Militant Labor Organizing in the Philippines
February 25, 2022
The victory of the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain after the latter’s nearly 400 years of colonization was sabotaged by US imperialism. The transfer of countries under the Spanish empire – the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico – to the US was legitimized through the 1898 Treaty of Paris; the US paid Spain $20 million as “compensation.” This marked the end of the Spanish empire and the continuing colonization of the Philippines by US imperialism, a project defined by neocolonial institution-building and genocide. This has resulted in a persistent economic underdevelopment that maintains an export-oriented and import-dependent economy with a huge army of reserve labor.
Kilusang Mayo Uno, the May One Movement
In this context, economic campaigns such as wage hikes and contractualization schemes must be seen and raised as political struggles. Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU/ May One Movement) was founded on May 1, 1980 with the following objectives: 1) to gather and represent progressive workers’ organizations that advocated anti-fascist campaigns under Martial Law; 2) to organize and consolidate progressive workers’ organizations towards the goals of the national democratic struggle against US imperialism.
In 2018, KMU submitted an official membership of 115,000 to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Its current political and economic union work involves solid and on-the-ground organizing in Export Processing Zones (EPZ), urban poor communities, call centers, and private hospitals; the formation of broad alliances with other workers for wages and against tyranny; and the provision of a broad campaign center for popular labor issues amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. KMU holds fast to the principle of the peasant-worker alliance as a key force in the struggle for national liberation, thereby showing how labor in the Global South has always had to fight against the violent drain of imperialism.
Of the Philippine’s population of 108 million, approximately 3.9 million (3.6%) are industrial workers, which includes workers in manufacturing, construction, export-growing businesses, and other wage earners. Since 2017, KMU has organized to address the phenomenon of contractualization and the increasing semi-proletarianization of Filipino labor. The latter has pushed the organizing capacity of KMU to reach out to urban and rural poor communities where there are irregular wage earners (10.4 million) and non-wage earners (6.3 million) such as vendors and other informal workers.
Sites and modalities of labor in the Philippines
The class of landless peasants has been the reserve labor and actual farm workers for foreign agribusiness ventures. Displaced landless farmers populate the city and work as contractual labor in local factories and multinational EPZs. A rigid policy of contractualization makes for precarious work and a de-unionized workplace. Others who cannot find a job enter the informal economy.
The absence of an industrial base, which is the source of unemployment in the Philippines, has also paved the way for two modalities of labor which respond to the demand for cheap service labor by global capital in the form of outsourced and exported labor.
The first of these modalities is outsourced labor. The Philippines is the world’s undisputed “call center capital” – overtaking closest rival India – with 16% to 18% of the global market share. There are 851 registered business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in the country; more than half of these are call centers (429), and a large chunk of the others are firms providing IT-related services (400 or 46.2%). The remaining are medical transcription businesses and animated film and cartoon production houses. As a US semi-colony, the Philippines provides 65% of its outsourcing services to its imperialist master; it also serves clients from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. The latest data show that there is a total of 675, 600 workers in the BPO industry. Dubbed by the government as the country’s “sunshine industry,” Filipino labor in this sector is required to follow the working hours of the client’s time zone.
The second modality is the export of labor, which has been the Philippine state’s stopgap solution and cornerstone policy up to the present. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are the top dollar earner and GDP booster. A 2018 World Bank Report reveals that in 2017 alone, the Philippines raked in Php 1.72 trillion ($32.6 billion) from OFW remittances.
Linking workers’ struggles and anti-imperialism
With the changing landscape of Filipino labor since Marcos’ Martial Law, worker organizing has also meant addressing the main consequences of an imperialist system for workers in the Global South. This includes keeping Filipino labor cheap on account of wage hierarchies based on global unequal exchange. Another consequence is the intensified production of a large army of the unemployed in the periphery, which has resulted in the increasing semi-proletarianization of Filipino labor. This accounts for the partnership between foreign capital and domestic comprador interest defining labor relations. Semi-proletarianization as it happens in the Philippines is a process in which laborers are forced by an imperialist system to survive through wageless, irregular, and contractualized labor.
This makes urban and rural poor communities labor-concentrated sites where an anti-imperialist working class politics must be cultivated. KMU meets the people where they are with the goal of collectively transforming the social, political, and economic dimensions of life from community to nation. It organizes where families of jeepney drivers and informal workers live. By creatively supporting the formation of workers’ organizations in call centers, KMU addresses the latest forms of wage arbitrage in business process outsourcing.
A crucial lesson to be learned from KMU in its 40 years of struggle is that unionism in a semi-colony cannot make a convenient choice between economic or political struggle. The role of the state is critical in this regard. It aids the transformation from what is otherwise a confined economic struggle between workers and capitalists within a particular site of production to a locus of globalized political struggle in which the Leninist thesis of the state as an instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed is confirmed. In this context, trade unions in the Global South like KMU can only be militantly anti-imperialist and internationalist in their historical struggle to free labor from the clutches of global capital. Theirs is an anti-imperialist and anti-fascist working class struggle, inextricably linked with the call for free land redistribution and national industrialization toward a bright socialist future.
Sarah Raymundo, University of the Philippines, Diliman, columnist for Bulatlat.com, and organizer for the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS), <firstname.lastname@example.org>