UP SOLAIR holds virtual forum on exercise of freedom of association in export processing zones

QUEZON CITY – On 15 June 2024, the School of Labor and Industrial Relations of UP Diliman (UP SOLAIR) hosted a virtual forum titled “Unheard Voice: (The Lack of) Freedom of Association Among Workers in Export Processing Zones.”  

The activity was organized by students of IR 216 (Special Problems in Labor-Management Relations) supervised by Senior Lecturer Christine Joy L. Galunan as part of their capstone project.  As the IR 216 course was focused on Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy, the forum aimed to gain insights on the challenges and opportunities encountered by workers in export processing zones (EPZs) in the exercise of their right to freedom of association and to discuss possible solutions to the issues and challenges therein.

Dr. Melisa R. Serrano, dean of UP SOLAIR, welcomed the speakers and participants and congratulated the IR 216 class. Dr. Serrano emphasized that the Philippine Constitution and the Labor Code of the Philippines guarantee the right of workers to organize. Despite the legal framework, however, she mentioned that the Philippines is still among the top 10 worst countries for workers based on the 2024 Global Rights Index of the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC).

The invited speakers, Mr. Allan Datahan, Deputy Zone Administrator and Officer-in-Charge of Industrial Relations Division of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), and Mr. Josua Mata, Secretary General of Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (SENTRO), shared invaluable inputs on the exercise of freedom of association in EPZs.

Mr. Datahan emphasized that as a matter of policy, environmental protection and rights of workers are two concerns that are non-negotiable for PEZA. He asserted that the provisions of the Labor Code of the Philippines are implemented inside EPZs. Mr. Datahan also shared that the DOLE-DTI-PEZA Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Promoting Industrial Peace in Special Economic Zones, signed on 30 April 2023, was already operationalized through the creation of tripartite councils in EPZs namely, the Tripartite Advisory Council and the Ecozone Tripartite Working Committee. The MOA was signed with the objective of adopting the strengthened tripartite mechanism in the ecozones.

For his part, Mr. Mata said that the biggest factors that attract locators to EPZs are “the low wages” and “the unwritten promise of no union and no strike zones”. For decades, he said that the Philippine labor movement had witnessed violations of workers’ rights, including freedom of association, in EPZs and that this is the second year in a row that the International Labor Organization Committee on the Application of Standards reviewed the adherence of the Philippines to ILO Convention 87 (Freedom of Association).

While Mr. Datahan mentioned that there are existing labor unions within the EPZs, Mr. Mata argued that the number is not that significant given the duration that EPZs have been operational and the minimal proportion of unionized to more than a million non-unionized workers in EPZ factories. . According to Mr. Mata, the lack of progression of labor unions within the EPZs is due to malpractices that are still present up to this date like union busting and blacklisting, to name a few. 

Mr. Mata suggested that for EPZs to respect trade union rights, there has to be change in motivation in investment policy, removal of perception of moral hazards, correction of the ‘failed’ labor justice system, and an end to hypocrisy of big brands that are locators in EPZs. 

As one of the reactors, Prof. Benjamin Velasco, Assistant Professor of UP SOLAIR, mentioned that freedom of association in EPZs is a contested terrain. He described the asymmetrical power relationship that exists in global supply chains, in which not  all actors embedded in that ecosystem hold the same level of resources and power. To ensure decent work in EPZs, he said that brands must be brought in as parties to binding agreements that respect labor rights, including freedom of association. 

Meanwhile, in his reaction statement, Atty. Ramon Saura, Mediator-Arbiter from the Bureau of Labor Relations, emphasized that the role of the government is to balance the interests of the different actors in industrial relations. He said that workers’ right to freedom of association is a priority of the government as articulated in the 2023-2028 Philippine Labor and Employment Plan and the Tripartite Roadmap on the Freedom of Association. Based on records, he shared that currently there are 696 registered labor organizations covering 116, 344 union members in EPZs in the country

In her closing message, Prof. Galunan thanked the speakers and emphasized that the challenge of continued engagement is not yet done for scholars and those who are involved in tripartite processes. She encouraged the participants to keep the debates and engagements on freedom of association going and maximize available platforms to constructively contribute to policy changes. She emphasized that what needs to be done is for unions to be recognized as active co-constructors of the Philippine economy and to ensure that the policy environment aligns to this objective.

Lastly, the students delivered their message of unity and stood up for the worker’s right to self-organization and to form unions within the Philippine EPZs #KarapatanSaPaggawa.

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