In October, I wrote about workers at the Chong Won garment factory in the Phillipines, who produce clothing for a number of retailers and brands, including Wal-Mart. Back then, workers were on strike defending their legal right to organize. Yesterday I caught up with Father Jose Dizon -- "Father Joe" -- a priest at the Workers' Assistance Centre in Cavite, who has played a major role in supporting the workers' efforts.(Naomi Klein wrote about Father Joe, and this organization, in her ground-breaking 1999 book No Logo.) Soft-spoken and cheerful, despite the grim situations we're discussing, Father Joe is visiting the United States to testify before Congress about the dismal and deteriorating human rights situation in his country. I interviewed him at the United Nations, where he was attending a meeting of social justice-minded religious leaders. He said that factory management still refuses to negotiate with the workers' union.
A February investigation of Chong Won by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) -- the monitoring group founded by the student anti-sweatshop movement -- found violations of minimum wage, forced overtime and many other laws. It also found that factory management had colluded with local authorities to retaliate violently against striking workers: indeed, the report states, "with respect to freedom of association, Chong Won's misdeeds are among the most egregious and persistent that the WRC has encountered."
As the factory's most powerful customer, Wal-Mart could easily pressure management to respect the workers' rights. In fact, the right to freedom of association is part of Wal-Mart's own code of conduct for suppliers (a fact that many of its U.S. employees would find pretty darkly hilarious). Last fall, Father Joe and the workers met with representatives of Wal-Mart, who said they would pressure the management to do the right thing; he now thinks that they were "not serious." The retailer has taken no action and workers now fear Wal-Mart might pull out altogether, instead of using its economic power to improve the situation. Says Father Joe, "We are just asking Wal-Mart to follow its own code of conduct with respect to the right of workers to collective bargaining."
Father Joe says the workers are determined to continue their strike and that they are still in "high spirits." The picket line is a lively place, he says: "It's become an area for study, for discussion, to raise up their political consciousness."
Write to Wal-Mart and tell the company to act now. Rajan Kamalanathan is theDirector of Compliance at Wal-Mart: email@example.com. [note correction: his name was incorrect in earlier version of this] Can't hurt to drop a line to the factory management, too:
Mr. Yong Ryul Kim,President,Chong Wong Fashion Inc.; South Ave. PEZA;Rosario, Cavite4106;Philippines.Fax: (63)(46) 437-0314;Tel: (63)(46) 437-0316/19;Yong_ryul_kim@yahoo.com
To join a North American support campaign for Chong Won, and learn about other actions you can take, go to the Maquila Solidarity Network website, which will be updated next week. United Students Against Sweatshops also has a campaign on this, as does the International Labor Rights Fund.
The Chong Won situation needs to be viewed in the context not just of Wal-Mart's global indifference to workers, but also of the murderously hostile environment in the Phillipines. Since President Arroyo took power in 2001, there have been 836 political killings, 48 of them labor activists.
Father Joe and other WAC activists have been followed by spies, and have received threatening messages. The organization's director was found murdered in September. These days, they avoid going out alone at night, or working late at the WAC office. This climate of fear, Father Joe says, is "much worse than under Marcos." Indeed, in just three years of Arroyo there have been more extra-judicial killings than in Marcos's entire two decades in power. Under the late dictator, those who faced the most repression were people in the armed, underground resistance. Today, the targets of political violence are engaged in legal organizing activities, which as Father Joe points out, are "above ground, so we are like sitting ducks." Under Marcos, Father Joe faced arrest -- and indeed, was jailed -- but "now, I could lose my life!"
In addition to Wal-Mart, it's a good idea to get in touch with governmental authorities, since they are implicated both in the Chong Won situation, and the killings in the country at large. Here are their addresses:
HE Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo;President, Republic of the Philippines;Malacanang Palace;JP Laurel Street, San Miguel, Manila;1005 Philippines.Fax: (+63 2) 736-10-10;firstname.lastname@example.org
Atty. Lilia B. De Lima;Director-General,Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA);San Luis St. Cor. Roxas Blvd.,Pasay City.Fax: (63) (2) 772-3375; 891-6380;email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com
Mr. Arturo Brion;Secretary,Department of Labor and Employment;Executive Bldg., San Jose St., Intramuros, Manila.Fax: (63) (2) 527-2121; 527-2131; 527-5523; 527-34-94;firstname.lastname@example.org