'This is not the time': Labor groups warned against holding May 1 protests

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
'This is not the time': Labor groups warned against holding May 1 protests
Photo dated April 30 shows workers seen conducting road reblocking in Caloocan. May 1 marks Labor Day.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — Ranking members of the national police Thursday urged workers' groups to hold off on holding protests on Labor Day due to the threat of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). 

Police Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, who heads the enforcement arm of the country's COVID-19 task force, said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon that works should instead focus on coming up with plans to help prepare workers for the "new normal."

In a separate public address on Thursday, Police Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa, PNP chief, said that the national police is anticipating that demonstrations would be held and has plans in place to address them. 

"We are aware of plans by militant, cause-oriented groups to stage public assembly and mass actions in several venues on May 1 in commemoration of Labor Day," Gamboa said in his public address. 

"Much as we respect their right to peaceful assembly, out of the exigency of the health crisis, we beg to discourage them for their own safety and in the best interest of public health."

The chief of police also said that the national police does have countermeasures in place, although he opted not to specify what these were. 

"The government has always been respectful and tolerant of the conduct of protest actions. We hope that labor groups and our workers will realize that this is not the time to hold protest action, not under this situation,” Eleazar said for his part. 

RELATED: DOLE: Employers may defer Labor Day holiday pay

“We fully understand that it is the labor sector which was severely affected by the government’s strict measures against coronavirus infection. Every day, we see news reports and social media posts about how the quarantine affected the life of the ordinary workers and their family because their workplaces were forced to either limit or shut down the business operations,” he added. 

Labor Day 

But workers, including those who are in unions, have had their protest actions dispersed even before the COVID-19 pandemic restricted movement and led to suspensions and changes in work schedules.

In February, ten striking workers of Cosmic Enterprises in Caloocan City were detained after their demonstrations were broken up by police and security personnel.  The same happened to 23 workers of Regent Foods Corp. who were picketing in November 2019.

READ: Labor groups slam violent dispersal, detention of striking workers in CaloocanPasig Mayor Vico Sotto urges food company to drop charges vs striking workers 

"No other state agency, no lower court or even a higher court can interfere labor disputes. So interference by police is against regulations," Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino told Philstar.com in February. 

"That's harassment. The strike was legitimate, the demands were legitimate," they added.

This time last year, thousands of workers marched to Mendiola near the Palace to demand a wage increase, job security and an end to labor contractualization. Ending "endo", or the practice of hiring workers for short-term contracts, was among campaign promises that propelled President Duterte to his position.

For many, Labor Day has come to mark a centuries-long struggle for the upliftment and empowerment of the working class.

Labor unions, including SENTRO and Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP), said they plan to hold online rallies and noise barrages in light of the enhanced community quarantine.

RELATED: Labor alliance sees more workers' protests in 2020

"Just because we're under quarantine doesn't mean we have no right to assert our rights and demands," BMP said in Filipino. 

Among the group's calls are for mass testing, sufficient aid, paid quarantine leave, and hazard pay for workers. 

In a separate statement, Kilusang Mayo Uno challenged the administration to endure the living conditions of workers, whom the group said have not been given the government support they need. 

“This is an open challenge to anyone in the Duterte government. No fancy cars, no personal aides, no health insurance for a week, live in a community in Tondo (in Manila) or in San Roque (in Quezon City), pay monthly rent. You’re giving us P5,000 a month, or a budget of P1,000 a week. We go to work based on these economic conditions and see if you survive a whole week,” KMU chairperson Elmer Labog said.

“Duterte and his government should realize that the supposed aid programs fail to reach the people who are in dire need. Sloppy work. People are forced to go out of their way to earn a living or to find something to eat, but rather than receive aid they are even arrested."

RELATED: Cash aid received by most LGUs but has reached few target beneficiaries, Duterte tells Congress

President Duterte's latest report to Congress on the usage of his emergency powers said that while cash aid had been downloaded to many local government units around the country, they still have not trickled down to their target beneficiaries, over a month since the chief executive was handed special powers. 

“The national government, under the leadership of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, is doing everything it could to assist the affected workers and to lay down the groundwork for our workers to earn for themselves again,” police general Eleazar said.

'Political agenda'

In his livestreamed address, PNP chief Gamboa also said that a similar protest had already happened amid the enhanced community quarantine, though he did not saywhen this was. 

"It has already happened. I hope others don't follow this example. This is not the time for that kind of action. Anyway the government is doing its best to address their concerns," he said. 

In early April, 21 residents of Sitio San Roque—an urban poor community in Barangay Bagong Pag-asa in Quezon City—were arrested after they held a spontaneous protest demanding food and financial aid, which was dispersed by the Quezon City Police District. 

Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, who also serves as the department's spokesperson, has accused mass actions as being fronts for armed rebels to spark more protest demonstrations. 

"We now see the agenda, there's a political agenda to agitate and mobilize the people. Let's put [that] into perspective," he said of urban group Kadamay, whom the government has blamed for the Sitio San Roque protest then.

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) recently accused labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno of being a legal front for communist rebels in a list that included urban poor group Kadamay and many other mass organizations. 

Philippine jurisprudence defines red-tagging as "the act of labeling, branding, naming and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being left-leaning, subversives, communists or terrorists (used as) a strategy… by state agents, particularly law enforcement agencies and the military, against those perceived to be ‘threats’ or ‘enemies’ of the state."

The Commission on Human Rights has said that the practice "violates the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence and may have serious implications on the security and movement of individuals and groups involved," while members of activist groups have often stressed that criticizing the government, or even agreeing with the CPP-NPA on certain issues, is not the same thing as taking up arms against the government.

“The dedication and determination showed by our workers under this situation once again proved the Filipino good values of tapang and malasakit sa kapwa. Truly, the Filipino workers are world class,” said Eleazar.

"Tapang and malasakit", or courage and compassion, is one of the slogans of the Duterte administration.

In an earlier statement, healthcare group Coalition for People's Right to Health said of similar praise for frontliners: "Expressing gratitude to frontliners and honoring their sacrifices does not end with flowery statements, but ought to translate to purposeful and enduring actions. Labeling the fallen as heroes does not address the reason for their unfortunate demise."

If you believe you have come into possible contact with infected patients, you may be directed to the proper office of the Department of Health for advice through the following lines: (632) 8651-7800 local 1149/1150 or (632) 165-364.

You may also opt to call the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine at (02) 8807-2631/ 8807-2632/ 8807-2637. The general public has also been encouraged to forward its concerns to the Health Department's dedicated 24/7 COVID-19 hotlines (02) 894-COVID and 1555 (free for all subscribers).

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