The row of factories that lined the main road in Barangay Mamatid, Cabuyao, Laguna brought back memories of another time, when students like her, from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB), crossed over from student activism to trade union organizing.
“We wanted to help the workers and so we volunteered in trade union organizations that taught workers how to organize and to bargain collectively for benefits and better wages,” Vera (not her real name), now a rotund mother of three, said.
It was the mid-80s and unionism was alive and well in the industrial belt of Laguna. Back then, Vera recalled, some 40,000 workers were unionized in factories that sprouted from San Pedro and Sta. Rosa to Canlubang, Cabuyao, and Calamba.
But more than three decades later, fewer and fewer factories have unions. Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) figures show that in 2014, only 7.7% of the country’s total labor force of about 40 million workers were organized into unions. This represented a consistent decline from a base of 20.2% in 2003. Out of these organized workers, only 8.1% had Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) in 2014.
Trade union federations see the decline of unions as directly proportional to the rise in unfair labor practices and low wages.
As cited by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a Belgium-based organization linking over 300 trade unions from 160 countries: “the “Philippines is one of the world’s worst violators of workers’ rights.”
The ITUC is one of the largest confederations of national trade union centers in the world. It counts among its affiliates the broadest spectrum of labor federations in the country—from the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno to the centrist Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisang Progresibong Manggagawa (SENTRO) and the Federation of Free Workers (FFW), all the way to the traditionally conservative Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP).
ITUC Philippine affiliates added that harassments and labor leader killings stalk organizations that champion trade unionism.
Rene Magtubo, Partido ng Manggagawa (PM) national chair, told the media that their union organizers encounter harassments and threats while organizing workers at export processing zones in Cavite and Cebu.
FFW labor organizers likewise reported incidents of harassment and intimidation in areas where they have unions.
“In Batangas, where we had a newly-formed union last October, the Philippine National Police (PNP) issued a memorandum to owners of unionized enterprises they claim to be infiltrated by Reds. Cops conducted random visits as often as two times a week. Unions who went on strike were blamed for discouraging investors and hampering labor market programs of the government,” Julius Cainglet, FFW vice-president said.
ITUC figures indicate that the murder of trade union leaders in the Philippines has waxed and waned across three Presidents, from 2001 to 2018.
The total number of union leader killings under the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is 96, with the four deaths in her first two years in office, quickly accelerating to 31 union leaders shot and killed in 2005.
A Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) report said that majority of these murder cases happened in the last four months of 2005 and began with the Hacienda Luisita Massacre in 2004.
“It (killings) continued with the murder of Diosdado Fortuna in September 2005. Less than a month later, Ricardo Ramos, president of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) and barangay captain of Mapalacsiao, Hacienda Luisita; Pedy De Leon of the transport group Piston; and six others were killed in less than 48 hours between October 25 and 26,” the CTUHR said.
This figure adds to 17 unionists and supporters killed from 2001 until March 2006, raising the total to 48 workers and semi-workers killed. The number does not include abducted workers who remain missing until now, the CTUHR said.
As far back as 2005, the labor rights organization reported that the killings were already executed by men in helmets and ski masks, riding in tandem aboard motorcycles
In a survey released on June 9, 2010, the ITUC summed up the labor rights performance of the Arroyo administration by ranking the Philippines as No. 1 in Asia and No. 3 in the world in the number of trade unionists killed.
In the first two years of the administration of former President Benigno Aquino, a total of six labor leaders were killed. It ballooned to 26 toward the end of his term in June 2016.
The ITUC also reported that the year 2012, “was another tumultuous and tragic year for the trade union movement in the Philippines. Four trade unionists were murdered and one union member was kidnapped and arbitrarily detained.”
A US State Department 2012 Human Rights Report on the Philippines echoed the ITUC’s observation. It said “killings and harassment of labor leaders and advocates continued to be a problem.”
Like the modus of labor slayings during the Arroyo administration, the union leaders were mostly shot and killed by unidentified assailants riding in tandem.
Many of those killed were shot at point-blank range, mostly occurring in front of their homes.
The militant human rights group Karapatan consistently criticized the administrations of then Presidents Arroyo and Aquino for being unable to address the unsolved killings.
In their 2010 year-end report, Karapatan said: Aquino has yet to render justice to the victims of human rights violations. To date Noynoy still ignores the people’s call to prosecute and hold GMA and her general henchmen accountable for their crimes against the people. The victims’ cry, ‘Usigin, panagutin, huwag patakasin [Try them, make them accountable and don’t let them escape]!’ continues to fall on deaf ears.”
In its 2018 Global Rights Index, the ITUC cited for the second straight year the Philippines as one of the 10 worst countries in the world for workers.
The Global Index Report emphasized that the country’s dismal ranking is due to three main factors: intimidation and dismissals, violence, and repressive laws.
“In a context of extreme state violence and suppression of civil liberties, workers and trade unionists in the Philippines faced threats and intimidation,” wrote the ITUC in the report. “Employers frequently used intimidation tactics and dismissals to prevent workers [from] establishing unions.”
Federation of Free Workers (FFW) president Sonny Matula bared that SENTRO AND PM organizer Orlando Abangan was the first trade union leader assassinated when President Duterte came to power.
Killed in September 2016, the 35-year-old Abangan was repeatedly shot by unidentified assailants while he was driving his motorcycle on his way home.
A month later, in October, nine members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) who reportedly attempted to occupy private land were shot dead by armed men inside Hacienda Nene in Sagay City, Negros Occidental.
Reported in the media by the military to be the handiwork of the New People’s Army (NPA), the militant farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas derided the military, dismissing the claim as a lie.
Two more labor leaders were killed, one in October and another in November.
FFW President Sonny Matula, also the chairman of the labor coalition Nagkaisa, called on Labor Secretary Sylvestre Bello III to hold a dialogue on the killing of trade union leaders.
“We are seriously alarmed with the recent killings of trade unionists and the (harassment) and threats encountered by trade union leaders and organizers,” Matula said. G