The labor secretary’s “assumption of jurisdiction” power is being used to ban all strikes and has caused bloodshed in the workers front. This is like reliving martial law, militant labor unions say.
BY DENNIS ESPADA
Is the labor department running a reign of terror at strike sites?
This question is being asked on the workers front amid the rising incidence of labor strikes that are violently broken up by police and military forces on orders of Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas. Because of this, several workers have died, scores injured and several other strikers arrested in recent months.
Exercising her assumption of jurisdiction (AJ) powers, Sto. Tomas ordered the intervention of police and military forces mid-November to break up the strike staged by some 6,000 plantation and sugar mill workers at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac north of Manila. The result: the violent dispersal of the picketlines resulting in the massacre of at least seven striking workers on Nov. 16.
Last week, labor groups from Southern Tagalog took turns denouncing the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) saying that AJ orders bring more hostility and misery to workers.
Leaders of the Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan-Kilusang Mayo Uno (Pamantik-KMU or united workers in Southern Tagalog – May First Movement) said the AJ order deputizes the military and police forces to brutally disperse workers’ pickets.
Citing similarities with the Hacienda Luisita case, Pamantik leaders cited the violent dispersal of strikes at Nestle, Nissan Motors, Soutech, Jac Liner, Tritran Bus and other companies in Southern Tagalog. The dispersal operations were apparently triggered by DoLE’s AJ orders and the police-military intervention.
Assault on women workers
Two weeks after the Luisita massacre on Nov. 30, a combined force of the military’s Special Warfare Action Group (SWAG), the local Philippine National Police (PNP) and security guards armed with truncheons and other weapons broke up the picketline of some 80 women striking workers of Sun Ever Lights Philippines at the Laguna Technopark in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. Reports said some of the striking workers were beaten up with truncheons, lassoed, their hair strangled and sexually-molested during the assault.
Luz Baculo, secretary general of Pamantik, told Bulatlat that human rights volunteers negotiated with the police that the striking workers be given food and those wounded given first aid treatment, but the police chief refused.
Sun Ever is Japanese-owned.
Baculo also accused Sto. Tomas of abusing her powers so as to favor company employers. The labor secretary has been asked by some senators and several sectors to resign in the light of her role in the Hacienda Luisita massacre. She has ignored the clamor.
Art. 263 (g) of the Labor Code states that the DoLE secretary shall have the power to assume jurisdiction in all industrial strikes considered as “indispensable to the national interest.”
Labor unions on the other hand describe the AJ power as repressive and as being open to abuse by DoLE. For that matter, “national interest” is so vague but it has been cited as basis for the AJ in all types of labor strikes.
The Code thus implies that once the order is issued, a strike can be declared illegal. Workers going on strike are then compelled to return to their workplaces; failing to comply would mean job termination.
Diosdado Fortuna, leader of Nestle Philippines’ labor union and chairman of the National Coalition for the Protection of Worker’s Rights in Southern Tagalog (NCPWR-ST), says that the AJ became part of the Labor Code as “a tool to ban the worker’s right to strike.”
Fortuna recalled that in 1972, the regime of Ferdinand Marcos imposed a total ban of all strikes and public demonstrations under his General Order No. 5.
“We should not be cowed by repression and violence,” Fortuna says. “Look at the Nestle workers’ experience. Strikers defied the AJ order because they believe government should uphold the Supreme Court’s decision declaring the retirement plan as a legitimate issue in the negotiations. This is already part of our legal jurisprudence which the DoLE must follow.”