The Long Road to Freedom for Karnation Workers

23 April 2014

“We're outside jail but we are not free.”

This is what Renato “Nato” Lopez, one of the Karnation 20, lamented when asked about the ongoing criminal charges filed against them by their employer, Karnation Industry in 2007.

Close to seven years, the case of serious illegal detention filed against Nato and his co-workers is still unresolved as the complainant (Karnation Industries) perennially delay court hearings by successive absences. The most recent hearing was held on April 1, 2014. The company/complainant did not appear in court; thus, the next hearing of was re- set on September 8.

To call the company’s attention for not complying with basic worker benefits, the Karnation workers held a protest action in front of the factory premises on May 2, 2007. But instead of addressing their grievances, the company slapped the workers with “serious illegal detention” reportedly for locking the company gates and other exits. The Karnation 20 suffered over two years of incarceration until on December 2009, they were granted bail and were temporarily released largely due to outside pressure prompted by incessant campaign of labor groups. (See related story)

Karnation001_0.previewFar from normal

But the delayed judicial process continues to burden Nato and the rest of Karnation 20. “Our lives are far from normal. It is very difficult to land on jobs with a criminal case under your name because employers really require a clearance,” Nato explained. He currently works as an “extra” for a subcontractor of construction projects. He was lucky enough to be recommended by some of his friends. But because of his status, his work is seasonal and he does not receive proper wages and benefits.

Nato narrated that most of them has to live with odd and insecure jobs until the case is settled. And while a few of them already went back to their respective provinces, Nato cannot do the same, “Every now and then, we have to attend court hearings. Transportation is costly so I decided to stay here even if I am away from my children.”

 “We try hard, we take a leave from work, and spend money for transportation to attend court hearings, but the complainant won’t show up or they have no legal counsel. So the hearing will be re-scheduled again for 3 months or so.”

“We really hope that the judge dismisses the case soon, so we can be finally free,” Nato pleaded.

Snail pace (in)justice system

The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights criticized the snail pace of the Karnation case saying it is a testament to how the system itself perpetuates injustice especially to the marginalized.

Arman Hernando, CTUHR documentation coordinator said, “When workers file complaints and fail to attend a few hearings, the workers are deemed disinterested but when it is the company that fail to show up and the case drags on to the workers’ disadvantage, it is due process.”

“Lives, families, and livelihood of the Karnation 20 have been badly affected by this case while the company owner, Willy Sia, can freely continue with his business albeit in another company name,” Hernando added.

Hernando also underscored that two Karnation workers, Melvic Lupe and Leo Paro, died of respiratory diseases that they acquired in detention while another one, Claro Claridad also died of respiratory ailment more than a year after they were bailed out.  

The group also expressed dismay over the delayed justice four years after the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) issued a recommendation to dismiss the criminal charges against the Karnation 20 when it is found that the charges are related to their exercise of union rights.

Empty victories?

The Karnation workers initially scored victories on the cases of illegal dismissal they filed against Karnation Industries Inc. The decision favorable to the workers was recently upheld by the Court of Appeals and is now final and executory. However, Willy Sia, the real owner of Karnation Industries according to the workers, was not pinned down as he reportedly used dummies. It is uncertain whether the workers can still go after Karnation Industries’ incorporators as the company has apparently changed its name and identity. (See related story)

Criminalization of labor

“The case of Karnation 20 is a glaring example of how capitalists use the law to suppress workers rights and inflict stigma on trade unions and workers’ dissent. Workers who join or form unions and even those who merely complain and advance their grievances are charged with crimes as if fighting for and exercising one’s right are criminal acts,” Hernando explained.

In 2013, CTUHR documented at least 33 cases of false criminal charges filed against workers and trade unionists. Most of these cases can be attributed either to the state’s counterinsurgency program that targets leaders of militant trade union federations or to an ongoing labor conflict between the management and the union.

The group said that aside from the immediate dismissal of false charges against unionists and labor leaders, this trend of criminalizing labor must be stopped, and that there should be more protection to workers’ free exercise of union rights.

The group however expressed pessimism about the Aquino government’s attitude towards union rights as it’s framework of industrial peace is mainly to provide a better business climate rather than better condition for workers. “Nonetheless, the workers and the people must persist in the fight and continue to assert and defend their collective rights,” Hernando said. ###