Philippine Labor Rights Violations Red-Flagged at ILO: Investments entry & job creation at risk

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Geneva, Switzerland – For two years in a row, the precarious labor rights situation in the Philippines, highlighted by the serious concerns of the Governments of the United States and the European Union, has been under the global spotlight and scrutiny by the International Labour Organization (ILO). In the 112th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, the Governments of both the United States and EU, along with 10 country delegations from the worker sector, strongly criticized the little to no action of the Philippine Government in pursuing labor reforms amid a long history of rampant freedom of association violations and violence.

The US Government representative stated: “We remain concerned with ongoing reports of red-tagging of unions and other worker organizations. We encourage the Government to publicly acknowledge the workers and worker organizations that are or have been red-tagged for exercising their fundamental labour rights are, in fact, legal organizations that are protected by law, with the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining.”

The EU Government representative remarked: “Regarding previous allegations of trade unionists’ murders, we deeply regret that no concrete progress has been made in investigating these incidents. Due to the repetition of these events, we express our deep concern with regard to the new allegations of killings of trade unionists. We regret that no concrete amendments have been made to pursue the revision of the Labour Code and expect swift progress on that matter.”

These are red flags for the US and EU as they negotiate with the Philippines for tariff-free preferences for Philippine exports under the EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (EU GSP+) and US GSP, as well as the Philippine-EU free trade agreement and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) which all tie trade and investment with labor rights compliance.

The Philippine affiliates of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), namely FFW, KMU, SENTRO, and the TUCP, call on the Philippine Government, particularly the lead agency on labor rights concerns, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to heed the continuing outcry against unfair and oppressive labor relations and conditions of work that have made the Philippines among the ten worst countries for workers in the annual survey of the ITUC.

Under the global spotlight of the ongoing 2024 International Labour Conference (ILC) meeting of its Committee on Application of Standards (CAS), delegates from across the world expressed grave concerns about the labor rights situation in the Philippines, which has been shortlisted since 2023 among countries with persistent violations of international labor standards. The international labor movement especially castigated the DOLE leadership not only for its inaction on the ILO recommendations, but for its refusal to recognize the harsh reality of red-tagging, kidnapping, and killing of trade unionists and its disdain for the plight of Filipino workers.

The Philippine Workers’ Delegation underscored that the blame, including perpetuating the policies of impunity from previous administrations spearheaded by the NTF-ELCAC, falls squarely on the DOLE which blatantly misrepresents the Philippine reality in the global stage through a smoke and mirrors of superficial seminars, fora, and capacity-building activities without sincere action on fundamental labor reforms.

The Philippines’ observance of ILO Convention No.87 on Freedom of Association has been the subject of at least three high-level technical missions of the ILO since 2009. The latest was the January 2023 High-Level Tripartite Mission (HLTM) which reiterated unaddressed anti-union violence, alleged killings and abductions, political profiling, impunity, and no progress in ensuring the free and full exercise of freedom of association and workers’ right to organize:

(a) Until now, there is still no tripartite freedom of association roadmap because the significant majority of Philippine Labor will never accept a roadmap to nowhere.

(b) Instead of a single Presidentially-mandated body to address labor violations, Executive Order No. 23 establishing the Inter-Agency Committee on Freedom of Association was issued without prior tripartite consultation, provides no tripartite representation in line with ILO Convention No. 144 on Tripartism, and without the special investigation and prosecution powers that a presidential body should have to end, once and for all, the long dark history of impunity against workers in the Philippines.

(c) The Labor Department has done nothing to aggressively push for Presidential certification as urgent legislative measures of decades-old labor reform bills legislation towards immediate enactment of long-overdue amendments to the Labor Code and has failed to propose measures to align national policies with international standards to uphold the security of tenure and freedom of association for workers in both the private and public sector.

This failure and inaction on the part of the DOLE is derailing President Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr.’s pitch of the Philippines as a competitive investment destination. Philippine Labor sees this initiative of the President as the potential game changer as these pledged investments, once they enter, will be a major driver for the creation of new, permanent, and decent jobs. However, tariff-free access to a total of ten thousand product lines to the American and European markets, translating to hundreds of thousands of jobs, are now all at risk. Ongoing rampant labor rights violation in the Philippines is significantly disconcerting for the global business community, international labor movement, and foreign governments which advance inclusive development through worker-centered trade.

These risks are not remote. The United States denied the redesignation of the US GSP on four Philippine export products when the country’s observance of workers’ rights was placed under continued review in 2013. After repeated warnings, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution in 2022 calling for the immediate suspension of the EU GSP+ of the Philippines unless the country complies with human rights obligations.

Without improvements in unionization rate and collective bargaining coverage that continue to drop like a rock due to rampant corporate and state impunity against workers, the Philippines will continue to be one of the worst countries for workers – instead of being a priority investment destination that respects human and labor rights and rules-based international order – unless and until we finally have a Labor Department that is truly for labor which will facilitate a roadmap that is truly tripartite to uphold freedom of association.