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