“The Filipino people’s economic, social and cultural rights are similarly wantonly violated. The government of Defendant (President Benigno S. Aquino III) presides over the highest number of unemployed and underemployed Filipinos in the country’s history.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Leaders of a typhoon victims’ group, indigenous peoples, peasants and OFWs testified about the worsening joblessness, poverty and neglect in the five years of the Aquino administration.
On its second day, the International Peoples’ Tribunal heard witnesses who recounted the gross violations of their economic, social and cultural rights, the second ground of charges filed against both the US and Philippine governments.
“The Filipino people’s economic, social and cultural rights are similarly wantonly violated. The government of Defendant (President Benigno S. Aquino III) presides over the highest number of unemployed and underemployed Filipinos in the country’s history,” the indictment read.
The IPT is currently being held at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. There were 32 witnesses who presented testimonies before its jurors, 10 via Skype and five through video depositions.
The jurors are expected to come up with a verdict later tonight, July 18 (Philippine time).
In his testimony, Ibon Foundation executive director Jose Enrique Africa said the impoverished conditions in the Philippines are “not accidental outcomes” but a conscious and systematic implementation of economic policies where only very few elites benefit from.
Africa said the country today has the most number of unemployed among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with over 4.3 million, and 7.9 million underemployed. But he pointed out that those employed does not mean that they have decent work.
In fact, real wages have not moved an inch for at least a decade now, said Africa. He added that the real value of the average daily basic pay of millions of workers nationwide increased only by P5 (11 US cents) from 2005 to 2014. Such scenario paints a stark contrast to the fact that the wealth of the country’s top 10 richest businessmen has tripled under the Aquino administration from P630 billion ($14 billion) in 2010 to P2.2 trillion ($ 486 billion) in 2015, a whopping 250 percent increase.
Ariel Casilao, a trade union activist based in Mindanao, said via Skype that workers employed by local counterparts of big US companies such as DOLE suffer from low salaries, as well as from harassment and militarization.
He said soldiers are deployed in workplaces to curtail workers’ rights to organize and workers are being red-tagged as either members or supporters of the New People’s Army.
Africa said seven out of 10 peasants remain landless, and at least three-fourths of the country’s poor are in rural areas. A glaring example of such landlessness is the 6,453-hectare Hacienda Luisita, one of the biggest landholdings in the country, controlled by President Aquino and his family.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas chairperson Rafael Mariano said the Aquino-Cojuangco family has benefitted the most from the failed agrarian reform program in the country. In 1987, President Corazon Aquino, the current president’s mother, signed the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law that paved the way for the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) instead of distributing the land.
Mariano said such arrangements only worsened the lives of agricultural workers in the estate, earning only P9.50 (21 cents) per week.
In 2004, workers held a strike, to demand decent wages. State forces assaulted the picket line, in what became known as the Hacienda Luisita massacre, which killed seven striking farmers and wounded hundreds. Mariano said Aquino, then a congressman, did not utter a single word to condemn the killing, but even claimed that the bullets came from the ranks of the farmers.
Cases against civilian respondents, which included Aquino, were dropped in 2005. Then, cases against military and police officials were dismissed by the Office of the Ombudsman in December 2010, a few months after Aquino was elected president, despite what Mariano described as strong testimonial and documentary evidences against the accused.
Ranking-military officials, such as now newly-retired Lt. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang and Maj. Gen. Ricardo Visaya, who were implicated in the massacre were even promoted by Aquino.
Mariano said the Supreme Court has issued a seemingly favorable ruling, declaring SDO implementation in Hacienda Luisita as a failure, and ordered the distribution of the land. To this day, however, not a single hectare was distributed and farmer-beneficiaries were threatened and charged with trumped-up cases.
“This is not an isolated case. There are other big landholdings whose agricultural workers are not getting their lands and are subjected to harassment and trumped-up cases,” Mariano said.
In Northern Luzon, residents fear that they might lose their livelihood due to the so-called development project that Aquino signed into law without public consultation. The government has been implementing the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Free Port (Apeco) that would affect at least 3,000 families, according to Mayeth Corpuz, chairperson of the Samahan ng Katutubo sa Sierra Madre (SKSM).
Corpuz said residents were promised that the Apeco project would provide jobs.
“That is not true. They already have jobs that this project would take away from them,” she said during her testimony.
Plights of OFWs
With the conditions at hand, more Filipinos are forced to work abroad. Ibon Foundation said the Philippine government sent more Filipinos abroad — about 4,508 daily in 2014 — than generate jobs in the country, which was 2,800 daily. There are 10.2 million overseas Filipinos abroad, or some 10 percent of the country’s total population, Africa said.
Despite the increasing number of deployment, Africa said the government decreased its budget available for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially those in distress.
“If government assistance was given to her right away, Mary Jane would be with us now. She would be happily reunited with her two children,” Maritess Veloso-Laurente, sister of Mary Jane Veloso, said in her testimony.
Mary Jane is a Filipina sentenced to death in Indonesia for carrying 2.6 kilograms of heroin, secretly stashed in a luggage bag her recruiter lent her. Her execution was stayed at the eleventh hour at dawn of April 29 to give way to the legal proceedings here in the Philippines against her recruiters.
The Veloso family decried the lack of government and consular assistance for Mary Jane, who was only provided Philippine embassy-hired lawyers after she was sentenced to death. Mary Jane’s case has become a rallying point for migrant rights advocates who exposed government neglect on OFWs in distress.
Government negligence was also the case for Noel Naparato, a public school teacher who was duped by a recruiter who promised her a teaching job in the US. In her testimony before the IPT, she said the agency that swindled her was in good standing with the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA). the POEA never lifted a finger to inform them that they were dealing with an erring recruiter.
This left her heavily-indebted to private and government lending agencies and from her neighbors.
It took one year for the Department of Justice to issue a resolution on the case. Meanwhile, the POEA said there was a P1 million fund for the victims, but this has already been disbursed to only four out of estimated 300 victims of her recruiter, who remains at large to this day.
Mining and indigenous peoples
Ryan Lariba, a human rights activist based in Davao del Sur, said the foreign, large-scale mining in his area has led to gross human rights violations, especially among the indigenous peoples. These mining activities were implemented without consultation among the indigenous peoples, violating their right to free, prior and informed consent.
Mining companies cover at least 50,000 hectares, which include thousands of hectares of canopy forests and five major rivers that contribute to the island’s irrigation system.
The mining activity has displaced indigenous peoples and even at the exploration stage, has desecrated ancestral burial places.
Those who opposed mining were branded as members of the New People’s Army, and were harassed by soldiers employed by mining companies as Investment Defense Force. Their daily expenses were paid for by mining companies, said Lariba.
Lariba said such harassment led to graver assaults, such as the Capion massacre.
Peoples’ Surge spokesperson Dr. Efleda Bautista brought before IPT the plight of the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall in recent history.
The typhoon killed more than 5,000 people and injured thousands of residents. But Bautista said in her testimony that the destruction on the ground indicated that the casualty could be more. She said her group later found out that some cadaver bags contained at least two to three bodies each.
The typhoon also destroyed livelihood of the people, an added burden to their poor living conditions even before the typhoon hit their community. The affected region is one of the poorest in the country.
Bautista said government assistance came in late and the relief provided to typhoon survivors was not enough. Instead of help, government imposed a no-build zone policy, which affected many fisherfolk. Those who were critical of poor government response were also branded as “pawns of the NPAs.”
“Buti nga buhay pa kayo e (You should be thankful you are still alive),” President Aquino was quoted as saying.
Bautista said the Philippine government is not serious on rehabilitation efforts, as the destruction brought by the typhoon is now being marketed to big corporations for possible investment for re-construction.
The plight of the typhoon survivors were brought before President Aquino. But Bautista said he did not spare even a minute to listen and look into a petition sign by at least 17,000 typhoon survivors asking for immediate financial assistance and for the scrapping of the no-build zone.