Forming trade unions or any form of workers’ organization in the Philippines has always been difficult for workers. And it has become more challenging through the years with the reign of impunity and state terrorism. Efforts from both the employers and state elements have also escalated, making organizing among workers, more difficult and risky.
This climate of repression is one of the major factors causing a continuous decline in the number of unionized or organized workers in the country. As of 2019, only 1.5 million workers or 7.3% of the labor force in the private sector are organized in unions. Among these unionized workforce, only 203,229 are covered by existing Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA).
Various forms of attacks and violations against workers freedom of association have also been prevalent through the years – violent dispersals, red-tagging, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, filing of trumped-up charges, arbitrary arrests and killings.
The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) has seen an escalation in these violations in the past six years under the Duterte government . In fact, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has included the Philippines for five consecutive years, in its Global Rights Index Report, as one of the Top 10 Worst Countries for Workers.
In relation to this, CTUHR has documented fourteen (14) labor rights organizers and defenders who remain behind bars due to trumped-up charges and planted evidence. While 56 have been brutally killed under the Duterte regime, the most recent of which is Dandy Miguel, Union President at Fuji Philippines Inc.
Tokhang-Style Harassment and Forced Disaffiliation
During the pandemic, more brutal attacks against unionists and labor activists were documented.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), as the Duterte administration’s attack dogs against activists and critics, maximized the pandemic coupled with their billions of budget to sow fear and terror among workers and unionists.
Since the last quarter of 2020, unionists have been reporting that they are being hounded by NTF-ELCAC elements in their homes and communities. Their narrative in their visits is always the same. They say they are doing an “awareness campaign” to inform the unionists where their union dues go. They shamelessly tag the respective unions of being terrorist fronts. And they try to convince them to cooperate with them and disaffiliate from their union federations.
Unions in Laguna bore the brunt of these agency’s union busting efforts. Unionists in Aichi Forge Philippines, Wyeth Philippines, Coca-Cola (Sta. Rosa), Laguna Autoparts Manufacturing Corporation (LAMCOR), Optodev Inc. and Nexperia Philippines Inc. report being visited and harassed by elements of NTF-ELCAC.
One of the unions gravely affected is the Nexperia Philippines Inc. Workers Union (NPIWU), affiliated to NAFLU-Kilusang Mayo Uno (NAFLU-KMU). To date, fifty-two (52) officers and members of NPIWU have been visited by NTF-ELCAC.
Oliver Muya, Executive Vice President of Nexperia Philippines Inc. Workers’ Union (NPIWU) is one of the most targeted among them. NTF-ELCAC elements have visited him ten (10) time. And the harassment and pressure intensify every time. During their last visit in December 2021, they were already threatening him – saying that he cannot hide from them because of his family, telling him they have a reservist residing in their subdivision. And lastly, to threaten and pressure him further, they warned that if he will not cooperate, he will be included in their watchlist. Despite all these, Oliver and his fellow workers remain committed to the union and its ideals.
NTF-ELCAC’s Desperate Measures
The NTF-ELCAC seems to have a target it desperately wants to reach to claim that their disaffiliation campaign or whatever they call it, a success.
Another targeted union is the 62-year-old Wyeth Philippines Progressive Workers Union (WPPWU), affiliated to Drug and Food Alliance (DFA-KMU). NTF-ELCAC agents desperately pushed for the union to disaffiliate. They targeted some union officers and hurled various threats against them if they do not cooperate. The worst ones were the threat to arrest them for violating the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and the threat of a repeat of the Bloody Sunday Massacre. To date, the task force has not succeeded in making the union disaffiliate but they falsely claimed it as a victory. In a public ceremony in Sta. Rosa Laguna, one of the union officers was presented, saying that their union withdrew their support and disaffiliated from KMU.
In another act of desperation, it can be recalled that on May 1, 2020, 16 workers and unionists in Coca-Cola Sta. Rosa were presented as rebel surrenderees in a public event.
Labor Rights Defenders also Under Attack
Labor rights defenders were not spared from the state’s vicious war against dissent.
For CTUHR, the past two years were extra challenging. Apart from health challenges faced by some of the staff, the organization also faced red-tagging in social media when it stood as one of the petitioners against the Anti-Terrorism Law.
Being an organization dealing with trade union and human rights, the staff knew there were risks that come with their work. However, one can’t really prepare enough for the threats. This is how Nico Canave, CTUHR Documentation Officer felt when he became the subject of the kind of attacks, he was used to simply document.
In 2021, suspected state agents conducted an elaborate surveillance on Canave. They planted an agent in his home as a “boarder.” This boarder set him up with other suspected state elements in October 2021, where he was subjected to interrogation and harassment. He was asked to identify various people (through their pictures), tell them about his whereabouts in the past and report to them regularly.
After agreeing to cooperate with them, they let go of Canave and he was able to go to a more secure place and report to his colleagues. He filed a complaint at the Commission of Human Rights (CHR).
Continuing Fight for Freedom of Association
Workers and unionists forged stronger unities to withstand these attacks that hinder them from fully enjoying their right to freely organize or unionize. They used various legal remedies such as filing complaints and holding dialogues with DOLE, CHR, National Privacy Commission, Senate, Congress, local government units. Cases have also been filed at the International Labor Organization (ILO) to put more pressure to the government to address the problem.
As jobs, health and rights were threatened, unions embodied “strength in unity,” as they continuously fought for and protected workers’ rights and welfare. Paid pandemic leave, shuttle service, hazard pay, mass testing and new CBAs are just some of the victories that some unions have gained during this crisis. If only more Filipino workers are organized, more families could have been spared from the grave impacts of this current health and human rights crisis.
Thus, workers continue to assert:
Unionism is a right!
Unionism is not terrorism!
Workers, unionize now!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article is that of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization nor of the CPDG.