Workers’ Plight Worsening

Thirty-five years after the declaration of martial law, 34 years after the first workers’ protests under martial law, and 21 years after the ouster of Marcos – the state of workers’ rights demonstrates a greater need for worker militancy.

Vol. VII, No. 33, September 23-29, 2007

The organized labor movement was one of the forces that proved to be instrumental in breaking the climate of fear that was created when then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

Marcos’ imposition of Proclamation No. 1081 was a response to a socio-political turmoil that was shaking the land. The tumult had its immediate origins in historical developments that took place before Marcos assumed his first term in 1965.

As historian-economist Ricco Alejandro M. Santos wrote in a 2003 article for Bulatlat:

“Instructed by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the elder Macapagal in 1961 instituted decontrol – the free inflow of imports through tariff reductions, and the free repatriation of dollar profits by foreign investors. This first policy measure of Macapagal set the Philippine economy into a tailspin, wiping out more than 10,000 businesses, and creating even greater poverty. Decontrol tightened the (neocolonization) of the economy, and whatever small gains were achieved in Filipino industrialization during the period of import and exchange controls.”

The conditions that this development generated were filling up the streets with protesters – workers, peasants, students and intellectuals, and even sections of the business community.

Marcos assumed his first presidential term in 1965 amid a nascent political ferment. During his second term (starting 1969), nationalist dissent found its way into the corridors of the political establishment. Santos cites three major nationalist developments in the period 1969-1972:

“In 1969, Congress under pressure from a growing anti-imperialist public opinion, passed a Magna Carta that call(ed) for national industrialization against the dictates of the IMF. Then from 1971 to 1972, nationalists were gaining ground in gathering support for an anti-imperialist agenda in the Constitutional Convention. In 1972, the Supreme Court (SC) issued two decisions unfavorable to the foreign monopolist corporations: one, in the Quasha case, which nullified all sales of private lands to American citizens after 1945, and (an)other rolled back oil price hikes by the oil cartel.”

Martial law

Marcos’ very first act after the issuance of Proclamation No. 1081 was a reversal of the Quasha case. A report by the U.S. Congress would later admit that the martial law period was a time for the granting of greater privileges to foreign investments.

In 1973, a U.S. official visited the Philippines, and congratulated Marcos for his “adherence to democracy.”

The attack on civil liberties was the Marcos regime’s way of dealing with the movements for sovereignty and social justice.

The imposition of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972 had the initial effect of silencing the voices of protest.

By 1974, however, the protest movement was beginning to make its presence felt again, through a series of small strikes by workers’ organizations.

In 1975, the La Tondeña workers – backed by church workers, among them Fr. Luis Jalandoni – would stage the first major strike under the martial law regime. That strike dealt a strong blow to the atmosphere of terror created by Proclamation No. 1081.

Thirty-five years after the declaration of martial law, 33 years after the first workers’ protests under martial law, and 21 years after the ouster of Marcos – how are workers’ rights faring in the country?

Art. XIII, Sec. 3 of the Constitution provides that:

“The State shall afford full protection to labor, local and overseas, organized and unorganized, and promote full employment and equality of employment opportunities for all.

“It shall guarantee the rights of all workers to self-organization, collective bargaining and negotiations, and peaceful concerted activities, including the right to strike in accordance with law. They shall be entitled to security of tenure, humane conditions of work, and a living wage. They shall also participate in policy and decision-making processes affecting their rights and benefits as may be provided by law.

“The State shall promote the principle of shared responsibility between workers and employers and the preferential use of voluntary modes in settling disputes, including conciliation, and shall enforce their mutual compliance therewith to foster industrial peace.

“The State shall regulate the relations between workers and employers, recognizing the right of labor to its just share in the fruits of production and the right of enterprises to reasonable returns to investments, and to expansion and growth.”

However, statistics from both government offices and non-government organizations show that workers’ rights have not been faring well in the last six years.

Unions and union rights violations

There was a sharp slide in union membership from 2001 – when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was catapulted to power through a popular uprising – to 2002. Union membership decreased in the said period from 3.85 million to only 1.47 million. The number of union members decreased by almost half from 2001 to 2002.

From 2002 to 2005, there seems to be an encouraging picture of union membership, as there was an increase from 1.47 million to 1.91 million. What appears to be an upward trend would be broken again in 2006, with union membership decreasing to 1.86 million. From 2006 to March 2007 union membership would rise to 1.87 million.

As of March 2007, union membership in the Philippines has yet to reach even the 2-million mark since 2001.

The sorry state of union membership in the country is even more glaring when compared to the labor force of 54.98 million as of April 2007. This means that only 3 percent of the labor force is organized. This does not bode well for the defense of workers’ rights. Without a union, workers’ rights are easily violated. The prevalent practice of contractualization and non-regularization of workers are the main causes of the decline in union membership.

Those in the unions, in turn, still suffer the added atrocities of violence and harassment.

Based on data from the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), a non-government organization, there were a total of 1,114 violations of union and human rights from 2001 to 2006. These include assaults on picket lines, illegal arrest and detention, torture, killing, grave threats, and forced disappearances.

Workers are among the numerous victims of extra-judicial killings under the Arroyo administration. CTUHR’s data place the number of workers extra-judicially killed at 83 from 2001 to 2006. As in cases involving victims from other sectors, state forces were found to have been the perpetrators in majority of the killings of workers.

The number of victims of these union and human rights violations total 13,794 from 2001 to 2006, CTUHR data further show.

Economic rights

Meanwhile, the economic rights of workers are hardly doing any better.

Based on data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), the family living wage for a family of six – the average Filipino family – stands at a national average of P701.8 ($15.38 based on the average exchange rate of $1:P45.62 as of July 2007).

Conversely, the highest regional minimum wage – which is “enjoyed” in the National Capital Region (NCR) – stands at only P325-362 ($7.63-7.94) daily. The biggest gap between the family living wage and the minimum wage is to be found in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), with a family living wage of P1,074 ($23.54) as against a minimum wage of only P200 ($4.38) daily.


Workers contributed in no small measure to breaking the climate of fear created by the imposition of martial law in 1972.

Thirty-five years after the declaration of martial law, 34 years after the first workers’ protests under martial law, and 21 years after the ouster of Marcos – the state of workers’ rights demonstrates a greater need for worker militancy. (

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