I Read the News Today, Oh Boy! Observations from a Week in the Philippines

Effigy of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The news from the Philippines has been horrific over the last couple of years, especially worsening since the installation into office of President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2016.  Duterte, initially seen as a progressive hope, instead initiated a “War on Drugs,” in which somewhere over 20,000 people–some as young as 14–have been killed.  Jerome Adonis, Secretary General of the Kilusang Mayo Uno Labor Center (KMU-May First Movement), however, told me the figure was higher, that somewhere between 26,000-30,000 people have been killed in urban areas alone.

Apparently–and I would argue delusionally–Duterte seems to think that if he could eradicate all the drugs in the Philippines, then everything would be alright for the people in this country.  (I know the problem simply could not be capitalism….)

Most of these acts against drug using/selling suspects have been summarily carried out by police and officials, meaning many have been executed on the street and even in their own homes.  We’re not talking “due process” here.  A lot of cases have been claimed to “have happened” while “resisting arrest.”  A more proper term is “assassination.”  Although it has apparently slowed somewhat over time, assassins (often, but not always, police officers) were initially getting paid 20,000 pesos (roughly US $400)/head, with a quota of six-eight people daily.  And the victims have overwhelmingly been the urban poor, and particularly urban poor who live in slums that have not been politically organized.

And so far, there’s been only one case of a major “drug lord” who has been captured.

However, this war on drugs, which has gotten a certain amount of public attention, is joined by a larger war against the poor across the entire country, which has been going on for many years and which has also led to killings of local mayors, small town officials, parish priests, and expulsion of foreigners who have served the poor (often as religious missionaries and the like).

This less obvious war, with on-going violations of civil and political rights across the country by the Duterte Regime, extends beyond the drug-war related killings.  According to a January 2018 report by the respected human rights organization, Karapatan, and covering the period of July 2016 to December 2017 (i.e., all during Duterte’s presidency) the following have been documented: 126 extra judicial killings; 4 enforced disappearances; 87 cases of torture; 235 frustrated extrajudicial killings (i.e., target didn’t die); 930 illegal arrests without detention; 272 illegal arrests and detention; 139 illegal searches and seizures; 166 physical assaults and injury; 6,114 demolition (presumed of housing); 366 violations of domicile; 3,722 cases of destruction of property; 154 cases of divestment of property; 426,590 people forced to evacuate their homes; 56,456 cases of threats/harassment/intimidation; 362,355 cases of indiscriminate firing; 92 forced/fake cases of surrender; 18 cases of forced labor/involuntary servitude; 102 uses of civilians in police and military operations as guides and/or shield; 39,623 cases of use of schools, medical, religious and other public places for military purposes; and the 1,871 cases of restriction or violent dispersal of mass actions, public assemblies and gatherings.  [On-line copies of the pamphlet where this data appears, “Duterte Killings Continue:  State Terror and Human Rights in the Philippines,” from IBON International and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, are available for free:  put 978-971-9657-12-5 (the ISBN) into Google, and click on the listing, albeit untitled but from IBON International.]

In reality, an informal “martial law” has been instituted against the poor and individuals who serve/work with them, especially outside of Manila and the National Capital Region, beyond the reach of major television stations’ reporters’ beats.  This includes violent dispersals of workers’ legal picket lines.  This is in addition to the formal martial law that has been declared in Mindanao, the large southern island, but which I haven’t visited since July 2015, so I can’t discuss the current situation there, but which was pretty bad the last time I visited.  (I have an article coming out in the next couple of months in the journal Labor and Society which details my findings from my 2015 trip.)


I have been traveling to the Philippines episodically since 1986 to research the development of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU-May First Movement) Labor Center, arguably one of the most dynamic and developed labor organizations in the world. This was my ninth visit, although most of my visits were in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, then nothing for 21 years, and then 2015, 2016 and now, 2018.

A factory worker, a trade unionist and labor activist at the time I first visited (and now a Professor of Sociology, a global labor scholar who is a trade unionist and labor activist), I heard about the KMU initially by sheer luck; I was so intrigued that I saved my money and decided to go out and investigate.  What I found out was that the woman who had told me about it, Wenilou “Weng” Pradel, had been correct:  these Filipino workers were building a dynamic labor movement under a dictatorship! (Pradel herself had helped lead 26,000 young workers, mostly young women, out in the first general strike in any export processing zone in the world, in the Bataan Export Processing Zone in Mariveles in June 1982.)

To make a long story short, I visited six times (1986, ’88, ’89, ’90, ‘92 and 1994), traveled extensively across much of the country–including in each of the three major regions of Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao–talked with people supportive and opposed to the KMU and, in 1996, published a book titled KMU:  Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994. (It was only published in the Philippines and is currently out of print; it is available in North America through inter-library loans.)

Subsequently, I have stayed in touch with the KMU.  My book is the only nation-wide study of the labor center to date, and I was hoping it would stimulate many Filipino researchers to further and deepen my investigation, so as to overcome my shortcomings of not understanding any of the Filipino languages and having never lived there.  Unfortunately, no one has stepped up.

Eventually, I decided I wanted to update my earlier study. One of the ironies of my work is that when I began writing about the KMU, the general consensus among trade union theorists was that there couldn’t be a successful nation-wide trade union organization in a “third world” country because of their large populations and many people competing for all-too-few jobs; i.e., that they’d undercut each other. Yet the KMU had developed a nation-wide organization and done it in the face of a dictator, and then survived an even harsher period of repression under the new “democratic” regime of Corazon Aquino, as well as successor presidencies.  In short, they were approaching 40 years of doing “the impossible,” and I wanted to understand how they had been able to do it.  Hence, my trips in 2015 and 2016.

Since I was already in “the hood” in 2018–I have taught summer Sociology courses at Ton Duc Thang University (TDTU) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for the last two years–I decided to make a short trip to Manila, to reconnect with KMU, and to conduct some interviews so as to tie things up. I finished my last course at TDTU, and headed for Manila, arriving on July 21. This is a report of my trip.


I hit the jackpot.  Not only were most of the people I wanted to interview available–for example, I ended up getting a more than two-hour long interview with KMU Chairperson Elmer “Bong” Labog–but they were preparing to protest SONA, the annual State of the Nation Address by President Duterte.  (The SONA is modeled after the State of the Union address in the US.)  And I found a wonderful collection of essays edited by Nicole Curato–A Duterte Reader:  Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency–that really helped me understand what has been doing on.

Dutuerte was elected in 2016, and he ran as an “outsider.” Unexpectedly, he won.  (The parallels with you-know-who are many.)  He had been the mayor of Davao, the largest city in Mindanao, a region that has never elected a president.  It is an extremely complex society that has never been given much respect by “imperial Manila.”

Importantly, Duterte ran against the “post-EDSA” presidencies. Let me explain.  The “People’s Power Revolution” that led to Marcos’ expulsion on February 25, 1986 and excited people around the world had mobilized on EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) in Quezon City to support the “snap election” electoral win of presidential candidate Corazon Aquino, and to protect soldiers who had rebelled against Marcos; hence, the name “EDSA Revolution.”  (The US had backed Aquino against more radical candidates, and it is all-but-certain that it backed the rebellion in the military, as it was afraid that a re-elected Marcos would result in an even larger Communist insurgency with its New People’s Army.)  It was in the face of this uprising that US President Ronald Reagan’s delegate, US Senator Paul Laxalt, called Marcos and advised him to “cut and cut cleanly”–to get the hell out of Dodge.  The US flew Marcos, his wife, Imelda, their family and some top cronies to exile in Hawaii. Aquino assumed power, and the “EDSA Revolution” subsequently has become recognized basically as a “civic religion.”

Walden Bello, a long-time oppositionist from the left, explains what happened subsequently that led to the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte:

“Duterte’s ascendency cannot be understood without taking into consideration the debacle of the EDSA liberal democratic republic that was born in the uprising of 1986.  In fact, EDSA’s failure was a condition for Duterte’s success.

“What destroyed the EDSA project and paved the way for Duterte was the deadly combination of elite monopoly of the electoral system, the continuing concentration of wealth, and neoliberal economic policies and the priority placed on foreign debt repayment imposed by Washington (all emphases added).  By 2016, there was a yawning gap between the EDSA Republic’s promise of popular empowerment and wealth distribution and the reality of massive poverty, scandalous inequality, and pervasive corruption.”  (Walden Bello, “Rodrigo Duterte:  A Fascist Original” in Nicole Curato, ed., A Duterte Reader:  Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017: 77, 79-80.)

In other words, despite all the wonderful pronunciations about the return to “democracy” once Marcos fled, it has meant very little for the large majority of Filipinos:  their lives have not appreciably improved, or they have gotten worse.  To give just one example:  each day, over 6,000 Filipinos leave their country to go overseas for work. Each day.  And I could give many more examples, which I provide in my forthcoming Labor and Society article.

The People’s United SONA Protest (of 2018) was a response to increasing dissatisfaction with Duterte and his regime.  There are many issues that people are focusing on; human rights being a major one, but not the only one.

For labor–and labor in the Philippines is a vibrant and essential part of the resistance movement, totally unlike the role of the labor movement in the United States–the key issue that has caused them to sour on Duterte is his continuation of neoliberal economic policies, and especially his backtracking on his campaign promise to eradicate contractualization.

(When I last visited the KMU in July 2016, within the first month of Duterte’s presidency, I found there was hope with his election, as he had made many pro-labor and pro-left statements during the campaign, and had put some leftists into his Cabinet.  Things looked positive, although there were concerns–especially around human rights abuses–from the earliest days.  There is an excellent analysis of the process by which the larger left soured on Duterte in the Curato reader:  “Who Will Burn Duterte’s Effigy?” by Emerson M. Sanchez.)

The problem of contractualization is huge, and has an outsized impact on Filipinos’ incomes and general well-being.  According to Rochelle Porras of EILER (Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research), something like 24 million workers, out of a total workforce of a little over 40 million, are contractual, and 95-100 percent of workers in Export Processing Zones are contractual. What this means is that workers generally get paid less, get fewer benefits (if any), cannot join a union, and can be dismissed at any time; and they have no security of employment, no matter how many years they have worked at a company.

And IBON, an independent NGO (non-governmental organization), estimated in their end-of-the-year “Economic and Political Briefing” for 2014 (p. 28) that “some 66 million Filipinos or 68 percent of the population live off of P 125 or much less per day.”  (At that time, one US dollar would buy 45 Philippine Pesos, so divide that 125 by 45 to get US equivalent; today, USD $1=PhP 53.)

So, Duterte came into office, promising to end contractualization within three months and didn’t deliver.  Contractualization still remains a major issue today, especially for millions of workers across the country.


When one visits the KMU, leaders want you to focus on the lives of their worker-members.  This visit was no exception.  I talked with a number of workers who either lived in the National Capital Region (the area around and including Manila) or who had traveled to the NCR to join the SONA protest:  it’s clear that contractualization is a major factor in their impoverishment.

At the SONA protest, I interviewed workers who had participated in a several day lakbayan (long march) from the Southern Tagalog region (south of Manila) to Quezon City (the suburb next to, and generally northeast of, Manila).  Workers from Middle Be (makers of metal kitchen wares), Philippine Long Distance Telecommunications (PLDT), Monde (a noodle manufacturer), Experia (semi-conductors and sensors), and MG Exeo and Curo Teknita (the latter two, manpower agencies that supply workers to PLDT) each reported issues around contractualization.  Even when workers have gone through the legal processes that are mandated, and have gotten favorable decisions through DOLE (the Department of Labor and Employment), nonetheless, the companies have refused to obey DOLE’s orders and the government has refused to intervene on behalf of the affected workers, even after several months of company non-compliance.

I also talked with a woman worker from S Lord Development Corporation in Novatas, which is just north of Manila.  The workers, 85 percent women, have set up a workers’ picket line outside of the export processing zone in which the company is located, protesting their mistreatment since filing a case against the company with DOLE.  They had been charged by the company with putting inedible food parts into the sardines they had been canning, which they denied, saying “We buy these products; we’re not going to do something like that.”  But once they were charged, they responded:  they pointed out they hadn’t been paid the minimum wage, that they had received no benefits from the company, no maternity leave, and they had only been paid regular pay for Sundays, when they should have been paid double time.  On Mother’s Day, especially ironic for a heavily female work force, the company forced them to leave work on May 11.  On May 12, they were not allowed to re-enter the factory to work.  They were also blacklisted by at least two other factories.

The company has offered them money to withdraw their case at DOLE, and a company lawyer has also offered them financial assistance. So far, the 44 women who filed the case with DOLE have refused the money:  they say they are fighting for a wage increase and for them and others to be rehired as regular workers; the woman I talked with had worked there for over 11 years as a contractual worker.  She told me their objective is to fight the company “for the next generation” of workers.

But what about the established union in the company; has it been of any help?  She told me that the union is “yellow,” and collaborates with management.  She said they the president of the union advised the women to take the company’s money and leave.

The women have organized themselves as an independent association, Samahan Manggagawa (roughly “Workers’ Association”) and have registered their organization with DOLE. They have joined KMU’s NCR (National Capital Region) organization.  And they think that they wouldn’t be getting offers from the company if they were not in a winning situation, and they want to win.  They are also getting ready to file more charges against the company for failing to provide money for them into the Social Security System, which the company is legally required to do.

The next day, July 24, I traveled to Valenzuela, a city further north of Manila, to talk to striking workers at the Core Asia company. They manufacture paper products that are held together with a core, like paper towels and toilet paper.  The company announced they were closing the factory on July 19, so on July 2, the workers picketed in protest on their break between 11:30-12 noon, demanding that the company recognize their union and to not close the factory.  The company refused to let them go back to work, and has kept them out to date. They workers had been organizing a new union that was going to affiliate with one of KMU’s national federations, ANGLO, and the company does not want to recognize this union.  Negotiations were held on July 3rd, at the local DOLE office, and DOLE recommended that the workers be allowed to return to work. According to the strikers, management had no just reasons for their actions, other than they didn’t want to recognize the new union.

By maintaining a 24-hour picket line outside the factory, however, the workers have been able to keep the company from removing its equipment; they say that a sister company owned by the same capitalist, Chris Chua, had closed down previously, pulled out its’ equipment, and then reopened with only contractual workers, and they were determined not to let that happen at Core Asia.  I joined them on the picket line, to hear their stories and share some coffee.

To give you an idea of what it means to be contractual: in Core Asia, contractuals have been paid 280 pesos a day, when minimum wage in the National Capital Region is 502 a day, plus a 10 peso cost of living adjustment.  Drivers of small trucks get 280 pesos per trip, while drivers of larger trucks get 350; each well below legally mandated minimum.  However, making things worse, if there’s nothing to haul in the trucks, workers do not get paid for the day.

Yet even regularized workers have had it tough.  Again, workers are having to fight an established yellow union, which always follows the desires of management, always collaborates. One worker I talked with had been with the company since 2007, and he has received no wage increase except those mandated by the government.  Other workers–who had been there for 3 years and 4 months; two years; four years; and five years–each reported the same thing:  no wage increase beyond what the government had mandated.  Regularized workers had joined with contractuals, fighting to get them regularized, so they could get them into the union and that they could work together to transform the union from yellow to genuine.

Management has been counter-attacking; they want to remove regulars and replace them with contractuals.  To do this, they charge regularized workers with “loitering,” and giving them 14-day suspensions without pay.  They stagger the suspensions, forcing the workers to take three days off a week until the suspension is ended.

The union was to have negotiations with the company the following day at DOLE National Headquarters in Intramuros, Manila.  KMU Chair Elmer Labog was going to join the proceedings to see if he could help find a favorable resolution.  (As of July 27, nothing had been resolved.)

However, while I’ve been discussing individual workplace struggles against casualization, this organizing of casual workers has been taken to new heights by the KMU, going beyond just individual factories and workplaces.  Learning from the Coca Cola casual workers’ strike in Santa Rosa, Laguna in the Southern Tagalog Province during 2013–where organized causals had paralyzed company operations, forcing Coke operations across the country to agree to regularize everyone in their respective workforces–the KMU has been building a nation-wide organization of casual workers, Kilusang Na Manggagawa (KM), which translates roughly to “Workers Move Now!”


The point of all of this is to show that neoliberal economic policies combined with contractualization has been an economic calamity for millions of Filipinos.  It is this real situation on the ground, in addition to his war on drugs, and his direct attack on democracy and human rights in general, that has led to the National Democratic Movement to demand the ouster of President Rodrigo Duterte from office.


Interestingly, this call for Duterte’s ouster followed the unity developed within the labor sector during the May Day 2018 celebrations. Both KMU and its allies–including COURAGE, the government workers’ organization, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), and others–had joined together around the issue of opposing contractualization and demanding wage increases for all workers with Nagkaisa, largely a coalition of non-ND unions.  Normally, they hold separate mobilizations.  Nagkaisa–as explained to me by Daisy Arago, Executive Director of the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR)–includes unions from Sentro, Alliance of Philippine Labor (APL), the Federation of Free Workers (FFW), and both the Torres wing and the Mendoza wing of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), each being labor centers.  Yet it also includes organizations such as the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC), plus a number of personalities in and around the Akbayan political organization.  In other words, labor and some of its supporters had pulled together in a way not seen since 1986.

It was after this successful joint mobilization for May Day that the call for Duterte’s ouster was issued.  Then came the SONA protest.

The SONA protest on July 23, 2018 was huge; estimates I heard of the crowd size were around 40,000, but I think it was much larger than this: people were really packed in together. The march went from the University of the Philippines at Diliman down Commonwealth Avenue to St. Peter’s Church; Commonwealth is a major thoroughfare, and was totally immobilized for at least five hours by the protestors.

What was especially interesting was that the National Democrats (NDs)–heavily influenced by the Communist Party of the Philippines–and the non-NDs were marching together.  Now there was a “ribbon” that physically separated marchers, with the ND side being much larger and more tightly packed together, but it obviously wasn’t meant to keep people from interacting; nonetheless, it nicely allowed this observer to be able to distinguish between the two groupings.

Like mentioned above, the labor unity developed for May Day extended to the United People’s SONA protest.  While I wasn’t present for the May Day festivities this year, the United People’s SONA protest felt to me like I remember protests during the last days of the Marcos regime in early February of 1986.

At the end of the protest, an effigy of Duterte was burned. This is a symbolic rejection of a president, made especially profound by the National Democrats calling for his ouster in June.  Did the non-NDs agree to this?  I don’t know, but I didn’t see many protesters react negatively when it happened.


What does this all mean?  I’ll share some initial thoughts, but my guess is that the ramifications of what I learned on this trip will be reverberating for years.

The situation got even muddier the morning before Duterte gave his State of the Nation speech.  Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), a former Philippine president now serving in the Senate, led an internal coup, and replaced Duterte’s Senate President with herself.  I don’t know if this is an effort to slow Duterte, to stop him, to overthrow him, and for what purpose?  It certainly weakens some of the institutional position within the Congress that he has used for protection.  Is it to help the nation?  That is doubtful. Almost certainly, it will help GMA and her allies.  What does it mean for the great majority of Filipinos? As they say, “Stay tuned.”

A question lurking in the back of my mind is what is the US role in the GMA coup?  I don’t believe for a minute that it was initiated by the US–the Filipino elites are too astute and too well resourced to be puppets in the classic sense–but different groups of elites have different interests, and they all have their own relationship to US elites and the institutions they populate and/or control; they are definitely aware that their operations in the Philippines will be closely observed by their American “friends,” who will seek to take advantage of any openings.

Also, the Philippine military has extensive and close relationships to counterparts in the US military.  Despite the 1992 ending of the US military bases agreement–which threw the US military out of the Philippines–the US has been maneuvering again to get access to bases in the country, and different administrations have been willing to allow this to happen basically “on the sly” despite some more formal treaties.

Additionally, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has been fighting an almost 50-year war with the Communist Party-led New People’s Army (NPA). Although a much larger threat at the end of the Marcos Dictatorship, the NPA is considerably smaller today and has been unable to defeat the AFP; however, the AFP has been unable to defeat the NPA.  But they keep an eye on each other constantly, and the military has seemingly acted against Duterte’s efforts to achieve some peace settlement to end the war, a major demand of the ND left.  Again, how will GMA’s coup affect this?

Then there’s China.  China has been playing a larger and larger role in the region.  Many people are aware that the Chinese have built up and militarized some islands–claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and maybe others–in the South China/West Philippine/East Vietnam Sea. Certainly this is a challenge to the US Navy’s domination of the key waterway, and it is no longer assured that the US Navy could prevail in a military conflict.  This has raised some unsettling prospects for the various governments, including that of the Philippines.

Additionally, China has become a major player in economic development in the region, and in the country.  “As of 2017, China is the largest trading partner of the Philippines, being the single largest source of imports and the fourth largest destination for exports,” according to Chris Pforr in the 2018 pamphlet, “Dutertenomics: Growth, Wealth and Inequality under President Rodrigo Duterte” (p. 57). Plus, China is offering about US $24 billion in investments and soft loans for the Duterte government’s massive planned infrastructure program, and has numerous mining operations in Mindanao to feed China’s resource-hungry industrial machine.

So my guess is that at least one factor in the GMA coup–and I assume there are several–is to put limitations on Duterte’s opening to China, as he tries to play off the US and China for the benefit of the Philippines. There are definitely some elites in the country who want to block China’s moves, and do it in a way that advances their interests and those of their allies which, in many cases, means those of the United States.

[For a larger understanding, I highly recommend Alfred W. McCoy’s 2017 book, In the Shadow of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (Chicago:  Haymarket Books):  my review is on-line.]

The good news from my perspective of supporting Filipino workers and especially those of the KMU is that organizing has taken place to such a degree that the resistance that has been there now feels strong enough to mobilize publicly, and a major section of the left has now decided to fight for Duterte’s ouster.  That this came after considerable unity had been forged, at least temporarily, within the labor sector, suggests considerable strength.  Can labor further develop this unity?

Other questions remain.  Obviously, how will this affect the drug war?

Yet even less obvious, what about the on-going war against the poor across the country by the Duterte Regime?

Yet I now know that the organizational response that I presumed was happening, albeit out of sight, has now surfaced.  It’s game on!  My vote is on the people of the Philippines.  How this will play out, what will happen, remains to be seen. But don’t let anyone tell you that Filipinos are just passive victims; that is one thing they are not.  I don’t think Rodrigo Duterte will complete his six-year term.

The big question in all of this–assuming he doesn’t fulfill his six-year term–is what will be the ramifications of his removal from office?  The Philippines will still be a place where the large majority of people are impoverished, the economy based on neoliberal economic policies, and contractualization wide-spread.  The elites will still be in control.  Will the left be able to mobilize sufficiently to make real some of the needed changes?  How can we of other countries support their efforts?  And what can we learn from the KMU and the Filipinos that will help us in our struggles in our respective countries, and which might allow us to support their’s?

The reality is there are no simple answers, and success is not guaranteed.  It’s time we all begin to think how we can build global solidarity–especially global labor solidarity–to help Filipinos fight for the social and economic justice they so justly deserve.

NOTE:  Just as I was finishing up this article, I received a copy of Alfred W. McCoy’s article, “Global Populism:  A Lineage of Filipino Strongmen from Quezon to Marcos and Duterte.” McCoy well makes my point about the “activities” of Filipino elites.

Kim Scipes is a long-time political activist and trade unionist.  He teaches sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana.  His latest book is an edited collection titled Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization.  (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2016.)