Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Disposable domestics for how long?

To many Filipino caregivers, Canada is heaven on earth compared with other countries of destination for overseas workers. Canada offers them a pathway to permanent resident status, and eventually, to citizenship rights. A future that is not available anywhere else. So who can ask for anything more?

This is why many among their ranks want the government of Canada to continue the Live-in Caregiver Program despite reported abuses and exploitation of domestic workers by their employers. They see any changes by the government, even if only small, as big improvements. Such as the so-called Juana Tejada Law which was a mere tweaking of the regulations by Canada’s immigration bureaucrats to remove the requirement for a second medical examination for caregivers once they qualify for permanent residence.

Juana Tejada qualified for permanent residence after completing her work contract as a live-in caregiver, were it not for her stage 4-colon cancer that was diagnosed while her papers were being processed. She was eventually accepted as a permanent resident on humanitarian grounds, an easy decision for the government to make since she was already on her deathbed. An effective PR opportunity for the government because this made it look more compassionate and the party in power more acceptable to the eyes of the public, especially Filipino-Canadians.

But Juana Tejada’s case was a statistical anomaly, and only a miniscule number would be caught in a similar situation. Even without the so-called Juana Tejada Law, every caregiver in similar situations would already be covered by existing provisions in the law allowing the government to consider the humanitarian and compassionate aspects of each case. After Juana Tejada’s death, two more cases surfaced and ailing caregivers were granted permanent residence on humanitarian grounds.

This has not deterred caregivers and their advocates in advocating for more protection for domestic workers, such as protection from abusive employers and from fraudulent practices of employment agencies, which prompted another tweaking of the regulations to accommodate these demands. Last August 18, 2010, the Canadian government announced improvements to its Temporary Foreign Worker Program, including live-in caregivers.

According to Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenny, the government “is taking action to protect temporary foreign workers, including live-in caregivers, from potential abuse and exploitation. We owe it to them, their employers and all Canadians to ensure that the program is fair and equitable. After all, they are an essential element of Canada’s economic success.”

Among the changes the federal government introduced were mandatory clauses in the employment contract that will benefit live-in caregivers. Whether these can be enforced remains to be seen since immigration is a federal matter while employment or contractual obligations between employers and caregivers fall under provincial jurisdiction. In the past and even until now, passing of responsibilities between these two levels of government has marked the uneasy relationship between federal bureaucrats and their provincial counterparts on matters of concurrent jurisdiction such as immigration and employment.

However, provincial governments have become more involved in regulating the hiring of foreign workers, particularly in the enforcement of employment standards and regulations. Right now, Ontario and four western provinces have legislations restricting the rights of recruiters to charge fees to workers, including caregivers.

Under Ontario’s Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act (Live-in Caregivers and Others), employers and recruiters of live-in caregivers are prohibited from engaging in acts of reprisal against complaints filed against them that violate the workers’ rights under the Act or the province’s Employment Standards Act. So far, there have been no complaints nor acts of reprisals reported under this new provincial legislation. It is rather doubtful or improbable that caregivers will report or call in their complaints against their employers, even if reprisal is prohibited, for fear of losing their jobs. Caregivers, in most cases, would bear their situation until their contract is completed and they have submitted their application for permanent residence for processing.

No doubt, these federal immigration regulations and provincial employment laws were all designed with good intentions. Can they be implemented to the letter of the law, i.e., for the real benefit of caregivers, given the requirement that caregivers reside in the private households of their employers for the duration of their work contract? This is a litmus test that both levels of government need to muster.

Caregivers under the current system are totally isolated from the outside world and fully under the control and supervision of their employers. Who would monitor abuses such as ordering caregivers to attend to their small wards when the little ones cry in the middle of the night? Or to iron clothes at bedtime, even when their work contract only asks them to take care of the children? Or wake up from sleep when they hear their aged or sickly employers call for help? Certainly, there are many good employers, but how about the few bad ones?

When Juana Tejada was still alive, she recounted how she looked after her employer’s new-born twins and older child. She took care of them as if they were her own, feeding and bathing them, and staying with them 24/7. She wasn’t paid for overtime work and didn’t have her own room. Most live-in caregivers work under similar conditions and choose to remain silent and bear the hardship and exploitative nature of their workplace so they can remit money to their families back home, in anticipation of becoming eligible for permanent residence and eventually becoming Canadian citizens.

No wonder a United Nations’ study described these caregiver jobs as the three Ds: dirty, difficult and demeaning. This led one Filipino worker to state that the “exploitation of domestic workers has been legalized and institutionalized.”

An advocate for reforms for live-in caregivers in Toronto has recently suggested that granting outright permanent residence to these workers might prevent abuse. But this is a very narrow prescription based on the simple understanding that the problem of caregiver abuse is merely an immigration matter. He has even misconstrued the new regulations announced by the federal government that provide for a cumulative four-year limit for temporary foreign workers as also applicable to live-in caregivers. Raising fears that caregivers may no longer qualify for permanent residence due to this four-year limit, he has strongly criticized the new regulations and has pushed for giving automatic permanent residence to live-in caregivers upon arrival in Canada. A precipitate act that now appears to alienate him from other advocates for caregiver reforms who have cautioned against a backlash for demanding too much from government.

Automatic permanent residence is laudable, which should be extended to all workers arriving in Canada, if only it would eliminate rank abuse and exploitation in the workplace. But such proposal may not sit well with Parliament, especially with the current party in power, given its record of opposing the opening of the country to more immigrants.

In any case, permanent residence will not wipe out abuse in the workplace since the Immigration Act still requires caregivers under Section 113(1)(i) to reside in the private households of their employers to qualify for permanent residence. How about removing this onerous provision and treating and valuing domestic work like any other job, with proper laws and regulations? There is nothing unacceptable or wrong in allowing caregivers to work in their employers’ homes for a minimum number of hours, provided they are paid for overtime work hours if they exceed that minimum, or to allow them to live outside by themselves or share accommodations with other co-workers.

When Immigration Minister Kenny said that caregivers are an essential element of Canada’s economic success, he is only stating the obvious: that the marginalization of caregivers in a way subsidizes the productivity and affluence of our economy.

The isolation of a caregiver’s job makes the worker more at risk for abuse or mistreatment. Without contact with anyone outside of the household, a caregiver becomes disposable labour. Yet, there is the misconception that domestic workers are happy members of their employer’s families. According to Grace Chang, professor of women’s studies at University of California-Santa Barbara and author of Disposable Domestics, it’s a fantasy to treat domestic workers like family members. It rationalizes the practice not to pay adequate wages for domestic work “believing that people are doing this work purely out of love.”

Domestic work has historical roots in slavery. It is commonly associated with women's unpaid household labour. Largely immigrants and women-of-colour constitute this workforce, and their exclusion from legal protections reinforces the notion that domestic work is less valuable than work outside the home.

Blame is usually assigned to individual employers for abuse and exploitation of domestic workers but it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that workers have safe workplaces and that they are adequately paid. The exploitation of caregivers and all temporary foreign workers hurts us all. Because workers in these programs are at the mercy of their employers for their livelihood, legal status and protection, and expectations of permanent residence in this country, these programs create a disenfranchised underclass of workers.

Common sense dictates that exploitation of domestic and other temporary foreign workers will continue as long as it makes economic sense for employers to do so. But the major responsibility lies squarely upon the government to change the status quo in a way that guarantees these workers full labour rights and protections, gives each of them the opportunity of permanent residence if not equal rights at the onset, and not to treat them as disposable labour.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Between a landlord and a farmer

More than fifty days to his presidency, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III appears to have stumbled on his path towards defining his presidency. Even his “no more wang-wang” directive (no blazing sirens and motorized cops to escort public officials) whenever he takes the road is looking more and more like a mere sound bite.

After all, if he really wants to navigate Manila’s heavy traffic like the ordinary or average Filipino, then he should take the jeepney or public bus or the rail transit, which is the mode of transport for ordinary working citizens. Working Filipinos don’t travel in a chauffeured car, much more with the blasting din of sirens. His “no more wang-wang” policy is an empty and meaningless gesture for a president who wants to appear he’s one of the ordinary people.

It seems that President Aquino’s handlers are trying too much to cultivate a populist image for the new leader. More like Ramon Magsaysay, endeared in the hearts of the Filipino people as their champion or president of the masses. Regarded as the most popular president of the Philippines ever, Magsaysay was the first president to open the doors of Malacanang to everyone. Compared to his disliked predecessor, Elpidio Quirino, who was a better chief executive and more effective leader in managing the country’s economy. Or to his successor, Carlos P. Garcia, the nationalist president who left us with his legacy, the Filipino First policy.

Perhaps, Noynoy Aquino’s advisers want to cast the president in the mould of “Erap para sa mahirap” (Erap for the poor) before Joseph Estrada was convicted of plunder by the Sandigangbayan.

What has President Aquino III done so far?

The President’s adversarial team of lawyers backed up by the Commissioner of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Kim Henares, appeared overeager to push their chief’s agenda by bringing up four highly contentious matters to the Supreme Court to decide. These four cases involve the first three executive orders issued by President Aquino and his plan to impose a tax on road toll.

The executive orders, all challenged or subject of a temporary restraining order, include: No. 1 – creating the Philippine Truth Commission to investigate corruption in the Arroyo administration; No. 2 – firing all “midnight” appointees of former President Gloria Arroyo; and No. 3 – voiding the previous administration’s order granting state lawyers with automatic Career Executive Service Officer (CESO) Rank III without taking CESO examinations.

A 12 per cent value-added tax (VAT) on road toll was scheduled for implementation by the Aquino government early last week, but was stopped by a temporary restraining order by the Supreme Court. Refusing the advice of VAT law authors and tax experts, BIR Commissioner Henares claims that the VAT on road tolls is allowed by the Comprehensive Tax Reform Act of 1997 and the Expanded VAT Law.

“This is not a good beginning,” lamented Senator Joker Arroyo, the first executive secretary to Noynoy’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino. Arroyo, no relation to the former president, deplored the new president’s inability to grasp the difference between the law and state policy.

By now, President Aquino would probably be best remembered for doing nothing in his young days in office, especially when opportunities presented upon him to reverse dramatically the course of Philippine history early in his term.

Two missed opportunities stand out.

First is Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL), a military counterinsurgency plan of President Gloria Arroyo which expired when her term ended last June 30, 2010. Assailed by many quarters for encouraging extrajudicial killings and the forced disappearances of hundreds of activists suspected to have links with the local insurgency movement, OBL was singled out by Philip Alston, a United Nations Special Rapporteur, as a major reason for human rights abuses by the Philippine military. OBL fails to distinguish between combatants and civilians and legal and underground organizations, thus, engendering human rights violations.

Instead of keeping his election campaign promise to respect human rights, President Aquino simply caved in to the decision of his generals to extend Oplan Bantay Laya up to January 2011, and who knows until when. The Philippine military has consistently denied responsibility for the summary killings and disappearances of suspected activists, which President Aquino has no problem accepting at face value instead of launching a serious investigation akin to the Truth Commission he established to probe into the corruption during the Arroyo administration.

President Noynoy Aquino had the chance to dismantle OBL, a relic from the martial law regime his mother helped to topple through the People Power Revolution. Ignoring all the documented extrajudicial killings and disappearances, Aquino chose to appease the military establishment and did nothing to protect human rights.

Fifty-one days in power, five activists and one journalist have already been killed, adding to the more than a thousand still unsolved cases of extrajudicially killed and forcibly disappeared. Last February 6, 2010, the military arrested and detained 43 health workers conducting a health training program in Morong, Rizal, including two pregnant women. Until now, all 43 are still in detention for suspicion of links with the communist insurgency. Doing nothing to protect human rights seems almost natural and good enough for this President.

Perhaps, it is the second opportunity that is the easiest for President Aquino to seize. The transfer of Hacienda Luisita to its rightful owners, the farmers who had been given land distribution rights under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). It would have enabled the newly-elected president to define a major thrust of his government and solidify his own mother’s legacy of comprehensive land reform, but for his family’s continuing saga of stubbornly holding on. President Aquino’s cousins have petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the 2005 decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) to scratch the stock distribution option (SDO) reached under CARP in 1989.

With the Supreme Court yet to decide, a compromise agreement was struck by the management of Hacienda Luisita with the farm workers, retaining the SDO in lieu of a piece of the 1,400 hectares, or a third of the plantation that was up for distribution. The settlement was condemned by the more vocal farm workers in the plantation as dubious and suspicious, alleging that the farm workers were bribed and tricked to sign the agreement.

The Cojuangcos bought Hacienda Luisita in the late-fifties using a GSIS loan and a guarantee from the Central Bank with the stipulation that the land was to be redistributed to its tenants after the loan has matured ten years later (or in 1967), something that has yet to happen.

With a single stroke of the pen or some persuasive small talk to his family, President Aquino could have changed the course of land reform in the Philippines. Hacienda Luisita is a microcosm of the land reform problem in the country. Imagine its huge impact if Noynoy Aquino would be able to return the land that rightfully belongs to its small tillers.

As in the case of Oplan Bantay Laya, President Aquino has washed his hands of the ongoing Hacienda Luisita conundrum. Instead, the President insists he is no longer a party of interest in the dispute since he has divested his shares in the company owned by his Cojuangco relatives. That he would not interfere in the land dispute because he did not want to impose himself on the farmers and workers of the Hacienda.

President Aquino spoke of the straight and crooked paths during his first state of the nation address. Here was the opportunity for him to tell his relatives to take the straight path.

No president in this modern age could possibly achieve what Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, has accomplished in his early days in office. Morales, an Aymara Indian and coca farmer, became the first indigenous president in a country with an indigenous majority.

The election of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia represented a radical shift in the country’s history. A few months after taking office. Morales put Bolivia’s natural gas fields and other key resources under state control, against the wishes of foreign investors and multinational companies. He has pushed for constitutional and land reforms, and set out the rights of the indigenous population, which have worried much of his middle-class opponents.

The difference between Evo Morales and Benigno Aquino III is striking. From where they came from, one is dirt poor; the other, to the manor born. Morales is an indigenous Aymara Indian, a coca farmer — the exact opposite of the landowning, schooled, and bred-in-comfort Noynoy Aquino who represents the upper crust in Philippine society.

Who do you think will speak for the poor and champion genuine land reform for small farmers? The farmer or the big landowner?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What are you complaining about?

Complaining is a behaviour we humans have almost perfected. There is no enigma to understand why we complain a lot. We even have established formal mechanisms to process and deal with complaints: the legal system, complaints department, the Ombudsman, conflict resolution, etc. We confess our most personal complaints to shrinks, priests, therapists, counsellors, close friends, among others, hoping they can give us that elusive peace of mind we seek.

There is also a group called the Complaint-Free World movement that Oprah Winfrey supports. Its ultimate goal is not to complain at all. According to Rev. Will Bowen of Christ Church Unity in Kansas City who founded the movement, you accomplish this objective by wearing a bracelet, a purple wristband issued to members as a reminder of their pledge. Once you catch yourself complaining, you have to switch the bracelet to your other wrist, and start counting the days from scratch. The whole point is to keep the bracelet on the same wrist for 21 consecutive days, which is the average time it takes to form a habit.

Members of Bowen’s flock are asked to take a pledge to swear off complaining, criticizing, gossiping or using sarcasm for 21 days. Now, the idea has begun to spread far beyond middle America.

Bowen said: “We all complain. It’s just human nature. The one thing we can all agree on is there’s too much complaining!”

Critics of the “Complaint-Free World” method have complained, however, that it could cause more harm than good. Why would we suppress our feelings or bottle up our emotions? If it is human nature to complain, we should allow ourselves to express dissatisfaction when things are not what they ought to be. Preventing or discouraging one to vent may actually cause more stress than relaxation. Otherwise, the Bowen method becomes just another anger management tool.

As far as social issues are concerned, for example, how could we enact social change without first finding fault with the present situation? Bowen’s method is critical of criticism, which is complaining with a sharp edge.

In contrast, Julian Baggini in his book, Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests, talks about the positive effects of our modern grievance culture. Baggini defines complaint as “directed expression of a refusal or inability to accept that things are not as they ought to be.”

The act of complaining, according to Baggini, is “not what is fundamental to complaint: it is a symptom, not the disease itself. Just as the severity of a medical complaint should be measured not by how loudly it draws attention to itself but by the extent to which the body is really damaged, so we should not mistake the loudness of a complaint for its seriousness.”

Oftentimes, we tend to focus on the person making the complaint, to deride the critic but miss the substance or gist of the criticism. We dislike someone for stirring the pot, and portray the critic as a rabble-rouser. For instance, to some people the word “activist” conjures up images of Molotov cocktail-throwing, mayhem on the street and rioting. Yet, they ignore excessive police violence or violation of the right to free speech. Nothing is wrong to contain or moderate complaining, but it is foolhardy to dismiss the essence of a sincere gripe just because it is made loudly.

Two Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, have come out with a name for complaining: “BMW mode” – short for “bitching, moaning and whining.” After 15 years of studying how people interact in more than 650 organizations, they have found out that complaints can actually be the seeds for corporate and individual transformation.

In their book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Kegan and Lahey discuss how to stop the whining and turn the culture of complaint into an agenda for change.

To understand complaints, we need to first deconstruct them, according to the Harvard researchers. “Behind every complaint is an idea or a belief or a value that a person is committed to. Otherwise, why be upset?” Lahey said.

According to Kegan, as soon as people stop thinking of themselves as complainers, and start thinking of themselves as people who are committed to something, then they set the stage for doing something about their problem. “That happens not by dismissing the complaint but by finding the commitment behind it,” Kegan stressed.

But there are times, the two Harvard researchers observed, that we tend to clam up and keep our complaints to ourselves. We’re not telling our boss, for instance, certain things because we want to keep the boss’s respect or we’re afraid we’ll be seen as a troublemaker. In this situation, they advise us that we need to re-examine our commitments and identify our fears.

Complaining is also a way to discover the truth, although oftentimes we tend to hold our assumptions about ourselves and the world around us as “the truth.” Kegan and Lahey urge us to question our assumptions, of what we think will happen, so we can have all the options available to us. We need to let go of our assumptions, not simply to modify them, if they are competing with our commitments or goals.

Indeed, we have plenty to complain about. Corruption in government, tyrannical bosses, incompetent colleagues, pushy clients, annoying friends or pesky bloggers. Even the weather becomes the object of our scorn: either it is too hot or too cold, or so muggy or too humid.

So we complain about the state of our nation because we perceive our president as weak. Or that he represents only the interests of the rich and those of big business. We elected him our leader because we wanted to have change, yet he is fast becoming exactly a mirror image of his predecessor.

It’s natural to complain of things if they are not what ought to be. Suppressing them runs counter to our nature. When things go wrong, do we always have to run to the hills?

To transform the culture of complaint into a meaningful agenda for change, we must take responsibility by turning the language of complaint to a language of commitment, as Kegan and Lahey suggest in their book. That would be the most effective way to stop the whining, and to start getting stuff done.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Complaints, corruption & constructive criticism

A reader wrote to me complaining that I complain and criticize too much. Maybe so. When things are not as they ought to be, to complain seems the most natural thing to do. We cannot just be deeply unhappy with how things are and merely accept them. After all, all major social advances have started with a complaint. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights campaign, or Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement, would not have begun if not with a complaint that the status quo was untenable and needed to be changed.

Take corruption, for instance. Corruption in the Philippines is a multi-million dollar business without borders, especially when the other party involved is a foreign government or a transnational corporation.

Two recent examples easily come to mind. First, the bungled $329.5 million contract between the Philippine government and the Chinese firm Zhong Xing Telecommunications Equipment Limited (ZTE) during the previous Arroyo administration. The deal called for setting up a National Broadband Network (NBN) for the Philippine government to be financed by a loan from China.

After the contract with ZTE was signed, allegations of overpricing came to light due to huge bribes and payoffs to government officials closed to former President Arroyo. The NBN-ZTE deal was later cancelled and a question regarding the constitutionality of the deal before the Philippine Supreme Court was dismissed.

All the alleged major players in the scandal (including the former president and her husband Mike Arroyo, former Department of Trade and Commerce Secretary Leandro Mendoza, and former NEDA Secretary Romulo Neri) were spared by the Office of the Ombudsman with the exception of former Comelec Chairman Benjamin Abalos who is now under trial for corruption charges. Abalos was believed to be the principal broker of the deal and has actively lobbied for the approval of the contract in exchange for money and sexual favours.

The second example is the awarding by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Central Bank of the Philippines of the contract to Oberthur Technologies, a French company and world leader in secure technologies for the production of hi-tech electronic passports. In compliance with the 2010 deadline imposed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for travel, these new electronic passports will come equipped with a tamper-proof microchip that will contain the identification and personal information of the bearer.

The new e-passports will be more expensive and this has worried Migrante International, the largest organization of overseas Filipino workers (OFW). Migrante is not only concerned with the hike in passport fees but also with emerging allegations that the $18.41 million procurement contract with Oberthur to produce the e-passports is illegal and tainted with corruption.

It’s like the NBN-ZTE deal déjà vu all over again, according to Migrante, borrowing Yogi Berra’s popular malapropism.

Oberthur was the same European company tapped by the DFA and Central Bank to print the embarrassing 80 million P100 bills that misspelled former President Arroyo’s surname to “Arrovo” in November 2005. The opposition party had the biggest fun of their lives claiming the mistake was intentional, pointing out that “rovo” in Spanish means robbery.

It was also the same company involved in an overpriced $34-million passport project in Kenya in 2004. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki discovered the anomaly and ordered the suspension of four senior government officials from the finance and home affairs ministries, as well as the director of the government’s information technology service.

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) brought charges before the Office of the Ombudsman against the DFA and Central Bank for graft and corruption practices and overpricing in 2007. In 2009, Kabataan Partylist and Anakpawis Partylist both filed resolutions in Congress to investigate the anomalous contract with Oberthur but so far, nothing has been done. One wonders why the Philippine government entered into a contract with a company like Overthur despite of its unpleasant track record. This is one of those transactions the present Aquino government might look into. Chances are that President Aquino will take a pass since he has retained the responsible DFA Secretary in his present cabinet.

This new electronic technology in passports has received quite a lukewarm reception even among computer security experts. The passports will be equipped with RFID chips, which stand for “radio-frequency identification.” Passports with RFID chips store an electronic copy of the passport information: your name, a digitized picture, etc. In the future, the chip might also store fingerprints or digital visas from various countries.

These RFID chips operate via proximity, much like the ones used for automatic toll collections on roads or on ATMs. The possibility of surreptitious access is always present. Your passport information might be read without your knowledge or consent by a government tracking your movements, a criminal attempting to steal your identity or someone just curious about your citizenship.

While security mechanisms like shielding have been added as security features, they don’t go far enough. Most oftentimes, one shows his or her passport in open areas like airport line-ups, hotels, or banks. Anyone interested in harvesting passport data could easily set a reader in one of those places.

In the United Kingdom, collecting biometric information in passports is seen not necessarily a positive way to assert one’s identity but could also be used to track people who are invisible, or illegal workers who survive in the black economy without status. This could be the heavy price we pay for our privacy in this modern world, where nations are becoming more wary about illegal immigrants and workers, much more about the influx of potential terrorists.

If there was corruption by government officials in procuring the new e-passports, President Noynoy Aquino should order his Truth Commission to look into this matter. He could ask DFA Secretary Alberto Romulo and the Governor of the Central Bank to explain, and if he’s not satisfied, for him to do the right thing.

In the meantime, the Philippine government can consider the idea of suspending the price increase in the cost of obtaining a passport for overseas workers. After all, overseas workers have been shoring up the national economy through their income remittances, a reason why they are called our “living heroes.” What better way to acknowledge their contributions to our country but to exempt them from the passport fee hikes.

In these times when exploitation and abuse of vulnerable immigrants and temporary workers abroad have become rampant, Filipino overseas workers need assistance and protection from their government any time they are at risk. They sacrifice limb and body, including their pride and self-respect, in overseas jobs oftentimes beneath their skills and educational training, and away from their families and loved ones. Any additional cost in obtaining passports or other documents in order to travel will impose an onerous burden on them. Once they are overseas, most are left to fend on their own with hardly any protection from their government, yet they are the ones continually pumping money to our economy.

Take for example the case of stranded Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia. While waiting for their repatriation, the workers sought temporary refuge under the Khandera Bridge in Jeddah. When the Saudi police barricaded the bridge from migrant workers, they found a new home outside the premises of the Philippine Consulate General, living like squatters inside makeshift tents beside the consulate building and enduring the hot weather outside which had reached 40 degrees Celsius. This was happening while Filipino consular officials and their staff sit in their air-conditioned offices.

In Toronto, Filipino nannies complained of fraudulent recruitment practices and abuses by their employers while the Philippine Labour Attaché could only wait and see what steps the Canadian government will take to respond to the plight of these workers. Rationalizing that the nannies’ problem was a contractual issue between them and their agents and employers, the Labour Attaché has continued to wash his hands off the issue and to rely on the efforts of Filipino advocacy groups in Toronto to represent these Filipino workers. One also wonders what the Philippine Overseas Welfare Administration is doing to protect our overseas workers with all the money it has collected from OFWs as compulsory membership fees now estimated at about $293.4 million annually.

Returning to my earlier observation, an English writer said, “Complaint has a noble history. It has driven human society forward and led to the abolition of systemic injustice.” Complaints can be constructive, too, instead of simply being trivial whining and griping. Indeed, our ability to complain is integral to the expression of our own humanity.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Water for the people, not for profit

In his recent first-ever state of the nation address or SONA, President Noynoy Aquino ridiculed the leadership of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) for giving themselves fat salaries, bonuses, allowances and other incentives while MWSS gathers arrears in payments of pensions for their retired employees. This was happening, the President noticed, while the people lined up for water because of the growing water shortage.

Aquino further decried the decision of MWSS to build homes for its top officials on land earmarked for planting of trees in order to protect the La Mesa Dam watershed.

Yet, according to the President, his hands were tied. He can’t remove these officials because they were among the midnight appointees of former President Gloria Arroyo.

Speaking of “midnight deals,” newly-minted Secretary of Public Works Rogelio Singson was linked to a deal between the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) and Maynilad Water Services Inc. for a water concession that would have deprived the government of at least 3.6 billion pesos in water fees.

Singson was president of Maynilad when the supposed deal was brokered and approved days before he was appointed Public Works Secretary by President Aquino. He was also the former top honcho of MWSS prior to its privatization. President Aquino even praised Singson during his state of the nation address for quickly resolving the water crisis in Metro Manila.

Two things are clear about Noynoy Aquino’s appointment of Singson to a cabinet post and the issue of water supply in general.

First, Aquino’s swift defence of Singson’s alleged misstep flies on his face in view of his lofty mission to instil transparency and honesty in government. Perhaps Aquino’s entreaty that all the MWSS officials who have enriched themselves should voluntarily resign if they have any shame also applies to Singson. Unless, of course, the President operates under a double standard of morality like his predecessor.

Second, the Pagcor-Maynilad deal for a water concession for the Bagong Nayong Pilipino Entertainment City in Parañaque City is unambiguous proof that corporate control over water resources favours big business and the rich at the expense of the impoverished majority of families who direly need water but cannot afford to pay the high rates for water services.

While President Aquino has noticed the highly shameful paychecks of MWSS officials, he has, on the other hand, by either negligence or ignorance, failed to see that the scarcity of water is felt mainly by the poor and not by the rich. In discussions about the water crisis, the focus seems directed solely on rapidly growing population, pollution and destruction of freshwater resources, and climate change as the most critical contributors to the worsening water shortage. Seldom has the reality of the crisis of water ever become the central topic for debate: that majority of the poor people have no access to water while most of the water goes to the rich.

Unequal access to water is not only the consequence of widening disparity in incomes. Corporate control over water resources has exacerbated this inequity.

In Metro Manila, for example, both Maynilad and Manila Water which took over the MWSS have increased water rates by as much as 400 per cent between August 1997 and January 2007. With this huge hike in water rates combined with the rise in the cost of other basic good goods and services, many families can hardly afford water services today. Only rich families can now afford to have a steady supply of water for their needs.

Private corporations also directly compete with the people for control and use of available freshwater resources. For instance, Benguet Mining, a U.S. mining firm, has also ventured into the water business: it holds about 65 water permits covering major creeks, springs and rivers in Itogon in Benguet province that communities use for their domestic and agricultural needs. Benguet Corp. has already compromised the people’s source of fresh mountain water because of its Danum bottled-mineral water project.

In San Pablo City, Laguna, farmers and residents complain of declining water availability and blame the operation of a mineral water plant by Nestle Philippines, Inc. The recent Pagcor-Maynilad concession deal only shows that private business gets top priority in the supply of water.

Water, according to Fortune magazine, is the best investment sector for the century. The magazine dubbed water “the oil of the 21st century.” It is estimated that the value of global “water industry” is somewhere between 1-3 trillion dollars. Foreign multinational corporations now directly operate water supply and sanitation systems and most of them have already penetrated the local water sector. As the global water crisis deepens, the private water industry, dominated by a handful of multinationals and their subsidiaries, stands to benefit.

These multinational corporations and other proponents of water privatization argue that the private sector can deliver basic goods and services more efficiently and at lower costs than the public sector.

For poor and debt-strapped countries, water privatization was made a condition for borrowing money from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Philippines is one among many poor countries with huge debts subjected to this requirement.

Privatization of water in the Philippines started during the administration of former President Fidel V. Ramos. The inability of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) to expand its services to the growing population became the impetus to privatize.

Private participation was implemented through concessions, in which the concessionaires were given the task to operate and manage the facilities, while the MWSS maintained ownership of the infrastructure.

The service area was divided into two zones. Maynilad Water Services, Inc., a joint venture by the world’s second largest water transnational operation Suez of France and the Filipino Benpres Holding was awarded the concession contract for the West Zone. The East Zone went to Manila Water Company, Inc., a consortium of the Filipino Ayala Corporation and the British United Utilities and the U.S. company Bechtel.

In reality, there is little evidence to support the argument that privatization actually benefits consumers — particularly the poor — by improving access and lowering costs. Quite often, water prices increase and quality problems follow on the heels of privatization.

On the contrary, water privatization has compounded the critical state of our water resources. Seven years after privatization of water facility in Metro Manila, consumers still have to cope with no or inadequate water, contaminated water, and rising water hikes. The government under Gloria Arroyo failed to bring the concessionaires to comply with their commitments, chose not to bail out Maynilad Water Services which became bankrupt, and continued to support the privatization of local water districts in several towns and districts nationwide. While putting a large amount of our precious water resources in the hands of big business and transnational corporations, privatization of water has become the main cause of the water shortage for the majority of our population.

The failure of water privatization hangs like a noose waiting to be tightened, and it’s just a matter of time before we experience the consumer rebellions that happened in Bolivia against handing control of water over to foreign corporations. These two revolts over water in Bolivia sent a strong and clear message to the World Bank that the people did not choose to privatize their public water systems. It was a choice forced upon them, as it has been in many poor nations around the world.

In El Alto, the people complained that the French Suez/World Bank privatization left tens of thousands of poor families with no access to water whatsoever. The Bolivian president had no choice but to cancel the contract.

In Cochabamba, Bechtel Corporation and the Abengoa Corporation of Spain imposed rate increases of double and more for poor water users. Martial law had to be declared to save the companies’ contract, but the people staged protest strikes, roadblocks and other forms of civil disobedience that effectively shut down the city, forcing the government to restore the people’s water rights.

The crisis of water, whether in the Philippines or worldwide, is defined by its result: majority of the poor people have no access to water while most of the water goes to the rich and the profits to big foreign corporations. It is not simply an issue of overpopulation, denudation of forests and natural watersheds, pollution, climate change, and even government corruption. Globalization and its emphasis on the forces of the free market with its preoccupation for profit cannot be expected to be responsive to public good and general welfare.