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Cecille Tuico of the Workers Assistance Centre finds opportunities in the crisis

June 5, 2009

The struggle for workers' rights in the Philippines faces many challenges. Threats, violence, arrests and assassinations of union and labour and human rights advocates are commonplace, tolerated by authorities and carried out by police and security forces.

Coupled with violent suppression of dissent, workers in export processing zones (EPZs) also face concerted efforts to prevent union organizing and to keep wages low as the government tries to attract investment from foreign multinationals.

The global economic crisis has made the situation even more difficult as falling demand leads to worker layoffs and added pressure on those workers who remain employed to accept lower wages and reduced benefits.

The ILO estimates that between October 2008 and February 2009 over 80,000 workers lost their jobs or were laid off in the Philippines and around 5,000 overseas Filipino workers had been repatriated.

MSN recently spoke with Cecille Tuico, a researcher and organizer with the Workers Assistance Centre (WAC) about the labour rights situation in the Philippines and how the crisis is affecting workers.

WAC is an independent non-governmental organization helping workers organize in EPZs in the provinces of Cavite and Batangas. EPZs are designated industrial areas for the assembly/manufacture of export goods, which the government exempts from tariffs and taxes in order to attract foreign investment.

According to Cecille, thousands of workers have been laid off in the EPZs in Cavite and Batangas as a result of the economic crisis. Many companies have shut down altogether, most of them in the garment and electronics industries where women are most frequently employed.

Exact figures are hard to come by because "companies inside [the EPZs] operate in an enclosed environment where not even local governments can interfere; they have their own laws, their own police and security, all of which creates a situation in which they can control the labour inside," says Cecille.

According to Cecille, EPZ workers usually labour at least 12 hours a day without overtime premiums, for which they are sometimes paid even below the minimum wage.

On the other hand, "outside the export processing zones the workers are paid at least minimum wage and even higher and of course they only work eight hours after which they are paid the legal overtime premium," she says.

These EPZ practices are illegal but difficult to combat as they are often unreported and because labour rights advocates like Cecille do not have access to the workers inside the zones.

To get over this hurdle WAC organizes in communities, seeking out workers in the boarding houses and dormitories in which they live.

"But this is also tough because the owners of the dormitories do not want the workers to speak to us if they know that we are organizing workers into unions," Cecille says. "They are worried that if the workers form unions the factories could close down and threaten their livelihoods," she adds.

Based on daily surveys that WAC has been doing with workers, they estimate 11,500 workers in Cavite and Batangas have been negatively affected by the economic crisis.

Intel, a US-based transnational electronics company, announced recently that it will close down its operations in Cavite, physically demolishing their factories in the process purportedly to protect company secrets. WAC estimates that the closures will affect over 4,000 workers, a devastating blow to the already struggling province.

 

Instead of focusing on the problems caused by the crisis, however, Cecille says that WAC is using the crisis as an opportunity to educate workers on their legal rights to severance pay and to provide them additional legal support and training.

Ironically, Cecille believes that the crisis has actually boosted worker organizing in the region. As workers have become more concerned about losing their jobs, she says, they have begun to see forming unions as a way to guarantee entitlements such as severance pay that, although legally required, are rarely paid out.

But, Cecille warns, guaranteeing severance pay is not the primary purpose of a union. She cautions that trying to form a union when a company has or is preparing to close is often too late to guarantee workers proper wages and entitlement to benefits.

The repression of labour rights advocates, coupled with the economic challenges the country - and WAC - are facing, makes these difficult times indeed.

Now more than ever there is a need for international solidarity from organizations like MSN and its supporters in order to face these challenges and allow WAC to continue its critical work on the ground.  

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