It’s a curious time for “People Power” in the Philippines, a country that has long wavered between democracy and authoritarianism. Newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte has spent his first 100 days on a disturbing kind of populist campaign—appealing to the will of the masses by killing masses of people. His zero-tolerance war on drugs has already claimed several thousand lives, some directly killed by police, countless others extinguished by vigilantes operating with impunity in collusion with state actors.
Yet Duterte’s regime may lose some populist credentials, as its brutal anti-crime crackdown shades into a pattern of anti-labor violence.
At a late September rally, advocates with the labor organizations Partido Manggagawa and Philippine Airlines Employees Association expressed frustration with the government’s emphasis on combating crime rather than addressing crucial welfare issues. Activists listed colleagues recently killed amid the wave of state-sponsored killings and demanded a serious investigation by the Department of Labor:
Last week, Edilberto Miralles, former union president, was gunned down in front of the National Labor Relations Commission. On September 17, Orlando Abangan, a PM leader and organizer in Cebu, was ambushed on his way home. Last Sunday Patricio Tago Jr., a union vice president, was abducted in Tarlac and then imprisoned for allegedly being a drug pusher. Labor groups have called the drug charges as trumped-up.
Besides the latest fatal shooting of a farmer in Palawan, earlier this month, four farmers were shot dead in Nueva Ecija and then a farmer leader killed in Isabela.
While Duterte presides proudly over a death toll exceeding 3,000, activists point to 40 million workers struggling for basic survival amid massive unemployment and anti-labor suppression. Despite decades of neoliberal export growth, the most common working-class jobs remain in the informal sectors or exploitative manufacturing facilities on short-term contracts—systemic economic problems that many hoped Duterte would tackle through broad-based development.
As part of a recent human rights review by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) reported that nearly three-quarters of workers, about 28 million, “are informally employed with little or no protection from job losses and opportunities to find gainful employment.” Jobs are often brokered through exploitative “manpower” agencies under a “flexible” basis on five-month contracts. A recent survey in Metro Manila showed that about 85 percent of workers had been hired on five-month contracts by illegal labor agencies. Even in relatively prosperous “Special Economic Zones,” manufacturing workers in supposedly higher-grade export industries such as electronic semiconductors have become permanent temp workers, toiling up to 12 hours a day, without days off, going years without a stable contract. Young workers, erroneously labeled “trainees” despite being out of school, and women garment workers producing for multinational brands, are particularly vulnerable to wage violations. (And minimum wage standards, when they are met, are miserably low, typically less than half of an estimated family living wage)