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Canada needs to back ILO in the Philippines

November 10, 2009

A high-level International Labour Organization (ILO) Mission to the Philippines wrapped up on September 29, feeding hopes that international attention will help stem the tide of violence and intimidation that has been unleashed on Filipino trade union organizers and human rights advocates.

Military and police violence against labour and human rights activists in the country and anti-union actions by local governments and the judiciary have reached disturbing levels in recent years. This year's International Trade Union Confederation survey of violations of trade union rights starts by identifying the Philippines as a country where "widespread and grave anti-union practices have unfortunately continued," noting that the situation had deteriorated since the previous year's report.

National and international labour rights organizations finally succeeded this June in breaking the deadlock at the ILO after three years of lobbying to bring a high-level ILO mission to the Philippines. The ILO Mission had previously been blocked by the Philippines government, whose consent was required under ILO protocols.

The ILO Mission, which began its visit to the Philippines on September 22, was charged with investigating the killings of 92 union leaders and activists since 2001. In announcing the investigation, the ILO referred to "serious allegations of the murder of trade unionists, death threats, arrests of trade union leaders in connection with their trade union activities, widespread impunity relating to violence against trade unionists and the militarization of workplaces in export processing zones (EPZs) and special economic zones."

Labour leaders from the Solidarity with Cavite Workers (SCW) organization presented before the ILO delegation, citing violent methods used by security forces to enforce the state government's unwritten "No Unions, No Strikes" policy in the Cavite Export Processing Zone.

On December 11, 2006, two activists with the Solidarity of Cavite Workers were shot by a lone assassin outside the gates of the Yazaki-EMI factory where they worked. Jesus Buth Servida was killed instantly, and his companion, Joel Sale, sustained gunshot wounds. The gunman reportedly walked casually away from the scene of the crime.

The SCW also presented evidence of abductions of two female union leaders, police assaults on legal picket lines at garment factories in the Zone, factory closures in the middle of collective bargaining negotiations, and vilification of trade unions and leaders by local government officials.

Extrajudicial killings of trade union leaders have been supplemented with judicial harassment of labour and human rights activists and labour lawyers, who have faced repeated arrests and imprisonment on baseless charges.

While the ILO Mission is a positive step, much remains to be done. The effort to expose and condemn violations of trade union rights in the country needs to be backed up by increased pressure from governments and companies that do business in the Philippines.

In 2006 and 2007, at our urging, a group of major US apparel companies including Wal-Mart, American Eagle Outfitters, Liz Claiborne and Gap spoke out against numerous incidents of violence against labour organizers and human rights advocates, warning the Philippines government that "these alleged incidents appear to be part of a larger pattern of harassment and violence against workers, labour leaders and human rights promoters that could discourage companies from doing business with your country."

Yet Canadian companies - which are the second biggest international investors in the country's mining sector, after Australia - have remained conspicuously silent in the face of increasing human rights abuses in the country. Nor has the Canadian government spoken out on the growing repression facing union leaders and human rights advocates. On the contrary, in July of this year the government welcomed a business mission from the Philippines, posting a notice from the Business Processing Association of the Philippines online that urged Canadian companies to "put the Philippines on your global value chain."

Not that they need much encouragement. TVI Pacific, Telus, Bombardier, Manulife and Sunlife are already heavily invested in the Philippines despite the country's dismal human rights record. Canadian imports from the Philippines increased in 2008 as compared to 2007.

As long as the Filipino authorities and business interests are rewarded economically for the repression of labour and human rights activists, the abuses will continue and increase. Breaking that pattern doesn't necessarily require a break in trade or divestment by Canadian companies. What it does require, however, is active and public condemnation by both the Canadian government and Canadian investors and targeted and progressively increasing penalties if the Philippine government fails to stem the violence.

More than anything, the triumph of impunity depends on the silence of everyone in the room. Breaking that silence should not be left to the ILO or local human rights organizations alone. If Canadians are willing to accept a share of the benefits of trade and investment in the Philippines, we have to also accept a share of the responsibility to protect the rights and physical integrity of those workers and communities that make those benefits possible.

This MSN article was originally publised on

See also: "Philippines Bloody for Unionists, But Invest There Says Ottawa" in The Tyee.


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