Philippines murder highlights the threat facing trade unionists


Filipino workers and trade unionists are still in shock following the murder of labour leader Florencio “Bong” Romano on 8 March.

The 63-year-old was an organiser for the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights, an affiliate of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Movement, or KMU) trade union at the food manufacturing firm RFM in Laguna, south of capital Manila.

Romano was found dead in Batangas City, also south of Manila, with a single bullet wound to the chest. According to police reports, he also had bruises all over his body.

While the motive for his murder is still unclear, his death highlights the dire situation facing Filipino workers.

KMU chairman Elmer Labog told Equal Times that trade unionists who try to challenge union busting, job losses or the rampant casualisation of work contracts face various forms of abuse – from intimidation, harassment and kidnapping to murder.

He believes that the killing of Romano suggests the “work of a pro [professional]” and is indicative of the danger facing workers that decide to form or join trade unions.

Labog states that Romano is the 18th KMU-affiliated trade union leader to be killed since the start of President Benigno Aquino’s administration in 2010.

“There is a strong indication that the military is behind these series of killings of trade unionists to prevent workers from forming unions,” Labog told Equal Times.

But he said the workers of the Philippines will not be intimidated.

“More unionists like Bong will emerge from our ranks and continue the fight,” said Labog.

He also accused the military of subjecting KMU leaders in southern region of Mindanao – where a separatist conflict has resulted in 60,000-plus deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people over the last four decades – to various forms of harassment and violence, prompting the KMU to file a complaint at the International Labour Organization (ILO) last February.


One of the worst places for workers

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) ranks the Philippines as one of the world’s worst violators of workers’ rights.

But the Philippines’ labour secretary Rosalinda Baldoz denied claims that there had been a spate of harassment and violence against labour leaders, and said that the government was urgently working to address any violations of rights with the National Tripartite Industrial Peace Council.

“It was the [current] administration that was recognised by the ILO and the US government for having achieved significant progress in addressing labour rights violations cases filed under the past administration,” Baldoz told Equal Times.

She said that the Department of Justice secretary Leila De Lima has already committed to addressing any alleged extra-judicial killings and the harassment of union leaders and members.

Although Baldoz admits there is “no guarantee of rights for workers” in the Philippines, she describes the overall labour condition in the country as favourable.

But Labog maintains that trade unionists operate in a very repressive environment, citing the example of Edward Panganiban, the head of the KMU affiliate Samahang Lakas Manggagawa ng Takata – Independent, who died in June 2009 after he was shot 12 times.

Panganiban had worked for the Japanese-owned airbag and seatbelt manufacturer Takata Philippines Corp. He was helping employees to form a union at the time of his murder.

In another example, Benjamen Villeno, a union leader with the Japanese car giant Honda, has been missing since August 2013. He is believed to have been abducted.

And even those workers who do not face violence, can face losing their job.

Some 3,600 workers with Carina Apparel Inc, a garment manufacture for international brands such as Marks & Spencer, Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret, were retrenched in February 2014 following a sudden and “total” closure.

Senior management blamed a high level of absenteeism and an “unwillingness to embrace greater flexibility in the workplace,” but commentators noted that the workers at Carina Apparel were one of the few unionised workforces in the garment sector.

Labog told Equal Times that manufacturing workers are at great risk of dismissal and harassment when they participate in union activities, and despite a 2011 Department of Labor and Employment order to prevent the casualisation of work, the majority of workers in the Philippines are on fixed-term contracts.

“But workers are not taking these attacks sitting down, they are fighting back,” he said, citing the success of workers at the electronics giant NXP Semiconductors, where a two year battle resulted in the reinstatement of 24 sacked workers and an improved collective bargaining agreement.