Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

In 1986 there were 581 factory strikes and lockouts in the Philippines. Last year the number of actual strikes went down to five. Using this data, the labor department of the government claims there is now industrial peace in the country. Is this true?

Labor groups were quick to dismiss this assertion by describing the labor situation today as an “industrial peace of the grave.” They denounced the military approach of the government in handling labor disputes. A labor leader further explained the predicament of organized workers:

“How can workers launch strikes when factories and neighboring communities are militarized? When after filing notices of strike, the (Labor) Secretary immediately issues an Assumption of Jurisdiction order, even before strikes are actually launched? (President Gloria) Arroyo provided a blanket justification for these moves by talking about ‘terrorists in factories,’ thereby declaring legitimate workers’ unions targets of state repression.”

To probe these allegations, top-level officials of the International Labor Organization are arriving in Manila this week. Another goal of the trip is to investigate the rising number of extrajudicial killings and abductions involving workers. The ILO visit is an opportunity for domestic labor groups to prove before an international body how the government is violating the human rights of Filipino workers.

Industrial peace is enforced in the country’s export processing zones by prohibiting the establishment of unions. Workers are also disallowed from conducting factory strikes. These policies are violations of the country’s labor laws, but they are implemented by the government to attract foreign investment. This makes factories inside the export processing zones the country’s prestigious and privileged sweatshops.

Industrial peace is equated with the establishment of factory zones that employ underpaid laborers who are willing to work long hours with little or no job security. Proposals to improve the working conditions in these modern sweatshops are denounced by government authorities and technocrats as anti-competitive measures.

Government and business leaders are more eager to help achieve the profit targets of foreign companies than to improve the wage benefits received by Filipino workers. Industrial peace is promoted to advance the interests of foreigners and big business.

The low number of strikes also reflects the decreasing number of organized workers in the country. The government is not aggressively promoting the formation of unions in workplaces. In fact, the Labor Department does not even include the number of unionized workers as an indicator of its performance in its annual accomplishment report submitted to Congress.

This may explain why the majority of workers are not union members. Many young workers are unaware of their right to form unions. Thus they are denied the right to demand better compensation and other work benefits.

The rise of the service sector is also a factor which has contributed to the weakening of the bargaining power of organized labor. A majority of companies in this industry are prohibiting their employees from establishing or joining labor associations. The most famous example is the Business Process Outsourcing sector, which employs almost half a million young Filipinos.

The phenomenal growth of the service sector was not achieved by the manufacturing industry, the traditional base of organized labor. In the past 25 years, the contribution of the manufacturing industry, including the agricultural sector, to the economy has been diminishing.

Stiff competition from foreign companies has forced many domestic establishments to reduce or cease their operations. Free trade was rabidly and blindly promoted without enacting adequate safeguards to protect the local economy.

As factories close down in major urban centers, organized labor is also losing its core membership. In the past months, many bankrupt companies were forced to lay off their regular workers. Most of them are union members. During an economic crisis, workers are the first to be sacrificed in order to prevent massive profit losses.

The government may be partly correct when it boasts that the country has achieved industrial peace. But this kind of peace was enforced by using the iron hand of the state to quell dissent among the ranks of workers. The concept of industrial peace is anti-labor and anti-poor. Big Government and Big Business have joined forces to undermine the just demands of organized labor.

But as long as labor exploitation exists in society, no government or capitalist enterprise can stop workers from mounting legitimate actions in workplaces and in the streets. If we continue to ignore the plight of workers, they will have no choice but to call for a revolution.

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