Worker and peasant struggles in the Philippines
Elmer Labog, Chairperson, May First Movement Labor Centre (KMU) in the Philippines was one of the international guests attending the ACTU Congress. He was interviewed by Peter Symon on behalf of The Guardian when he visited Sydney after the Congress. PS: Comrade Elmer, could you tell us something about the overall situation in the Philippines at the present time? EL: The situation is getting more difficult. The conditions in general are depressed especially for peasants and workers. Wages are only about AU$7 a day for workers in the Metro Manila region. Workers that are far away from the Manila region receive much lower wages, even less than half of the nominal wages in the Philippines. It is unfortunate that we have over 500 wage levels all over the country because of the law that provides for regionalisation of wages. The contracting out of labour is also a policy of the Arroyo Government. Attacks on trade union rights are an ongoing thing in the Philippines. There is massive militarisation in the countryside especially in far flung areas. The killings perpetrated by the military of the Government are unabated. There are more than 32 people killed already who are members of organised socialist parties of Bayan of which KMU is a part. The Arroyo Government is continuously implementing the neo-liberal policies of globalisation, liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation. We are actively in opposition to the policies of this government which are dictated by the United States imperialists. Massive displacement of workers There is massive displacement of workers in the strategic industries that are privatised, especially the water, electricity and energy industries. The deregulation of electricity has caused a lot of hardship to poor Filipino people because the electricity costs are up by more than 50 per cent of the total income of Filipino workers, that is, if they have an income to talk about. The deregulation of agriculture has caused massive displacement of peasants. Farm products coming from other countries including the United States, Thailand, Vietnam and even China are much cheaper than locally produced items, especially rice which is the main stable food in the Philippines. PS: What's the proportion of workers to peasants in the Philippines? EL: Peasants are about 85 percent of the population while workers are only 15 percent of the semi-colonial/ semi-feudal set up. Less than 10 percent can be considered middle class. The remaining 0.1 per cent are elite or high society. PS: There have been recent strikes of seafarers and dockworkers and of Nestles' workers. Can you tell us about them? EL: Local seafarers were fired and replaced by irregular flag of convenience crews. This was the basis of the strike by the seafarers and dock workers. It was the first national strike to take place for the past 53 years. The Department of Labour and Employment issued an order forbidding the striking workers to go on with their strike. Essentially the striking workers defied the order and were able to get an agreement with management after a two day strike. Seafarers win jobs back The management lost about 54 million pesos, so they were forced to make an agreement which provided that the sacked workers immediately return to work. Out of the 27 active cargo and passenger ships, 25 were stopped nationwide. It was so effective that even the dock workers took part and joined the strike. The other strike is at Nestle. The main reason for the Nestle strike was that management does not respect provisions on the retirement of employees of Nestle. Most of the workers have been serving the company for over 20 years and once they are separated from the company they won't have any retirement pay. In spite of an order from the Supreme Court calling for the management to sit at the negotiating table and one of the elements of this order was that the retirement pay was a valid issue that should be discussed in the negotiation, the management won't respect the Supreme Court order. This strike has been going on for over a year already. Boycott Nestle coffee So we are calling for a national as well as an international boycott of all Nestle products and support for the struggle of Nestle workers on the picket lines. We had a great struggle against the Nestle guards on June 23 against the goons, the police and a big number of guards of the Nestle plant. The management summoned the police, the military and especially the Special Action Forces. This is the part of the military that are used against revolutionary guerilla forces as well as rebel elements. They are now being used against unarmed striking workers who are legitimately struggling for their demands, like just wages, respect of their trade union rights as well as the respect by Nestle for their retirement provisions and their collective bargaining agreement. PS: There is a lot of Nestle coffee sold in Australia. Are you calling upon the Australian people to join in this boycott? EL: Yes, the striking workers of Nestle have a just and legitimate demand especially since the Nestle workers in the Philippines are not that young and once they are fired from their jobs it wont be very easy for them to find another job because of their age. PS: I understand that a specific clause of the Government's anti- terrorist legislation is being directed specifically at the trade union movement. Could you please comment? EL: This is the first part of the Anti-Terrorism Bill being deliberated upon in Congress. This bill practically prohibits the launching of any mass action or concerted action in the Philippines including strikes. Last year President Arroyo made a pronouncement that those workers who are striking and who are "terrorising" companies whether local or foreign are terrorists. Terrorism Bill It follows that this provision would be part of the new Anti-Terrorism Bill. Once you are branded or charged as a terrorist one could be jailed for your lifetime and you would be penalised up to ten million pesos. If you are an accessory in committing a terrorist act you could be jailed for half of your life and penalised 5 million pesos. It looks like a joke but these are really the provisions that are part of this Anti-Terrorist Bill now in Congress. PS: There is an increasing militarisation not only by Arroyo but also by the United States. Is there much opposition to this in the Philippines? EL: I would say that there is a lot of opposition. But at the same time there are quarters that are also pushing for US troops to stay because there are areas where people are really very poor and they need the money to go on with their lives. This is understandable especially if the areas that are depressed and the knowledge of the people and their political consciousness is not that high. Opposition to US troops But there is a growing opposition to the presence of US troops in the Philippines not only among mass organisations but among parliamentarians as well. Lately Howard has dipped his finger into this anti-terrorism fight by visiting Mrs Arroyo and pledging Australian money as a contribution to this fight against terrorism. Islamic Liberation Front But it is the state terrorism of the Arroyo Government that is killing people especially in areas where the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the revolutionary New Peoples Army are operating. Civilians are being killed in the desperate attempt of the Arroyo military to flush out dissident elements. PS: What is the attitude of the left towards the Islamic movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for example? EL: The left, particularly the National Democratic Front, consider them as a revolutionary force in the Philippines fighting for a free Muslim Mindinao. PS: Do you mean free in terms of establishing their own nation of Mindinao or just in terms of being free from the Arroyo Government with some sort of autonomy? EL: It is both. Free as a nation from the clutches of the Arroyo Government. This is very clear in the pronouncement of the National Democratic Front. Free as a nation and free from the clutches of Mrs Arroyo. PS: What would you say about the strength and the struggles of the New People's Army? They have been struggling for many years. Is that progressing? EL: I think the fact that they have been existing for over 30 years now is a demonstration that the people are supportive of this army. The Filipino people cannot depend on the present Filipino army of Mrs Arroyo's. This is very much controlled by the US. Army officer mutiny The recent mutiny, or demonstration as we call it, by some junior officers of the Filipino military demonstrates the depth of the crisis besetting Philippine society. One of the major issues was the corruption in the military establishment. But corruption is not only within the military establishment but by people at the very heart of the Arroyo regime. This shows how big the crisis is in the Philippines. PS: Was there much support for the officers? EL: No. Unfortunately I would say there were three parts of the officers that launched this demonstration. One is those that are directed by the US, one is those that were pawns of the politicians, the other third are ones that are well meaning and do have legitimate grievances such as those that were pointed out against the Chief of the National Defence who they charge with selling weapons to the rebels, the revolutionary forces as well as conniving with the kidnappers [of Abu Sayef] in order to earn more money. This supports the fact that up to now the military does not want to fight the terrorist Abu Sayef. PS: What about Abu Sayef? Is it a genuine movement or not? EL: No. They are a creation of the CIA and the US military. They were created for the purpose of going against the MILF in the old days. Then they turned into bandits and kidnappers and that's why they have a close relationship with the hierarchy of the Philippine military. Up to now the Philippine military could not defeat them because of their connections with the hierarchy of the Philippine military. PS: Perhaps they don't want to defeat them! EL: They don't want to defeat them. This is a good source of big money for the hierarchy of the Philippine military. So they just play games with the Abu Sayef. This is one of the major issues raised by the demonstration of the junior officers of the Philippine military. Solidarity PS: Finally what do you think the Australian trade union movement can do? What do you think our Party can do to assist your struggle in the Philippines? EL: I think we are in the same struggle. We are against US imperialism, especially the imposition of the neo-liberal globalisation policies of both the governments of the Philippines and Australia and in many other parts of the world. It is very important that workers in each country struggle on the basis of the specific conditions and the specific issues that we are fighting against. Like in Australia the Howard Government is bent on pushing the US-Australia free trade law. I know for a fact that this would be one of the very important issues where Australian unions could rally the Australian people to fight against this anti-people provision. The struggle in each country would be its contribution to our struggle against the domination of policies of the military, of the WTO and the World Bank as well as US imperialism. So, we really have to fight on different fronts in our own backyards but, at the same time, we could form alliances, especially in our region. There are existing union to union links, bilateral links. We could picket the respective Embassies of each country. This was demonstrated when we picketed the Australian Embassy in the Philippines during your great MUA strike. In the future we could hold similar activities simultaneously and in a co-ordinated fashion. So as we say, the East is red, the East is bright. As long as we are inspired by our past victories and even our past downfalls we learn from both experiences and this will further strengthen our organisations ideologically, politically, and organisationally.