ILO investigates killings of workers in the Philippines

Justice for slain workers and union leaders.

Officials of the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations were in the Philippines to conduct a High-Level Tripartite Mission (HLTM) from January 23 to 27, to investigate cases of violations against the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention of 1948 No. 87 (C87).

One of the more high-profile cases that have caught the attention of the ILO was the March 7, 2021 murder of worker leader Manny Asuncion. Asuncion was killed during a police operation at the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) office in Cavite, south of Manila. Asuncion was staying at the office when officers of the Philippines National Police (PNP) in uniform with no name tags barged into the office. They presented a warrant of arrest, but their faces were covered.

Activists raising awareness of the killing of Manny Asuncion.

Nearby residents would later tell human rights groups that before they heard a series of gunshots, they also heard Asuncion yell “Mga tao din kami!”, “we are also humans.” Witnesses said soon after, they saw the police drag Asuncion’s body out the door.

On January 17, the Department of Justice (DOJ) threw out a case filed by labor groups against 17 policemen involved in Asuncion’s killing. The DOJ said there was insufficient evidence to prove Asuncion’s killing was a murder.

On the same weekend that Asuncion was killed, combined elements of the police and military under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) killed eight other activists in Batangas at Rizal, all south of Manila.

Labor activists.

ILO high-level mission

The ILO Committee on the Application of Standards had earlier called on the Philippine government to accept the mission during the 108th Session of the International Labor Conference in June 2019. The ILO had written in its communique that it was concerned over “the numerous allegations of murders of trade unionists and anti-union violence as well as the allegation regarding the lack of investigation in relation to these allegations.”

In the latest annual report dated February 2022, the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations urged the Philippine government to investigate and punish those behind the attacks on unionists.

In the report, ILO cited the alleged extrajudicial killing of 10 trade unionists; at least 17 cases of arrest and detention following police-dispersed peaceful rallies and strikes;  raids conducted on the homes of unionists and union offices from November 2020 to March 2021; 17 cases of red-tagging and harassment, not only against trade unions under the progressive Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May First Movement), but against members and leaders of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, and the Philippine National Police Non-Uniformed Personnel Association Inc. and other workers’ organizations.

Red-tagging is the malicious blacklisting of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of a sitting government.

The ILO also cited the 12 cases of forced disaffiliation campaigns and seminars, including for public school teachers, beverage workers, and palm oil plantation workers. These anti-worker and anti-union campaigns were conducted by the National Task Force (NTF-ELCAC).

The last time the ILO conducted a mission in the Philippines was in 2009 to investigate the murder of union leaders under the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Labor activists.

Fundamental right to organize

Labor leader and president of the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) Atty. Sonny Matula said the right of workers to freely organize and assert their welfare is fundamental to a democratic and progressive society.

“Ironically, the freedom of association (FoA) is one of the most violated labor rights. Denying this denies workers the right to live with security and dignity,” he said.

The ILO maintained international standards and agreements such as C87 regarding the implementation of labor laws and regulations which have been signed by ILO-allied countries including the Philippines.

“The Philippines is a signatory to this convention since 1953 and it is obligated to implement the convention’s provisions – make them part of Philippine laws and implement them in all workplaces. Sadly, we still see so many violations,” said Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) executive director Daisy Arago.

Arago said cases of violations against the human and labor rights of workers have been most alarming under the previous government of Rodrigo Duterte, “But there are already signs that these attacks will continue under the Ferdinand Marcos Jr administration.”

The former Duterte government consistently rejected calls from ILO to conduct an HLTM in the Philippines despite the massive outcry against brutal crackdowns against unionists and human rights advocates in the country in 2019.

A talk to highlight labor rights.

Slain labor leaders

A few weeks after Asuncion was killed, the police allegedly killed Dandy Miguel, president of the Nagkakaisang Manggagawa ng (United Workers), Fuji Electric Philippines (LNMFEP-OLALIA-KMU), on the early evening of March 28, 2021. Miguel was shot by a gunman on a motorcycle, as he was also riding his motorcycle on his way home.

Miguel, 35, was also vice chairperson of the Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan (PAMANTIK-KMU), or Unity of Workers in Southern Tagalog, a labor federation under the KMU.

According to the CTUHR, 56 workers and unionists were killed under Duterte and none of them have been given justice. Many of the cases of these extrajudicial killings took place in Davao, Negros Island and Bicol. The last two regions are among the poorest in the Philippines and are hotbeds of agrarian and labor protests.

Under Duterte, 27 unionists and labor rights advocates were arrested and charged with made-up accusations, among them Esteban Mendoza, Arnedo Lagunias, Romina Astudillo, Mark Ryan Cruz, Joel Demate, Jaymie Gregorio at Roel Duyag.

Some 30 unions all over the country have also fallen victim to red-tagging, with its leaders and members harassed and accused of being supporters of the communist insurgency.

Among the cases unions wanted to be investigated by the ILO was the case involving the Wyeth Philippines Progressive Workers Union (WPPU). During the 2020 lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, military and police forces went on a house-to-house operation, singling out leaders and members of the union. The military also threatened the union president to leave the union or else be killed.

The president of the KMU, Elmer Labog, said that killing unionists because of their activism is the height of violations against the right to organize.

“The NTF-ELCAC has no right to involve itself in labor concerns. In the guise of keeping the peace, it is attacking unions and protecting business interests,” he said.

The labor leader said companies in the Philippines were notoriously anti-union. Apart from hiring security agencies to monitor unions and union activities, companies especially in the export and industrial manufacturing sectors often mobilized local police detachments and even military units to clamp down on unions.

This directly went against the ILO Convention 87 which stated that public authorities should not take any action against the right of workers to organize.

Not even a month after President Marcos Jr. was proclaimed winner of the May 2022 election, two labor leaders, Ador Juat and Loi Magbanua, were abducted. They remained missing to this day.

Memorial for Dandy Miguel.

Occupational health and safety 

Apart from the issue of union busting and attacks against unionists and labor advocates, unions wanted the ILO to also consider the dismal state of occupational health and safety in the Philippines.

As of 2019, a year before the pandemic hit and factories were forced to close, the Integrated Survey on Labor and Employment (ISLE) recorded 310 workplace fatalities involving 40,892 cases of occupational accidents.  

Rochelle Poras, executive director of the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), said the dangerous combination of unsafe work conditions, management indifference, and a worsening economic crisis left Filipino workers with little to no choice but to endure inhumane working conditions.

Poras said: “Four years after the enactment of Republic Act 11058 or the Occupational Safety and Health Law, there are still so many workplace accidents that claimed the lives of many workers. This law underlined compliance guidelines and intensified companies’ protective measures, but are Filipino workers actually safer?”

In June 2021, the ILO recognized the right to “a safe and healthy working environment” in its framework on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

“This resolution reaffirmed health and safety protections in the workplace. However, this was far from reality for most Filipino workers,” Porras said.

The EILER documented several cases of workplace accidents in the last three years. In one case, elevator installers Manuel Linayao and Rey Miguel Gilera were killed when the cables of the passenger elevator cab they were fixing suddenly broke and the cab plummeted from the 38th floor. 

Several labor violations were identified, among them the absence of safety orientation, mandatory orientation on occupational safety and health standards, non-provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), and a lack of permit to operate for working at heights, among others.

Another case involved six construction workers. Ronilo Casaway, Nino Villasquez, Daniel Nesperos, William Ocong, Jerimy Doña, and Ramir Gamba were resting inside their makeshift hut when a six-meter concrete fence and cement block wall collapsed and crushed them.

The most horrific occupational health and safety accident, however, took place in 2015 at the Kentex footwear manufacturing factory. A shocking 74 workers were killed in what was known as the worst and biggest factory fire in the country.  

No one was convicted or held criminally liable for the accident, which labor advocates said featured many proofs of management negligence such as the absence of fire exits and fire safety drills. Most of those killed were in the second floor and had no means of escape. It was also discovered there was a lack of proper labeling, training, and mishandling of the highly flammable rubber emulsifier that was used in the manufacture of rubber slippers.

The EILER noted that only 6.3 percent of establishments with 20 or more workers have unions, and only 353,000 out of 5.06 million paid employees were unionized (PSA 2018). Then there were also the contractual and informal workers which comprised the majority of the labor force and were more prone to precarious working conditions.

The workplace safety group Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) said lawmakers should include the criminalization of occupational health and safety standards violations in the relevant law.

According to IOHSAD, on May 31, 2022, three workers died when the second floor of the building being rented by warehouse firm E-ONE Consumers Trading Corporation collapsed.  A few days later, Stephen Corilla, a contractual worker of Universal Robina Corporation was killed as he was cleaning a pulverizing machine.  

Nadia De Leon, IOHSAD executive director, said: “Workplace deaths should stop. No worker should die at work. The government’s inaction on workers’ demand to impose stiffer penalties and imprisonment for employers who commit gross occupational health and safety standards violations has resulted in workers’ deaths. 

“The weak and toothless provisions in the current occupational health and safety law were made even worse by the lack of labor inspectors to conduct regular inspections in all workplaces.” 

IOHSAD said even with the passage of the occupational health and safety law in 2018, compliance with occupational health and safety standards dropped to 58.36 percent from 74.72 percent and continued to be subpar at 70.28 percent. The long-standing problem of lack of labor inspection, especially of occupational health and safety, remained unaddressed.

The annual evaluation of more than one million business establishments in the country is shouldered by only 774 labor inspectors.

“It comes as no surprise that less than 10 percent have been examined in the past three years,” De Leon said.

Activists raising awareness of Bloody Sunday raids by the police and army.

Recommendations to the ILO

The labor groups involved in the ILO high-level mission said they hoped the ILO could bring their concerns to Malacanang, the presidential office, and called on Marcos Jr to address them. 

The groups were represented by the All Philippine Trade Unions (APTU) comprising KMU, FFW, PSlink, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), Partido Manggagawa (PM), Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP), Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro), Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA), All Workers Unity (AWU) and others.

KMU chairman Elmer Labog said: “We have high hopes that the ILO will do its duty to document the countless labor rights violations in the Philippines directed against the right to form unions. 

“We also appeal to the ILO to make it known to the Marcos government that the violations against the right to freedom of association like extrajudicial killings, red-tagging, and arrest of unionists cannot be tolerated.” 

The labor groups also said anti-worker laws like the Anti-Terror Law and Executive Order 70 which formed the anti-terrorism task force should be repealed. 

All photos credit: Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU)

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