Harper arrives in Manila for trade and security talks

Filipino-Canadian groups will watch Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit not necessarily for what he says about the Philippines, but for what he says about their growing community and its labour issues back in Canada.

Canadian prime minister to meet with Filipino President Benigno Aquino on Saturday

Prime Minister Stephen Harper reviews the troops as he arrives for an official visit to the Philippines on Friday. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

Filipino-Canadian groups will watch Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit not necessarily for what he says about the Philippines, but for what he says about their growing community and its labour issues back in Canada.

Harper arrived in Manila on Friday night following a six-day tour to India. It's the first visit by a Canadian prime minister in 15 years.

He is scheduled to meet President Benigno Aquino at the presidential palace on Saturday and increasing bilateral trade is high on the agenda. Two-way annual trade is a modest $1.5 billion.

There's a very specific characteristic to the Filipino economy, though, and that's the money it gets annually from its overseas diaspora, a sum which last year topped $20 billion.

Filipino-Canadians are part of that. The Philippines is now the largest source of immigrants to Canada and Tagalog the fastest-growing language in the country.

Concerns about migrant workers

Many Filipinos enter Canada for low-skilled jobs, sometimes through the temporary foreign worker program or the live-in caregiver program. There have been complaints about abusive employers, labour standards ignored, and the lack of a monitoring system to assist workers.

"What's missing from the narrative and what's missing from discussions taking place with respect to the relationship between the Philippines and Canada has are clear guidelines and clear parameters for how exactly the labour rights or the human rights of these migrant workers are being protected," said Ethel Tungohan, co-editor of the recent book "Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility."

"That's something a lot of community members would like to hear."

Tungohan says workers sometimes have no clue about what their rights are, and even when they do, they remain at the mercy of their employers for their livelihoods.

"Their employers are aware that they really want to stay in Canada and stay working in Canada and they use that as their trump card to ensure that their employees are kept compliant," she said.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has introduced changes to the live-in caregiver program, which allows Canadian families to bring in foreign workers to care for children or the elderly.

But advocates say the changes have not gone far enough or met their goals.

A federal online list of abusive employers established in April 2011 doesn't yet list a single person or company.

A new measure that required families to pay up front for health and transportation costs for incoming caregivers may have resulted in a decline in the number of applications for the program — only 8,553 last year compared with a high of 20,821 in 2008.

Manuela Gruber Hersh of the Association of Caregiver and Nanny Agencies Canada says that's because parents don't want to take on all the liability, when some caregivers don't have any incentive to stay with the family that paid their way.

"There's still issues on both sides," Gruber Hersh said. "There's still caregivers that are not protected and in bad situations. Then you have the families who complain because now they might be out all this money and have no nanny in place. It's a mess."

Filipinos 'invisible' in policy-making

Tungohan notes there are also social costs to consider for a community that includes so many people separated from spouses and children for sometimes years at a time.

The First Ontario Alliance of Caregivers Canada wants the Harper government to reduce the processing time for permanent residency status to allow for quicker family reunification.

Chris Thornley, Canada's ambassador to the Philippines, says these issues are not necessarily a concern for the Filipino government, because Canada is viewed very positively as a work destination.

He described Filipino migration to Canada in glowing terms.

"They're a hard-working people, they don't bring their politics with them, there's no language adjustment issue for them culturally, so I hear this a lot from Filipinos when they go to Canada, how quickly they integrate and what strong citizens they become," Thornley told reporters.

"So perhaps they're not noticed to the same extent as some of the larger migrant communities that we have in Canada."

But Tungohan says the fact that Filipinos are below the radar is precisely the problem for those who need government help, whether it's on labour standards or having their university degrees recognized in Canada.

"Filipinos in Canada are invisible when it comes to policy-making," she said. "When it comes to considering the specific needs of the community, Filipinos in Canada are usually lumped in with different types of Asian communities."

Demonstrations at embassy

Before the prime minister's arrival on Friday evening, environmental activists were picketing the Canadian embassy in Manila.

Protesters picket the Canadian Embassy to coincide with the official visit of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday. The environmental activists are demanding a stop to alleged long-standing environmental crimes of Canadian mining corporations in their country. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

Protestors called for an end to alleged long-standing environmental crimes of Canadian mining corporations in the country, including the 1996 spill of an estimated 3 to 4-million tonnes of tailings from the Marcopper Mine into the Boac River.

Vancouver-based Placer Dome was a part-owner and manager of that mine.

The CBC's James Cudmore reports that when Harper arrived in Manila late Friday evening, he climbed into a Mercedes bearing licence plates from the Philippines.

During his previous six days in India, he used several different vehicles from his Canadian fleet, flown in by the Canadian military for Harper's RCMP security team.

with files from James Cudmore and the Associated Press