Listen to RankandFile.ca’s interview with Rosalinda Nartates. download MP3 here.
How the Canadian labour movement can support fellow workers in the Philippines
By Samantha Ponting
In the Philippines, just like in Canada, the struggles of public sector workers are closely aligned with community interests.
The Philippines’ largest public sector union, the Confederation for the Unity, Recognition, and Advancement of Government Employees, aptly acronymed COURAGE, is knee-deep in the fight against water privatization and increased electricity and transportation costs.
COURAGE’s labour activists are, perceivably, a threat to the government’s economic program.
When amplifying the demands of workers, trade unionists are living with the reality that the Philippines is the second most dangerous country in the world for them, next to Colombia. They could face political imprisonment or extrajudicial killings for their work.
In spite of this, labour activists are flexing their muscles.
“We can only rely on our strength,” says Rosalinda Nartates, Secretary General of COURAGE. She says the best way to fight government policies is through mass actions.
According to Nartates, “The government is veering away from its duties in the constitution to give decent public services to the people.”
In response, COURAGE has worked closely, alongside its allies, to organize mass actions that engage communities that are reliant on public services. These actions reflect one of COURAGE’s core organizational objectives, “To, in the long-term, help create a just society.”
COURAGE is an umbrella labour organization with 300,000 members and 254 affiliated local unions. It was founded by 7 agencies, which represent workers from national government agencies, state-owned corporations, and workers in the judiciary and legislature.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has connected with COURAGE as part of its international solidarity efforts. Nartates has been invited to Canada by CUPE to share her union’s stories of repression, resilience, and resistance.
“Our battle cry is to stop all these political killings”
On Nov. 12, 2010, anti-water privatization and COURAGE organizer Carlos Rodriguez was gunned down by two men on his way to work. The suspect is a police officer who has never been charged.
Just a few weeks later, two other COURAGE activists, Randy B. Vegas and Raul T. Camposano, were arrested and remain in jail today.
According to the human rights organization KARAPATAN, there are currently 504 political prisoners in the Philippines, with 204 arrested under the current Aquino administration.
Nartates says it’s mass action that can facilitate their release.
“Our battle cry is to stop all these political killings, ” says Nartates. “We are actually just fighting for our lives, for our protection as government employees, as workers.”
The Economic Picture
Nartates says that the privatization of resources, increases in casual labour, and a system of “starvation pay” for government employees are all pieces to a larger economic picture.
The economic gains boasted about by the current Aquino administration are unsustainable, based in a construction boom led by private developers and the elite to serve an elite clientele, says Nartates.
Meanwhile, government employees are making just 346 pesos/day (approximately $8.65 Canadian), while a living wage for a family of 6 has been placed at about 1,046 pesos/day. Government employees make less than the average wage obtained in the private sector.
The Canadian economy is not so separated from the Philippines’ economic system. Remittances from overseas foreign workers are a major source of income generation for the Philippines. Canada has more temporary foreign workers from the Philippines than any other country, according to statistics gathered from 2004-2013.
Canada has maintained this partnership despite the Philippines’ horrendous track record on extrajudicial killings and other forms of political repression.
Canada refuses to outline human rights provisions for partnering countries of the temporary foreign workers program. This, at least, saves Canada from exposing itself to accusations of hypocrisy, given the systemic abuses happening domestically as a result of the program.
Referencing Canada’s trade policies surrounding the Philippines, Nartates says, “Your country might be supporting our country to let organized groups disappear and be killed.”
Despite the dangers, so many labour activists across the Philippines, including Nartates, continue to defend their rights to organize unions, work in safe conditions, and participate in policy formation.
The role of Canadian Labour Unions
Nartates message is clear, that “the presence of international solidarity support is a big, big help for the Filipino people.”
She is seeking support through the form of petitions and postcards, directed to the Philippine Embassy, that demand the release of Randy Vagas, Raul Camposano, and other political prisoners.
“We do not gain media millage because the media is being co-opted by the government, so we are asking for external support.”
Given its members’ poverty wages, COURAGE could also benefit from international solidarity in the form of financial support.
There are financial ramifications to Vegas and Camposano’s arrests.
Nartates says adequate food is not provided in the jails. They often need to travel 8-10 hours round-trip from Metro Manila to visit the prison in order to deliver food and medicine.
Vegas is regularly sick, and while they are seeking hospital accommodations during his imprisonment, “It can only be done for politicos, congressmen, senators,” says Nartates.
In the men’s absences, their families also require economic support.
Public sector workers in Canada and public sector workers in the Philippines are fighting some of the same battles –attacks on public services and union rights, the contracting out of labour, and, ultimately, the battle to create a just society.
Members of COURAGE, however, are risking a lot more to secure a better future, and they require the solidarity of labour unions in Canada.
Nartates is visiting Canada because “We believe workers of the world can unite,” she says.
Our bosses are working together, and so must us.
To make a donation to COURAGE:
Cheques can be written to:
CUPE Local 4600
Global Justice Fund
c/o CUPE 4600
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6
Put COURAGE in the memo line, and CUPE 4600 will wire the money to COURAGE in the Philippines.