad worked, like a lot of people. In the Philippines, you probably have the highest immigration rates in the world, and remittance rates as well. Our economy heavily relies on remittances. Because for a lot of Filipinos, the greatest achievement you can do is to get out of there. And that's sad to say and sad to hear as well. But my dad worked as an OFW, Overseas Filipino Worker in Macau for several years. And I remember I always used to cry when he’d leave. The cost of living is no match to what people earn. And there is a minimum wage, but there are so many in what they refer to as informal employment. So people who aren’t on contracts and who aren't employed properly for a society, they earn way below the minimum wage. So it's really hard to get by. As much as I love the Philippines, the prospect of seeking greater horizons, the grass is greener mindset has always been there.
Elina: It's very similar in Kazakhstan. Growing up, my mom always wanted us to leave. So it was always a given. But it's not a common thing in Kazakhstan because it's so hard to leave. People don't dream about it much and they just figure out how to settle in. My mom has always said we have to leave for better prospects, better opportunities, less corruption: I go first, I study, I find a job then I help my rest of the family come here. What was it like for you moving? Because your dad already worked overseas. Was he already a little bit used to it, because he travelled and worked overseas?
Nina: Absolutely. Education is the key. You have to have a certain level of privilege to be able to move out. And I'm very lucky and I do acknowledge that. In the Philippines, I call it the pipeline. Because a lot of people already know they want to leave, they go into professions that they know gives them the edge, and the number one would be nursing. So that's why there's so many Filipino nurses because that's the one that's in demand in Canada and America and Australia. Mom has 13 siblings. Let's say half are girls and five out of six of them became nurses.
Elina: Wow. And your mom was a nurse as well?
Nina: No, mum is not a nurse. She's the odd one out [laughs]. But they just knew that even though some of them don't even practice nursing now, it was the migration pathway. Good credit to my dad, he bore a lot of the brunt of moving so it was a family effort. For dad to come here first, eight years ago. His background was in hospo.
He tried finding a job in hospo and it was a challenge at that time because when you're an immigrant, you prepare yourself to start from scratch. Your qualifications don't exactly match, no matter how brilliant they are.
So he found the only hotel he found that accepted him was in Te Anau - South, South New Zealand. More than an hour away from Queenstown. He became an all rounder, a barista, sometimes frontdesk, just an all around hotelier. And after a year and a half, mum, my brother and I secured a visa to come here and thank God because the immigration then was a lot more lenient compared to how it is now.
Some Kiwis, because they have one of the most powerful passports in the world, they think of immigration as being similar to booking a flight and that’s it. Signing a paper at the airport, and then poof, your qualification takes weight and you have a work permit to work immediately. But for a lot of migrants in New Zealand, especially people of colour it’s not he same. And when people say oh, you know, these migrants are taking our jobs. Do you think we want to take your jobs? But we have to survive and to tick the boxes and to get the visa to stay here.
Elina: I've recently noticed while doing this podcast, but also in general, a lot of people that are migrants or at some sort of intersection of marginalisation, people end up, by their life experiences, in places where they want to advocate or their work is dedicated to advocating. How was that for you?
I definitely look up to my dad in that sense. He works as a union organiser, but he's always been an activist. I think Mum met him at the protests. And a fun fact about me, the name Nina Gabriella Santos is actually from a women's rights organisation in the Philippines, so Gabriela is a women's group.
I always say that this passion and drive to want better outcomes for women and migrants and women of colour, it's ingrained in me. So right now, for example, a practical example would be Mind The Gap campaign. I'm actively campaigning for pay gap reporting and for fair pay and equal pay. But a few years ago, I had no time or headspace to worry about what pay gaps are.
And that's a reality for a lot of migrants, because the way the system is built is that, you put your head down, do the work, try not to piss off your employer too much.
So they don't send you home and risk your whole family's place here. It's a really risky move for a lot of migrants. So the fact that I can now advocate for these things, and a lot of people think it's just bravery and being gutsy. But there's a lot of privilege ingrained in that and I always really want to acknowledge that and thank God that I now have the time and headspace to do these things. My parents were definitely focused on survival, getting the visa, securing the residency, no matter what jobs they had to take. Mum worked at Tank Juice Bar for a couple years, despite owning a business in the Philippines, and dad worked as well in a hotel making coffees. No matter where, the focus was on survival. Me, I get to focus on self actualization and pushing for better advocating for others. So I do acknowledge my privilege here.
Recently, Diversity Works released research that revealed that there is a migrant pay gap. And it highly depends on what country you came from.
And as expected if you come from a brown country, you're less likely to get paid a fair wage or it's just worse. The odds are stacked against you. When things like that happen and migrants try to say, Okay, this is wrong. We deserve better. The number one sentiment I see in the Government is, oh, but you'd still be getting more aid. You would be getting less if you're in the Philippines or just be grateful. There's a shortage of jobs, blah, blah, blah.
And unfortunately I internalise a lot of that. Because sometimes when I'm given a job offer I just think to myself, I try to convert it into Philippine peso. And I'm like, gosh, its still a big amount. I'd never get this if I was in the Philippines. I'm still one of the lucky ones but. But when I questioned myself, I'm like, okay, you're in New Zealand now. That mindset is absolute BS, and you're comparing working conditions to close to slavery working conditions.
Elina: I talked to my immigrant friends often about that. When we talk about diversity and equity and inclusion and different representations of cultures, there are a lot of things that I do not like about my culture. There are a lot of things that I don't agree with back home. I don't agree with corruption. I don't agree with the patriarchal narratives, yet I still believe in the value of diversity and inclusion and equity of my culture into mainstream cultures in New Zealand. And I find it odd or I have friends who find it odd to balance those two to say, yes, I think we should be more inclusive to migrants, we should be more diverse. Yet, I think my culture has a lot of problems.
Nina: No, honestly, I've never thought about this before. And I'm so glad I am talking to you about it now. It's almost like that dilemma.
I'm Filipino pride all the way for every Filipino. We need more Filipino representation in these spaces, but also there are a lot of things I'm trying to unlearn from my upbringing and my culture. And thanks to colonialism, the 100, 300 year history of colonialism, there are some values, things we've normalised that I don't agree with. But that tension can hold you back.
Elina: Yes, I think that's why people might be like, I think it's not one or the other? If I'm saying I'm proud of my culture, or I think I belong at a table, then I can also call out my culture as being toxic in many ways.
Nina: That's true. The duality. We need to integrate that more in these conversations.
Elina: Yeah. Nina. I would love to hear about your current work. What wakes you up in the morning these days? What are you up to?
Nina: So honestly sometimes and up until very recently, looking at my LinkedIn and at my CV, made me quite anxious and embarrassed. Because it looks to a third person like I can’t make up my mind. I'm doing a law degree, final year law and politics. But I've mostly worked in comms and digital jobs, social media has kind of become my background per se. I've kind of accepted that I'm a generalist, and I'm proud to be a generalist, I don't tick a box, and I'm now comfortable that I don't. My very recent gig is the Mind the Gap campaign.
A bit of a backstory. Last year, I found myself in a legal job which I hated. The culture didn't fit with me. And I thought it was my dream job. I’d been eyeing it ever since I was in second year law school. And when I got there, the culture wasn't a good fit. And there was an emblem for burnout, the burnout culture, the hustle culture, and then I was like, okay, you know what, for the first time since I was 16, I'm going to be jobless, and just focus on uni. And I was so scared because obviously, I needed the money. I needed the money to help the family out and three weeks later, I got a call from my now manager, the really lovely CEO of YWCA. And she said, I may have an opportunity for you. And now I'm Delivery Manager for Mind The Gap. So the main thing we're pushing for is pay gap reporting. But the wider picture is a more equitable and fair New Zealand. There has been a lot of focus on gender pay gaps, the gaps between men and women. But I think it's important if it's not intersectional, then it's absolutely useless. It's crap. So with Mind The Gap, we're pushing the ethnic lens, we're pushing the intersectional angle, there are ethnic pay gaps. Right. And you need to address this, the gaps between a Pasifika woman and Māori woman and a Pākeha woman are widening.
Elina: The issues of ethnic communities or migration or discrimination or racism are so vast and huge. And I think sometimes it could be quite hard to grasp, like, geez, there's just so many things. How do we start? It's overwhelming. So for the Mind the Gap you said it's pay gap reporting. What does it mean? What does it look like?
Nina: With Mind The Gap, the premise is that pay gap reporting is mandatory in a lot of countries. Places like the UK, Australia, Canada, the government mandates businesses to report their pay gaps.
The simple act of measuring and publicising pay gaps has reduced the gaps up to 20% or more. That's huge, 20% more in my pay pocket would be the difference between groceries for the week. But in New Zealand's such a forward looking country, one of the best reps in the world, it's not mandated for any business. So businesses just sweep it under the rug or worse they pretend it doesn't exist.
They give you the usual excuses like differences in experiences, not everyone is as good, blah, blah, blah, women work less and take more time off because of childcare. So with Mind The Gap the goal really is to bridge the pay gaps for people who bear the brunt of it. And in that case, it's Pasifika women. I think the pay gap for Pasifika women is 25%, Māori women 19%. And this is compared to the average Pākehā male. There are many problems. But what I like about Mind The Gap is that we have one clear goal. And this pay gap reporting is big but it’s a small piece of the wider equity issue.
Elina: So is the idea that organisations, public or private, or both measure and report it? Reporting it to someone, like to the government, or just literally making it public on the website?
Nina: So we're pushing for public reporting and actually we’re launching New Zealand's first public pay gap registry on March 8. Here's a shocking bit. No public sector, no private companies are required to do it. But all public sector agencies are mandated to. So the government already does it. There are also some big businesses, big names, who have signed up to the registry, that are doing it anyway, that are taking the leadership. Once you know about this piece of data, it's not good practice to keep it a secret. So companies like Westpac, even though they were hesitant about publishing the gap, they did anyway, and now they came up with a strategy to actually bridge the gaps and to address them.
Nowadays with a great resignation, and a lot more people are realising that they want to work for good companies. They don't want to work for a company that doesn't value women or thinks of women of colour, as lesser than. So reporting your pay gaps is good for businesses, because it's a mark of trust for employers and the public alike.
The culture of pay secrecy and the lack of transparency in workplaces is just wild. The way we value women in work, the way the immigration system is set up. The bondage system for work visas that ties migrants to their workplaces really stops them from challenging the system. So there are a lot of institutional challenges that need to be addressed, as well as from the ground level, to really address the issue.
For me, the burden should not be on women, especially women of colour, to ask about pay, to ask organisations to report their pay gaps, because we bear the brunt of the pay gaps. But the burden should actually be on those who have the privilege to stand up and ask. Sometimes I am conscious, there are a lot of pay gap deniers. I know pay gap deniers personally, people who think the pay gap issue is absolutely a myth. And you should work hard enough or I work more than you blah blah blah. So sometimes I feel insecure. Because one person has asked me in particular, you talk about being a face of the pay gap or spokesperson for pay gaps, but are you experiencing the pay gap? Can you actually attest to the fact that you're paid less. And I'm really lucky to have a job that supports me and my family. So sometimes I'm like, okay, should I be the spokesperson for this because I'm not poor and I don't want to romanticise poverty, I think maybe that's a really important thing.
So I'm constantly learning to hold the spaces that I know I can speak on, but also being gracious enough to know when to pass the mic and say, you're in a better position to speak on this issue. I try to make a conscious effort, am I an advocate for the pay gap’s impact on modern Pasifika? I'm not Māori, Pasifika so I can’t speak to that.
Elina: It's such a complicated grey space but constantly being reflective on it and say, okay, how can I learn or okay can I do this or what is the right place? That's a forever journey.
Nina: I know, its a forever journey. One person, very recently asked me, do you feel insecure around Māori or Pasifika women, sometimes because they have experienced so much injustice and suffering at the hands of the government that traces back to our history of colonial violence? But sometimes when you advocate for migrant rights do you feel insecure? Because technically, you're new here, are your aggravations or your feelings of being aggravated valid? Do you feel insecure sometimes? At first I felt offended. I was like, sis! All issues can exist, we don't have to choose. And absolutely, I do acknowledge that Māori and Pasifika bear the brunt of social inequities in New Zealand. And the last thing I want to do is step on anyone's toes or going to claim that for myself, because I'm not an indigenous woman, I'm not a Pasifika woman. But that doesn't mean that I can't advocate for migrant causes as well. And for better outcomes for us.
Elina: Sometimes, the system makes you feel like you are taking away from other issues. And I guess the message here is that all issues need to be addressed. Someone will work on climate justice, someone will advocate on sustainability and growth or anti growth in the business world, someone will advocate for migrants. And we need all of us and all of it to make this better. There was no hierarchy. It's all interrelated. I really can relate to that insecurity and think should I even be sticking up about this? Should I exist in this space?
Nina: Yes. Oh, my gosh, I've never talked about this with anyone before. But you're absolutely right. We can all advocate for issues that matter to us at the same time, as long as we're not stepping on anyone's toes and not holding spaces and grabbing mics that don't belong to us. I used to be the type of person who hogs opportunities. As a young high school student, I would say: Okay, I want all these opportunities. Yes, yes, yes, interview, set me up. But growing older, I'm so glad I've developed the self awareness to know which spaces and in which issues I can speak on and which ones I should pass the mic on. No one, nor I can claim that I am the Filipina voice. I am the Filipino representation. I am the migrant voice. Because I'm not. All migrants have a voice. It's really up to everyone to amplify that and ensure there are enough safe spaces for us to be able to use that voice.
Elina: I love that. Thank you so much, Nina. I think these chats are so damn important about finding our space but also knowing when to give it up. And how do we communicate about the discomfort we might feel in this work! I’d love to ask you some quick fire questions to round out up wonderful chat… first, what’s your favourite meal?
Nina: I really love Chicken Inasal. It's a form of chicken barbecue and it's usually served with rice and chicken oil drizzled on the top and fried garlic. I also really love classic Filipino homegrown dishes like Sinigang, Adobo, Menudo, I'm an all rounder. I used to be a child who wasn't picky at all, I ate all the veggies. I ate all the weird ingredients. So I love Filipino food.
Elina: Do you have a restaurant to recommend for people to go to?
Nina: My house [laughs]. There are some good ones. I really liked the Food Truck Hapunan out in Huapai, quite a while away. And I also like Boracay Garden, down in the Viaduct. I think they have really good Sigsig. If you have a chance to try it, run - don't walk [laughs].
Elina: If you could be a main character in a movie or a TV show. What would it be?
Nina: Oh, okay, I'm gonna say Jessica Pearson, Suits, because she's a badass woman. I hate to say it, but Suits and How to Get Away with Murder got me into Law school [laughs].
Elina: Yeah, I love Suits too! If you could propose one policy to the New Zealand Parliament or organisations what would it be?
Nina: The Equal Pay Act, which is turning 50 in October. It's out of date, and it's not working. It takes into account the gender aspects, but says nothing about intersectionality, nothing about women of colour, nothing about people of colour, nothing about migrants. So it's not working. So government, this is a call to you, please review and amend the Equal Pay Act, or better yet introduce new pay gap reporting legislation, pay transparency legislation, because this is well overdue. And it's our women and our ethnic women who are bearing the brunt of it. If you're listening, and you're able to speak about the gaps, question your seniors about them, talk to your family about it, normalise conversations about pay. This is your chance to do so. I have a feeling we are really close. We haven't been this close in history to passing this piece of legislation, so constant pressure, my friends constant pressure.
Elina: And the last one, what makes you feel like a badass?
Nina: Oh, gosh. Honestly, I think when my family tells me they're really proud of me, and my boyfriend tells me they're really proud of me, that makes me feel like a badass. I'm a recovering people pleaser. Not proud of it. But, the people who I will never stop pleasing and trying to make proud of are my family. So hearing mom say that she's proud of me and she wants to be me when she grows up. That makes me feel like a badass.
Elina: Oh my God, Nina. That was so wonderful. And I'm just so grateful for our time together. Especially just after you found out that you have Covid. I'm super grateful Nina for your time and for our conversation. I just had the best time this morning. I'm so glad we did it on my birthday as well.
Nina: Yeah, thank you Elina. I'm so happy and honestly speaking to you I just couldn't stop snapping my fingers. I just feel seen and validated and I really enjoyed our time.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded these conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.