April 21, 2009
Authorities in the Philippines are abusing the legal system as a means to repress workers' rights. 33 labour-rights activists and factory workers have been criminaly charged in a politically motivated attempt at suppressing labour rights in the country.
The workers, most of whom are women, are officials and members of two labour unions active in garment industries in the province of Cavite, just South of the capital Manila.
The accused were involved in a strike at the Chong Won and Phils Jeon factories in September 2006 to protest against their respective management’s refusal to negotiate for a collective bargaining agreement with the unions. Two days later, the peaceful strikes were violently dispersed by local police forces and agents of a private security company, who attacked the strikers with clubs and other crude weapons, injuring dozens of the workers.
Despite continued violence, the strikers persisted for another ten months before a group of uniformed and masked men with fire-arms entered the heavily-guarded factory compounds and threatened some of the strikers at gunpoint with death.
MSN supporters campaigned actively to support the Chong Won workers during the lengthy strike, convincing Wal-Mart, the factory’s largest buyer, to demand respect for the workers’ trade union rights as a condition of future business. The strike ended in 2007, however, when the owners chose to close the factory altogether rather than recognize the union.
In response to the violence against strikers, both unions sued the police and the security guards. Around the same time, the police also filed criminal charges against the 33 activists, accusing them of violence from the same incident. Although the case against the police is still being investigated by the Prosecutor of Cavite province, the same authority recently issued arrest warrants against the unionized workers.
The arrest warrants come at a time that the Filipino justice system seems to be increasingly used by authorities as an instrument to suppress dissent. The international community is currently putting pressure on the government to act against the large amount of extra-judicial killings of political dissidents. The authorities, especially elements from the military and the police force, are widely seen as being behind these killings. It seems that the authorities have now changed tactics, and are starting to use the judicial system to stifle dissent, as they have in the case of labour-rights activist and lawyer Remigio Saladero Jr., who currently faces arrest over a murder charge that is widely seen as trumped up by the authorities.
In Canada, ten labour, faith and non-governmental organizations have sent a letter to the Philippines government, with copies to the Canadian embassy, Canadian trade officials, and the ILO asking Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to ensure:
1. all charges against the 33 labour activists are immediately dropped and the union members’ grievances against their employers are settled;
2. the security and police forces involved in the violent dispersal of the picket lines and who caused serious injuries to striking workers are held accountable and are duly charged and prosecuted;
3. the Philippines government respect and abide by its own labour and human rights laws and ILO conventions; and
4. the implementation of the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association’s recommendations in response to a complaint filed by the Kilusang Mayo Uno in October 2006, including allowing a high-level ILO mission to visit the Philippines to study the labour situation in the country.