Philippines Still Asia’s Most Dangerous Country for Workers, Also No. 3 in the World

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

MANILA - The Philippines is still Asia's most dangerous place for workers.

In a survey by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Philippines ranked No. 1 in Asia and No. 3 in the world in the number of trade unionists killed in the past year. The Philippines has been on top of the list of most dangerous countries for workers for several years now.

From 2004 to 2008, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), a Filipino human-rights NGO, recorded 70 killings and two cases of enforced disappearances in the labor sector. The authorities, especially elements from the military and the police force, are widely seen to be responsible for these killings.

Appealing for an immediate end to these killings, harassments and violations of workers' rights, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and Anakpawis Partylist jointly said the ITUC findings validate their "accusations against the Arroyo regime's killing and oppression of workers."

International Investigation

Aside from KMU, the Workers Assistance Center (WAC), a labor-rights NGO in the Philippines, and its European partner coalition, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), welcomed the announcement of the International Labor Organization (ILO) that they will send a high-level team to the Philippines to investigate reports of extrajudicial killings, trade-union repression, disappearances and other human-rights violations against labor-rights activists.

For over two years, the ILO had requested a green light from the Philippine government so they could come here and investigate. It is only after grave pressures that the Arroyo government finally relented, said Elmer Labog, chairman of KMU.

When KMU filed its complaint with the ILO in 2006, there were already 64 cases of trade-union killings under Arroyo's presidency (starting from 2001). Now the number has climbed to 91.

It is not yet clear when the ILO mission will visit the Philippines but, according to WAC, ILO's announcement has already raised hopes among trade-union activists that labor crimes in the Philippines would finally be investigated and maybe stopped.

"We expect the ILO high-level mission to immediately push through and reflect the state of repression being imposed by the Arroyo government upon Filipino workers," Labog said.

"The fact that certain countries, such as Colombia, Guatemala and the Philippines" - ranked first, second and third, respectively, in the ITUC list - "appear year after year on the death list shows that the authorities are, at best, incapable of ensuring protection and in some cases are complicit with unscrupulous employers in the murders," ITUC secretary-general Guy Ryder said.

Killing Organized Labor, Too

"Aside from the more publicized violations of workers' rights, we hope the mission could also help to highlight other violations of ILO conventions in the Philippines," KMU's Labog said. "We have faced various offensives that aim to wipe out trade unionism itself; promote contractual and flexible labor as the standard job status rather than secure, regular jobs; and paralyze many forms of resistance that workers can resort to to uphold their rights."

"The onslaught of massive retrenchments this year proves that there is negligible job security, that contractualization and flexible labor measures have been implemented in a massive scale," Labog said, adding that the killings of and brutalities against workers intensify as workers increasingly fight for their basic rights.

"Unionism is declining. Only 1.85 million or 10.5 percent of Filipino workers are unionized today, down from 3.85 million or 3.85 percent since Arroyo assumed presidency," Labog said, quoting data from the CTUHR.

The ILO committee also noted that violations of freedom of association in the Philippines have severe impact on the capacity of workers to freely organize, to form or join trade unions, to hold elections, to certify unions, to negotiate collective agreements and to take up campaigns or seek legal redress for matters in dispute.

Abuse of the Court System

WAC and CCC hope that the increased ILO involvement in the Philippines could also lead to an end of "the abuse of the court system to intimidate labor activism in the country." The two coalitions have worked together on a number of cases where labor-rights activists were intimidated to discourage their political opposition.

"In the case of Attorney Remigio D. Saladero Jr., a prominent opposition figure and labor-rights supporter, the Filipino authorities trumped up murder charges (against him). The ensuing court case kept Saladero and 66 co-accused fellow activists busy, some even imprisoned, for months," said Wyger Wentholt of the CCC. "After a judge ruled against the accusations, less than a week after his release from prison, Saladero and five other labor and human rights activists were again indicted on new murder charges."

CCC said this court case against 33 labor-rights activists and factory workers is also politically motivated and aimed at suppressing labor rights in the country.

The workers slapped with charges, mostly women, are officials and members of two labor unions active in the Chong Won and Philippines Jeon garment industries in the province of Cavite. These workers organized a strike in their factories in September 2006 to protest their factories' refusal to negotiate for collective bargaining agreements. Two days after they struck, their pickets were violently dispersed. Police forces and agents of a private security company attacked the strikers with clubs and other crude weapons, injuring dozens of workers in the process.

Despite continued violence, the strikers persisted for another 10 months until a group of masked and uniformed men with firearms entered the heavily guarded factory compounds and threatened some of the strikers at gunpoint.

After the violence, both unions sued the local police and the security firm. Around the same time, the police also filed criminal charges against the 33 activists, accusing them too of violence. Although the case against the police is still being investigated by the prosecutor of Cavite province, the same authority issued arrest warrants against the unionized workers in early April.

According to Merly Grafe, a spokeswoman for the accused workers, "the resolution to file criminal charges against us is devoid of any substance." She added that the prosecutor "failed to distinguish who were the real offenders and the real victims."

"It seems that the authorities are using the judicial system to stifle dissent," Wentholt of the CCC said. "We hope the Philippine authorities would respect labor rights, freedom of expression and freedom of association of workers and labor activists, and protect these rights if necessary." (