NOVEMBER 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 11
Philippine Workers Strike, Triumph at Export Processing Zone
by A. Lyn Neumann
MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES - I went at first for the experience, but I got involved in the union and never went back to studying," says Christina Velasquez, who left college in 1975 to work at the Bataan Export Processing Zone.
Now 27, Christina (a pseudonym) has gotten quite an education at the Zone, a 3000-acre manufacturing complex near Manila, which houses some 50 foreign firms.
Christina is a leader among the women in a British-owned garment factory where she is employed. This June, she helped organize a three-day general strike which sent shockwaves through the Philippine government. The general strike - the first of its kind in the Philippines - may have prompted Marcos' labor crackdown this August
Christina is modest about her role in the labor action. She was, she says, only one of more than 10,000 workers who helped shut down production throughout the entire zone for three days in June.
Christina and her co-workers triumphed; the government of Ferdinand Marcos took the rare move of acceding to labor demands.
"It was a direct confrontation with the government," says labor lawyer, Cesar Maravilla. This time, the workers won.
The strike began as a solidarity action to protest the arrest of 54 employees at one of the Zone enterprises, InterAsia Container Industries. InterAsia, a Misubishi joint venture with the government, manufactures jute bags on large looms in a dusty, barnlike factory, pleasant enough from the outside, but noisy and crowded on the inside.
In April, InterAsia management increased from four to five the number of looms assigned to each worker. The union local, part of the countrywide and moderate Federation of Free Workers, lodged complaints with management about this speedup, but nothing was done. Less than a month later, the company added a sixth loom to the weavers' load. This they could not stand. On May 8, the workers at InterAsia went on strike.
After 12 days of picketing, trouble began for the strikers. The Ministry of Labor issued on order for the workers to return to the plant within 48 hours of May 20. They refused, continuing to picket for another week. On June 1, InterAsia management and the police cracked down.
Arriving with strike breakers, police, and fire hoses, InterAsia manager Ruben Rayala came to the plant on June 1, dead-set on reopening the factory. The strikers wouldn't budge.
A melee ensued. The police turned their hoses on the picketers, and scuffles broke out between the police and the striking workers. Arrest warrants were soon issued for 54 of the InterAsia strikers. By June 4, they were all in custody in a small jail cell in the nearby town of Mariveles, charged with "grave coercion."
The arrests sparked anger, sympathy, and a sense of urgency among workers in the Zone. "When they took them in," remembers Christina, "some of the leaders in the other fac tories met together and we decided to support the InterAsia workers."
Christina and her colleagues from more than a dozen firms - including Ford and Mattel - sent a letter of protest to Zone officials. But the activists did not stop there; instead, they organized the massive protest action that began on the afternoon of June 5.
The general strike took officials and businesspeople by surprise. Zone police, adequate for normal duty, could not cope with thousands of workers massed in a vigil around the Zone's modern administration building.
The firms in the Zone grew alarmed. "Millions of pesos are being lost each day of the strike, and millions of dollars of projected export earnings will be lost if the strike persists," warned an official of the Zone's chamber of commerce during the walkout.
The government, however, was stymied. Export Processing Zones are a key component of Marcos' development Strategy (see sidebar); the Zones' reputation relies on labor stability and uninterrupted production.
So Marcos had to find a quick - and inconspicuous - way to end the embarrassing general strike. Direct military repression may simply have been too costly. "What could they do?" asked one of the workers involved in the protest. "There were just too many of us."
The Philippine government opted in this instance for settling the dispute peacefully and giving in to the workers demands. The Minister of Labor, Zone officials, and worker representatives signed a formal agreement which stipulated that charges against the arrested InterAsia workers would be dismissed, the six-loom productions would cease, participants in the general strike would be allowed to return to work with no penalty, and the Ministry of Labor would begin hearings on labor conditions in the Zone.
The workers flush with victory, view the experience as a watershed. "We had never felt so much power before," said one. Christina added: "Now if there is any trouble, we will be able to contact one another and stay in touch."
"The point is they joined together," explains attorney Maravilla. "There was a realization by the workers that it is only they who can help themselves." Maravilla noted that the union workers shed their specific federation affiliations for the purpose of banding together for the sympathy strike. In the traditionally fractious world of Philippine labor, that was a singular achievement.
For workers at the Bataan Export Processing Zone, as for Philippine labor in general, the outlook for continued organizing is not all rosy, however.
"We are having to lie low because of what happened during the sympathy strike," Christina confesses. She and others report that the military presence in the area has increased and the union leaders are under surveillance.
In addition, the Philippine government passed new laws to prevent such a general strike from recurring. It is now illegal for a picket line to interfere with the entry or exit of products from a factory. Labor leaders complain that this law makes it virtually impossible to shut down a factory. Under the new ordinance, moreover, any strike in an export-oriented industry is automatically deemed against the "national interest" and therefore illegal.
The most ominous news for Philip pine trade unionists, however, came on August 8, exactly two months after the general strike was settled. President Marcos, addressing the Philippine Constabulary, announced that he had uncovered a plot by elements of the labor movement to sow rebellion and sedition in the country. "You cannot kill all of us," said Marcos, his fists clenched in anger. "Some of us will be left to finish you."
Marcos claimed that the labor movement was planning a massive campaign of general strikes, bombings, and assassinations to coincide with his September visit to his Washington supporters.
Five days after the speech, the Philippine police arrested the 79-year old Feliberto Olalia on charges of subversion. Olalia is head of the May First Movement (KMU), the principle vehicle of active labor organizing since its founding on May 1, 1980. The KMU, with a claimed membership of 500,000, is largely credited here with being the driving spirit behind the June Bataan strike.
In August and September, nearly 80 labor leaders affiliated with the KMU were picked up by the police. The remaining KMU leadership has been driven underground.
"The KMU is the most outspoken champion of the Philippine worker," says Cipriano Malonzo, 82, a longtime labor leader who spoke to this reporter shortly after the Marcos crackdown drove his son, Ibarra, underground. "It is the only organization that has unequivocally opposed the oppressive labor laws and spoken out against the power of the multinational corporations."
The largest worker federation in the country is the government-allied Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. The Congress is losing support among workers, who criticize it for not being more aggressive in demanding higher wages and stronger collective bargaining agreements. "We call it the Trade Union Crocodiles of the Philippines," joked one laborer.
Marcos may be painting himself into a corner with his new labor laws.
Already the Philippine economy is making workers more militant. "Over 50,000 workers have lost their jobs in the first six months of this year - and those are government figures," says former senator Jose Diokno. A Central Bank official admits that the unemployment rate in the country's urban areas reached 30% in August.
In the export processing zones themselves, the working conditions breed labor discontent.
The strike at the Bataan zone should have come as no great surprise to foreign investors and government planners. I have visited the Zone several times in the last five years and the conditions are appalling.
More than 20,000 workers have been crammed into what was formerly a sleepy fishing village. Few facilities are available for the workers in the Zone; sanitation, housing, and medical facilities are all scarce. Real wages today hover around the same level they were at seven years ago: $3.50 a day. And to top it off, management - as in the case of InterAsia - pushes its workers to the limits of tolerance.
Marcos may think he can halt the unrest by outlawing strikes. But workers disagree, citing the "Bataan experience," as it is being called in labor circles.
The workers at Bataan learned to take matters into their own hands, mobilizing their numbers and forcing concessions from the government. Whether Marcos will cave in again next time remains to be seen. But if he tries to repress a future general strike, he not only would further antagonize labor, he might also damage his ability to attract - or keep - foreign investors.
A. Lin Neumann is a New York-based freelance writer who covers Third World issues. Neumann lived in the Philippines in 1977-1978, and he returned there this August for a one month stay.