Facing an increasingly draconian regime, labor groups in the Philippines stand strong. Ed Cubelo, chairman of the trade federation Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Manila chapter, described conditions during a visit to the Twin Cities last week: “Receiving threats is not really new. Our inspiration is really to remember the plight of workers and the need to keep working with them to improve their situation. Every day there is surveillance patrol in front of our office. In one of our satellite offices, it was ransacked and phones and laptops were stolen.”


Last week, in a presentation organized by Minnesota Workers United, 40 or so local labor activists came out to hear Cubelo and Mong Palatino, both visiting the U.S. to raise money and awareness for their work. In addition to chairing Manila’s chapter of KMU, Cubelo is president of Toyota Motor Philippines Corporation Workers Association. Palatino is a former congressperson and human rights leader. He explained that the Philippines’ democracy is in a crucial moment: if President Rodrigo Duterte can secure enough support in the legislature in upcoming elections, he will try to convert the Philippines to a federal state, a constitutional change to centralize government, which could allow him to consolidate power and extend his term. Palatino also fears Duterte’s administration will interfere with the election process.

Duterte rose to power in a country characterized by stark economic disparities. In the Philippines, formerly a colony of Spain and then the United States, 76% of the population is landless, and the wealthiest third of landowners own 80% of the land. 67 million citizens survive on less than $3.02 a day, and a new tax law (TRAIN) resulted in tax breaks for the wealthy and increases for poor and working Filipinos. Meanwhile, the Philippines participates in free trade agreements which allow United States corporations and nationals the same rights as Philippine citizens. These inequalities have fueled waves of rural-to-urban and international migration.

Working people in the Philippines contend with these economic conditions — and repressive political ones. Originally, President Duterte ran on a populist campaign, elected by a base of poor and working-class voters frustrated with Manila politicians. Hailing from Mindanao, the country’s poorest region, Duterte’s ascension to the presidency was seen as a victory for representation. He promised to create jobs, regularize “contract” or temp workers, who represent 60-70% of the employed workforce. However, since the beginning of his administration, unemployment has actually worsened, and workers are yet to see the elimination of contract labor.

In the face of these broken promises, worker organizing has intensified under Duterte. Driven by precarious work and low wages, over 200 strikes took place in 2018 alone, despite violent dispersals by police and jailing of labor leaders. Cubelo describes how a group of works at the Regent Food Corporation in Manila were able to unionize their workplace within two days. The workers, mostly women, toiled for decades as “contract” or temp laborers, in violation of a Philippine law requiring workers to become regularized, or treated as full employees, after 6 months.  “When we discussed their rights, they were crying.”

Workers and labor organizers frequently face retaliation, harassment, firings, and physical violence from employers and the police. Cubelo shows the evidence, a swath of photographs of jailed labor leaders and bloodied workers. Just days before he left for the US, 50 state agents served a warrant on the home of one of his colleagues — though fortunately the colleague was not harmed.

When asked about fear, Cubelo replied, “If we surrender to this fear, it might lead to less numbers of organizers. We have to fight this threat and intimidation and expose the evil design of the Duterte government in suppressing workers organizing.”

Midterm elections will be held in the Philippines May 13th. A resolution condemning human rights abuses under Duterte was introduced into the U.S. Senate April 4th.

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