Monday, December 21, 2009

Blogging after 100

Why do I blog? A question I should have answered or at least explained at the outset. So, on this 100th blog, let me submit the following.

An old adage says that small minds spend their time talking about people, average minds talk about events, and great minds debate ideas. It was the latter that drove me to start a blog about ideas and to challenge my readers to engage in an intellectual discussion.

Yet, I was struck with the ambivalence that blogging has given me. At first, I was worried about this new-found power to hurt and upset other people, or perhaps the power to make a fool of myself. On the other hand, I found it encouraging having the power to expose and reveal what I saw around me.

Blogging is an invention of free speech in the era of technological change. It’s part of the core freedom of every modern society that people have the right to express themselves freely. It has the full backing of modern technology and free conversation which has been with us since the Enlightenment of the 18th century. So, when I decided to blog on June 11, 2008, I knew full well that world history and natural reason are on my side and that was good enough.

To blog is like to meet in salons and coffee shops to talk about politics, the arts, or the latest gossip. Who cares if so much time is spent on talking? The rules are simple: everyone should have a chance to talk and everyone would have to listen. One’s right to write is guaranteed. As Voltaire said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

Blogging has its benefits. Erik Ringmar in The Blogger’s Manifesto: Free Speech and Censorship in the Age of the Internet wrote: through free and frank conversations, “people become acquainted with unfamiliar views and experiences; they discover flaws in our own arguments and strengths on the arguments of others; they learn to take others into account, to moderate their views, and to become more realistic about their application. The eventual conclusion of a public debate is always going to be far more intelligent that anything individuals can come up with on their own. Reason is a collective and not an individual achievement.”

When you blog, others may hate your guts, because your opinions could be both so powerful and intimidating or just plain repulsive to them. Obviously, you will create friends and enemies alike. Others may even attempt to stop you from exercising your right of free speech but then it’s always profoundly humiliating to be deprived of one’s constitutional rights. Some of your readers may take considerable pleasure in seeing you humiliated. On the other hand, humiliation can be a source of great creative power. So, you continue blogging to get even, and blog some more.

As a blogger, you have joined the online revolution. This is a great way to test your commitment to modern society.

As Erik Ringmar wrote, “If human rights depended on you, would you fight for them or would you rather not bother? And don’t forget, in the end bloggers are many and the censors are few. We will not be defeated. We’ll never fall silent.”


In my June 16/08 blog, I wrote about two Filipino women on the verge of deportation from Canada. Both had qualified for permanent residence after completing their two-year contract as live-in caregivers. But one was found to have terminal cancer after undergoing a required medical examination and the other was a victim of bureaucratic overzealousness (or senseless decisions of some middling Canada Immigration officers).

Juana Tejada, who had terminal cancer of the colon, died last March 8, 2009, but not in vain. She first came to see me at Our Lady of Lourdes where I volunteered my services every Friday. Together with Sister Celeste Reinhardt, S.S.N.D., we reassured Juana that she wouldn’t get deported and we would do everything we could to prevent it. But Juana would not be deterred, so she approached Gene Lara, a Toronto community activist, who linked Juana with the local community press association. Juana’s case was publicized and she became the face of a nascent movement for live-in caregiver reforms. Pura Velasco and her group of caregiver-activists, Migrante Ontario, the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), and Raffy Fabregas of Mamann Law Office soon picked up Juana’s cause.

But when a Filipino-Canadian couple, Mila Magno and her husband Oswald, launched a petition asking the Canadian government to grant Juana’s dying wish to become a permanent resident, the campaign snowballed into a worldwide protest against Canada’s policy that requires nannies to undergo a second medical exam when they had already been medically cleared from the start of their work contract. Canada’s reputation as a compassionate society was put under scrutiny. Eventually, Juana was allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds and realize her dying wish.

Juana left us with a lasting legacy to all caregivers. Her cause became the “Juana Tejada Law,” aptly named after her. Nannies or caregivers from now on will not be required to undergo a second medical examination when they become eligible to apply for permanent residence.

The other woman, Mylah Caban, was a helpless victim of two decisions which were bungled by Canada Immigration officers. Like Juana, Mylah was eligible for permanent residence except that she made the innocent mistake of submitting her application outside of the normal bureaucratic process. Her application for permanent residence was denied, two years of work as a nanny gone to waste. Then her application for an open work permit was also refused because she was not yet entitled according to Canada Immigration. She lost her legal status and was about to go home. It was then that I advised her to stay put because she had a solid and winning case.

It took Mylah six years to finally get her permanent residence which was granted just recently, this past December 15, 2009. On the day of the interview, the Immigration Officer could not find Mylah’s passport which was confiscated from her when she was being processed for deportation. It was finally found buried in a pile of documents that accumulated over the six-year period which included several submissions, motions, and documents filed with Canada Immigration and the Federal Court of Canada. I represented Mylah in the Federal Court and during the hearing the court agreed with us that the Immigration Officers failed to consider all the circumstances surrounding Mylah’s case, and decided to stay her removal.

It was a great relief for Mylah to realize her dream of a better future (or maybe half of her dream): from an aspiring architectural student at St. Louis University in the Philippines who took on the job of a nanny in Canada. Who knows, in the near future, she probably will go back to architecture, a field she hopes to tackle anew.

LCP Reforms

The federal government recently announced changes in the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP) that will take effect in January 2010 which included the Juana Tejada Law and will give caregivers an additional year of extension to apply for permanent resident status from the current three-year window after completing their two-year contract. On its part, the Ontario provincial government has passed a law that will protect caregivers from unscrupulous employment agencies who are now prohibited to charge caregivers or nannies placement fees. The new law also provides nannies a mechanism to file complaints regarding their work conditions if they do not meet provincial work standards.

These are small gains achieved through vigorous protesting and lobbying by the caregivers with the help of their advocacy organizations, and not so much by one or two lawyers because of their obvious vested interests and some community leaders aligned with the Conservative and Liberal parties. However, it is still a long way for caregivers to achieve the real reforms they want. Not in its current set up anyway. And not until they have persuaded the government to drop the live-in requirement and the condition to work for a specific employer, which are the principal causes of their exploitation under the present program.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

War or Peace President?

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last December 10, President Barack Obama argued that sending more US troops to Afghanistan was justified to protect the world from terrorism and extremism.

This is what Obama actually said during his acceptance speech. “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Obama is resonating exactly like his predecessor, prompting his critics to accuse him as simply rehashing the Bush doctrine.

To paraphrase one critic, Obama is not only continuing Bush’s war but he’s also sounding more like him, except that he’s using more eloquent words this time. But they are after the same tragic result: “endless wars of choice.”

Listening to Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan at West Point, I was struck with his arguments in rebutting the comparison to Vietnam. Obama mentioned that unlike in Vietnam, the United States is joined by its allies in the war against terror in Afghanistan. This is utterly a lie. The first rally I attended was in 1965 (Obama was only four years old that year) as a young student when I joined an anti-war demonstration in Manila to protest the decision of the Philippine government to send a military contingent to Vietnam. Australia, New Zealand and South Korea also provided non-trivial assistance in the form of ground troops. My future brother-in-law who had just received his green card at that time was also drafted by the US army and served a year in the medical corps in Vietnam.

Obama has now joined the ranks of American presidents who have become unwitting tools of the American military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned several decades ago. In order to justify sending 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, Obama has completely recycled the Bush administration’s myths about the war on terror. He had painted the United States as an altruistic power, forced into a global war for democracy by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

In 2001, Obama said that US invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda – though most of the September 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a major US ally in the Middle East. After driving Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan but failing to dismantle its terrorist base which simply moved to the Pakistan border, Obama still has to manage a plausible answer to this question: why is it necessary to send more troops in Afghanistan when Al Qaeda operatives are in their strongholds in Pakistan?

According to US military advisers, Al Qaeda has been substantially reduced to roughly 100 operatives. Would this justify whether Taliban or Al Qaeda pose the same existential threat to America today that it did on 9/11? Or would the terrorist enemies the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan be so stupid to remain frozen in the Afghan mountains and villages knowing there will be more American troops this time? Obama himself has acknowledged that Al Qaeda has established safe havens in other places like Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Are these the next targets for US invasion?

The United States in Vietnam was falsely following the theory that the spread of world communism to a single country would inevitably lead to its spread to a continent. They were proven wrong. This time the United States has recycled the old theory, now in the form of world terrorism which is in the heart of Afghanistan according to the US government, that if not defeated, terror will stay and spread to other nations. But one thing is certain: the Afghanistan theatre of operations will not be over in 2011 as Obama would like it to happen. The United States will obviously be fighting immensely costly wars in other regions of the world, in Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, Indonesia and South Asia.

On the other hand, Afghanistan, which is known as one of the world’s most treacherous backwaters, could be a graveyard for another empire. In the past two centuries, both Soviet and British invaders have been forced to beat bloody retreats from Afghanistan. Or more than two millennia earlier, it was here that Alexander the Great’s empire crumbled when it had trouble crossing the Khyber Pass in 326 B.C.

From the Middle Ages on, waves of invading Mongols, Mughal rulers of India, and Persians have swept through the area, but the Afghan tribes have always proved fractious and hard to rule. In the words of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty that ruled much of central Asia in the 1500s, “Afghanistan has not been and never will be conquered, and will never surrender to anyone.”

History will test Obama’s decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, and whether he is pursuing a just war in crushing a relentless Taliban insurgency or in pursuit of Al Qaeda will depend on how ably his military commanders can conquer this graveyard of empires.

They may learn in a roundabout way how the real graveyard of the Soviet empire was dug in the Kremlin, where absolute power insulated its leaders from reality beyond its walls. The Afghan war was only one of many causes of discontent and dissolution within the once-powerful Soviet political apparatus. The American people now confront a similar crisis. It is not surprising that a greedy political and economic system that won’t provide health care to its citizens is also resorting to war and militarism in a desperate effort to feed its insatiable appetite for growth and profit. To call the escalation of the Afghan war just under this kind of dispensation is very un-Obama. In the end, it’s the military policy of the United States that will fill up its own graveyard, not that of Afghanistan, as Americans begin to organize for the collapse of their empire.

St. Thomas Aquinas in Part Two of his Summa Theologica offered as a third condition for a just war that it be waged with the right intention, i.e., it aims at “the advancement of good, or avoidance of evil.” After 2011 or a year before Obama runs for re-election for the presidency of the United States, we will see if his prudential consideration for escalating the Afghan conflict was a moral and just one.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Saving us from political violence

In The Philosophy of History, Hegel describes “history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized.”

The recent massacre of 57 innocent civilians in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao, along with the two major world conflicts of the last century and numerous violent incidents from Somalia to Iraq show how fragile human society has become. So prevalent is violence in human history that a good part of mankind’s efforts can be understood in terms of our attempts to deal with violence. With the state’s involvement in this human carnage, perhaps the ultimate issue we have to confront is how we can prevent political differences from becoming violent.

Justice, by no means, will be served fully well with the simple filing of charges against Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr., the prime suspect in the Maguindanao barbarity. It only represents the first step, even though symbolic as it is against a political clan that is inextricably tied to the present occupant in Malacanang. All those who participated, directly or indirectly, those who ordered the slaughter, and those who allowed it to happen should be arrested, prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law. But the quest for justice should not end there.

Whether the ends of justice will be served in this case remains to be seen, however.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose ties with the Ampatuan clan are clearly established, declared a “national day of mourning” for the victims of the massacre, yet she would rather go home to her province of Pampanga to inaugurate a highway instead of condoling with the victims’ families and relatives. Arroyo must be grinning from ear to ear during her private moments thanking her stars that this grievous crime by her staunch political ally did not happen in her first year of office or when she was campaigning for the presidency.

Even as she finally steps down from the presidency in June 2010, her hands would always be stained with the blood that this massacre has spilled. How could anyone forget the massive cheating in Maguindanao in the 2004 national elections that helped her secure the presidency? She was also responsible in legitimizing Ampatuan’s private army by allowing the senior Ampatuan and all local government officials to deputize and arm their “barangay tanods” as part of her campaign against the Muslim insurgency. Arroyo also tolerated the Ampatuan clan’s grand scheme of divvying up the province’s territorial jurisdiction into several towns so that they may be ruled by the children of the elder Ampatuan.

While the people’s outrage over the massacre is understandable and essential, we cannot ignore the fact that over a thousand victims have been extra-judicially executed and disappeared under the Arroyo administration. This long list of victims includes human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, women, farmers and trade union workers. Not one has been punished for these crimes. One would think what would an additional 50 more victims do but only to embolden those who are responsible for these killings to kill more.

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines described the Maguindano massacre as “not a war between warlords but mass murder of innocents. It was not an outburst of uncontrollable anger – it was premeditated.”

This sentiment is only partly correct. Maguindanao is torn between two warring political clans, the powerful Ampatuans and the nascent Mangudadatus.

The Ampatuans represent feudal politics and they came to power when Datu Zaldy Ampatuan was elected governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Descendants of Moro datus, the Ampatuans were given the opportunity to lead and unify Bangsamoro as opposed to former professional and revolutionary leaders of the Moro secessionist movement who had no claims to the datu class. It was the chance for the Moro nobility to prove their worth.

Zaldy Ampatuan’s father, Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., is a senior member of the Moro nobility. The older Ampatuan was expected to ensure his son’s success and acceptance by traditional leaders, who themselves or whose children hold executive positions in local government posts.

The Ampatuans virtually control Maguindanao. Andal Jr. is mayor of Datu Unsay town; another brother, Anwar, is mayor of Maguindanao’s capital town of Shariff Aguak, a position previously held by Zaldy. Zaldy’s uncle (a cousin of Andal Sr.) is mayor of Mamasapano, while Zaldy’s cousin, Saudi Jr., is mayor of Datu Saudi Ampatuan town. Other cousins who are mayors in Maguindanao are Jacob Ampatuan of Rajah Buayan and Akmad Sangki of Datu Sangki town.

On the other side is the Mangudadatu family, represented by Esmael Mangudadatu, a local politician contesting the governorship of Maguindanao. It was rumoured that Andal Jr. was being groomed by the elder Ampatuan to succeed him as governor of Maguindanao.

What this massacre proves is that violence is a regular component of local politics. It is not surprising that political dynasties, maintained by guns, goons and gold would not hesitate to kill their opponents in order to remain in power. The assassination of former Antique governor Evelio Javier in 1986 clearly reminds us of gangland politics. Arturo Pacificador, a Marcos crony and assistant majority leader in the National Assembly, who had operated as a warlord in Antique was the prime suspect. Pacificador’s son, Arturo Jr. was fingered as Javier’s killer but was never prosecuted and was able to travel to Canada where he would fight off efforts by the Philippine government to extradite him.

Abra Representative Luis “Chito” Bersamin Jr. was killed in broad daylight in front of Mount Carmel Church in Quezon City in December 2006, five months before the May 2007 elections. Former Abra governor, Vicente Isidro Valera, a political rival of the Bersamins, is the main suspect in the killing.

Only the Oro Este massacre in Ilocos Sur in 1970 would perhaps come close in comparison with the Ampatuan massacre in terms of brutality and brazenness. In the Oro Este massacre, the private army of the Crisologo clan led by Bingbong Crisologo burned a whole village for being supporters of the Singson clan.

For as long as big landowners or nobility clans like the Ampatuans are allowed to keep their private armies and use the local police to protect their interests, violence will always be part and parcel of Philippine local politics. The Ampatuan massacre is naturally a premeditated act, for no such magnitude of brutality and the sheer number of victims can occur without prior planning.

An effective prosecution of those responsible for the Maguindanao massacre is not enough, according to two United Nations’ experts, Philip Alston and Frank La Rue, who have previously investigated extra-judicial killings and violations of human rights in the Philippines. They have suggested that in order to assure the future of democracy in the Philippines, elite-family dominated manipulation of the political processes must be eliminated.

The two UN experts added that the Philippine government needs to establish a high-level task force, with broad political support, to identify the measures necessary to prevent violence before and during elections. They expressed fears that the massacre in Maguindanao may sound the death knell for many political activists.

According to the UN experts, the challenge is to go beyond the criminal law response and to take measures designed to protect the media, freedom of expression, and to prevent election-related violence. “The Maguindanao killings are a tragedy of the first order,” the experts said.

Political violence, as proven in many parts of the world where there are conflicts in recent decades, only retards economic development because it destroys human lives and economic assets and penalizes the accumulation of capital and wealth creation. As a result, problems of underdevelopment, poverty, inequality and social exclusion along with political institutions that have failed at conflict management breed more political violence.

The Maguindanao massacre should not be narrowly construed as a mere breakdown in political or civil order. Underneath these killings are far more pervasive problems which will continue to beget more political violence if not properly addressed. Policies to reduce political violence call for institutional reforms, improved democracies, and the elimination or reduction of poverty and inequality.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Recognizing foreign credentials

One would think that everything is rosy and promising for immigrants to come and work in Canada. It is almost as good as true if one relies on government reports and documents alone. But the reality is starkly the opposite.

We still hear stories of well-educated immigrants driving taxis, working as hospital orderlies, or temping as building maintenance and factory workers. Some of them even have graduate and post-graduate degrees under their belts, but nobody told them they’re not exactly the ones Canada needs at present.

Because Canada immigration has placed too much weight on educational qualifications without effectively matching them with the real job demands in the market, a huge backlog of applicants for permanent residence has been created. This situation has considerably lengthened processing timelines to almost five years for each applicant.

As a stop-gap measure, Canadian employers resorted to hiring temporary foreign workers to fill in their immediate labour requirements, compounding the problem of Canada’s immigration bureaucrats who now have to confront an influx of temporary foreign workers who are vulnerable to employer abuse and deplorable working conditions.

In the most recent audit of the current practices of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), Canada’s Auditor General concluded that such practices “do not ensure that foreign worker programs are delivered efficiently and effectively.” This is a strong indictment of the current government’s way of handling the selection and hiring of foreign-trained workers.

Just recently, the federal government of Canada as well as the provinces have unveiled a major agreement that would help foreign-trained professionals get their credentials recognized in Canada.

But how does Canada recognize the foreign credentials of its immigrants?

The recognition of foreign credentials involves verifying that the education and job experience obtained by an immigration applicant in another country (in applicant’s country of origin in most cases) are equal to the standards established for Canadian professionals.

For regulated occupations, recognition of credentials is mainly a provincial responsibility that has been delegated in legislation to regulatory bodies. About one in five jobs is regulated, including teachers, nurses, physicians, engineers and electricians. There are over 400 regulatory bodies in Canada and no uniform or national standards for recognition of foreign credentials. While much of the responsibility for professional accreditation lies with the provinces, each province and their regulatory bodies have different standards. Thus, recognition of foreign credentials varies from province to province and from occupation to occupation.

Most occupations in Canada are non-regulated. For this type of jobs, assessment and recognition of credentials are left to the employer. Employers are therefore responsible for assessing the work experience and skills of prospective workers based on what their company requires. They decide if overseas credentials are equivalent to Canadian credentials required for each job. Employers often have different standards and in most cases lack the necessary tools to help them make an objective evaluation of credentials.

Even with the creation of a Foreign Credential Referral Office (FCRO) in 2007, all that the government has accomplished is to provide information, path-finding and referral services at 320 Service Canada Centres. Immigrants are left with the burden of identifying which regulatory body must review their credentials, or are left to the mercy of private employers to determine if their skills measure up to Canadian standards.

Recognizing the need for foreign credential recognition, the government established a Foreign Credential Recognition (FCR) Program which infused additional funding to several agencies and independent organizations with the hope that this would strengthen the process of recognition of foreign credentials in both regulated and non-regulated occupations.

So far, the FCR Program has made investments in 19 out of the top 45 occupations identified by skilled immigrants entering Canada. This does not mean, however, that foreign credentials have now been recognized at least in some jobs. It only meant that some standards for assessment and recognition have been established. In other words, equivalency of foreign credentials to Canadian standards has not yet been achieved even in the 19 jobs so far identified.

To date, most of the funding made available through the FCR Program went to HRSDC- approved projects that focused more on identifying programs and services available in colleges or institutes that prepare immigrant students to integrate into the labour force, the creation of Internet information portal that provides information about registration and licensing of professionals in the health-care system and occupational therapy, and the holding of regional dialogues involving sector councils, employers and immigrant-serving agencies that focus on partnerships and information. It has also focused on improving the accessibility of materials used by internationally-educated medical laboratory technologists.

In short, the FCR Program is still at a stage where it is developing a database for its program of assessing and recognizing foreign credentials. Yet, most of the services and programs funded by HRSDC are already available from various government and nongovernmental agencies. This unnecessary duplication of services and programs is not only unjustifiable, it is also a waste of government funds.

For example, the FCR Program has invested over $4.5 million with the Association of Canadian Community Colleges to deliver overseas information services with the objective of helping skilled immigrants prepare for their integration in the Canadian labour market while their applications are being processed in their country of origin. Three pilot offices have been established in China, India and the Philippines.

But the kind of information available under this program consists simply of what Canadian colleges and institutes can offer prospective immigrants on how to upgrade their qualifications and skills to satisfy Canadian standards. This information is also already available on the Internet: all that is needed is to identify the proper links and publish them through the websites of Canadian consular offices abroad. Thus, there is no need to spend millions of dollars just to deliver this information.

Even the new FCR programs—worth more than $47 million—are all aimed at establishing a database for foreign degree programs that will be used by provincial regulatory bodies in their assessment of foreign credentials. Why not develop a set of national standards to be used in the assessment and recognition of foreign credentials instead?

In the European Union, members have signed on to the Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region which provides a procedural and methodological framework in assessing transnational educational qualifications. This seems to be lacking in Canada, or even in the United States, where experience and the candidate’s qualifications are what the employers need to base their hiring decision on.

Nothing will attract newcomers more than the knowledge that their legitimate credentials will allow them to explore economic opportunities across Canada.

Does Canada want to have access to a steady stream of well-educated, well-qualified and trained immigrants? Then it should offer services beyond providing basic information to immigrants who now are left to themselves in navigating the chaotic maze of foreign credentials recognition or at the mercy of employers who are not even equipped to make intelligent decisions regarding their qualifications.