When Marklen Maojo Maga was playing basketball with some friends, plain-clothes security agents seized the thirty-nine year old union organiser and forced him into an unmarked van, accusing him of possessing firearms and hand-grenades. Maga has just dropped off his son to school, he protested; and why, his union asked, would he be carrying explosives while playing basketball?
Maga has remained imprisoned since his arrest on February 22, 2018. He is just one of scores of union organisers who have been harassed, threatened with death, and arrested under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte. At least fifty-six unionists have been extra-judicially killed, while some 27,000 lives have been taken in Duterte’s “War on Drugs.”
On an advocacy tour of Australia in February, trade unionists Elmer Labog and Meryl Quero-Asa, of the Kilusang Mayo Uno labour federation, have been telling stories like that of Marklen Maojo Maga. The arrests and killings of trade unionists like Maga are part of what Labog calls “red-tagging”:
“Red-tagging is like marking a cow for slaughter. If you are red tagged it essentially means that you are a target for surveillance, for the hit of the police and military. It means that the lives of people who are red-tagged become cheap. It is tantamount to products in the groceries, where the goods are discounted.”
The International officer of the KMU, Meryl Quero-Asa, describes the process, saying:
They cannot label us as drug addicts, no-one would believe that we are taking drugs, so they try to make other labels for us that would suit their interests more. At first, it’s just a label, that you’re some kind of terrorist or group against the state. Second, you will be placed under surveillance and harassed. If you really are a good organiser, you will probably have death threats against you.
The Philippine union delegation’s visit to Australia aims to draw attention to the repression of trade unionists in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, whose campaign to suppress dissent extends beyond trade unions to human rights activists, environmental defenders, journalists, and student activists:
“It is a very difficult situation for us now. It’s a situation where the live of trade unionists and others in the Philippines, especially the poor, are in grave danger.”
As the repression worsens in the Philippines, international condemnation has been growing. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has been leading an international campaign to pressure the Duterte government to stop the ‘red-tagging’ of unionists, while the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been negotiating an investigative mission to the Philippines.
Following global rallies at Philippine embassies and consuls across the world in December 2019, the Philippine Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) has now made indications that it will accept the high-level ILO mission to investigate trade union repression, establishing a Technical Working Group to prepare for the ILO delegation.
The still informal acceptance of the ILO mission came as Elmer Labor, Chairman of the Kilusang Mayo Uno labour federation, was meeting with federal and state parliamentarians in Canberra and Australia’s capitals.
“We solicit the support of members of Parliament to take urgent action on the attacks that the Duterte government is unleashing against trade unions and many quarters in Philippine society.”
While in Canberra, Labog spoke with Shadow Foriegn Affairs Minister Penny Wong, Leader of the Greens Adam Bandt, and a host of lower and upper house representatives, whom he called on to help “protect our lives and liberties” from a concerted attack on civil society by the Duterte regime.
The union leader’s primary request was for the Australian government to immediately review and suspend The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Program. This $40 million dollar military aid agreement is said to “countering the regional terrorist threat” posed in the Philippines through delivering urban, aid, and maritime training activities.
Critics, including the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) and Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA, both co-hosts of Mr Labog’s visit to Australia, argue that such funding for counter-terrorism operations risks compromising Australia’s commitment to human rights abroad, as President Duterte routinely labels civil society actors, environmental defenders, and union activists as ‘terrorists’, ”communists’, ‘subversives’, and ‘enemies of the state’.
Responding to questions from Senator Tim Ayres in Senate Estimates on the 5th March concerning the Australian governments awareness of trade union repression in the Philippines, the Head of the South East Asia Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Julie Heckscher, responded:
“There are concerns that we have about the human rights situation in the Philippines. Some of our areas of concern include the crackdown on illegal drugs and the wide-spread extra-judicial killings, pressures on media freedoms, attempts to suppress government critics, and proposals that the death penalty be reintroduced.”
As trade union repression was omitted from this list of human rights violations, Senator Ayres pressed Ms Heckscher, asking “Is there an awareness inside the Department about repression of trade union activity in the Philippines?”, the DFAT representative gave a general response, saying “We generally keep an eye on the human rights situation in the Philippines.”
Human and labour rights advocates, however, insist that the Australian government must go beyond ‘general’ awareness and act in a way that would pressure the Philippine government to respect human rights.
At a minimum, advocates say, the government should conduct an audit into the opaque Enhanced Defence Cooperation Program to ensure that Australian public money is not contributing to human rights violations in the Philippines. Going beyond an audit by suspending the agreement entirely would send an unambiguous signal to the Duterte regime that the international community will not cooperate with a military that is engaged in gross and systematic acts of violence against civil society actors.
As a founding member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and signatory to its fundamental conventions protecting the right to organise and collectively bargain, and as a key actor in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to form trade unions in Article 23, Australia’s foreign policy and relationship with the Philippine government must reflect this commitment to protecting the rights of organised labour.
On his advocacy tour of Australia, Mr Labog appealed to this moral and legal obligation to act, saying:
“The intensive harassment and repression of trade union members and working people in the Philippines deserves to be condemned by all who value basic human rights and the rule of law.”
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