On the US-PH deals and the closure of the USTR GSP review of the PH

June 19, 2014

What is at stake for Filipino workers in the recent deals between the Philippines and the United States that purportedly aims to strengthen bilateral cooperation in addressing development and security issues?

The signing of a new defense agreement (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement-EDCA) alongside economic deals (including the move to change the Philippine constitution) between the two countries prior to US President Barrack Obama’s visit to the Philippines in April this year, seems to have an immediate negative impact on Filipino workers’ bid to keep the government responsible for past and continuing violations of trade union rights.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) recently reported to its Philippine partners that the US Trade Representative is closing its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) review of the Philippines this year because the Philippine Government has been taking steps in improving workers’ rights situation by instituting mechanisms such as the National Tripartite Industrial Peace Council (NTIPC) to address cases brought forth to the ILO in 2009 and making amendments to the Assumption of Jurisdiction law.

The GSP is a set of a set of trade and economic benefits provided to US trading partners for mutual gains. Trade benefits include allowing certain products for export or removing quotas for products exported to the US. A country may be under review and thereby risks losing its trading privileges when it does not meet certain standards in terms of product quality, protection of intellectual property, and compliance to internationally-recognized workers rights.

The Philippines has been under GSP review since 2007 when successive violations of trade union rights especially extrajudicial killings gained international attention as a result of continuous campaign done by trade unions and NGOs both local and international. Notably, the review process created strong pressure to the Philippine government to accept the ILO High Level Mission in 2009.

The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights is deeply concerned over this imminent closure of the GSP review process for the Philippines which the USTR is bound to announce in the coming weeks.

We deem that closing the review process is a setback on the workers’ longstanding struggle to bring to justice perpetrators of previous and prevailing trade union and workers rights violations. We resent the implicit recognition that the Philippine Government is on the right path affording workers internationally-accepted rights. On the contrary, we contend that:

  • Steps taken by the Philippine Government to address past cases of human rights and trade union rights violations can only be taken at face-value yielding no concrete positive results. The NTIPC Monitoring Body which the government revived since 2010 to investigate the extra-judicial killings committed against trade unionists during the Arroyo presidency merely cut down the list of cases forwarded to the ILO during the ILO-HLM but have not resulted to strengthen any single case to bring justice to the victims of trade union and human rights violations let alone hold any single perpetrator accountable.
  • Violations of trade union rights under the current Aquino government continue. In 2013 alone, two trade unionists were killed, more than a thousand unionists experienced union busting and union harassment while criminalization of workers, whether unionized or not, is growing mode of attack to quell labor’s dissent or grievance redress.
  • Reforms aimed at strengthening tripartite councils benefit largely the “industry” and employers but barely worked to increase protection of workers’ rights.
  • Unless the repealed, the Assumption of Jurisdiction law—despite being amended—still run  contrary to ILO conventions and will continue to legally curtail workers right to strike.

Meanwhile, the new defense and economic agreements signed in April lopsidedly favors the US, designed primarily to serve US pivot to Asia policy. EDCA undermines Philippine sovereignty turning the entire country into a US military base. With strong lobbying from the American Chamber of Commerce, the Congress is fast tracking charter change to allow 100 percent foreign ownership of land and property as a necessary requisite for the Philippines to be part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement led no less than by US’ top corporations.

Given US’s larger interest in securing military presence and economic dominance in the Asia Pacific region, we are wont to believe that lifting the GSP review on the Philippines is a quid pro quo, albeit too small in comparison to what the US government is about to gain, but nevertheless the Aquino Government is still very pleased to accept.

Definitely, the impact of abovementioned agreements on workers and Filipino people is far more strategic and devastating on people’s livelihood and rights far. The closure of the USTR review as an instant result of compromises is foreboding of worse things to come.

We reiterate that the Aquino government in its four years in office has done nothing to improve workers condition. The ITUC report citing the Philippines as among the worst countries in the world for workers rights strengthens this. We strongly believe that the Philippines should remain under review as violations of workers’ rights remain rampant under the Aquino administration.###