Dare to Win: Food Factory Workers, State Coercion and the Fight for the Right to Organize in the Philippines

“This was won by our union.”

Debie Faigmani, a food factory worker, held up a small, blue booklet to an audience of labor rights advocates, fellow workers, and families of victims of trade union repression in the Philippines.

The blue booklet was a copy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between Faigmani’s union, Wyeth Philippines Progressive Workers Union (WPPWU) and Wyeth Philippines Inc.

It was a solidarity gathering hosted by church people in Manila, held a day before the official start of the International Labor Organization’s High-Level Tripartite Mission (HLTM). From January 23 to 26, ILO conducted an investigation on cases of violations under the ILO Convention 87 or the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention.

People in the audience shifted their applause to silence when Faigmani shared stories about how their union has been under attack by state forces since the Duterte regime.


State Coercion against Militant Unionizing


Starting February 2021, at least 30 state agents made their rounds at the residences of over 50 union officials and members to campaign for the union’s disaffiliation from militant labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU/May First Movement). They threatened one union official into drafting a resolution stating the disaffiliation. Otherwise, they would either kill him or serve a warrant for his arrest.

Faigmani lamented, “All we do is fight for decent wages and benefits. But when we take steps in that direction, they treat us like we’re criminals.”

Over the years, the WPPWU has had great success in asserting living wages for Wyeth workers through CBA negotiations. For their 2013 CBA, the union launched at least 20 picket-protests at the company plant, empowering workers to demand a fairer share of the company’s profits. The same year, they won their highest wage increase and gained a cumulative Php 11,750 (USD 215)  increase over a period of three years.

“The company management always tries to low-ball what workers can get,” said Faigmani. “But because workers unite and engage in collective action, we’re able to assert for a just increase.”

However, with the state forces’ intimidation tactics and the climate of fear it has created, Faigmani said they found it difficult to fulfill their duties as union officials, to raise the morale of fellow workers,  and to organize regular union meetings, group discussions about workers’ rights, and picket-protests.

Without these forms of collective action, the wage increase they secured this time around was much smaller, while standing benefits regarding overtime pay were reversed.


No Victory Without Struggle


In the WPPWU’s 63 years of existence, all its victories could not have been gained without struggle. Like other unions, its growth and development has also been subject to attacks through neoliberal policy reforms.

Labor organizing and union membership in the whole country sharply declined during the 1990s, attributed to contractualization schemes, concentration of factories in special economic zones, “no union, no strike” policies, and wage rationalization.

Despite this, WPPWU defended their hard-earned victories through persistent studying and organizing, even extending their efforts to the casual workers in the company – all because of the brand of unionism they were able to hone and cultivate.

In 1980, the union was one of the founding groups at the congress that created KMU. Genuine, militant, and nationalist unionism then propagated across the country and became a force that faced the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, father of current Philippine president Bongbong Marcos.

Politicized and conscious of their role in society, Filipino workers were at the forefront of protests that defended democratic rights, not only their own, but of other marginalized sectors such as peasants in the countryside. The strong mass movement eventually put an end to the Marcos dictatorship.

Wyeth unionists eventually went outside of their own factory and organized other workers’ communities. Despite strict measures implemented in special economic zones where most factories are, the union gets creative by launching outreach activities and soup kitchens. This way, they are able to give basic services and labor education to other workers, encouraging and even helping them to form their own unions.

According to Faigmani, “We have a responsibility to share to other workers what we know about having a union. Because there is no other way to improve workers’ conditions.”

“Government programs are terribly lacking to address workers’ low wages,” he added. “That’s why we need to form strong unions, both for contractual and regular workers. That’s what we’ve learned from experience.”


Anti-Labour and Anti-Democratic from Duterte to Marcos Jr.


After the Marcos dictatorship, neoliberal attacks on labor and state-sponsored trade union repression have continued to hound labor organizing.

But it was former President Rodrigo Duterte who set the stage in 2016 for an unprecedented culture of violence and impunity, having emboldened both the police and military.

Duterte infamously issued a “kill, kill, kill” order to the police and military and promised that they would be protected from legal action. This was especially prevalent in his drug war, where police employed the use of drug suspects watchlists, forced surrenders via house-to-house visits, planting of evidence, and summary executions of civilians based only on suspicions or manufactured narratives.

It only took a matter of time for the administration to shift their campaign from suspected drug addicts to activists, including trade union leaders.

Police official Lito Patay went from being commander of one of the “deadliest” police stations during the drug war to ordering the implementation of search warrants in what would be known as the “Bloody Sunday Massacre”, a massive crackdown on activists in the Southern Tagalog region in 2021.

On March 7 that year,  police held simultaneous operations in different provinces across the area to implement baseless search warrants that resulted in 9 deaths and 6 arrests of activists, including the brutal killing of labor organizer Manny Asuncion, one of the highlight cases for ILO’s investigation.

Police operatives raided the office of the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) in Cavite and reasoned that Asuncion had “fought back” (nanlaban) against them to justify his killing. His wife has testified that she last saw Asuncion laid down on his stomach while a police officer pointed a gun behind him.

“We are people too,” these were reportedly the last words of Manny Asuncion before he was killed.

However, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed the murder charges against the 17 police operatives that were involved due to “lack of evidence”. The decision came on January 16, only a week before the ILO mission proper.

On August 16, 2022, almost two months after Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed presidency, a death threat was thrown outside union leader and car factory worker Mario Fernandez’s house. Two bills worth Php 120 (USD 2) came along with the note, instructing Fernandez to use it to top-up his phone and contact whoever was behind the threat.

“They give billions of pesos to the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) who harass us, but only Php 120 to the victim,” shared Fernandez during the solidarity gathering.

The NTF-ELCAC is a counter-insurgency task force, established by Duterte in 2017, that has been weaponized against unionists, activists, and other progressives. Their involvement ranges from projects in the community level up to programmes of national government agencies. Several cases of their intervention in union activities have been reported in the Southern Tagalog region, where Fernandez’s union and workplace is based.

In another instance, Fernandez’s home was visited by men who introduced themselves as NTF-ELCAC agents, urging their union to disaffiliate with KMU. He managed to record this on live video and was able to immediately garner support from his union federation, as well as individuals and organizations from different sectors.

Nevertheless, both incidents have brought fear and exhaustion for him and his family, on top of fatigue from factory and organizing work.

Cases such as the forced disaffiliation campaign against WPPWU, killings and arrests of trade union activists in the Bloody Sunday Massacre, and the intimidation tactics against unionists of TEPWU form only a portion of the workers’ report submitted to the ILO for investigation.

Prepared by the Philippine affiliates of the Council of Global Unions, which is composed of different labor centers, the report has documented a total of 380 cases of state-sponsored and direct attacks against workers’ right to Freedom of Association since 2019. These cases, which range from killings to enforced disappearances to red-tagging/terrorist-tagging, are widespread and have occurred in different parts of the country.

In the joint report, they also wrote that Duterte’s counter-insurgency program “[has] made matters worse with trade unionists and entire unions being accused of being members of rebel organizations.”1

They added that the counter-insurgency program is “consciously directed at trade unionists in order to suppress labor, depress wages, and continue problematic labor policies by hindering the right to freedom of association,” and called to abolish the NTF-ELCAC and repeal the Anti-Terror Law.


Unions and Democracy


KMU Secretary General Jerome Adonis, a bus conductor-turned-labor leader, was one of the 52-member contingent of workers that met with the ILO team last January 23 in Makati City. He spent weeks prior to the meeting to validate workers’ reports through consultations held in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

During a short interview before the meeting, he says that workers value the ILO investigation as a platform to recognize how harsh the political climate has become to trade union organizing.

Because the Philippine government continues to deny this, Filipino workers’ participation has become more important than ever.

“It is still in the hands of us workers to tirelessly organize in our ranks including fellow workers in the country to form unions and challenge the government to respect our rights,” Adonis said.

In preparations for the ILO investigation, workers have demonstrated their capacity to lead in the struggle to defend the people’s democratic right to organize. It is a right that is not confined to the trade union sector, but draws wide implications in society at large. This is why the campaign for Freedom of Association in the Philippines has also drawn the support of organizations from the urban poor, the transport sector, and the wider public.

Welcoming the ILO investigation, progressive lawmaker Arlene Brosas of GABRIELA Women’s Partylist urged members of the Philippine Congress to address the declining state of trade unionism in the country.

“Unions are our beacons of hope, our ambassadors of collective action, our pathways to a more humane and just society.”

  1. They named Executive Order (EO) 70, Memorandum Order (MO) 32, the Anti-Terror Law, the Joint Industrial Peace and Concern Office (JIPCO), and the Alliance for Industrial Peace and Program (AIPP) as the government’s repressive measures that have led to a grave trade union situation.

Mayday is an independent multimedia collective committed to the struggle for labor rights. Founded in 2004 as the video production unit of the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER, Inc.), Mayday has established itself as a separate entity since 2008. Since then, we have worked with people’s organizations and trade unions to produce audio-visual works that give an accurate and compelling picture of the condition and struggles of Filipino workers.