War on Terror Means Repression of Unions in the Philippines

In 2006, Filipino trade unionist Diasdado Fortuna died under suspicious circumstances. Nobody was arrested or charged. Later in the year, International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) member Brian Campbell arrived in the Philippines to investigate his death. After discovering the local police unconcerned and unwilling to investigate, Campbell’s efforts to uncover the truth were met with opposition. After receiving an order to leave the country he was blacklisted and his organisation was dubbed as a terrorist group. To understand why this happened, we have to take a detailed look at the labor practices of the Philippines and the country’s relationship with the United States.

A Policy of Repression

The ILRF is a multinational labor rights advocacy group that highlights labor injustice across the world. Founded in 1986, it has proven to be a thorn in the side of many governments in its global effort to expose affronts to workers. Unsurprisingly, the group’s focus has sometimes made it difficult for ILRF members to operate. To this day, the Philippines are not unlike many other nations that are heavily dependent on foreign investment. In 1991, this already "liberalized" economy was further cracked open to overseas speculation through the Foreign Investment Act (FIA). Although having undergone multiple transformations since then, the FIA, alongside the presence of foreign capital on a wide scale, is largely seen as a contributing factor in mass poverty. According to the Overseas Development Website "AusAID" in 2003 "almost 23.8 million people lived below the Philippines’ poverty threshold. This represents 24 percent of Philippine families and 30 per cent of the population."

Despite a semblance of economic growth in 2004, wide scale poverty is still a burning issue in the Phillipines. As a reflection of this situation, since 1969 the country has witnessed an armed uprising of the Maoist inspired Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Utilising its military wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA), they have fought a protracted guerrilla war in the nation’s extensive rural areas. Due to such activities, the NPA is viewed as a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union.

In the 1990s the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) attempted to initiate a peace process, and consequently opened up the political arena to groups that would otherwise be illegal, labor groups included.

After 2001 GRP policy shifted back to a platform of overt counterinsurgency. Spurred on by Washington’s requests for support in its war plans in Afghanistan and later Iraq, the Philippine government agreed to cooperate in exchange for aid against the Maoists and the Islamic rebels in the south. It’s these factors that have most contributed to the backtracking on political freedoms, which has culminating in the adoption of western sounding "anti-terrorist" rhetoric.

The case is made more complicated by the fact that trade unions are facing increased hardships due to supposed links to the CPP. Violent actions directed against trade unions and other groups have thus been on the rise in recent years. In 2005 alone over two hundred cases of anti-union violence were reported by the Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights.

In a request to the GRP to review current labor legislation, the ILRF accused the government of "encouraging a climate of impunity" and claimed that "union leaders and members are subject to surveillance, harassments, intimidation and grave threats, which impede the ability of a union to organize and represent its members."

This crackdown has branched out to include direct assaults on picket lines by police, alongside deliberate intimidation of employees inside and outside the workplace. This all amounts to a rise of 86% in terms of anti-union activity since 2004.

This repression, although widely believed to be linked to the counterinsurgency plans of the GRP, is effectively denied by the political establishment. In recent correspondence with the ILRF, the GRP claimed that it has no discriminatory stance towards the trade unions based on any alleged links to the NPA.

While claiming recognition of unions that may or may not be allied to the NPA, in its own words, the "GRP draws the line between membership in these organizations and the commission of "overt" acts in furtherance of the rebellion and other political crimes against the state. When members of these organizations cross this line, the state proceeds against them in accordance with established rules and legal procedures. As suspects who may have crossed this line, they may be investigated or may even be arrested outright if they are shown to have immediately committed, are committing, or are intending to commit violation of the penal laws." Where the line is drawn, how it is crossed, and what constitute "other political crimes against the state" is not currently known.

US Backing

The Philippines has long had a special relationship with the US. After the country was one of the earliest backers behind the war in the Middle East, the United States continued to offer their ally preferential trade deals. This relationship dates as far back as 1974 with the emergence of the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) of which the GRP, along with a number of other governments, claims to have benefited from.

Such a relationship has been visibly strengthened with the deployment (albeit on very modest terms) of Filipino troops to Iraq in 2003. Despite their subsequent withdrawal just one year later, the US government has continued to offer advice and support for the GRP’s own efforts to combat both NPA activities and the Islamic rebels of the south.

Since the 1990s a variety of Islamic factions have carried out bombings, kidnappings and other armed actions across the Philippines. Having stated their aim as the creation of an Islamic state across South East Asia, it’s not surprising that the GRP and the United States have found ideological common ground.

Unfortunately, this has meant that the US is turning a blind eye to the ongoing persecution of trade unionists. While gleaning benefits from the ongoing GSP program, the US remains silent on the conditions many workers face inside the Philippines.

As part of its ongoing activities, the ILRF has attempted to get the US government to reconsider its position. Citing evidence of "violation of international workers’ rights" they again accuse the GRP of "being engaged in the extra-judicial killings and abductions of union leaders, members, organizers, and supporters through elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), local police forces, and private security forces."

Unfortunately, a change in policy seems far off. Brian Campbell however remains adamant that "unless the US government changes its attitude, the killings will continue."

See the International Labor Rights Forum for more information.