Labor Day 2023: A call to organize

Today, we at LEARN join workers of the world in celebrating May 1. This Labor Day, we remember the sacrifices of countless  women and men who have fought for workers’ rights, better wages and benefits, and humane treatment in the workplace.

Our movement started in the 1840s when workers and unions fought back against the wielders of capital who forced our forebears to work at all hours for a pittance. The idea of the right to rest and decent wage—and of acting collectively—caught like wildfire. Millions of overworked and underpaid people in many parts of the world embraced and joined the movement.

In 1889, at the Second International, a congress of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day to commemorate the Haymarket Riot. Three years earlier, on May 4, 1886, police and labor protesters had a violent confrontation in Haymarket Square, Illinois, Chicago. The Haymarket Affair became a symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights.1

Our history is the story of unions improving our lot as workers. Our history is the story of humanity freeing ourselves from the shackle of exploitation.

Modern trade unions can be traced back to 18th Century Britain, when the industrial revolution started to attract peasants and immigrants into cities. Although Britain had ended serfdom earlier in 1574, most people remained as tenants that “work” on vast tracts of lands owned by the aristocratic class. But the industrial revolution created a new class of "workers" who owned nothing in the implements of production.

At least, farmers who paid rent to the land’s owners retained some control over their produce and by extension, their lives. They were able to sell animal products they raised and crops they tended. Industrial workers, on the other hand, only had their own labor to sell; they lost autonomy when they traded their sweat in exchange for wages.

Compelled by their hardships, unskilled and semi-skilled workers spontaneously organized, starting as small groups. Capitalists and governments, who were either former aristocrats or their representatives, prosecuted the struggling workers.

Unionism arrived in the Philippines by way of the national liberation struggle towards the end of Spanish colonialism 1898. After his exile in Spain, nationalist leader Isabelo de los Reyes returned to the Philippines in 1901 and founded the first labor union federation in the country in 1902: the Unión Democrática de Litógrafos, Impresores, Encuadernadores y Otros Obreros or the Democratic Union of Lithographers, Printers, Bookbinders, and Other Workers.2

But even as early as the 1850s, Filipinos have formed secret workers’ guilds (or gremios) that acted for the mutual benefit for its members. These guilds would later become the backbone of trade unionism in the country.

As in other countries, trade unionism in the Philippines has a revolutionary and anti-colonial tradition. That tradition was responsible for securing a long list of benefits for the workers that include: shorter working hours, minimum pay, 13th month pay, paid leaves, maternity leave, allowances, rest breaks, collective bargaining (which introduces new and better benefits), and many others.

Today, trade unionism in the country faces a multitude of challenges—among them is the declining number of organized workers.

In the 2019/2020 Integrated Survey on Labor and Employment, the PSA reported that the proportion of union members to total paid employees recorded a dismal 6%, a decline from the 7% reported in 2018. Only 316,458 of the 5.29 million paid employees are unionized workers. Declining union density has been a trend for many years now. Also, in 2020, the proportion of employees covered by CBAs to total paid workers was only 6.3% or 333,776 of the 5.29 million.

The context is: Of the 113 million Filipinos (2020 census), 48 million are supposedly working.3 But government data itself show that only close to 5 million workers are paid in formal establishments, and of these paid workers, not even half a million are unionized and enjoy better benefits.4 A number factors contribute to low union density:

One, a huge chunk of establishments in the country are small, employing less than 10 workers who can be easily dissuaded by the owners from forming unions.

Two, contractual workers are unable to join unions as they are dismissed every five months.

Also, the Philippine economy, propelled by technological advances and new needs, is generating jobs outside of the familiar establishment-based employment. Among them are domestic workers and e-platform-based workers such as delivery riders.

Three, the country has a huge informal sector. They are small-scale producers and distributors of goods and services, who under the Constitution and the Labor Code, must be covered by social protection, as they are also regular consumers of goods and services, and therefore contribute taxes. But before they can enjoy these rights, they needed to be organized first.

To sum up, workers covered by the protection of unions and CBA are small because many Filipino workers are outside of the usual establishments, which therefore could not be accommodated under the familiar form of unions patterned from the European and American models.

Our huge informal sector should force us to organize in ways outside current norms.

Finally, the Philippine labor movement is small and splintered into smaller groups. It is unable to mount collective bargaining with their employers and the government.

Let us view these challenges as opportunities.

The small can only grow big. The call of the time is to organize.


1To distance from the socialist theme, then U.S. President Grover Cleveland in 1894 designated the first Monday of September as Labor Day in the United States.
2De los Reyes, a big landlord but an anti-colonial leader, was jailed and exiled to Spain. Later he also actively sought independence from the United States.

Tomich, Dale W. (2004). Through the prism of slavery: labor, capital, and world economy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Amante, Maragtas S.V. (2019). Philippines Unionism ― Worker Voice, Representation and Pluralism in Industrial Relations, Institute of Developing Economies, Japan

Guevarra, Dante G. (1991). History of the Philippine Labor Movement. Sta. Mesa, Manila: Institute of Labor & Industrial Relations, Polytechnic University of the Philippines

Martial Law @50: Continuing quest for social justice and freedom from poverty

The maturity of a nation, it has been said, can be gleaned from how its people treat its painful past -- with brave acceptance of what happened and a strong conviction to prevent it from happening again.

However, an overwhelming number of Filipinos (31 million) have recently decided that the pain the country suffered during the dark years of martial law is no reason to prevent the election of the son and namesake of its perpetrator. And this after the election of Rodrigo Duterte, who exceeded the elder Marcos in brazen violence. Many have tried to come up with a suitable description for the behaviour: collective amnesia, social denial and dissonance, masochism, even sheer stupidity.

Exactly 50 years ago on September 23, 1972, the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. announced on television that he had signed Proclamation No. 1081 earlier in September 21, putting the Philippines under military rule.

That regime would last for ten gruesome years, with waves of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other appalling human rights violations against ordinary citizens. Amnesty International estimates that about 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and over 3,200 were killed outright.1 Hundreds of desaparecidos, people who were abducted by state actors, were never seen again dead or alive by their families and loved ones.

Marcos apologists and paid trolls however are quick to point out that these atrocities are necessary payment for the economic “golden age” at that time. The purported golden age however is a methodical disinformation, churned into chewable fake news and used effectively in May 2022 election.2

From 1972 to 1985, the average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was 3.4 percent, and the per capita GDP grew every year by less than 1 percent. In contrast, the average annual GDP growth from 2003 to 2014, despite the political chaos, was 5.4 percent.3

But why would such a thing happen under the watch of a brilliant Marcos? Because the economy under him was suffering from a post-war recession and the response was largely to secure foreign loans that financed ambitious big-ticket projects with huge percentage of kickbacks going to his cronies that eventually ended in his own pocket. With debt as foundation, that economy started to tumble like a house of cards in 1982, crashing in 1985 when the government could no longer pay its debt obligations.4 And just like what recently happened in Sri Lanka, what ensued was debt crisis, unemployment, untold poverty, and even famine.

For many of the surviving victims of Marcos’s martial law and their loved ones, justice and reparations remain incomplete. On February 25, 2013, the late former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III signed the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act, or Republic Act 10368, which created the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board. When the claims board ended in 2018, it received over 75,000 claimants. Unfortunately, the board assessed that only around 11,000 fully met the requirements to claim reparation, which was sourced mainly from the Marcoses’ ill-gotten Swiss deposits.5

Some tried to have a new law enacted to include other martial law victims who failed, for various reasons, to make it on the successful list of claimants in 2018. But in 2019, former President Rodrigo Duterte made a series of statements contrary to Supreme Court ruling6 alleging that the elder Marcos did not amass ill-gotten wealth from his long rule. The effort for additional reparations is now in limbo, if not totally impossible.

After half a century, the declaration of Martial Law has come full circle: all-time high oil price, record-breaking weak peso coupled with a dwindling dollar reserve which is being drained by debt payment and imports. There is twist to the circle however-—the son and namesake of its perpetrator is now sitting as president. History sometimes could be so cruel.

And the question has to be asked again: Why did Filipinos, including many workers, vote for another Marcos?

There is more than a few answer to such an enigma. But for this piece, suffice it to say that the ousting of the Marcos regime was an incomplete project. Except for Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, and Benigno Aquino III, all succeeding presidents, from Joseph Estrada to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and to Rodrigo Duterte were proved to be Marcos allies. The Marcoses, except for few years, never lost their grip to power.

1Amnesty International. (2018). Philippines: Restore respect for human rights on 46th anniversary of martial law. Public statement.
2Salazar, C. (2022). Marcos leads presidential race amid massive disinformation. Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
3De Dios, E. (2015). The truth about the economy under the Marcos regime. Introspective. Businessworld. 16 November 2015.
4Montesa, AJ. (2022). The economic legacy of Marcos. Yellow Pad. Businessworld. 6 March 2022.
5Amnesty International. (2022). Five things to know about Martial Law in the Philippines.
6Aguinaldo, C. and Balinbin, A. (2019). Duterte signs law extending use of ill-gotten wealth for human rights-abuse victims. Businessworld. 28 February 2019.

Image credits: FB/Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa

Let us unite against the return of a dead dictator and a new tyrant!

Labor Education and Research Network (LEARN) 2022 Labor Day Statement

In a few days, Filipino voters will have the once-in-a-six-years chance to choose a new president. The next chief executive should have a clear and doable plan how to arrest the soaring prices of food and other necessities induced by the covid pandemic and the global oil crisis, stem the erosion of the workers’ already low wages, and halt the farmers’ sustained income losses, while ensuring that taxes and government resources are not lost to corruption.

President Rodrigo Duterte is about to end his term—leaving a dismal legacy: six years of broken promises to stump endo, failure to stop Chinese incursions in the resource-rich West Philippine Sea, and the botched drug war that killed thousands of suspected drug users.

Duterte wants to survive through his daughter Sara, who is running as vice president to Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr. The uneasy alliance was brokered by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who allied with Duterte in the latter’s presidential bid in 2016. Within two months of Duterte’s term, Arroyo’s plunder case was dismissed by the Supreme Court who at that time was dominated by her appointees.  The previous president’s appointed chief justice, Lourdes Sereno, was impeached in 2018. Later, the cabal was joined by Joseph Estrada, another ex-president who was pardoned by Arroyo only after two weeks of conviction for plunder.

So, who is it, really? Is it the Dutertes wanting to remain in power, or is it the Marcoses trying to regain Malacanang? Evidence says that it is more of the latter.

The Marcoses’ campaign to fully retake their stolen wealth and faked stature is no small feat. In 1998, twelve years after they were kicked-out of the country by a popular revolt in 1986, the family’s matriarch, Imelda, was allowed to return to the country to face charges of graft and corruption. In 2000, the family started to engage professional communicators in generating myths of the great wealth of the family, rather than a wealth extracted from half a century in politics. They started with Friendster, Flickr, and other platforms that were forerunners of Facebook and Tiktok. A few years after, Imelda and her children started to take elective positions in their home provinces of Ilocos Norte and Leyte.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s spirit must be restless right now: will Filipinos welcome his family, or will they finally exorcise his ghost and embrace a future of hope?

The critical role of the workers in determining the best tract for the country is once again at the forefront. It was the workers and progressive individuals and groups from across social classes and sectors who resisted  US colonialism in the early 1900s, valiantly fought the Japanese occupation during WWII together with the farmers, and made up the core of resistance against martial law leading to the 1986 Edsa Revolution. In war and peace, the workers’ interest for continued social progress runs counter to the interests of the status quo, hence they are almost always targeted first by tyrannical rulers.

The vote of the workers, women and men, especially those organized, could truly put forward the genuine interest of Filipinos—a thriving local economy, taxation that works for the people and not as a subsidy for the filthy rich, industries that create wealth and employment without destroying the environment, and a society that caters to the needs of all, especially the vulnerable sectors.

For the May 9 election, the platforms and track records of Leni Robredo and Kiko Pangilinan are our best shot. There is no illusion that all the social ills will be resolved in the six-year term of Robredo. But we will have the chance to co-create a better long-term plan, as shown by her willingness to sign covenants with different sectors, and her active participation in public debates. Her long practice in developmental lawyering—working with the farmers and workers rather than serving the more profitable corporate and tax law practice, shows that her heart is in the right place.

A Marcos-Duterte tandem on the other hand will only plunge us deeper down the rabbit hole.

Wikipedia Commons: Kyna De Castro/Province of Camarines Sur (

On International Workers’ Memorial Day, LEARN calls for safe and healthy workplaces for workers

LEARN Statement for International Workers’ Memorial Day 2022

LEARN joins the global labor movement in commemorating the International Workers’ Memorial Day today, April 28. Organized globally since 1996, its purpose is to honor the memory of victims of occupational accidents and diseases by organizing mobilizations and awareness campaigns on this date.

Just as the official count of Filipinos who died from COVID-19 passed the 60,000 mark, many of whom were working people, the call to understand more deeply the occupational health aspect of any work or livelihood, has never been more urgent.

Even before the pandemic, workers all over the world have already been putting their lives on the line to perform and deliver essential services. According to joint estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1.9 million people died from work-related diseases and injuries each year.

When the deadly virus hit the Philippines in early 2020, workers from across industries had to continue doing their jobs in poor working conditions. Official counts from the Department of Health (DOH) confirmed that at least 104 health workers died while on the frontlines in the battle against COVID.

The pandemic exposed not only the ongoing workplace safety crisis but also the dismal state of economic security and social protection mechanisms for those in the labor force.

Two years since the March 2020 shutdown that decimated the labor market, the Philippine government still has not figured out how to bring back the employment situation to pre-pandemic levels. Unemployment rate for February 2022 was at 6.4 percent, still a far-cry from the 5.3 percent recorded in January 2020.  

Last year, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) declared COVID-19 as a compensable work-related disease. However, the granting of paid isolation and quarantine leave benefits to workers remains optional.

LEARN urges the Philippine government to take occupational safety and health standards more seriously in fighting COVID. 

On the International Workers’ Memorial Day 2022, LEARN calls on:

  • The ILO to deliver on its promise during its Centenary Conference in 2019 to make occupational safety and health a fundamental right at work
  • The Philippine government to strengthen the implementation of Republic Act 11058 (Occupational Safety and Health Standards Law) and to ratify the International Labour Organization’s Occupational Safety and Health Convention (C155)
  • The next administration to create programs and policies for social and economic recovery that prioritizes the safety and welfare of workers and working families including support for workplace unionization campaigns and collective bargaining, the implementation of a wealth tax, and ramped-up vaccination efforts