Teachers, Precarity and State Violence in the Philippines

“Tabang! Mga aktibista mi!” (“Help! We’re activists!”) shouted Dyan Gumanao when they were being forced into the van by six unidentified men. This is the content of the video that was circulated after the abduction of two labor unionists, Gumanao, a coordinator of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) Region VII, and Armand Dayoha, an organizer of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW), at a port in Cebu, Philippines, on January 10, 2023.

Dyan Gumanao recalls what happened to them during their five-day abduction in her testimony before the International Labor Organization’s High-Level Tripartite Mission (HLTM) in Makati, Philippines, on January 23, 2023.

Before the incident, Gumanao had long experience being red-tagged, watched, threatened, and harassed by state agents. In the context of a long list of state attacks against labor rights advocates, Gumanao and Dayoha have every reason to believe that the state forces were behind their abductions and disappearances.

Dyan and Armand are active organizers of teachers in Cebu. In the past few years, they have fervently campaigned for better working conditions for educators. But their advancement of labor rights has now become a crime in the Philippines.


The Precarity of Teachers 


Like other workers in the Philippines, teachers and educators have always been on the brink of economic ruin. On paper, we are protected by Article 13 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which states that “[All workers] shall be entitled to security of tenure, humane conditions of work, and a living wage.” But our wages, as a sector, are barely livable. Nine out of ten teachers do not receive a family living wage—that is, a salary that sufficiently responds to all needs of a household, with room for wants.

In 2023, out of 847,467 public school teachers in the Philippines, 93.3% are in positions that pay a lot less than a livable wage. They only receive a net take home pay of ₱23,465 (or USD 428) for public school teachers of the lowest rank, which accounts for 52.7% of the teaching population, up to ₱26,733. A Filipino household with five members requires ₱1,145 (or USD 21) to cover their daily expenses. With the skyrocketing inflation rate of 8.1% in December 2022, the ₱540 government-mandated minimum wage in the Philippine capital—the highest in the country—cannot even make half the cut.

Adding insult to injury, the state withholds financial support for classroom materials, transportation, clothing, and other miscellaneous expenses from educators. Public school teachers even shell out money from their own pockets to provide textbooks and other learning tools for their indigent students.

In 2015, 57.9% of these teachers have unpaid debt totaling from ₱301 billion in 2016 to ₱319 billion in 2018. This growth in debt owes to the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) Law imposed by former Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. The TRAIN Law inflates the prices of basic commodities, rendering resources inaccessible for public school teachers in the lowest ranks. Moreover, in 2016, 26,000 retired teachers received no pension after decades of service.

Filipino educators do not deserve to live through these economic conditions that worsened over the years. Because of the appalling lack of classrooms in the Philippine public schools, class sizes balloon up to 80 students managed by a single teacher. Besides giving lectures, teachers must commit to co-curricular and academic activities, clerical work, school and government projects, and others. Due to gaps in capacity-building, teachers must also perform the tasks of clinic nurses, guidance counselors, librarians, janitors, custodians, and registration employees.

Despite these glaring problems, over 26,000 government positions for public school teachers remain unoccupied, and only 10,000 new positions are being created every year. The lack of faculty required teachers to lecture eight hours a day instead of the mandated six-hour daily teaching time.

The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse for the education sector. Given the ineffective military-led approach of the national government to curbing the pandemic, it took years before schools can return to face-to-face operations. Over 440 private schools were forced to close during this time due to the lack of profit.

The Department of Education (DepEd) developed modes of distance education that levied a heavy burden on teachers, such as the house-to-house distribution of class modules that put both teacher and student at risk of infection. While online learning is relatively safer, 67% of Filipino households have no or unstable internet connection. Only 49% of public school teachers in 2021 had access to computers and internet connection. In October 2020, when classes opened either in virtual mode or through module distribution, 2,193 teachers and school staff were infected by COVID-19.

The economic security and occupational safety of Filipino teachers have sharply rolled downhill since the Duterte administration. Now that schools and universities are easing in to full face-to-face operations, we witness other forms of insecurity: silencing of criticism, repression of dissent, and hindrances to union organizing.


Social Movement Unionism


Our colleagues Dyan and Armand’s abduction is only one of many cases of state-sanctioned violence against teachers and unionists in the education sector documented by ACT. Alongside its regional chapters and affiliate organizations such as the Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND), ACT has been in the forefront of the fight for the welfare of all workers in the education sector, including teachers public and private, professors, and education support personal (ESP).

Since its founding in 1982, ACT has also assisted in the accreditation of five (5) of its regional unions with a Sole and Exclusive Negotiating Agent (SENA) status, the registration of ten (10) regional unions, and the establishment of six (6) affiliate organizations of education workers. Such moves aim to equip unions and associations with the power to advance their democratic rights in their workplaces.

In the last decades, ACT with its over two-hundred thousand members, led the broad campaigns for salary increase, better working conditions, and protection of freedoms for all workers in the education sector. During the height of the pandemic, ACT held the banner campaign of “Ligtas na Balik Eskwela” (“Safe Return to Schools”) that demanded the national government to upgrade health facilities in public schools, conduct mass testing for COVID-19 infections, and provide financial support to teachers for potential medical expenses, among others. The campaign trended online as ACT chapters and affiliate organizations shared their own experiences of hardship under distance learning, encouraging unaffiliated teachers to post their own all over social media.

Now that schools are being reopened, ACT is leading a nationwide salary upgrading movement. This campaign seeks to raise the salaries of the lowest ranks of public school and university teaching staff in order to meet the family living wage. ACT utilizes a wide repertoire of contention for this campaign, which includes online and on-ground petitions, organizing faculty clubs towards the crafting of salary upgrade resolutions, protest-actions during Fridays, varied social media gimmicks using the hashtag #UpgradeTeachersSalariesNow, and legislative lobbying through the ACT-Teachers Partylist, the sole representative of teachers and ESP in the Philippine Congress.

ACT’s union work also encompasses championing what we call a nationalistic, scientific, and mass-oriented (NSMO) education. By nationalistic, we mean an education anchored to defending the economic, political, and cultural sovereignty of the Philippines from the control of foreign superpowers. By scientific, we emphasize a critical type of education that requires the application of theories learned from textbooks and class discussions to real life situations and issues faced by Filipinos. By mass-oriented, we advocate for curricula and pedagogies that encourage students to serve their communities, the marginalized, and the oppressed. ACT works towards the realization of both socio-economic and pedagogical changes for the benefit of the wider society.

ACT also works closely with other social movements outside its member unions. Indeed, fostering an NSMO education requires learning about the exploited sectors of society such as farmers and workers, who become partners of ACT teachers in sit-in discussions, community integrations, and protest actions. In other words, ACT expands the scope of its agenda beyond the welfare of rank and file members, integrating itself as part of a broader struggle for social justice and national democracy.


Education under Siege


Over the past few years, ACT’s union work earned the ire of government agencies and institutions that see unionism as a challenge to profiteering. Under the administration of Duterte, ACT faced an unprecedented volume of attacks from armed state elements such as the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and unwarranted charges and accusations from agencies such as the Department of Education.

Instead of answering ACT’s call for the betterment of teachers’ and ESP’s working conditions and respect for the inviolable right to quality education of all Filipinos, Duterte besieged the education sector through his signing of the Executive Order No. 70 in December, 2018, that prompted incessant human rights violations, such as illegal profiling, red-tagging and terrorist-tagging, surveillance, death threats, fabricated charges, and union interference.

These brazen attacks were launched as part of the “Whole-of-Nation Approach” of the government to counterinsurgency. The executive order tapped all state agencies, including DepEd and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) whose primary mandate is to provide education to all Filipinos, in its crusade against the Philippine Left. Included in this hellish approach is the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), an agency that has done nothing but make unfounded accusations against teacher-unionists and even schools that cater to the marginalized in the Philippines.

When the pandemic hit, the socio-economic conditions of the Philippines went for the worse. The education sector was especially vulnerable to the sudden and unplanned lockdowns that restricted the population’s movement. Many private schools and universities shut down because of an all-time drop in enrollment and the skyrocketing expenses required by online learning and teaching. Hundreds of teachers found themselves jobless as thousands of students were forced to look for schools where they can continue studying.

When schools began operating remotely in the third quarter of 2020, 2,193 teachers and ESPs were infected with COVID-19 after they went house-to-house in their communities to deliver learning modules. The precarious working conditions of teachers became worse given that no hazard pay, additional sick leaves, or medical funds were provided for those working in public schools that operated in the middle of the pandemic. In the face of this crisis, ACT relentlessly campaigned for the safe reopening of schools and a more accessible quality education for millions of Filipino youths. Member unions of ACT also sought for protective measures for students and teachers alike.

Unfortunately, we expect no reprieve as the Duterte administration railroaded the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Law (ATL). The ATL gave the executive branch of the government unchecked powers to create its Anti-Terrorism Council without the superintendence of the judicial and legislative branches. This Council can tag anyone as a “terrorist” and put them in prison without any warrant or evidence.

Several chapters of ACT weakened as these policies spread fear about joining progressive organizations such as trade unions. It cannot be denied that the government’s counterinsurgency campaign steps on the basic human right and freedom to associate as stipulated in the Philippine constitution, the ILO constitution, and other declarations recognized as core to all societies as regarded by the United Nations.

ACT and its member unions and affiliate organizations engaged with the ILO in its HLTM in the Philippines in January, 2023. The documented attacks against the largest union of education workers in the Philippines provide evidence to the grave state of trade union rights in the country.1

Due to the poor working conditions in the Philippines and the ongoing socioeconomic and health crises, it is imperative that trade unions play a bigger role in protecting the rights and welfare of Filipinos from the working class. The violations of trade union rights and freedoms merit international condemnation and intervention, particularly in light of the fact that the Philippine government’s policies and laws—from Duterte’s presidency to the current Marcos-Duterte administration—have put the democracy of that country under siege. The ILO’s high-level tripartite mission is expected to be of critical assistance in exposing the atrocities committed against Filipino workers and in pursuing justice for the egregious violations of those workers’ trade union rights and freedoms.2

The incident in Cebu is the first case of enforced disappearances under the Marcos II regime, which proves that attacks on development workers, labor unionists, and human rights defenders continue despite the recent regime change. This demonstrates that the political situation has not changed in the Philippines. The alarming number of documented attacks prompts teacher-unionists to continue being vigilant in the face of state-sanctioned violence. It also shows that the fight for human rights and protecting those who promote the wellbeing of workers and people must advance.

(Photo: Jacqueline Hernandez, Rappler.com)

  1. Since 2018, ACT, through its chapters, leaders, and members, has documented the following: 1) 73 incidents of illegal surveillance, death threats, and harassment of union leaders: Relentless tailing, surveillance, and other forms of threats from the PNP, AFP, and suspected state agents subjected ACT chapter leaders and other teacher-unionists to great emotional, physical, and economic toll. Some of the victims needed to transfer workplaces and even residence to free themselves of illegal surveillance and threats. Others where physically separated from their children to flee from unwarranted harassment for doing union work. State forces have also targeted unaffiliated relatives of unionists. 2) 63 incidents of union interference: Red-tagging, harassment, unlawful arrests, and illegal detentions are only a few of the ways that the police and military interfered with union activities. The majority of incidents involving the unwarranted interference of DepEd and other agency officials in union work happened in Region III of the Philippines. The ACT Region III Union is the sole and exclusive negotiating representative for public school teachers in Central Luzon. A similar case is situated in the Central Visayas region where the legal status of ACT Region VII Union was discredited. Teachers were also misinformed as part of these attacks. In the 2022 election, teacher-unionists were openly urged to abstain from voting progressive candidates. 3) 38 cases of illegal profiling of ACT union members across 16 regions in the Philippines: There was a nationwide effort to compile the names and other pertinent information of ACT members, according to a leaked memorandum from the PNP. In the 2019 case that was brought before the Court of Appeals (CA) and Office of the Ombudsman, several instructors, even administrators, were able to provide photographs of those memoranda. However, CA rejected ACT’s petition due to technical errors, most notably because ACT neglected to submit a certified true copy of the memorandum. ACT submitted proof of its attempts to obtain the copy from the PNP, but the CA upheld its stance and rejected its motions for reconsideration, which it later submitted to the Supreme Court. 4) 37 incidents of red-tagging, terrorist-tagging, and/or designation as terrorist: Without any basis or evidence, public officials from the Office of the President, PNP, DepEd, Department of Interior and Local Governance, AFP, and NTF-ELCAC have started a smear campaign against ACT, painting ACT as a front for the revolutionary movement led by the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. State forces have launched a significant disinformation campaign, openly vilifying ACT, its leaders, and its affiliates in public with impunity. 5) 12 incidents of violation of the freedom to associate through disaffiliation campaigns: The violation of the right to freely associate is one of the most serious state attacks faced by education workers in the Philippines. Government officials from the Philippines have openly advocated for teachers and ESPs to sever their ties to ACT in various agencies. They’ve gone so far as to demand that its members withdraw union membership in order for them to “pledge their loyalty to the government.” State officials have been leading the violation of education workers’ rights and liberties rather than carrying out their obligations as duty bearers. 5) cases of fabricated charges and/or illegal arrests of leaders and members: At least five leaders of ACT’s regional unions have been charged with absurd, fabricated cases relating to alleged encounters between armed revolutionary groups and the Philippine army as a result of months to years of harassment by state forces. Despite overwhelming evidence against the fabricated cases, teacher-unionists were imprisoned and/or pressured to find refuge far from their place of employment and residence in order to protect themselves. Victims of these charges and arrests include the following: Digna Mateo (ACT Bulacan Coordinator), Mermaly Bito-on (ACT Negros Coordinator), Nestor Ada (ACT Region VIII), Ophelia Tabacon (ACT Region X President), Rosanilla Consad (ACT Region XIII Secretary). The charges against these union leaders have all been dismissed for lack of evidence except for the case of Mermalyn Bito-on, proving that the cases filed against them are fabricated and only meant to harass and harm teacher-unionists. 7) A case of enforced disappearance: The most recent assault on ACT was the kidnapping or forced disappearance of ACT Region VII Union Coordinator Gumanao and AHW Region VII coordinator Dayoha.
  2. Recommendations from teachers and educators: 1) Effectively deliver justice to all victims of violations on freedom of association through immediate investigation, prosecution, conviction and punishment of the perpetrators, and appropriate reparation to victims and their families; 2) Rescind all legislations and executive orders that enable violations on the rights of teachers and working Filipinos to organization and free association, such as Executive Order 70 and the ATL. Abolish the NTF-ELCAC; 3) Halt the implementation of counter-insurgency campaigns from where attacks on unions and unionists emanate, such as illegal profiling, red-tagging, harassment, fabricated charges, enforced disappearance, extra-judicial killings, etc.; 4) Stop the interference of police, military and other civilian government agencies in the union processes such as in the certification elections, collective negotiation agreement and union organizing and various union activities; 5) Pass legislation to realize public sector teachers’ and workers’ rights to collective bargaining and peaceful concerted activities including the right to strike; 6) Legislate the criminalization of red-tagging; 7) Provision of legal assistance and protection from reprisal to victims of attacks on teachers’ and union rights, ensuring the coverage of those in far-flung areas; 8) Invite the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Education and on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression to conduct independent investigations on the situation of teachers and educators in the Philippines.

Jose Monfred Sy teaches in the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature of the University of the Philippines (UP). He is a member of the All UP Academic Employees Union (AUPAEU), the Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND), and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT).

Rose Angelie Hernandez teaches in the Department of Art Studies of the University of the Philippines (UP). She is a member of the All UP Academic Employees Union (AUPAEU), the Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND), and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT).