Hands Off: Support Human Rights in the Philippines

09 December 2019 16:14


Every 10th of December is International Human Rights Day. It was established by the United Nations to mark and celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. In 2019, the Building and Wood Workers’ International is joining with other Global Unions in a Day of Action to focus on human rights violations in the Philippines and to support those who struggle, often in desperate circumstances, for basic freedoms and democracy. We have urged BWI member organisations to join with other trade unionists and supporters of human rights to demonstrate to the Government of the Philippines that their violations of human rights are global concerns and to show those who courageously resist oppression that they are not alone.

Unfortunately, the Philippines is one of many “rogue” States that violate human rights. However, the growing authoritarianism in the country is based not only on “old-fashioned” techniques of repression like assassinations, physical violence, and intimidation, only some of which are easily traceable to authorities. It is also built with a very sophisticated manipulation of public opinion through networked propaganda that generates threats, insecurity, and confusion. Such methods create an atmosphere of fear and distrust without abolishing elections. In other words, the appearances of democracy are maintained even as it is emptied of its meaning.


Earlier this year, in June, BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson briefly described the brutal attacks on trade unionists to the members of the ILO Standards Committee at the International Labour Conference. He described assassinations and extra-judicial killings of trade unionists.

Yuson spoke of the murder of Dennis Sequeña of Partido Manggagawa while he was conducting a trade union seminar for export processing zone workers and , the killing of Nonoy Palma at his house, a farmer in Southern Philippines and many others, including Jose, Ryan, Nelly, Villegas, Angelipe, Peter, Dodong, Morena, Duaguit, Bingbing, and Jomarie. He cited those names, but they are only a few among the 43 known trade unionists or defenders of the human rights of workers slaughtered in the last two years alone.

He stressed that murder should not be part of industrial relations and, in the world’s most important and authoritative body for workers’ rights, called for an end to impunity, saying, “enough is enough.” He appealed for Immediate action by the ILO. Yuson was not alone. His position was that of the full Workers’ Group. The Employers’ Group and governments joined the call for urgent action. That was in June, but the Government of the Philippines has not yet accepted an ILO High-Level Tripartite Mission.

Networked Propaganda

Ninety-seven per cent of households in the Philippines get their news from FACEBOOK. The foes of liberty, many linked to the Duterte government in one way or another, have made the Philippines a world leader in sophisticated, effective disinformation. Targets of this networked propaganda machine do not have time to respond to the first lie before being subjected to a dozen more. Democracy and human rights activists, including trade union leaders, receive many thousands of attacks, including death threats to them and their families almost instantly following deceptive, but damaging messages.

At the same time, independent press and journalists are harassed, attacked and intimidated so that facts are, in effect, irrelevant to much public discussion not just in decision-making bodies, but in villages and towns, neighbourhoods and families.

In other words, in a democratic framework of elections, legislative, judicial and other governance structures, an authoritarian culture has been born. It is nourished with fear and combines threats and violence with the mindset of a mob.


Although human rights challenges in the Philippines are enormous, the situation is far from hopeless. There are many trade union activists and leaders and others who fight for human rights and who will not give up. They continue to speak, to fight, to educate, and to struggle. They are even developing an understanding of how networked propaganda works and are countering it.

On occasion, they have been able to get the government to back down, to change policies, or respond to normal democratic limits. A recent example is that the Minister of Defence and the Minister of the Interior have both publicly recommended to President Duterte that martial law be ended in Mindanao when it expires at the end of the year. There have been many abuses of human rights in that region against trade unionists, educators, journalists, indigenous peoples and others. There were fears that martial law might become national as it was under President Marcos (1972 to 1981, although abuses of power did not end until he was forced to leave office in 1986).

Day of Action

In support of the Global Unions’ Day of Action, “Hands Off Trade Unions” on 10 December, BWI has urged member organisations to join with other trade unions to call on the Government of the Philippines to:

  • Stop the attacks and red-tagging of legitimate trade union organisations and labour activists;

  • Implement the recommendations concluded by the Committee of Application of Standards of the ILO in June 2019; and

  • Accept the High-Level Tripartite Mission of the ILO to visit the country as soon as possible.

BWI, with the support of other Global Unions, has also:

  • Supported the call of our affiliates in the Philippines to urge Labour Secretary, Silvestre Bello of DOLE to intervene with the military and police forces for:

  • Discussions and investigations at the national and regional Tripartite Monitoring Bodies on the recent arrests and raids and red-tagging of labour organisations;

  • Expedition of the 43 cases of extra-judicial killings submitted by the trade unions; and

  • Enforce the Guidelines on the Conduct of the DOLE, DILG, DND, DOJ, AFP and PNP Relative to the Exercise of Workers' Rights.

Information on the Global Unions’ Day of Action has already been provided on the BWI web site and is linked above. Actions proposed included demonstrations, protest letters and the sharing of mobilisationphotographs.

BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson stated, “Today, International Human Rights Day, is an important moment in the fight for human rights in the Philippines, including trade union rights and all other worker rights. We appreciate the participation of BWI member organisations in this mobilisation to convince the Government of the Philippines to respect its democratic Constitution and governance traditions and international labour standards and cease being a renegade State in our global community. To our courageous members and other human rights activists in the Philippines, we send our respect, admiration, and support. Your fight is our fight”.