Philippine trade union activist Elmer Labog: "Duterte was close with the progressive sector in the past, but we do not allow him to trample on the people's rights"

Elmer "Ka Bong" Labog is chairperson of one of the biggest progressive labor organizations in the Philippines, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU). While visiting Brussels, he gave us an update on the current challenges in the Philippines.

Hello, welcome to Belgium! Who are you and why are you visiting us in Brussels?

“Hi, thank you, my name is Elmer Labog. You can call me “Ka Bong” if you want. It's my nickname “Bong” and “Ka” for Kasama, which means “comrade” in Filipino. I am chairperson of KMU, which stands for Kilusang Mayo Uno. It's a labor center and trade union that mainly focuses on workers issues. But KMU also has a strong position on various social issues. I was invited by Wereldsolidariteit, a Belgian NGO, to come to Brussels, and I'm also meeting some Belgian trade unions within their international solidarity program.”

Sounds interesting, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I know KMU as an organization that strongly opposes to anti-social policies in the Philippines. Has the election of President Duterte in 2016 changed the position of the KMU?

“At the start of the Duterte administration in June, we were very positive about his appointment. He made a lot of promises to help poor people. He promised the end of contractualization [1] and resumption of the peace talks [2], which are very important subjects for KMU. We were thrilled to see that Duterte appointed very progressive members of government in different fields, for instance Judy Taguiwalo, Secretary of Social Welfare, who's a former leader of women's organization Gabriela. Or the secretary of Agrarian Reform, Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano, who was a member of our sister organization KMP, the trade union for peasants.

Unfortunately, he is now almost a year in office, and did not live up to his promises. He did not put an end to the contractualization. He basically just continued the neoliberal policies of former president Aquino, which focus on an economy that depends on foreign investment. On top of that, he started his “war on drugs” and is continuing to violate human rights of the Filipino people.

The only difference with Aquino so far, is his commitment to the peace talks between the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Philippine government. Two major issues are on the table: land reform and industrialization. Some progressive government functionaries and the broad masses are pushing for the implementation of land reform. So maybe this time, the negotiations will succeed, because we can join forces.

So it's not all bad, but for the KMU, it's a case of strongly criticizing the government when they're wrong and supporting them when they're right. Duterte was very close with the progressive sector in the past, but we do not allow him to trample on the rights of people.”

Isn't his "war on drugs" a huge violation of the human rights?

“Yes, that's very much so, and we strongly oppose this policy! Even at the start, we were very critical of this program, because we knew it would be devastating for people in poor communities. With his "war on drugs", Duterte actively targets the poor people. Because of the prevailing poverty, the urban poor easily get involved in drug deals or become addicts themselves. So it's a crazy thing for Duterte to say that he will kill all addicts and users, it will be a true killing field in the Philippines!

On top of that he's also using his "war on drugs" as a smokescreen to target human rights activists. That's why they look for drug addicts where the urban poor people are strong, where there is presence of workers that are organized. They use it as an excuse to attack. And all unions are victimized, not only the progressive ones. There's a case in Central Luzon where the vice president of a newly formed union had been a former drug user, many years ago. The army exposed the vice president of the union as still using drugs at present. So he was pressured to resign from the union.”

You say poverty is linked to many problems, like drug abuse and other health issues. How can you tackle such a complex problem as poverty?

"The basic thing about the peace talks is to address the roots of the problems, and that's land ownership. The Philippines is not a poor country. We have all the necessary mineral resources, but they are controlled by foreigners and big land lords. If there would be land to till for poor Filipino's, they would go to the provinces and work on the land. A land reform program can create economic activity in agriculture and could have a strong impact on poverty reduction.
That's why for KMU, the peace talks are an important event. It's not only about the parties involved in the negotiations, it's about people's daily lives."

But KMU does not take part in the negotiations?

"No, as a trade union we are not part of the negotiations. But we discuss with our members why there are peace talks and why they matter to us. It's not just a negotiation between two parties who have to fix the situation in the Philippines. We have to educate our members saying we are a part of this activity, because it's us that they are talking about. Without us, the NDF and Philippine government would have nothing to talk about. We are the very subject matter of the peace talks. It's the day to day lives of the people, especially peasants, workers and urban communities, that matter."

It's not the first time that the NDF and the Philippine government are negotiating, what makes you think that this time it will be different?

"The role of progressive members of the government is very important this time. This time the government functionaries and broad masses are pushing for the implementation of the land reform.
But there's still one major point on the agenda before the negotiations can be successful, it's the release of political prisoners. They are not all NPA [3] fighters. Most of them are ordinary peasants, workers, medical practitioners, who were arrested on trumped up charges."

Are the people actively protesting against the broken promises of Duterte?

"After 8 months of waiting on adequate housing for the poor, people took matters in their own hands. 3500 people in Bulacan province started an occupy movement. They discovered housing units that were reserved for the police and armed forces, but that were not awarded nor occupied for years. The walls already started to rot. The occupy movement thought that they could make better use of the units. There's no electricity and no water, but people can live there, fetch water from elsewhere and install their own electricity.

One of our member organizations, KADAMAY, is supporting this movement. Our argument is that the military and police already have their houses within their camps. I went to see the project for myself and there were 5.000 people rallying at that moment, to defend the occupants. It was very inspiring to see such a broad support!"

How is the government reacting to this movement?

"Duterte said it's mob rule and also the governor expressed his disapproval. They say we are starting anarchy. But that's not at all what this is, we are not running away from the government, we are very open to dialogue.
Also, the mainstream media are trying to destroy the acts of the urban poor people. The government warned the occupants that they will be issuing eviction orders and use the police forces. But it has been going on for two weeks already and they have not yet implemented the order."

Do you think the occupants will be able to stay there?

"We will wait for the situation to calm down and then we will tap sources of water. We will try to produce for our own needs. It's near the mountains, so there are vacant lots right at the side.

The National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) have joined the legal battle to prove that the occupation is just and legal. The defense is to question the ownership of the site, because the government has not used it for years. We investigated and there are no names on the building. It's on wasteland. So I think we will be able to continue the occupation and, in a second phase, develop a self sustaining community. And of course, if this type of organizing works in Bulacan province, why not try it in other places?"

Thank you very much for your time and your interesting insights, I hope to see you again next time you're in Belgium!



1. Contractualization is a system of temporary employment, it provides jobs that are insecure, low-paying, and lacking in benefits, through which capitalists reap profit. (source: IBON: http://ibon.org/tag/contractualization/)

2.  Negotiations between the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), who are in armed conflict. The topics under discussion are agrarian reform and rural development, national industrialization and foreign economic and trade relations, among others. (source: IBON)

3. The NPA or New People's Army is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines under the umbrella of the National Democratic Front.

Philippine trade union activist Elmer Labog: "Duterte was close with the progressive sector in the past, but we do not allow him to trample on the people's rights" | Viva Salud


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