Monday, August 27, 2012

A question of fairness

Reviewing the performance of his cabinet portfolio for the past 12 months, Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says “It’s been a busy time, but we are not done yet.”
Indeed, Minister Kenney has his hands full these days overhauling Canada’s immigration system. Before Kenney’s term is over, don’t be surprised if we have a system cloned after the Australian model or an entirely new one that no one could even recognize as Canadian.
On top of these immigration reforms, Minister Kenney wanted all prospective immigrants to pass a very high level of proficiency in English or French, which he said is the surest predictor of success in the labour market and in integrating with Canadian society. While mastery of English or French might produce better economic outcomes for some immigrants, it could however also negatively impact Canada’s immigration targets if no sufficient number of people is found with the required levels of fluency. While this language requirement does not aim to discriminate, it may have the unintended consequence of targeting favoured nationalities. Based on the Australian experience from which Minister Kenney borrows many of his initiatives, today’s immigrants in Australia are predominantly from the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand, all English-speaking nations.
Minister Kenney provided a litany of accomplishments—all the regulatory and program changes his department has initiated or implemented during the last 12 months, from eliminating backlogs in the application system to detecting and cracking down on immigration fraud. In addition, Kenney has also introduced reforms which will take effect in January 2013 that will totally revamp the 20-year-old point-grid system, modify Canada’s Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP), and create a new Federal Skilled Trades Class (FSTC).
Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney shouts for a living, according to the Toronto Star. Photo courtesy of  Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press. Click link to view "Jason Kenny on transforming Canada's Immigration system,"
There is one way to evaluate Minister Kenney’s immigration reforms, and this is by ascertaining their fairness. By fairness, we mean if these initiatives simply are reasonable, even-handed, or just. Whether applicants for immigration and their families and eligible relatives are given a fair shake. Not by any pompous or high-falutin standard of fairness.
Although Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act does not mention the word “fair” in its objectives under Paragraph 3-Objectives and Application, until it reaches Paragraph 3(2) which pertains to the objectives of the Act with respect to refugees. The said paragraph provides for “fair and efficient procedures that will maintain the integrity of the Canadian refugee protection system.” By extension, we could also argue that these “fair and efficient procedures” also apply to immigration applicants. After all, they are also entitled to respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms just like refugees. Everyone for that matter has a right to a modicum of fairness.
Arbitrary backlog reduction
In his departmental review, Minister Kenney claimed he has reduced by over three-quarters, from 640,000 to close to 150,000, the total number of people in the Federal Skilled Worker backlog of applications prior to February 27, 2008. Kenney wiped out this backlog by cancelling all applications submitted prior to February 27, 2008, for which an immigration officer has not made a decision based on selection criteria by March 29, 2012. Close to 280,000 applications, mainly from China, India and the Philippines are affected by this decision.
In exchange for eliminating these prior applications, applicants will be reimbursed for their fees, and the federal government thinks this is fair. On the contrary, it would never be fair. The Canadian government has dashed their hopes and dreams. They gave up other options and, for some, opportunities for personal advancement which are no longer available after waiting so long. Others have postponed marriage or raising their families, so how can you be fair to these people? Their applications were never refused but only languished in the backlog because of bureaucratic incompetence. Now, Canada Immigration faces a class action suit from these affected applicants.
Capping family reunification
Minister Kenney also claimed in his review that he has reduced the backlog for sponsored parents and grandparents. To achieve this, Canada Immigration capped the number of applications for family reunification, thus denying the hopes of many new immigrants to bring their families to Canada. To allay the fears of these immigrants that they would not be able to sponsor their families, Kenney sweetened the cap by allowing parents and grandparents to come to Canada as temporary visitors under an expedited application process—8 weeks versus 8 years if they apply for permanent residence.
Whenever he has the chance, Minister Kenney has stated publicly that the parent and grandparent super visa, valid for up to 10 years for visits of up to two years, has been a great success with nearly 3,700 successful applications in its first six months. But not according to many parents and grandparents who have submitted their super visa applications.
Toronto Star ran a story about Jose Alfredo Canizales Giron and his wife Emma Luisa Fonseca de Canizales from Honduras who wanted to visit their three adult children in Canada. They have been previously sponsored by their daughter Ana but the application was caught in the immigration backlog. But Ana was thrilled to learn of Canada Immigration’s new super visa that would facilitate her parents' visits.
Canada Immigration denied Ana’s parents citing their “family ties in Canada and in your country of residence” and “length of proposed stay in Canada.” She paid $6,000 for her parent’s health insurance coverage in Canada and $2,200 for their return flight, which were requirements under the new super visa.
In the case of Liza Parekh, a story also ran by Toronto Star, her mother Meena’s application was approved under the new super visa. She was shocked, however, when border officials limited her mother’s stay to six months. Liza was hoping her mother could help her with the birth of her first child. So her mother’s super visa turned out to be not super at all but just like a temporary visa which was good only for six months, not for two years as originally announced by Minister Kenney.
The Winnipeg Free Press also reported that the “new super visa is super disappointing” and that the changes made by the Conservative government were meant to keep families apart. Fred de Villa, a prominent Filipino community leader in Winnipeg, has criticized the onerous requirements for the new super visa application which he said were obviously put in place to prevent families from reunification.
Under the new super visa, sponsoring children are required to purchase health insurance coverage for $100,000 for one year for parents who are 55 years and older. De Villa, who works in the insurance industry, said that the required health coverage costs at least $1,200 a year and there’s no monthly payment plan. There are no refunds if the parents stay for just a few months and the medical insurance covers nothing except emergencies like a stroke or one that requires hospitalization.
A tale of broken promises
Canada’s super visa is fast becoming a tale of broken promises. As of March 2012, rejections for super visa applications have gone up, contrary to Minister Kenney’s claim that the super visa is a great success. In May this year, Minister Kenney boasted that more that 3,500 parent and grandparent super visa applications were approved since it was introduced on December 1, 2011. In the excitement of almost everyone about the new super visa, no one thought people would get blindsided.
Among the new immigration reforms that will take effect in January 2013 is the revised Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSWP). As pointed out earlier, the new FSWP makes proficiency in English or French as the most important selection factor, with new minimum official language thresholds. The total number of points for language has also been upped from 16 to 24.
There is also an emphasis on younger immigrants who will more likely acquire valuable Canadian work experience and remain in the workforce longer. Against an aging population, this is a smart and selfish economic decision to select younger people who will contribute longer and replenish Canada’s pension, employment insurance and health plans.
Foreign work experience will no longer have much weight. Those who have Canadian work experience will get more points. Obviously, if one wishes to acquire Canadian experience, the best way to do it is by applying for a temporary work visa and work from 2 to 4 years before applying for permanent residence. This emphasis on Canadian work experience works as a disincentive for applicants for permanent residence who have never worked in Canada before.
Canada Immigration is also introducing a mandatory requirement that FSWP applicants have their education abroad assessed against Canadian education standards by designated organizations. Points will be awarded according to how an applicant’s foreign educational credential compares to a completed educational credential in Canada. However, it does not necessarily guarantee that they would become licensed to practice in a regulated occupation. This goes without saying because Canada Immigration has no jurisdiction on professions which belongs to the respective societies that govern the different professions such as law, medicine, accounting or engineering.
Instead of recognizing foreign credentials, Canada Immigration is again raising the false hopes of immigrant professionals that they can continue working in their fields of expertise.
Acceptance under the new class for skilled tradespersons (FSTC) will largely depend on an offer of employment and a certificate of qualification from a provincial authority. Judging from the past, this is an area ripe with fraud and employment practices that are exploitative. Immigrant applicants might also be enticed to enter this new class if they lack the high level of language proficiency and Canadian work experience.
Canada’s Minister for Immigration Jason Kenney keeps on rationalizing his reforms as necessary for a “faster, more flexible, responsive and secure immigration system that will better meet Canada’s economic needs while continuing to uphold our humanitarian commitments.” Nowhere did he mention or emphasize the fairness of the system. Everywhere he is invited to speak, Minister Kenney sidesteps any talk about whether the new immigration policies will be fair to immigrants, obviously a matter that is not high in his list of priorities.

Monday, August 20, 2012

New language threshold discriminatory

When the points system for selecting new immigrants was adopted by Canada in the 1960s, it was hailed as a Canadian innovation. The system removed any type of formal discrimination from immigration policy. Individuals would no longer be denied immigration to Canada, as it was in the past, based on their ethnicity, nationality or religion.

As reflected in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, one of Canada’s objectives is the enrichment of the social and cultural fabric of Canadian society that respects the federal, bilingual, and multicultural character of the country. The law mandated that new immigrants are determined based on the number of points they score on the criteria of education, skills, language and employment.

Although Canada’s immigration policy does not explicitly discriminate on grounds of race or religion, discrimination continues to persist under the points-system, albeit in a much more covert manner. Qualifications such as education, skills and employment still represent a barrier because there is no equivalency between Canadian requirements and qualifications earned by applicants in their home countries. Oftentimes, the education and skills of immigrants are unfairly discounted and devalued. Some have also suggested that one of the more explicit forms of discrimination can be found in the investor or business immigrant category, which allows wealthy individuals to effectively buy access to Canada by bringing significant financial capital into the domestic economy.

Now, Canada Immigration is proposing to overhaul the point grid it has used for the past 20 years in determining applicants for permanent residence in Canada. To take effect in January 2013, the revised point-system will emphasize language skills, which Canada Immigration considers as a better predictor of rapid integration and economic success.
People immigrating to Canada must pass minimum standard for English or
French proficiency, says Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
Canada Immigration Minster Jason Kenney said that immigration applicants will have to demonstrate high levels of English or French fluency to gain entry to Canada. Language proficiency must be shown by all applicants in all classes but the most stringent requirement will apply to applicants in the federal skilled worker category, which accounts for nearly 100,000 of the roughly 250,000 immigrants who come to Canada every year.

One wonders why professional team sports like baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey are able to recruit the best athletes in the world without subjecting them to a language proficiency test. If the Toronto Blue Jays were to screen their baseball players for their fluency in English, all the Latino players would probably fail despite their natural ability to play the game. All the best hockey players from Eastern Europe would also flunk an English or French exam if this would be required by the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens hockey franchise. For sure, it’s not the ability to speak either of the official Canadian languages that enables a player to hit a slider or a curve ball or shoot the puck into the goal.

Why would English or French fluency be the most important factor in the grid in the new system? Considering that majority of Canadian permanent residents become easily integrated into the Canadian mainstream and are able to speak either English or French before becoming citizens three or four years after being landed. The history of immigration in Canada has shown a high degree of language integration over time. That applies, too, to professional ball players who initially didn’t a know word in English or French, but have become as assertive in English and are able to display a form of swagger as English-speaking players are wont to do.

Language fluency as the most important requirement for social integration and job placement seems to be overstated. The truth could be that it is simply a device to discriminate against applicants from non-English or French-speaking countries. That the real purpose is to tilt immigration toward those who are more similar to the original Anglo-French Canadian Caucasians who speak either English or French and those who carry with them the culture of their language. Thus, no more Chinese and other Asians, Africans or Latin Americans despite their higher level of skills and dependable work habits.

According to Canada Immigration, this kind of language proficiency is now being imposed by other countries, such as Australia. Look at the new immigrants to Australia nowadays. They are mostly from the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand, all English-speaking countries with a predominant white population.

Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo said that most of the changes Jason Kenney has proposed to implement are inspired by the Australian immigration system. “It’s quite clear from the Australian evidence that it has the effect of shifting immigration away from non-English speaking countries, China particularly,” Skuterud said.

Canada Immigration would be using a Canadian Language Benchmark for all four abilities – speaking, oral comprehension, reading and writing. This will be the standard for describing, measuring and recognizing the language proficiency of adult immigrants and prospective immigrants in both English and French. That would be a total of 24 points for fluency in one official language as opposed to the former total of 16 points.

With the new and higher threshold for language proficiency, Canada is returning to an ethnocentric society rather than strengthening the country’s multicultural make-up. Back to a highly discriminatory immigration policy that the original points system wanted to remove.

Expect a dramatic shift in source countries, some critics have said about the new emphasis on language proficiency. Naomi Alboim, a public policy professor at Ontario’s Queen’s University, anticipates a decline in immigrants from China but a rise in the number from English-speaking countries.

While Prof. Alboim thinks that focusing on language makes sense, she cautioned that Canada should be more careful about setting the bar too high and “whether that is going to exclude a whole group of people who can contribute to a very significant degree with a little bit of assistance.”
Immigrants learning English at LINC class, a government-approved language
course. Photo courtesy of  Dave Chan/Postmedia News
Right now, Canada offers several language training programs such as English as Second Language (ESL) courses which have helped many immigrants who have initial difficulty with the language. Eventually, most immigrants are able to integrate well as soon as they have picked up their new language skills. Besides, most entry-level job opportunities in the labour market do not demand very high English proficiency except for jobs in the federal government which are not open to new immigrants anyway.

Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, thinks the new immigration policy will screen out people from the global south. “We can’t discriminate against folks who don’t sound like us. That might mean more propping up of language teaching [for new immigrants] but that’s a very small price to pay for helping people contribute to building our country,” Douglas said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has stated many times in the past that diversity makes Canada stronger socially and economically. It is Canada’s commitment to a multicultural ethos that immigrants from many different cultures are coming to live in this country. Kenney has reversed this pattern of migration that obviously favours people who sound more like him.

To some extent, mastery of the language might produce better economic outcomes for immigrants in the short term. But it could also have other effects. Canada may struggle to find enough people with sufficient levels of fluency to maintain its very high immigration levels. The emphasis toward a higher level of English or French proficiency may also have an impact on Canada’s ties to a country such as China and studies have shown that trade ties increase through immigration.

According to Howard Ramos, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia: “The points system was introduced to correct the injustices of focusing on culture and language too heavily. It was a society and a time that was much more ethnocentric. I don’t think it’s a time we should try and return to.”

In overhauling the government’s immigration policy, the ruling Conservative Party has obviously turned a blind eye to the real causes of poor social and economic integration of new immigrants. Instead of tearing down barriers like non-recognition of foreign credentials, de-skilling of immigrant labour, and preference for temporary and seasonal foreign workers, Canada’s ruling government is hell-bent on restoring the shameful immigration policies of the past that deny immigration on grounds of ethnicity, nationality or religion.

Language proficiency may not strike as an obvious form of discrimination. But requiring new immigrants to speak English or French to a higher level to improve their economic prospects may have the unintended consequence of targeting favoured nationalities.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

To boycott or not to boycott

Leaders of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) in the United States and their counterpart in Canada have started a campaign to boycott China-made products. Their objective is to transform this primarily civil society movement into a worldwide boycott in protest of China’s “illegal occupation of the Scarborough Shoal and its creeping invasion of the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratly Islands” in the South China Sea.

The China boycott is essentially a private effort by overseas Filipinos and their allies abroad. It does not have the official support of the Philippine government, and U.S. citizens, including Filipino-Americans are barred by law from boycotting under the auspices of a foreign government’s foreign policy. The U.S. Export Administration Regulations forbid participation in or support of boycotts initiated by foreign governments, such as for example, the Arab League boycott of Israel.

Contrary to the USP4GG claim, their boycott is not consumerist in nature, one that is fueled by concerns such as exploitative labour, unlawful use of animal by-products, or any environmental, ethical or moral issues. It is tied to a political objective, a remonstration against China’s aggressive stance with respect to their territorial sovereignty claim over islands in the South China Sea.
Leaders of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) have called on
overseas Filipinos to boycott China-made products. Click link below to view
 "Boycott China,"

It is as if the boycott were successful, China would be forced to give up its claim or agree to bring the competing territorial claims to arbitration before an international tribunal or settlement by multilateral negotiations. It is not clear whether the objective of the boycott will strengthen the Philippines’ claim vis-à-vis China’s and the other claims. There are six nations currently locked in a maritime standoff as to who has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, land formations which are mostly submerged under water during high tide but are known to be rich with oil and natural gas reserves.

How is this boycott going to play out?

In a press conference in Manila last July, Ms. Loida Nicolas, one of the convenors of the USP4GG, made it clear that the boycott is a “purely consumer-led boycott” of all products made in China. These products would range from light to heavy consumer goods such as household utensils and appliances, clothing, school supplies, electrical and electronic products to motorbikes, agricultural and industrial tools, and construction materials. The only problem is identifying if these products are made in China since almost everything in the market is made or has parts or components manufactured or assembled in China. Apple products such as the iPad, personal computers, cell phones and even American cars have electronic components or parts made in China.

So, USP4GG is encouraging all would-be boycotters to read the product’s bar code in order to track its origin. They said that if the first 3 digits are 690, 691 or 692, the product is made in China, and it is from Taiwan if the first three numbers are 471. Whenever you go to an Asian supermart or grocery store to buy soy sauce or Chinese noodles, the trick is to look for the bar code before buying. Or when eating in a Chinese restaurant, ask the waiters if they use products made in China before ordering your meal. If you happen to buy a signature brand of clothing that is made in China, then that creates a bigger problem because it’s not easy to sacrifice a preference for a specific brand in favour of expressing a patriotic sentiment.

Is this boycott going to be successful?

The leaders of the USP4GG say it will, but that’s too self-serving to believe. Even if 200 million Americans join the boycott which is next to impossible. They point to Vietnam’s victory against the powerful U.S. military during the Vietnam War, a David versus Goliath scenario they said. But that was not a boycott, it was a war for national liberation by the Vietnamese people. Still, some would invoke Gandhi’s boycott of British trade. Again, that was during India’s war of independence and not a consumerist reaction.

This type of consumer boycott that the USP4GG has started is not easy to wage since it covers so many products. It also creates the other problem of finding an alternative which would likely be very difficult because China-made products have saturated the market. These products, while made in China, are not necessarily China’s. They are products manufactured for a specific brand, model or foreign company using Chinese labour and resources. It is not like boycotting Nestle products, McDonald’s, KFC Chicken, or refraining to buy from Wal-Mart. This is not similar to the United Farm Workers boycott of table grapes in the 1960s or the boycott of tuna to help save dolphins in the 1990s.

Generally, this type of boycott has a very short life span and not effective in the long term. If successful, which is doubtful, it would hurt the Chinese labour population since the boycott would take away their jobs and even impoverish them. Likewise, the boycott also deprives millions of consumers of cheap products to buy. As USP4GG cannot ask the U.S. and Philippine governments to sanction the boycott, it becomes toothless and ineffective. On the other hand, if the boycott is endorsed by both governments, it would be like declaring war against China and it is not politically sensible to disrupt regional or world peace just for the sake of boycotting “toyo” or “pancit canton,” or perhaps, an iPad with electronic components made in China.

This boycott targets a list of products that is probably too long for most consumers to remember. And for a cause that is not quite clear and difficult to put across in a few understandable words.

How is boycotting China-made products linked to the validity of the Philippines’ claim for sovereignty over land formations in the South China Sea? There are other claimants but why are they not also boycotting?

USP4GG claims that China has illegally occupied the Scarborough Shoal and invaded the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratlys. With the exception of Brunei, isn’t this what all the claimant countries have done – occupy their territories in order to establish de facto settlement? Isn’t the fact that, except for Brunei, all the competing countries have stationed troops in the South China Sea? Why then would a boycott of China-made goods be a better alternative to pursuing a military war or peaceful negotiations?

Most successful boycotts have a highly emotive and achievable cause. Take for example, dolphins killed by tuna fishermen, support “breasts, not dictators” campaigns against Triumph bras manufactured in Burmese factories, or a campaign plea for tourists not to visit a certain country. This is not to say that a boycott is only worth supporting because it’s easy to explain or PR-friendly. Many consumer boycotts don’t have a defined goal, but it is always worth investigating any boycott if it’s really the best option for voicing your concerns.

No country, including the Philippines, would dare start a war without resorting to the machinery of adjustment set up in treaties or international agreements, especially if the outcome would impact on the entire region or perhaps the whole world. Boycott advocates have always argued that if only all nations would embargo trade, loans and other intercourse with an offending nation, that nation would quickly feel the weight of disapproval and correct its ways. But that doesn’t necessarily happen even in these modern times. Consider for example the ongoing U.S. Cuban trade embargo or several U.N. sanctions against countries like Iraq and Iran. Generally speaking, economic sanctions such as boycotts are ineffective substitute for military measures or a peaceful determination of disputes.

There is little question of guilt of each of the claimant countries in the South China Sea conflict. It is unlikely that we shall ever have a less tangled case in the region, especially when five out of the six competing countries have stationed their troops in the disputed sea and fortified their settlements. It doesn’t matter if there is a big disparity in the military superiority of one country against the others. No aggression ever rises without provocation and none without some veil of reasoning that is plausible enough to deceive the opinion of the claimant-countries in the region. It would not be absurd to suppose that a boycott would lead to a military confrontation, or that it is essentially not different from other kinds of war activity.

Besides, this boycott is painting the Philippines as a hypocritical nation. Economic and trade partnerships between Beijing and Manila have developed rapidly in recent years making China as the Philippines third largest trading partner. After visiting China in 2011, President Benigno Aquino III announced nearly US$13 billion worth of Chinese investments in the Philippines, a result of his various meetings with Chinese businessmen over the course of his visit.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Click link below to view "President
Aquino's arrival speech after state visit to the People's Republic of China - 2011,"

This was President Aquino’s message after his visit to Beijing: “We succeeded in putting across the message we want to bring: the door of the Philippines is open to investments from China. With our economic managers, we showed them the business opportunities in the Philippines. In agriculture, infrastructure, energy, tourism, the two governments saw the good results of Chinese continuing to look for investment opportunities.”

President Aquino has even declared 2012 and 2013 as the "Philippines-China Years of Friendly Exchanges." How can a boycott of China-made products be seen as promoting friendly vibes between the two countries?

Instead of a boycott, it would be better for overseas Pinoys to exert more pressure on the United States, Canada and other foreign nations to bring the weight of their governments on the Chinese so that they would agree to a multilateral negotiation of the South China Sea dispute. Among member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Malaysian government last Monday, August 13, urged ASEAN countries to settle first their overlapping claims in the South China Sea before bringing them up with Beijing.

If the ASEAN can present a more united and stronger front against an increasingly assertive China, this would be a positive step in negotiating with China. On its part, China has always preferred a bilateral settlement of the dispute. A unified ASEAN stand of the member-countries which have competing claims in the South China Sea is a stronger bargaining suit, instead of individual countries negotiating separately with China.

This is what Filipinos abroad, those in the United States and in Canada, should try to advocate instead of boycotting China-made products. Anti-Chinese prejudice has permeated our culture and it has survived throughout our history. Filipinos have always been discriminated because of their geographical distance from the Asian mainland. A China boycott will only fuel this resentment of the Chinese, and it may pose as a potential barrier to a quick negotiated settlement of the South China Sea conflict.

During his trip to China, President Aquino also visited Hongjian village in Fujian, where his ancestors came from, and where his late mother, former President Cory Aquino had planted a tree 23 years ago. In Fujian, Aquino said: “We have a saying that those who don't know where they came from, won't arrive at where they are going, so I made it a point to visit and give thanks to my relatives in Fujian.”

The USP4GG leaders and followers overseas should pause for a second, and for one deep moment, consider the words of the leader they look up to.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Good and bad news

During his most recent state of the nation address (SONA), Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III rued the lack of enthusiasm in the local media in reporting on the progress of the Philippine economy. President Aquino said that commentators in the foreign media have been bedazzled, citing Bloomberg Business week’s “Keep an eye on the Philippines.” And according to Morgan Stanley’s Emerging Market Equities which Aquino quoted, “The Philippines is no longer a joke.”

Or perhaps, the joke is on us. Are the foreign media and foreign credit rating agencies better judges of the Philippines’ economic performance? It’s the local media who are reporting on the gloomy realities on the ground, and they should know better.

It’s also the local media who are directly in touch with people without jobs, with poor families struggling to put bread on the table or make both ends meet, with striking workers demanding higher wages, or with victims of extrajudicial killings and violation of political and civil rights wondering when they will see justice done. These are stark realities the media cannot ignore. It’s not the business of President Aquino to tell reporters to write only the good news. Besides, the present administration already has the yellow media and more than a handful of influential columnists in the country’s major newspapers who would write only good things about President Noynoy Aquino – members of the Philippine press who obviously are staunchly loyal to the administration, for better or worse.

President Noynoy Aquino aboard an army truck in Tunasan village, Muntinlupa
City on the way to visit with Typhoon Gener evacuees at the elementary school.
Aquino called the village folks as "gritty people" and in a "lively mood" which he
said made his burden lighter. With the President are his sister Kris Aquino, Risa
Hontiveros, DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas, Tesda Director General Joel Villanueva
and Customs chief Rufino Biazon. Click link below to view "Slideshow: Manila's
rains play cruel game,"  as compiled by ABS-CBN News,

Just two weeks after Aquino trumpeted his administration’s initiative to bring all anti-disaster initiatives inside one boat, which he called Project NOAH (apparently referring to the Great Flood in the Bible), Typhoon Gener struck Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Remember Aquino’s words during the SONA: “We no longer leave the evacuation of families to mere luck. We now have the technology to give fair warning to Filipinos in order to prepare for and avoid the worst.”

Instead of disaster relief agencies working with little coordination or cooperation, Aquino’s government has adopted a new culture – “‘bayanihan’ – a coming together for the sake of the people, this is what we call Convergence.” A new bureaucratic jargon of the Aquino administration, but not totally a novel concept.

But as Typhoon Gener savaged the country with continuous heavy rainfall after three straight days, the only thing that has surely converged is the sea and floodwaters, flooding Metro Manila and nearby provinces, a diluvian landscape as disaster officials have described.

But no worry, the yellow media reported that the flooding would not likely set back the country’s economic momentum, the kind of good news that is music to Aquino’s ears.

Good news reporting does not necessarily mean conveying the truth. In fact, the implication could be the contrary. A President who wants only to hear the good news is someone who is not interested in hearing the truth. What else could be the role of the press than to provide information that is based on the truth, not information the President would like to hear, only the news that is pleasing to his ears.

President Aquino, for example, has claimed that under his presidency, almost 3.1 million jobs were created, more than the estimated million new entrants to the job market every year. Thus, to the President’s mind, unemployment is on a steady decline: from 8 per cent in 2010 to 7.2 per cent in April 2011, and this year, it dropped further to 6.9 per cent. Certainly, this is good news to hear.

But what is the real story behind this so-called growth in employment? What the President really does not want us to read or hear is the deterioration in the quality of jobs. Full-time employment actually fell by 1.6 million but this was compensated for by a large 2.5 million increase in the number of part-time workers, which is what the President is really claiming as job growth during his two years in office. And we know what part-time employment is: these are jobs that are conventionally low-paying, insecure and without benefits. Part-time work now accounts for over four out of ten (43 per cent) jobs in the economy or 16.2 million out of 37.8 million employed.
People's SONA 2012. Illustration courtesy of Migrante International. Click link to view "People's Sona 2012."

To prove his job generation strategy, President Aquino points to the growth in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. In 2000, only 5,000 people were employed in this industry. In 2011, the number of BPO workers jumped to 680,000, and the industry, according to the President, has contributed 11 billion dollars to the economy.

What are these BPO jobs? BPO is a growing industry in the Philippines. In 2011, the Philippines has the highest number of employees at call centres in the entire world. In the Philippines, call centres began as providers of business email response and managing services. The call centre sector comprises 80 per cent of the total BPO industry with 80 per cent of the call services provided for the U.S. market. Call centre jobs are such in high demand in the Philippines because of lower labour costs, available highly skilled and educated work force, and high proficiency in spoken English.

According to President Aquino, by 2016 when his term expires, the BPO sector will be bringing in 25 billion dollars and employing 1.3 million Filipinos. Furthermore, as the President said, “this does not include the estimated 3.2 million taxi drivers, baristas, corner stores, canteens, and many others that will benefit from the indirect jobs that the BPO industry will create.” Great news, indeed.

But what is wrong with this type of news?

These BPO jobs are not the ones that would help in building a genuine Filipino industry and developing domestic agriculture which are necessary if we need our economy to take off to the next level. It’s not just about generating jobs that provide foreigners cheap Filipino labour and natural resources. This is the main flaw in an economic plan that is fixated on overseas work, business process outsourcing, mining and low-value added electronics manufacturing.

Reporting only news that is pleasing to the ears, which is what President Aquino would like, is nothing but conveying untested or unverified information. The realities on the ground, no matter how unpleasant, need to be reported so we can test the information we read or hear through debate or argumentation. In this way, we would be able to understand what we know and what we still need to learn.

It is not sufficient to hear the official story from the government. We knew by experience from the martial law years under Ferdinand Marcos that it’s easy for the government to paint a rosy picture to cover up the country’s economic squalor. Imelda Marcos used to order her army of street cleaners during those years to build and whitewash all fences on the main highways to hide the ugliness of slums every time foreign dignitaries visited the country. How different is this from President Aquino’s whim to hear only the good news?

If we have to defend democracy as the most efficient and equitable form of government, then we need to expand the circle of debate as widely as possible and not only between kindred spirits. But to do this, we need all the information from every source. The foreign media may be unaware of what’s actually happening on the ground. If it’s the local media who can best convey the sufferings of the people on the ground, then this government should not silence them in articulating the view of the downtrodden.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Manufacturing public opinion

Very often we are asked to have our say on matters of state policy, such as the ongoing consultations with the public by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. All levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – always stress the importance of feedback to government proposals in changing policies or regulations. Whether useless or effective, duplicitous or sincere, these public consultations create another layer in the decision-making process, in addition to our elected Parliament and local councils, and the army of technocrats in the government bureaucracy.

Canada Immigration, for example, conducts public consultations to “generate greater public understanding of the difficult decisions involved in managing a global immigration system.” According to its recent press release, “There are competing visions and diverging goals for the future of the immigration program, and there are no easy answers. Engaging stakeholders and the broader public is key to CIC’s development of an overall strategy for Canada moving forward.”
According to a press release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the purpose
of immigration consultations is to "seek feedback on immigration levels, including
the appropriate level of immigration for Canada, and the most suitable mix between
economic, family class and protected persons." Click link to view "Many changes to
immigration under Jason Kenney,"
The purpose of Canada Immigration’s ongoing public consultations is to seek feedback on immigration issues, including the appropriate level of immigration for Canada, and the most suitable mix among economic, family, and refugee and humanitarian classes.

Are we really that ignorant to be duped by the current Conservative government that our input matters in policy decision-making?

Early this year, Canada Immigration Minister Jason Kenney decided to cancel out all immigration applications submitted prior to February 27, 2008. Close to 280,000 applicants are affected by this decision. Minister Kenney rationalized his decision by arguing that the Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) Program is hampering Canada’s ability to respond rapidly to changing labour market needs. Kenney said: “Having to process applications that are as many as eight years out of date reduces our ability to focus on new applicants with skills and talents that our economy needs today.” This was a draconian shift in government policy, yet did Canada Immigration ask for our feedback before they decided to go ahead with their new policy?

Prior to Minister Kenney’s decision to close the door to these early immigration applications under the FSW program, he also imposed a moratorium on the sponsorship of parents and grandparents, thus denying new permanent residents the opportunity to bring their families to Canada. With a stroke of the pen, Kenney is rewriting the objective of family reunification under the existing law and making it even more difficult. Was there a consultation with the public, especially those affected by the change in policy?

Last July, Minister Kenney put a temporary hold on all new applications under the federal skilled worker and investor program until July 0f 2013. Kenney said he needed to “reset the button” in deciding on the moratorium on Canada’s skilled labour program. This decision was necessary, Kenney said, to enable the government to develop an effective backlog elimination strategy. In addition, Minister Kenney also reduced health care benefits – including support, to refugee claimants in Canada. Again, was there public consultation before Kenney made this decision?

Every major policy decision made by Jason Kenney bears the imprint of his impatience to overhaul Canada’s immigration system, which the opposition can only criticize but to no avail. Even these so-called public consultations will amount to nothing but photo ops that the people were consulted and heard before the government decided to change its policies. The obvious truth is: the government has already made up its mind.

The process of public consultations emerges from the basic belief that legitimate governments are those that listen to their citizens. After all, democratic government is tested by the capacity and opportunity for citizens to engage in enlightened debate. But how much information is deliberated in public consultations and what influence do these consultations have over the state are questions which may not be answered directly by the outcome of this process.

Access to the public consultation process by the ordinary citizens may have in fact been limited, whether by design, the targeted audience or ulterior motives. For one, these consultations are politically controlled; as such, they are ultimately used as tools by the ruling government for advertising rather than the medium from which the public gets their information on vital political matters.

Take for example the 2012 Immigration Levels Plan (from the 2011 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration) that is attached supposedly for discussion during the public consultations. This is Canada Immigration’s blueprint for determining immigration levels and mix, prepared by the department’s bureaucrats. One wonders how much can be expected from the public in terms of revisions or additional issues which Canada Immigration bureaucrats may consider in setting the final immigration levels and mix.

But the most important question to ask is how sincere is this government in canvassing public opinion in its policy decision-making?

All the press releases, all background information attached to the public consultations, and several pronouncements by Minister Kenney and his bureaucrats may in the end all sound like junk mail or a telemarketing call, which the ordinary citizen usually sets aside for good. Not that information is unimportant. Too much information is also not very useful because it simply leads the public consultation to a glitzy show of government statistics, not to a substantive debate on the government’s strategic priorities.

Writing about the lost art of political argument, Christopher Lasch wrote in Harper’s Magazine:

“Let us begin with a simple proposition: What democracy requires is public debate, not information. Of course it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by vigorous popular debate. We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy.”

When the process of public consultations becomes an extension of the town meeting, then we can say we truly have created a public forum. Not when the government calls for public consultations to advertise planned policy changes, and not actually to allow the public to debate the substance of the proposed changes. Not when public consultations are held in order to display an appearance of transparency or create the impression that the ruling government also listens.

There seems to be so much preoccupation with publicity nowadays. Publicity in terms of having good public relations or a positive public image. This is the new danger to democracy, less direct but more insidious than that of the tyranny of majority as we have now in Parliament by the ruling Conservative Party. Because it ultimately leads to the decisive influence of certain insistent and powerful minorities – those who are intent in limiting access to the public sphere since this is how they operate and thrive in a competitive political environment.

This public consultation process, the kind embarked by Canada Immigration, may very well be an effort to create public opinion that simulates the existence of a general feeling in favour of a cabinet minister, his policies or his party’s eagerness to disembowel the whole immigration system. It’s clearly ironic that the deference to this kind of manufactured public opinion may be greater than that the ordinary citizens may yield to, one which they believe to be the genuine sentiment of the majority.