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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Basically slave labour

 
 
Oftentimes, news coming from the establishment is not really as encouraging as they sound or as good as they intend to be.
 
Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently announced that Canada has issued more than 47,000 visitor visas to Filipino visitors in 2013, an increase of 57 percent since 2006 and a record high for the Philippines. But what the total number of visitors doesn’t indicate is that it is the Philippines’ latest contribution to modern-day slavery in Canada.
 
Since 2006, the number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has ballooned to over half a million workers toiling in jobs where they are paid wages lower than the legal minimum, where working conditions are below labour standards, and where there is little or no opportunity to transition to permanent residency and citizenship. Who would have thought that working overseas, especially in Canada, wasn’t a better alternative to staying home?
 
McDonald's Canada has announced putting its temporary foreign worker program
on hold. McDonald’s got bad publicity recently over allegations in Edmonton that
it was charging temporary foreign workers too much for rent. Media reports also
revealed that local Canadian workers at three Victoria, B.C. locations were denied
shifts in favour of workers hired under the TFW program. Photo by Associated Press.

There is now widespread criticism that Canada’s temporary foreign workers program is either not working or is being abused contrary to its original purpose. Under the program, employers are allowed to bring foreign workers for a specified duration to fill in labour shortages. These workers are bound to their employers and may not quit for any reason or seek other employment. Essentially, the temporary foreign workers program is a stop-gap measure to address labour shortages but its current use has morphed into something businesses have exploited as a quick fix for the sake of profit.
 
As early as 2011 I started posting blogs that were highly critical of Canada’s temporary workers program and the government’s new limit of four years for visas granted to these temporary visitors, denying them the opportunity of permanent residence. Those were views drawn out from my own experience as a lawyer working with immigrants and refugees. In 1992 when the Live-in-Caregiver Program was introduced, also by nature a temporary or contractual work arrangement except for the path to citizenship for successful participants and for which Filipino nannies have been improperly stereotyped as the program’s main market, the government’s temporary foreign workers program has already elicited disapproval from policy and human rights advocates and labour unions as a thinly disguised version of indentured servitude.
 
Everyone would recall that historic indentured slavery started out as temporary slavery for white people. Wealthy individuals and businesses paid for the passage of persons in Britain or Europe who wanted to immigrate to the colonies at that time. In return, they had to work for their sponsor as payment for their passage for a set number of years. Since the indentured servant could not leave or quit, the practice was a little better than slavery. In some ways, it was even worse because their employers would sometimes work them to death.
 
Indentured servants were exploited as cheap labour and were severely maltreated, a highly abusive situation being replicated in the plight of today’s forced migration of temporary foreign workers in Canada.
 
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has reported that foreign workers from Belize have accused McDonald’s Canada in Alberta and British Columbia of treating them like slaves by effectively forcing them to live in a shared apartment. McDonald’s would then deduct almost half the workers’ take-home pay as rent. Records showed that the workers made $11 an hour working at various McDonald’s locations and the company took $289 from their pay for rent, bi-weekly. The workers were left with a take-home pay each of roughly $350 for the same pay period.
 
Also just recently, the Alberta Federation of Labour claimed 65 oil-sand contractors were laid off and replaced by low-paid workers from Croatia. There were also prior complaints from Chinese workers who were brought in by a British Columbia coal mine, Royal Bank technical staffers laid off in an apparent outsourcing movement, and more than one fast-food restaurant has been accused of replacing staff with lower-paid foreign workers.
 
A Tim Horton’s franchise in Fernie, British Columbia, has also been accused by two Filipino workers who alleged that the store owner cheated them out of overtime pay by driving them to the bank to cash their paycheques and then taking a cut. In Kelowna, an 18-year-old high school student said she saw her hours at a local Dairy Queen franchise cut dramatically shortly after foreign workers arrived from the Philippines. Workers in British Columbia, ranging from seasoned professionals to teenage fast-food employees, are complaining about being dumped in favour of non-residents.
 
These temporary foreign workers are spread all over Canada, and exploited because they are cheap and low maintenance. The western provinces have seen the largest influx. Of the 202,000 temporary foreign workers who entered Canada in 2012, British Columbia had 28,000 TFWs in 2012, with half of them working in Vancouver, doing everything from flipping burgers to performing manual labour.
 
All these recent incidents illustrate that Canada’s temporary foreign workers program is in fact not working as designed by policy-makers in Ottawa, and in many instances, the program is being abused by a number of Canadian companies. Instead of addressing legitimate labour shortages so companies could hire skilled workers when no appropriate Canadian applicants were available, the program has become a convenient tool for some business companies to abuse and exploit their workers.

NDP MLA Mable Elmore (centre) and Jane Ordinario of Migrante BC (right) host a
 panel  to advocate for the rights of temporary foreign workers and to speak out against
 anti-immigrant sentiment. Photograph by Jenelle Schneider (Vancouver Sun). Click
link http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Canada/BC/ID/2450166399/
 to view "Foreign workers facing backlash."
While the program clearly benefits some Canadian businesses, it must also benefit the employees if the program were to stay as ethically legitimate. Arguably there is some merit if the purpose was to bring people from impoverished countries and allow them to work for some time, to enable them to save and return home with hard-earned cash. However, according to the CBC report, it looks like these workers will go home almost empty-handed.
 
Unlike the historic indentured servants who were promised freedom and citizenship if they survived their servitude, participants in Canada’s current temporary foreign workers program are not. When their employment is done, they must go back to their country of origin. They can re-apply to return to Canada only after four years have elapsed.
 
What is guaranteed by the Conservative majority in government is the perpetuation of its policy of privatizing immigration, i.e., allowing the private sector to dictate upon government who to allow to immigrate and for how long. The much-hyped Expression of Interest program borrowed from New Zealand and Australia, and dubbed by the feds as Express Entry, will be launched in 2015 and this is exactly what the private sector wants.
 
Two years ago, immigration applications received prior to 2008 were cancelled by the government, effectively wiping out 280,000 applications from the backlog. Today, Canada Immigration is blowing its own trumpet that Express Entry will lead to a faster and more flexible economic immigration system that will address Canada’s economic and labour market needs.
 
Starting May 1, 2014, the government will implement new caps for the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), Federal Skilled Trades Program (FSTP) and Canadian Experience Class (CEC), which they believe will ensure a steady supply of skilled workers who are settling in Canada permanently and helping to supplement the Canadian workforce in areas where there are skills shortages. By the end of 2014, Canada Immigration expects this pool of candidates to be made available to employers who can screen and cherry pick the workers they would allow to immigrate.
 
Express Entry is essentially a government off-loading of public policy to private sector interests, which will allow employers to define Canadian immigration policy. The trend toward privatization has been started with the shift to temporary foreign workers, and now the focus is on the skilled and experienced categories of immigrants.
 
Granting that the involvement of employers can help reduce skill mismatches between local economic needs and immigration quotas set by Canada Immigration, there is a clear and present danger in allowing employers alone to determine the workers they are willing to admit because they are intuitively looking for average workers, not skilled labour. In other words, the Harper government’s modernization of the Canadian immigration process will simply continue its policy of bringing foreign workers for hotels, fast food outlets, janitorial services and factories – typical Canadian jobs, albeit low-paying, which ordinary Canadian citizens are not willing to do.
 
As I have written in an earlier blog on the subject last November 2012, “the reliance on temporary foreign workers who are selected by employers based on their own short-term interests is headed towards a very troubling path. It is a policy that augurs well for the normalization of migrant labour in Canada, but doesn’t bode well for diversity, appalling for the workplace, and could potentially turn immigration into a source of social tension.”
 
In “The End of Immigration,” a documentary that examines the temporary foreign workers program in Canada, labour rights advocate Yessy Byl explained: “We have a system that is inherently engendering exploitation – it’s just inevitable. We set up a group of people who are brought to Canada to work, so we’ve got basically slave labour, because [the temporary workers] can’t work legally somewhere else.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Inventing the enemy

 
 
Noted semiotician, philosopher, medievalist and author of The Prague Cemetery, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco once wrote: “When there is no enemy, we have to invent one.”
 
Eco considers the enemy as important in defining our identity and in providing us with an obstacle to test our value system, because in seeking to overcome it, we demonstrate our own worth. He further writes that identifying the enemy is almost a natural phenomenon, so with the process of creating and demonizing the enemy.
 
We can cite some examples why Eco’s words carry more than an iota of truth. When the great Soviet enemy faded away during the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the United States appeared in danger of losing its identity. But thanks to Osama Bin Laden, who fought the Soviet Union on behalf of his former benefactor, the United States, he gave George W. Bush the opportunity to create new enemies and to strengthen American feelings of national identity and exceptionalism as well as his power and image as the war president. 

Great enemies - former US President George W. Bush and
Al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden
 
The great destruction that 9/11 brought on New York would always be the historic signal of America’s taking on the new enemy of the 21st century: the war on terror, whether the attacks are on homeland or on foreign soil like Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, the ghost of the old Cold War is again being resuscitated by Russia’s incursion into Crimea in Ukraine and by China’s aggressive ambitions on the South China Sea. Thus, what America has once called the Evil Empire appears re-uprooted and is growing again, not just with the likes of Iran and North Korea but with nomadic terrorist organizations as well.
 
In the United States, the Republican Party and America’s ultraconservatives have demonized President Obama as their sworn enemy because of Obamacare, which they would like to undo at every opportunity even if it was an exercise in futility. To the extreme fundamentalist right wing of the Republican Party, Obama even represents the image of the anti-Christ.
 
The idea or figure of the enemy seems ubiquitous and we cannot manage without it. It is almost second nature to us. The image of the enemy is not necessarily a human object as it could be a natural or social force so threatening that it must be defeated.
 
Quebec’s recent provincial elections demonstrate that the passion of the Parti Quebecois for a separate and distinct identity from the rest of Canada could turn into a nightmare, which exactly caused their defeat after a short stint as a minority government. Separation from Canada became the Parti Quebecois’ bane of its debacle and its innermost enemy.
 
The same could be said of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford whose greatest enemy is his own self-destructing identity. With heavy drinking and infatuation to crack cocaine, Ford doesn’t have to be more creative in defining his own enemy.
 
Inventing the enemy is not only true in the politics of the nation. It is ever-present everywhere. The Filipino community in Toronto is a fine example of our predisposition in bringing down and preventing others so they don’t succeed. Call it part of our culture or something else, but it’s almost in our nature to pin down someone as our enemy because we don’t want them to succeed. This is self-evident among our local community journalists. Whether the mounting bickering was simply a ploy to boost readership of one community newspaper doesn’t detract us from the fact that the lack of civility in the language used by these so-called or self-acclaimed local journalists only amps up the truism that making enemies is easier than making friends.
 
But back to politics, this natural inclination to invent or identify one’s enemies is clearly part of the arsenal or toolbox of President Noynoy Aquino’s brain trust. Knowing one’s enemies, popularized by Mao Zedong from an ancient military treatise on the Art of War attributed to Sun Tzu, is a basic shibboleth among Aquino’s inner sanctum of advisers.
 
Because he was perceived from the start as weak and lacking the wherewithal to become a strong and robust leader of the nation compared to his predecessors, his advisers have had to invent Aquino’s enemies to strengthen his image and to define him as a tough crusader against corruption. This was so disconnected from the earlier image he had carved for himself as a quiet and do-nothing member of Congress, both as a representative and senator. As a legislator, Aquino did not have enemies, at least not in the public eye. He was the scion of two democratic icons, and perhaps at the time he was simply content with his fate.
 
After winning the presidency, the Aquino administration had to invent the person he replaced, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, as his greatest enemy: she who was the mother of all corruptions and the primary stumbling block to reform. They tightly built up the case against Arroyo, put her in jail, denied her bail, and currently keep her in detention while Aquino sits as president.
President Noynoy Aquino's arch enemies - former President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former Supreme Court Chief
Justice Renato Corona 

Then they trained their sights on the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona, Arroyo’s choice to lead the high court and who was once her lawyer during her presidency. After impeaching Corona, the Aquino government now targets its enemies in Congress, Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada and Ramon Revilla Jr., while it coddles the queen of pork barrel, Janet Napoles, in a secured first-class detention facility.
 
All have been branded as enemies of the state, all culpable of corruption and plunder of the government. If there is to be a lasting legacy of the Aquino administration, this is it, the prosecution and persecution of the enemies of the people. Except that after his term as president is over, Aquino could be his successor’s next enemy. This is the simple truth from the pattern of succession: as a friend of the people (or the people he works for and who adore him in return for the favours he gives them) for six years, then as an enemy of the same people who salivated for him like he was a pop idol.
 
Inventing one’s enemies is almost like second nature because of its predestination. Fate works this way, and not in strange or other ways. We tend to bifurcate society into friends on one side, enemies on the other.
 
But the irony in all of this is the stubbornness of President Aquino to accept that he would end his career in no other fashion but in the same fate that befell his predecessor. He has invented so many enemies, both from within the government (not necessarily within his party affiliation) and outside of the nation.
 
Aquino has to use all the incentives and carrots he could squeeze from the congressional and presidential pork barrels to make Congress toe his line, replicating exactly what Arroyo did during her presidency. Even the mayor of Tacloban became his enemy in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan because the government was so inept and slow in responding to the typhoon’s victims. He has ordered the military to arrest the leaders of the communist insurgency despite guarantees of free passage issued to them while the negotiations for peace are going on. He has kept the belligerent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at bay while Congress deliberate on the necessary legislation that will establish a free Bangsamoro nation, which is not a foregone conclusion because the framework for peace with the MILF is wrought with constitutional landmines.
 
Meanwhile, the Aquino government continues to dare and draw the powerful Chinese government into a possible military confrontation on the South China Sea when the Chinese threat is merely an illusion. But China is one big enemy the Philippines must invent to secure America’s military involvement again in Asia and the Pacific, and the return of US military bases in the Philippines which the current government believes is important in defending its territory against foreign invasion.
 
President Aquino must confront all his enemies, real or imagined, but he is forgetting one virtual enemy within. Hasn’t he realized that in all the years that he is president, he has also become the enemy of the people? The poor masses and toiling labourers, the landless peasants of Hacienda Luisita and everywhere where the old feudal system prevails, the restless youth who are struggling against rising tuition fees and joblessness after college, discriminated women and mothers, the urban poor, and tribal minorities who continue being victims of an uncaring government—could President BS Aquino be their recurring enemy?
Philippine President Noynoy Aquino - a friend or an enemy of the people?
This reminds me of Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, where the relationship between the personal and political are too closely tangled up while an apathetic public lays the path to its downfall.
 
In the play, Dr. Thomas Stockman discovered that the town's spa waters are contaminated and causing illness among his patients and the local residents. He called the mayor—his brother—about the necessity of gutting the town's plumbing and re-laying the pipes in a more sanitary way. He believed he would be hailed as the town hero for his discovery.
 
But the mayor balked at Stockman’s suggestion because it would drive away visitors to the spa and leave the town destitute. He agonized between choosing the well-being of his family by keeping quiet and keeping his job, or losing both for the sake of his civic duty to the entire town.
 
However, Stockman was determined to make his finding public but he was waylaid by the mayor’s influence on the townspeople. Chaos erupted during the ensuing town hall meeting where Stockman was declared an enemy of the people.
 
With all the resources of government at his disposal, whether it be pork barrel, priority development programs, disbursement acceleration or presidential social assistance, President Noynoy Aquino has created a Frankenstein of a mindless majority in Congress who would be too willing to follow his direction of politics. For the time being, they hail Aquino as their hero but wait until his term is over.
 
What goes around comes around; it is the law of nature.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Negotiating in bad faith

 
 
In his novel, The Dogs of War (1974), Frederick Forsyth wrote about a group of mercenary soldiers hired to depose a fictional government in Africa. Forsyth called this group the dogs of war, much like the wild pack of soldiers Shakespeare referred to in his play, Julius Caesar.
 
But when the Philippine military named the two dogs and a cat they took into custody during the recent arrest of two high-ranking members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) as “Ben,” “Wilma” and “Joma,” obviously after the top leaders of the Communist movement, it was a cheap shot, an unfair and malicious attack against their prized captives. On other hand, Forsyth’s dogs of war could probably aptly describe the military like a wild bunch unleashed to pounce on their hated adversaries.
Top leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines, Benito Tiamzon and his
wife Wilma Austria raise their fists in defiance on their way to their hastily
arranged inquest in Manila after being arrested in Cebu last March 22.
The military also mockingly announced that the well-groomed pets owned by the captured Communist leaders, Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria, were better fed than the soldiers in the army whose monthly combat salary wasn’t even sufficient to pay for the pets’ food. Perhaps, the military was sending a hidden message to let the government hear that they are not being taken cared of unlike the Tiamzons’ pets.
 
We can excuse Forsyth in describing his villains as dogs of war since he was only writing a fictional tale. On the other hand, the military had no valid excuse to be insensitive and thoughtless in naming their hostages after their owners. The military’s insensitivity is not just to their prisoners, but to dogs and cats in general, who also have feelings and in fact are more sensitive than people realize.
 
Dogs are very sensitive souls, and if only they could communicate like human beings, they could have let those soldiers know how they felt. Not because they were named after their owners, but it’s just that naming pets is not something to treat like a joke, especially one that is made in poor taste.
 
No species has developed a closer relationship with humanity than the dog, or the cat. We name our pets when we’re prepared to adopt them, to bring them to our homes to become part of our families like our own children. Not to name them in order to poke fun at their owners. These soldiers do not understand what it is about dogs that allows them to live at ease with people.
 
Not so many people really know who the Tiamzons are in person. Just because they were Communists and have lived in the shadows for almost four decades, many who believe the alternative to Communism is far superior think it is perfectly all right to treat the Tiamzons like animals, or even worse than criminals. But it is their affection for dogs and cats that separates them from most of the worst among us who cannot appreciate that such animals also have feelings and rights like people.
 
It is this cavalier attitude of the military and the government that makes the so-called peace negotiations with the rebels really a joke, a process that is wrought from the start with insincerity and lack of genuineness of purpose in achieving the goal of lasting peace. It makes the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) issued by the government to the rebel participants an ineffectual document of safe passage. Because the government believes they unilaterally impose the JASIG guarantees, that at any time the government wishes to suspend the JASIG’s effect, they can always round up and detain the rebel leaders.
 
Before the capture of Benny Tiamzon and Wilma Austria, other consultants of the CPP and the National Democratic Front (NDF) were also snatched by the military on the pretext that the JASIG has lost its effect because of the impasse in the negotiations.
 
Yet the JASIG guarantees were the product of an agreement, therefore, they can be suspended only if both parties also agreed to do so. But not in the present case. It was only the government who decided on its own irrespective of the other party that the JASIG guarantees are no longer operative since the negotiations were stalled.
 
According to Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, former head of the government peace panel, Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria should be released if they were carrying genuine immunity papers during their arrest. Duterte added that the government should honour its commitment under the JASIG.
 
Under the JASIG, all rebels duly accredited as participants in the negotiations either directly or as consultants are guaranteed free and unhindered passage in all areas in the Philippines. JASIG’s protection covers immunity from surveillance, harassment, search, arrest, detention, prosecution and interrogations or any other similar punitive actions due to involvement or participation in the peace negotiations.
 
JASIG’s immunity is considered necessary in facilitating the peace negotiations between the government and the rebel group because it helps create and sustain an environment conducive to peace talks. It also attracted the Royal Norwegian Government to act as facilitator because of the JASIG guarantees. JASIG further enhances political stability in the Philippines and the government’s peaceful approach towards local insurgency, and this process is made known to the global community.
 
But when the Philippine government asserts that the JASIG guarantees are suspended due to the impasse in the negotiations, it was making a unilateral decision that has not been agreed by the parties. Besides, the process was never concluded nor deemed terminated. It must also be considered that the JASIG guarantees were the most contentious and toughest to negotiate because they covered essentially the procedural agreements between the parties before they could really commence the negotiations. To say, then, that JASIG has been suspended is in bad faith and without the agreement of the other party.


The arrest of Tiamzon and Austria and the other NDF consultants before them despite their JASIG accreditation, however, signals a clear indication that repression of the 45-year old insurgency continues and it is going on with impunity.
 
Recently, the Philippine Supreme Court has ordered the trial with dispatch of the trumped-up murder charges against former Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo and CPP-NDF consultants in the peace negotiations Randall Echanis, Rafael Baylosis and Vicente Ladlad in connection with the mass graves discovered in Leyte eight years ago. The mass graves discovered by the Philippine Army were said to contain the remains of individuals believed to be victims of “Operation Venereal Disease” launched by the CPP-NDF’s armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), to purge their ranks of suspected military informers and collaborators which happened 23 years ago.
 
Also early this week, the Philippine military reported the mass surrender of NPA supporters from Cagayan de Oro City to the army’s 14th Infantry Division, said surrenderees included civilians and children. Using a hoax surrender by the NPA is a patented pys-war tactic by the Philippine military to flush out other insurgents from their mass base and one of the biggest sources of corruption for AFP field commanders in pocketing the reward money from the government’s Social Integration Program for firearms surrendered.
 
Now the government panel is announcing plans to resume the peace negotiations with the Communist rebel group, but insisting that they are willing to negotiate only with CPP leaders based in the Philippines, and not with their counterparts in Utrecht in Netherlands.
 
Where is good faith and trust in the negotiations when at the same time the government is rounding up and detaining the rebel forces? Immunity from arrest was the purpose for installing the JASIG guarantees in the first place but the government apparently respects the agreement only when it works to their advantage.
 
Obviously the government treats the Muslim rebel forces under the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) quite differently from the CPP-NDF and other Muslim factions. The pivotal role of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in facilitating the negotiations between the government and the MILF has been hailed and credited with the adoption of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).
 
It should be recalled that the father of the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Haji Abdul Razak bin Haji Dato’ Hussein, was also Malaysia’s prime minister from 1970 to 1976. It was also common knowledge during that time that he supported the Muslim insurgency under the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) by providing the rebels with arms, training and funds. The support of the former Malaysian PM was conditional on the Muslim insurgents preventing the government in Manila from pursuing its Sabah claim.
 
With the change in the leadership of the Muslim insurgency, the current Malaysian Prime Minister shifted his support to the MILF and he became the chief facilitator of the Bangsamoro framework agreement.
 
Would the motive for the current Malaysian Prime Minister’s involvement in bringing the Philippine government and the MILF to the table be the same as his father’s?
 
In both peace negotiations by the government with the MILF and the CPP-NDF, it is crystal clear that the government is hiding its true intentions. Acquiescing to the integrity of Malaysia’s territorial right over Sabah and using JASIG as a pretext for rounding up Communist rebels are now surfacing as the real motivation for the government and not the genuine pursuit for lasting peace.
 
Perhaps, the current government can learn something from dogs and their sensitivity to social cues from people that enables them to fit with human society. Humans often fail to realize the unusual skills of dogs in communicating with their masters. But it’s not just their skills but their sense of loyalty which counts most. That is why dogs are our most trusted friends. Dogs know how to build and foster trust, which seems sorely lacking among humans. If only the military and the government could treat dogs in a better light.