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An opinion piece by CUPE National President Paul Moist

In a cynical, yet typical attempt to court votes with an ethnic community, Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed the Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino for a cross Canada tour this weekend. Touting it as a chance to explore a possible free trade agreement with the Philippines, it was more a chance for Harper Conservatives to be seen cozying up with Aquino at various events in Canadian cities with large numbers of Filipino voters.

Absent from this tour was any mention of the continued abuses suffered by Filipino workers, both in the Philippines and in Canada, at the whims of both the Harper and Aquino governments.

In the near endless praises Prime Minister Harper and other Conservative MPs lavished on President Aquino, they failed to mention his government’s reckless abuses of Filipino trade unions. The names Randy Vegas and Raul Composano did not come up.

Vegas and Camposano are organizers with the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees, or COURAGE. It is the largest labour confederation in the Philippines and is a vocal critic of corruption in the Philippine government, and Aquino’s privatization of public services in the country. In December 2012, they were abducted and detained by the Aquino government and have been in jail every since.

Known as the “COURAGE 2”, Vegas and Camposano were jailed over their work in labour dispute between the Metro Manila Development Authority and it’s employees represented by COURAGE. Their imprisonment, along with over 400 other political prisoners, is a prime example of the heavy handed and unjust treatment of union activists in the Philippines.

As an international ally with our fellow union COURAGE, Canadian Union of Public Employees has repeatedly called on the Conservative government to condemn the human rights abuses suffered by trade unions and workers in Philippines. These calls have been met with only silence.

This is hardly a surprise. Firstly, any criticism, no matter how warranted, would interfere with the Conservatives obsession with international trade deals. As we’ve seen in the Conservatives pursuit of other trade deals, human rights abuses will never stop a deal from being signed, no matter how egregious.

Secondly, the Harper Conservative government would never threaten its supply of its most valuable Filipino import – low-wage temporary foreign workers. And in President Aquino, they have a more than enthusiastic exporter.

The Aquino government has an abysmal record in protecting Filipino migrant workers. The rights and welfare of these workers, numbering in the tens of thousands in Canada alone, are at best a secondary concern. These exploited workers are seen as a cash cow for the Philippine government, sending back a stream of taxable income to families back home.

And here is where the Conservative government completes the circle. With rules limiting temporary foreign workers now to less than four years in Canada, the path to Canadian citizenship for Filipino migrant workers has been essentially cut off. This will ensure a steady stream of cheap labour to Canada that can be scapegoated in times of economic hardship and sent home on a whim.

On opposite sides of the world, the chips are stacked against these workers. In Canada, exploitive employment agreements render these workers particularly vulnerable if they stand up for themselves, faced with little legal protection from employers who can simply fire so called ‘trouble-makers’ safe in the knowledge they will be forced out of the country. In the Philippines, speaking out for their rights as workers can mean prisons, as evident from the COURAGE 2 and the other 400 political prisoners.

Workers in this country deserve better. Migrant workers need permanent residence status, a clear path to citizenship and the opportunity to build a better life here in Canada with their families. They deserve to have their rights respected and to speak up for themselves without the threat of repercussion, including the threat of being summarily thrown in prison in the case of the Philippines.

These aren’t outlandish demands – it is a call for basic human dignity. Shamefully, it seems to be too high a cost for Prime Minister Harper and President Aquino.