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Philippines: Killings of Unionists Go Unchecked

Death of Labor Organizer in Rizal Province Latest in String of Abuses

Protest over the killing of labor leader Jude Thaddeus Fernandez in Manila, Philippines, October 5, 2023. © 2023 AlterMidya

(Manila) – The killing by Philippine police of a labor leader in Rizal province underscores the continued targeting of unionists in the Philippines and the need for government action to stop these abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Philippine authorities should thoroughly investigate the killing of the labor leader Jude Thaddeus Fernandez and appropriately prosecute all those responsible.

Police said they shot Fernandez on September 29, 2023 in his home in the town of Binangonan when he “fought back” while they were serving him with a search warrant. The police have not explained why his home was being searched or why he resisted. Fernandez’s colleagues told Human Rights Watch that they believe police are using the claim of nanlaban (fought back), a commonly used defense by law enforcement officers for extrajudicial killings, to justify shooting him.

“The killing of Jude Fernandez fits into a broader pattern of harassment and violence against labor leaders in the Philippines,” said Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should independently investigate the police actions and pursue prosecutions as warranted.”

The International Labour Organization (ILO) sent a high-level mission to the Philippines in January to investigate killings of workers and union leaders. A joint report submitted by trade union groups to the ILO mission detailed several killings. Details of Fernandez’s death are consistent with many of those cases. The Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, or May First Movement), the union to which Fernandez belonged, reported that 72 workers and unionists have been killed in the Philippines since 2016. Four of those deaths occurred after the ILO’s January visit. Philippine authorities only investigated a few of these killings, with an even smaller number leading to prosecution and conviction.

In one of the worst reported incidents, police in 2019 raided the compound of trade unionists in Cavite province and killed nine activists, unionists, and their colleagues. The police said they were serving a search warrant but the victims “fought back.”

Those killed had often been “red-tagged”—alleged to be members of the communist New People’s Army—before they were assaulted. Alex Dolorosa, an organizer of the outsourcing labor group BPO Industry Employee Network (BIEN), had been red-tagged, his colleagues said, before he was reported missing in Bacolod City on April 23. His body was found days later with multiple stab wounds.

Philippine authorities have long used red-tagging to harass activists, both within and outside of the labor movement. Recent research by Human Rights Watch shows that the police, military, and local government officials, rather than companies, are usually responsible for red-tagging unionists and workers. Red-tagging intimidates workers, discouraging them from joining unions, and makes unions less likely to join federations, especially those identified as leftist, such as the KMU. Harassment often increases during collective bargaining negotiations, union officials told Human Rights Watch.

Since the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict by then-president Rodrigo Duterte in 2018, and an intensified counterinsurgency campaign to quash the 54-year-old communist insurgency, the red-tagging and harassment of unions have worsened.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s response to the ILO mission was to sign an executive order in April “reinforcing and protecting” labor rights and to “expedite the investigation, prosecution, and resolution of cases.” Marcos should uphold his commitments to protecting union activists and leaders, Human Rights Watch said.

The Philippines’ trade partners should raise concerns about Fernandez’s killing and the pattern of harassment and violence against workers and unionists, in particular the European Union, which grants the Philippines trade benefits conditioned on human and labor rights and has recently restarted free trade negotiations. Other countries that have similar bilateral trade arrangements with Manila, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, should also urge Philippine authorities to credibly investigate the killing and ensure justice.

“The killings of unionists and other activists have been rampant because there has been no accountability for decades,” Lau said. “Foreign governments that value the Philippines as a trade partner should send a clear message to the Marcos administration that these abuses need to stop.”

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