Workers imprisoned for exercise of union rights

Who says lady justice is blindfolded and does not favor anyone? While Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo remains “detained” at the St. Luke’s Hospital, two Karnation workers died in jail and 18 were imprisoned for three years for having conducted a strike.


MANILA – Who is the biggest criminal of them all?

Former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo can grow more ill and burrow deeper into a luxurious hospital arrest while public pressure mounts to charge her for electoral fraud, plunder and gross human rights violations.

But the working people, if charged in court even with trumped up charges, face immediate arrest and years of imprisonment, difficulties in getting court approval for bail and in mustering enough money for it, and continued threat of imprisonment while their case drags on in court for alleged acts committed during a labor dispute that have also been “criminalized.” This, at least, is the example provided by the ongoing saga of the “Karnation 20” workers, based on the appeals for help aired on their behalf by the non-government Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR).

As if these were not horrible enough, the labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno railed this week against the call of the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippine (ECOP) to decriminalize employers’ violations of minimum wage laws. The labor group describes this as “clearly callous and anti-worker.”

In an interview with BusinessMirror last week, ECOP president Edgardo Lacson opposed bills in the House of Representatives seeking to legislate a longer prison term for employers who violate the country’s wage laws, saying the government should do the opposite and decriminalize such violations. Lacson was reacting to House Bills 942, 1817, 1889, and 2884 authored by Reps. Reynaldo Umali, Emmeline Aglipay, Ben Evardone and Joseph Victor Ejercito, respectively, which seek to extend the penalty of two-year imprisonment to four years for such crimes.

Non-payment of minimum wages in the Philippines is one of the most rampant and persistent violations committed by employers based on the labor department’s survey. But few, if any employer on record, had been jailed for this.

Strikers’ plea for freedom and support

This week the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) restarted seeking public support for the campaign of the “Karnation 20,” a group of workers arrested and jailed after they went on strike while employed at Karnation Industries Inc (Pansy Accessories), a maker of home decor and accessories. The workers went on strike complaining about illegal dismissal, below-minimum salaries and benefits.

For three years since 2007 the Karnation 20 had been squeezed in a tiny prison cell where forty to fifty inmates “had to fit in a 50 to 60 square meter cell”. Fifteen got out only in December of 2009, and the last three only in May of 2010, after they were allowed at last to post bail, which they reportedly struggled just to be able to hand over to the court.

The other two strikers had died while in prison.

With “no space for everyone to sleep at the same time” in prison, the workers contracted various illnesses. Melvic Lupe and Leo Paro died in 2008 and 2009, respectively, due to tuberculosis and complications. The rest exhibited symptoms of beriberi, tuberculosis, skin diseases and malnutrition shortly before they tasted temporary freedom. In jail, they were reportedly fed little and at times, even late.

On paper, the workers’ alleged crime is “serious illegal detention.” Their employers accused them of having padlocked the gates of the factory premises when they went on strike on May 2, 2007. The workers claimed, however, that they left the gates open, thus allowing the company to continue its operations and allow vehicles, employers and residents to enter or exit the factory’s compound.

In having granted them bail, the court has upheld the arguments of lawyer Remigio Saladero, the workers’ counsel, that “the evidence of guilt is not strong.” Saladero noted that the witness presented did not actually see the accused workers putting the chains on the gate.

Last October however, the Regional Trial Court in Morong, Rizal, under Presiding Judge Sheila Marie A. Ignacio, decided in favour of the employers’ demand to increase the workers’ bail by another P20,000 ($462). The court gave the strikers until Dec 31 this year to post the additional bail. Failure to pay on time will mean another warrant of arrest and imprisonment “of the falsely charged workers,” the CTUHR said.

The court decision flies in the face of Karnation’s still-unimplemented labor department decision, released only last March although penned on September last year. Karnation Industries was found guilty of illegal dismissal of its workers and ordered to reinstate them “without loss of seniority rights,” and to pay them their “full back wages” amounting to P1.18 million ($27 thousand) from March to November last year.

The CTUHR expressed worries since last year that the company may still evade the decision as it has only held Karnation Industries and not the individual proprietors accountable.

“The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Willy Sia, were not made liable by the decision supposedly because of lack of employer-employee relationship. Without any specific individual being held accountable in this case, the workers may still end up with nothing because Karnation has already changed its name and there is no one to implement the decision,” said the CTUHR.

As the Karnation workers’ saga continues to unfold, they may not only end up with nothing, they would have to cough up an additional P20,000 ($465) before New Year or risk another arrest and imprisonment.

The workers told CTUHR that with an unresolved criminal case clouding their record, they find it hard to get another job. Those who got employed in construction projects, which are not regular jobs, are already considered as “lucky,” the CTUHR said.

Some of the Karnation workers have also been reportedly forced to accept jobs with very little pay. Polido Bagono or Boyet for example, works as a security guard for a construction site for only P150 ($3.47), for almost 24 hours at the building.

“The ILO has already recommended in March 2010 to the Government of the Philippines the dismissal of criminal charges filed against Karnation 20, once it is settled that the charges were a result of their exercise of union rights,” said Sapigao, program coordinator of CTUHR at the time. She reiterated their call for “an immediate and expeditious resolution of this case”, which is stronger now given the recommendation of the International Labor Organization. (

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