Workers also red-tagged in Duterte's aggressive crackdown vs activists

The Philippine government has ramped up its crackdown against activists critical of the administration, and it did not spare even workers fighting for their rights.

Unions under labor group Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro) have been the target of red-tagging by security forces.

Workers from Davao, President Rodrigo Duterte's bailiwick, have been subjected to persistent threats by security forces. The police, dressed in plain clothes, visit the workers' homes sometimes accompanied by barangay officials.

In an interview with Rappler, Diwa* said workers were asked to attend a seminar on preventing coronavirus spread, but majority of the discussion was about the claim that Sentro is allegedly a legal front by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army.

"'Yung mga lider sa union, pinupuntahan sa bahay, nagpapakilalang colonel, may ID. 'Yung isa, kasama ang kapitan. Nandun daw sila kasi inutusan sila ni Presidente," Diwa said.

(One of them visited a union leader's house, introducing himself as a colonel with his ID. Another one came with the barangay captain. They said they visited because the President ordered them to do so.)

Diwa said they checked the identity of the so-called colonel and it turned out to be an intelligence officer.

State forces, who introduced themselves as part of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), repeatedly asked workers to "join other unions" instead – one that is backed by the company management and the government.

"Mga ordinaryong manggagawa lang kami na pinaglalaban ang mga karapatan namin at sundin ang batas ng company. Wala kaming ginagawang masamang gawain. Bakit nila ginagawa ito sa amin?" said Diwa.

(We are ordinary workers fighting for our rights and for the company to follow the law. We are not doing anything illegal. Why are they doing this to us?)

Some workers even saw unidentified men in motorcycles waiting outside their homes, asking what time the workers would come home.

Because of this, Diwa said their families fear for the workers' lives, especially after the killing of activists in Calabarzon.

"Parang kriminal ang dating namin. Marami nang natatakot. Ang mga misis nila, umiiyak na sa takot," Diwa said. (It feels like we are criminals. A lot already fear for their lives. Their wives cried out of fear.)

Some of the workers even felt the irony of them being Duterte supporters, as a number of them personally campaigned for his presidency.

"'Yung iba dito, napaka-loyal sa kanya. Ang tingin, galamay lang gumawa. Ang hindi maintindihan ng mga miyembro ay bakit 'nya ginagawa ito, na parang wala silang lugar sa administrasyon 'nya at ang campaign nila di pinapakinggan," said Diwa.

(Some people here were very loyal to Duterte. They thought that those under him were the ones responsible for the wrongdoings in the past. But the members do not understand why Duterte is doing this, as if they don't have a place in his administration and their campaigns are not being heard.)

By why exactly are they being targeted? Diwa can only think of one thing.

"'Yung Sentro kasi ay critical sa mga polisiya ng admin. Ngayon, tinakot nila ang mga miyembro," Diwa said.

(Sentro is critical of the administration's policies. Now, they are threatening the members.)

Review freedom of association guidelines

According to Sentro, the police-led seminars began last October. There, photos of union leaders and Sentro organizers were shown and branded as representatives for the CPP-NPA.

From November 2020 to March 2021, union leaders were repeatedly visited by police.

Apart from red-tagging union leaders and organizers, the police claimed workers will be asked to "pay for dues," which will be used to financially support CPP-NPA.

"Not only is this factually wrong, raising questions on how a multi-billion funded campaign can fail basic fact-checking, it is also dangerous. The government’s obsession with red-tagging and finding armed rebels where there are none catches many innocent people in the crossfire," said Sentro in an earlier statement.

Sentro secretary-general Josua Mata warned against the chilling effect this practice would have for workers.

"The widespread crackdown no longer discriminates. It creates a chilling effect on the workers. Once you are red-tagged, harassment follows," said Mata in a mix of English and Filipino.

Mata said the Global Union Federations, of which Sentro is a member, is urging the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to step in, by convening the high level monitoring body on the National Tripartite Industrial Peace Council to review the freedom of association guidelines.

Under the 2012 joint guidelines by the departments of labor, justice, and national defense and the police and military, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philipine National Police (PNP) should not "stigmatize/label workers' organizations/associations, labor leaders, members or organizers as front or members of certain conflict armed groups."

The guideline also barred the AFP and the PNP from organizing information drives or seminars "to dissuade workers from organizing a union."

Asked about the matter, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said the department will "arrange a meeting" with Sentro. – Rappler.com

*Name was changed to protect the speaker's identity.

Aika Rey

Aika Rey is a business reporter for Rappler. She covered the Senate of the Philippines before fully diving into numbers and companies. Got tips? Find her on Twitter at @reyaika or shoot her an email at aika.rey@rappler.com.

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