Arrests, Power-Building and Togetherness: An Interview with Philippine Activist Kara Taggaoa

The moment Kara Taggaoa and Larry Valbuena stepped out of the court for one false charge, they were immediately arrested and taken away by the police on another false charge. We spoke with Kara Taggaoa about her arrest, the red-tagging and surveillance, and dealing with fellow activists being killed, as well as her own organising background and campaigns.

Editor’s Note:

On October 10, 2022, the moment Kara Taggaoa and Larry Valbuena – two labour activists – stepped out of court about a falsified robbery charge, they were immediately arrested and taken away by the police under the pretext of another falsified direct assault charge. This was met with an outpouring of solidarity, and they were released on bail. But the repressive environment for community and trade union organizers in the Philippines remains unchanged.

Between January 23 and 27, 2023, the International Labour Organization (ILO) High Level Tripartite Mission will be visiting the Philippines to assess the violations of labour rights and freedom of association in accordance with the international conventions. The visit has become a focus point for the labour movement in the Philippines to make submissions and mobilise actions to put pressure on the authorities to respect the rights of workers to organise.

In late 2022, we spoke with Kara Taggaoa, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) International Officer. We talked about her arrest, the red-tagging and surveillance, facing the killings of her fellow activists, as well as her own diverse organising background, her role with the KMU and campaigns for freedom of association and an end to labour contractualisation.

Asian Labour Review (ALR): Let’s start with your arrest in October 2022. I know at the time there was a lawsuit against you. And in the middle of the trial, you were detained again, along with another labour activist, Larry Valbuena. What happened on the day?

Kara Taggaoa (KT): It was October 10, 2022, and we had our arraignment and pretrial at a regional trial court in Quezon City for a false charge of robbery. It was also the same day when Larry and I – Larry is also a labour organiser from the formal sector of workers – had to attend the arraignment after posting bail for the robbery charge.

Just a few minutes after the arraignment, we went outside of the trial court, and the police were waiting for us. Suddenly they came to us calling out our names and saying that we were being arrested for a direct assault charge. They brought us to a detention center, and that’s when we learned that we have another false charge.

It pertains to an incident that happened in July 2020. It was a rally against the anti-terror law which was being railroaded at that time. Apparently, there was a commotion: a police officer who wasn’t wearing his uniform went into the vicinity of rally, and the people were alarmed that he had a gun with him.

ALR: What do you think were the reasons that they hit you with this additional charge? Just to keep you busy with all these charges?

KT: That’s exactly true. What bothered us was that the incident happened in July 2020. We didn’t receive any subpoena, or any letter from the prosecutor, or any information that we were being charged. We only learned about it in September 2022.

We were discussing it with our legal counsel, and the leaders of the KMU. We think that one of the reasons why they activated the cases now is that we’ve been doing good work in terms of talking with the newly elected government officials in the parliament, and also the newly appointed government officials in the Department of Labour and Employment.

I have been going to different international labour institutions and organisations to gather support for the implementation of the ILO High Level Mission. We are moving forward with our campaign for a national minimum wage. It’s very interesting timing to keep our hands tied to these kinds of legal processes. Instead of focusing our work, we have to face more things that we have to.

ALR: That’s a really important point. You must have spent a lot time responding to those two charges. Are there other conditions on your bail, things that you cannot do right now?

KT: This is a new kind of the new modus operandi of the government. Only a few days ago, another longtime labour organizer was arrested on a false charge that is non-bailable. And we’ve had cases of labour organisers and trade unionists being arrested based on false charges that are non-bailable. They are charged for illegal possession of firearms and murder, and these are non-bailable. This is the first time we have false charges that are petty crimes, like robbery and direct assault, as opposed to linking us as terrorists.

I have recently attended a conference overseas. For that, I had to arrange for a trial from the court, so I could appeal to allow me to go outside the country. I had to pay for a travel bond. I had to pay for Bureau of Immigration clearances. Even without the warrant, we are being harassed at Immigration. We have to be more careful because they could use anything against us, for example, going to rallies and protest actions. The police could say anytime that these activities are illegal assemblies, and the people attending them should be penalized or arrested. Anytime we attend these events, they could add more to our legal cases.

And we know that if we were not yet under surveillance prior to the charges, we are under much stricter surveillance now.

ALR: Are we talking about physical or digital surveillance, or both?

KT: Definitely physical. It has been a long time experience of labour organisers and trade unionists. It has recently escalated. They don’t even hide that they’ve been watching our everyday lives. Military personnel and police officers visit the house of labour leaders and officers of trade union centers. They say that these unionists are members of KMU, and that KMU is a terrorist organisation. One should disaffiliate himself or herself, or his or her local union from the KMU.

We’ve also had reports from some of the members and organisers of KMU that in mobilisations, they see random people taking pictures and videos, asking the attendees very sensitive questions. With the social media and digital security, it has always been a risk. There is also a proliferation of trolls and fake news army. While that’s not a direct surveillance of activist and labour organisers, they use fake information to paint activist labour organisers as terrorists. Recently, the SIM card real name registration was passed into law. It will be used to curtail freedom of speech.

ALR: We know one of the ways that the government has been targeting actors is red-tagging. Can you explain what red-tagging is?

KT: It started with the implementation of a whole-of-nation approach by the government under the Duterte administration. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) was formed, and the anti-terror law of 2020 was signed into law. The new Marcos administration promised to uphold and continue the policies and programs of the former president.

Government budgets from different government agencies are being allocated for the NTF-ELCAC operations. This means that the NTF-ELCAC can organise a lot of forums in workplaces, in schools, in communities, saying that the activists and members of civil society organisations are members of terrorist organisations. If you support them, you are supporting communism and communists are terrorists.

A long time ago, the anti-communist subversion laws was junked by the Philippine courts, saying that communism isn’t actually terrorism. Recently, the Supreme Court released a statement saying that communism is not terrorism. But the problem with red-tagging is that they try to make us seem associated with communists and communist groups. Red tagging makes associations between activists and terrorists.

ALR: Have you personally been the target of red-tagging?

KT: When you search my name online, there are a lot of posters that say I’m a terrorist. My face is being used in NTF-ELCAC forums at schools and communities. Parents are told that they should be careful of the youth being radicalised. My family wanted to take legal actions because they were affected by it. My aunts who are teachers in public schools see the forums and they would cry because they know it’s not true. They say it’s putting me in danger. It’s putting my family in danger.

ALR: There has been a lot of killings in the last few years. I think it is one thing to know the statistics, but quite another to see it first-hand. I’m wondering if you want to share your experience of how this has impacted you.

KT: There was a time when I felt desensitized. We know activists who are killed. For a few weeks or a month, I couldn’t really cry, I couldn’t really stop and take a breath. But eventually it got to me. It was the death of Baby River that got to me. Reina Mae, the mother of Baby River, was a labour organiser. She was arrested based on a trumped up charge. She gave birth in jail, but she wasn’t able to hold her baby in jail during the pandemic. Then her baby died. I think that’s one of the reasons that got me back to the right mind. How the baby, this innocent little thing was being born into the worst conditions of rights violations.

I do not know Reina personally. How heavy it feels, how hard it hurts – it affected a lot of people. We see killings of the people that we know, people we’ve only seen a few weeks before they were killed. It’s very difficult to not ask yourself: am I doing the right thing? Anything could happen anytime to you, or to anyone you know, or people you don’t know but people who work toward the same goals and ideals.

It’s not safe, but I guess the only thing we have is each other. The question is not about: is it safe? It’s about if I don’t act now, what’s going to happen next? What happens if we just let them be? What’s going to happen in the future? Sometimes we shut each other out, we don’t talk to each other, just to process our own feelings. After that, we get together, and ask: what do we do? We have no choice but feel emotional, feel sensitive, but at the end of the day, we have to gather each other together.

ALR: It’s always really astonishing to see that there’s all these killings and all these arrests happening, but people still keep going, keep organising. I’m very interested to hear how you became an activist in the first place.

KT: I was a youth and student organiser in college. We had campaigns against tuition fees increase. We were one of the groups who lobbied for the passage of the free education act of 2017. We wanted to put into light all the different ways in which freedom of expression and academic freedom is curtailed. We also lobbied against the mandatory Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) where college students are required to undertake.

There was the uncovering of institutional problems of ROTC such as the hazing, bullying, sexual harassment, and even the killing of students. Instead of ROTC, students should do social work, learn about social work, instead of being forced to do military trainings. We were also against the removal of Filipino history in the high school curriculum. And I did some work with labour unionists, joining pickets and strikes.

I worked for a while with Lumad students. The Lumad is a group of indigenous people from Mindanao in the southern part of Philippines. During the Aquino administration, they’ve been doing this thing called Manilakbayan, where they travel by land from Mindanao to Manila to amplify their issues, such as the militarization and bombings of their communities. They were being called terrorists because they established their own schools. Starting in 2015, every year they’ve been going to Manila to amplify their calls.

I did work with them. I myself belong to an indigenous people’s tribe. These indigenous peoples have been working to protect their own culture, their identity, to protect their ancestral lands, and to protect the environment.

ALR: So during college, you were already working on workers’ rights issues. How did you become the international officer of KMU?

KT: It was in 2020. Prior to that I’ve been working with KMU on a lot of individual projects. I told KMU that I’ve done my part in youth organising. As their international officer, the main task is to bring news from the Philippines to international organisations and to gather support from different international instruments, institutions and organisations to support the campaigns in the Philippines. There’s an important task of building solidarity, making Filipino workers understand that they’re not only the ones facing this kind of situation.

When we do campaigns, it’s very important to make sure that local and national structures are strong. It gets stronger when we receive a lot of support from international organisations. It serves as an additional pressure point on the governments and businesses.

The Department of Labour reached out to us say that they will work on it. The Department of Labour and other government agencies are known for very being very bureaucratic and slow in response. But since they did have a commitment already, it’s a lot easier for us to follow up without being turned down.

When I was arrested, I was overwhelmed by the support I got. We had organisations sending letters to the Department of Labour to the Commission on Human rights to the Department of Justice and the Philippine National Police. The director of the Philippine National Police had to face the media, and he was getting a lot of questions from everyone.

ALR: I wondering if you can give us some examples of your work. What sort of campaigns are you engaged in?

KT: I have been engaged with the ILO high level mission. It was a resolution passed at the ILO conference, and has to be implemented. But Duterte kept delaying it until he was no longer the President. So one of our major campaigns is for the ILO high level mission to visit as soon as possible.

ALR: Can you explain what the ILO High Level Mission means for workers and trade unions in the Philippines?

KT: The High Level Mission was a resolution in light of the worsening abuses of labour and human rights. There are illegal arrests, illegal detentions, the use of trumped-up charges to arrest and detain trade unionists. And there have been murders and killings. We have unionists being visited in their homes. The purpose of the high level mission is to see how grave the workers conditions are, not only in terms of the killings and arrests, but also the freedom of association and workers’ right to join unions.

That’s one of the major problems in the Philippines: less than 10% of workers in the formal sector are unionised. It’s very difficult to get a union here. You have to go through a lot of steps. It’s like a clandestine operation just to form a union. It feels like a life or death situation when you do union organising. We want this to be investigated. We all want Filipinos to know that it’s not normal for them to be short term contractual workers. It’s not normal for them to not be able to join unions. It’s not normal for workers to not receive living wages. But what we were used to are not rightful, not just and not normal.

ALR: I want to ask more about contractualisation. This has been one of the main issues that the labour movement in the Philippines has taken up. Can you talk about what that means? And how are you responding to it?

KT: One of the major forms of labour precarity in the Philippines is short term contractual work or contractualisation. It takes a lot of forms, such as job orders, project-based work, and contractual work. You’re not a regular employee and don’t have the rights of a regular worker. If you’re not a regular employee, it does not matter how long you’ve been working in the company – we’ve been meeting workers who have been in the companies for 10 years, 20 years, 40 years, but they’re still not regular workers. You don’t have benefits. You’re not allowed to form a union. You cannot bargain for additional benefits.

We were able to form a very historical alliance of different trade union centers in the Philippines. It’s very historical, because before that, we’ve had difficulties of finding similarities in our campaigns. But during the campaign against contractualisation, we were able to bring out everyone to support and lobby for the same laws. We wanted to get the anti-contractualisation law legislated, but it was vetoed by the president. And so now, we’re going back to the start.

ALR: What do you think are the most important ways to build workers’ power?

KT: The most important way to build workers’ power is for workers to organise into unions or associations that allow them to realise that they are not slaves, and that they are the ones who make the profit. They are the ones who allow our economy to function.

Workers’ power is all about organising and making workers realise that they need to take control of things. Workers have been made to feel like they should be working more than eight hours a day, working for minimum wages, working without the benefits. This has become the normal, and you need to make them realize that it’s not normal.

ALR: What are the best ways to express solidarity with workers and organisers in the Philippines?

KT: Sometimes in our meetings, we read solidarity letters written by workers and organisers from other countries. We translate the letters so workers could understand them. It gives us strength and hope that people outside the Philippines are watching us. We love to receive solidarity messages. We also have online social media pages Facebook and Twitter, so you can continue to see news of what’s happening in the Philippines. That’s where we will be sharing urgent campaigns and solidarity actions.

ALR: How can people support you and others who have been targeted?

KT: We have been getting a lot of support and solidarity messages. This interview is one of the ways we can get the information out there. We want a lot more people getting information about the worsening labour rights conditions in the Philippines. We’re also setting up online fundraising specifically for labour rights defenders. We’re happy to accept any kind of solidarity.

(Photo: JP Talapian for