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Philippines: Killings and death threats against union leaders

The killing by Philippine police of a trade union leader Jude Thaddeus Fernandez and death threats against the Arthur Svensson award winner of 2019, France Castro, underscores the continued targeting of unionists in the Philippines and the need for government action to stop these abuses. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has for several years pointed at the Philippines as one of the ten worst countries for working people and trade unionist activists.

Violent attacks, killings, abductions and arbitrary arrests

Within 14 years, the Philippines has been subject to three ILO missions due to grave allegations of labour rights violations. This correlates with the fact that the Philippines has perennially been listed by the International Trade Union Confederation, the peak global union body, as among the 10 worst countries for workers. According to ITUC, workers and their representatives in the Philippines have for several years been particularly vulnerable to violent attacks, killings, abductions and arbitrary arrests. Workers across many sectors still face significant obstacles when attempting to form trade unions.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) sent a high-level mission to the Philippines in January to investigate killings of workers and union leaders. A joint report submitted by trade union groups to the ILO mission detailed several killings. Details of Fernandez’s death are consistent with many of those cases. The Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, or May First Movement), the union to which Fernandez belonged, reported that 72 workers and unionists have been killed in the Philippines since 2016. Four of those deaths occurred after the ILO’s January visit. Philippine authorities only investigated a few of these killings, with an even smaller number leading to prosecution and conviction.

In one of the worst reported incidents, police in 2019 raided the compound of trade unionists in Cavite province and killed nine activists, unionists, and their colleagues. The police said they were serving a search warrant but the victims “fought back.”


Those killed had often been “red-tagged”—alleged to be members of the communist New People’s Army—before they were assaulted. Alex Dolorosa, an organizer of the outsourcing labour group BPO Industry Employee Network (BIEN), had been red-tagged, his colleagues said, before he was reported missing in Bacolod City on April 23. His body was found days later with multiple stab wounds.

Philippine authorities have long used red-tagging to harass activists, both within and outside of the labor movement. Police, military, and local government officials, rather than companies, are usually responsible for red-tagging unionists and workers. Red-tagging intimidates workers, discouraging them from joining unions, and makes unions less likely to join federations, especially those identified as leftist, such as the KMU. Harassment often increases during collective bargaining negotiations.

Since the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict by then-president Rodrigo Duterte in 2018, and an intensified counterinsurgency campaign to quash the 54-year-old communist insurgency, the red-tagging and harassment of unions have worsened.

Arthur Svensson award winner, France Castro, life threatened

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights 2019 was awarded to the Philippine trade union activist France Castro. She was awarded the prize for her struggle throughout many years to organize teachers and to fight for basic workers’ rights in the Philippines.

Today, France Castro is member of the parliament, representing the ACT Teachers Party. Former president (2016-2022) Rodrigo Duterte made direct death threats against her on TV earlier in October: "France, I want to kill all you communists". This is untolerable, but indicates the climate for trade union activists and workers in the Philippines. Even if Duterte no longer is president, he still has power.

Current president has promised to reinforce and protect labour rights

Current president Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s response to the ILO mission was to sign an executive order in April “reinforcing and protecting” labour rights and to “expedite the investigation, prosecution, and resolution of cases.” Marcos should uphold his commitments to protecting union activists and leaders.

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