Despite the setbacks, however, workers in the Southern Tagalog region have continued to assert their rights and fight back. For Mario Fernandez and his fellow unionists in TEPWU, it meant meeting state forces head on. This meant actively challenging attempts to tag them as “communist sympathizers.”
By JUSTIN UMALI
CABUYAO, Laguna – For months now, unionist Mario Fernandez has to check his surroundings twice whenever he leaves his work at Technol Eight Philippines.
“You can never be sure if somebody is following you,” he said in an interview with Bulatlat.
According to Fernandez, suspected state agents in plainclothes have been tailing him since last year when they entered into collective bargaining negotiations with their parent company.
Fernandez is the president of Technol Eight Philippines Workers’ Union (TEPWU). Technol Eight Philippines is a Japanese company in Santa Rosa, Laguna. It specializes in making auto parts for use in Toyota-brand vehicles and is a part of Toyoda Iron Works Co., a subsidiary of Toyota Motor Corporation.
TEPWU negotiated increased benefits and bonuses for its workers during the last round of collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations. However, it was not smooth sailing.
“We were in a deadlock,” Fernandez said, “so we had to show our solidarity through action. We started with non-production-related actions like ribbon wearing and wearing face masks with calls [written] on them.”
When the deadlock became more imminent, TEPWU members resorted to more drastic actions. “We called for a production slowdown which reduced daily output from 3,000 pieces to 1,000 pieces per day. Management had no choice but to listen to us,” he said.
At this time, TEPWU members and officers received countless threats. All union officers and several members were harassed by state forces during the course of CBA negotiations and were told to leave the union. This was when Fernandez first noticed that he was being followed.
Fernandez’s case is hardly unique in the Southern Tagalog region, which is home to many industrial workers in the country. Workers in Southern Tagalog are often subjected to low wages, contractualization, and threats to dissuade them from unionizing and asserting their rights.
Low wages, low job security, high risk
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are over seven million workers in the Calabarzon region. The latter contributes at least 25 percent of the nation’s industrial output, larger than the National Capital Region, owing to a large concentration of industries in the region, mostly in Laguna, Cavite, and Batangas.
Wages for these workers remain low. Due to the 1989 wage rationalization law, wages per region are defined by the Regional Tripartite Wages and Productivity Board, which takes into account factors such as standard of living and prices. The Southern Tagalog region has the unique distinction of having different wages per province and municipality. On the average, an industrial worker in the region makes anywhere from P350 to P470 (USD6.27 to USD8.42) per day.
Similarly, most workers in Southern Tagalog remain as contractual workers. According to the research group Southern Tagalog Education for Workers’ Advocacy, Research, and Development, at least seven out of every 10 workers are contractual. Most of them fall under agency work or sign up for temporary contracts. PSA data also show that at least 17 percent of all employed workers in Calabarzon and 26 percent in Mimaropa are underemployed. But IBON Foundation’s research shows that underemployment can run as high as 75 percent.
Low wages and low job security also contribute to low unionization numbers.
Unionism is still low, with only approximately 10 percent of all workers nationwide organized under a trade union. Despite this, the Philippines is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the world for unionists.
The recent High-Level Tripartite Mission by the International Labor Organization concluded that the Philippine government remains “severely lacking” in protecting labor rights. Rights groups like Defend Workers Southern Tagalog note that unionists are harassed, threatened, and intimidated due to their union affiliations or are red-tagged as members or supporters of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
In the case of Technol Eight, attacks intensified in the weeks leading up to their CBA negotiations. In one instance, police officers attempted to enter the plant premises in an effort to know the identities of the workers who joined a protest action.
Fernandez himself was called to the barangay office multiple times to “clear his name.” For a time, Fernandez had to sleep inside the factory because intelligence agents would follow him the moment he stepped out.
“I couldn’t go home because I wasn’t sure what could happen if I did,” he said. “Once they threw a SIM card, some money, and a note over the gate of my house. The note said to contact them if ever I wanted to ‘cooperate’ with them.”
The experience in Technol Eight is similar to other cases. Around the same time, workers from Daiwa Seiko Philippines and Nexperia Philippines reported that police officers and intelligence agents were conducting house-to-house campaigns to coerce them into leaving their union. According to labor center Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan (PAMANTIK), no less than 100 Nexperia union members were visited by state forces in July 2022 alone.
PAMANTIK also noted that from March 2020 to March 2023, there were at least 36 cases of harassment against workers, ranging from threatening text messages, posters and tarpaulins showing their photos and linking them to the communist movement, house visits by police and state agents, arrests and even extra-judicial killings.
In 2020, while the nation was in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, workers from Coca-Cola Philippines were repeatedly harassed and presented as “New People’s Army (NPA) surrendering to the government” in military ceremonies under the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC)’s Enhanced Community Livelihood Integration Program.
In 2021, unionists from Aichi Forge and Sun Logistics were visited by police officers and told to disaffiliate their union from the labor federation Organized Labor Association in Line Industries and Agriculture (OLALIA-KMU), under threat of being charged with violations of the Anti-Terrorism Law. Both unions were forced to disaffiliate.
Attacks against labor leaders in the Southern Tagalog region also reached their deadliest in 2021 when simultaneous operations resulted in the death of former unionist and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Cavite spokesperson Emmanuel Asuncion, and the arrests of OLALIA-KMU Executive Vice President Esteban Mendoza, former union president and BAYAN Laguna spokesperson Mags Camoral, San Pablo Water District Employees Union president Ramir Corcolon, and Alyansa ng Manggagawa sa Engklabo secretary-general Arnedo Lagunias. Three weeks later, Lakas ng Nagkakaisang Manggagawa sa Fuji Electric Philippines union president Dandy Miguel was shot dead on his way home from work in Calamba City, Laguna.
Four decades of anti-worker economics
State policy against workers stretches beyond using state forces to harass labor leaders and activists. Laws and policies enacted by the Philippine government point to a trend of suppressing workers’ rights in the name of profit.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Marcos dictatorship’s adherence to the World Bank’s structural adjustment program empowered the private sector while relinquishing government oversight. In 1989, the Cory Aquino administration enacted the Wage Rationalization Law and the Herrera Law, which worsened conditions for contractual workers.
Economic policies from the 1990s onward continued the trend of neoliberal economics. According to IBON Foundation, foreign investment equates to 29 percent of the country’s GDP today. Most corporations in Calabarzon are like Technol Eight as local subsidiaries of foreign corporations inside special economic zones are meant to attract foreign investment.
Successive administrations have also ignored the problems of low wages and contractual employment. According to the group UMENTO, workers in Calabarzon have lost P220 (USD3.94) in real wages from 1989 up to the present due to inflation. The minimum wage is also far below the family living wage, which in CALABARZON is computed at around P1,109 (USD19.88) per day for a family of four.
Contractual workers also face dim prospects for regularization. Contractual workers’ rights group Liga ng Manggagawa para sa Regular na Hanapbuhay states that under the Duterte administration, there are at least 390 contractual workers in Laguna alone still waiting for regularization orders despite favorable decisions from the National Labor Relations Commission.
Workers fight back
Despite the setbacks, however, workers in the Southern Tagalog region have continued to assert their rights and fight back. For Fernandez and his fellow unionists in TEPWU, it meant meeting state forces head on. This meant actively challenging attempts to tag them as “communist sympathizers.”
“When they called me to the barangay, I told them that what they were doing was illegal,” Fernandez said. “I bought a copy of the Labor Code and DOLE’s CBA guidelines and told them that they can’t interfere with CBA negotiations. The barangay [officials] apologized and said they didn’t know better.”
TEPWU unionists continued to assert their rights, eventually forcing DOLE to rein in NTF-ELCAC agents by issuing a memo barring them from conducting house-to-house campaigns against workers.
“DOLE was forced to acknowledge that police can’t interfere with union activity,” said Fernandez. “What we’re doing as unionists is within our rights as workers.”
However, Fernandez knows that it is a small victory. Police and other state agents are still actively suppressing union activity. “We don’t have any illusions that NTF-ELCAC will stop after one memo,” he said. “At the end of the day, the police and the state work for the capitalist class. They will always serve each other.”