Big Brown in the Philippines: UPS joins the “pivot to Asia”

Back in mid-March, Gina Raimondo, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, led a trade mission to the Philippines, that included twenty-two executives from such top U.S.-based corporations as United Airlines, Alphabet’s Google, Black & Veatch, Visa, Boston Consulting Group, KKR Asia Pacific, Bechtel, FedEx, Mastercard, Microsoft, and, finally, United Parcel Service (UPS), popularly known as “Big Brown” in the United States. Together these U.S. corporations pledged $1 billion in new investments.

This mix of transport, logistics, construction, and financial services corporations shouldn’t surprise us. The U.S. response to the economic, political, and military competition from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been to bolster its shaky position in the Pacific, long considered an “American Lake” until a few years ago. The appointment of former Chicago Mayor and longtime Democratic power broker, Rahm Emmanuel as U.S. Ambassador to Japan signaled a new stage in the U.S. “pivot to Asia” to meet China’s challenge.

Accompanying Raimondo on her trade mission were the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Mary Kay Carlson, U.S. Ambassador and Director of the Asian Development Bank Chantale Wong, and the now-retired Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral John Aquilino. Under Raimondo’s leadership the Commerce Department has emerged as playing a major role in reshoring U.S. manufacturing, which a recent 60 Minutes profile of her made very clear, but less so her role in the rivalry with China abroad.

Our Man Marcos Jr.

However, before this new round of investment could take place concessions had to be made to foreign owned corporations. According to the Commerce Department’s official press release, Raimondo commended, “the Philippine government for recent legal and regulatory reforms undertaken to open key sectors such as renewable energy, railways, airports, expressways, and telecommunications to 100 percent foreign ownership.” Now that the U.S. didn’t face the prospect of any of the wealth generated by Filipino workers remaining in the Philippines, a new round of investment could go ahead.

Shepherding these reforms through the Filipino Congress was the current President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the son of the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., who died in exile in 1989. Marcos Senior was forced out of office a few years earlier during the “People Power Revolution”that toppled his oppressive regime, notorious for widespread human rights violations and corruption. He was also a loyal U.S. ally hosting two critical American military bases — Subic Bay Naval and Clark Air Force — during the Vietnam war. Marcos Jr. won a landslide election to the Filipino presidency in 2022.

Pivot to Asia

“We have been doing business in our Philippines hub for more than 25 years, helping to connect businesses to markets in Asia Pacific and beyond. The investments UPS continues to make through this expansion will enhance time in transit across Asia Pacific and continue to deliver service reliability for our customers and position UPS for long term growth,” Wilfredo Ramos, president UPS Asia Pacific stated in UPS press release soon after the completion of the trade mission.

But, the new round of investments represent a step up in Big Brown’s presence in the Indo Pacific region that fit hand-in-glove the United States’ pivot to Asia. UPS boasted, it

“has taken the value of its investment commitments in Asia Pacific to over $250m since the start of 2023. The investments include the company’s recent agreement with The Luzon International Premiere Airport Development Corporation (LIPAD) to expand its operations at Clark Airport (CRK) in the Philippines. The move will enable UPS to further strengthen its portfolio of integrated express, supply chain and healthcare logistics services.”

UPS further stated,

The agreement is the latest in a series of recent network and facility enhancements the company has made across Asia Pacific including in Singapore, Japan, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently Hong Kong, where UPS announced it will open a new state-of-the-art facility 2028.

LIPAD Chairperson Josephine Gotianun Yap is overjoyed by UPS’s stepped up investment,

“UPS’s expansion in Clark will bring positive changes to Pampanga, providing job opportunities for the local community and serving as an economic stimulus in the region. This partnership between UPS and LIPAD also represents a significant milestone in developing Clark as an ideal logistics hub for global brands aiming to establish or expand their international operations. LIPAD, which operates Clark International Airport, looks forward to welcoming UPS to its future location in Clark and supports its expansion in the Philippines”

According to UPS, “Construction of the new Clark hub is set to begin in February 2025, and it is expected to be operational in late 2026.”

Trade unionists murdered

Beyond the chirpy rhetoric of Raimondo, Ramos, and Yap, the Philippines is one of most dangerous places in the world for political dissidents and trade unionists. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reported in October 2023, “Since 2016, 72 trade unionists have been killed in the Philippines, including four since January 2023, when a high-level fact-finding mission into the levels of violence trade unionists in the country face was launched by the ILO (International Labor Organization).”

Filipino trade unions and the ITUC were especially outraged by the murder of veteran union Jude Thaddeus Fernandez, sixty-six, who had survived the Marcos era of the 1970s but was murdered by the National Police during a raid on his home. Jerome Adonis, the Secretary-General of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) trade union, told The Real New Network (TRNN):

Since starting out as a youth activist, Fernandez immediately decided to help in labor organizing. They formed various formations to broaden the struggle and fight of workers, mainly on issues regarding the living wage. Second, on resisting contractualization (labor flexibilization schemes), third on the issue of decent and safe workplaces. Lastly, the fundamental right of workers, to organize and form a union.

Filipina Human Rights activist Kate Calimag told the TRNN:

“Fernandez was known to have been crucial in forming the Alliance of Workers in the Province of Laguna, and labor federation Unity of Workers in Southern Tagalog — KMU. Both labor formations are based in the provinces south of the Philippine capital which have dense populations of workers employed by various multinational companies.”

Other Filipino trade union activists have disappeared without a trace. Let’s be clear that Fernandez’s murder took place under the current President Marcos Jr. not his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who gained international notoriety for his “war on drugs” murder spree that the International Criminal Court demonstrated as “crimes against humanity.” For trade unionists, little has changed under Marcos Jr. Despite lofty rhetoric from the U.S. trade mission to the Philippines, nothing was said about workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively at UPS’s burgeoning operations in the Philippines.

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) is one of the few U.S. -based unions that has built connections with Filipino workers, highlighted broader human rights violations, and the assault on trade unionists in the Philippines. The Teamsters represent the bulk of UPS workers in the United States but, as far as I know, they have never done any direct outreach to Filipino UPS workers. That needs to change.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.