Repression in the Philippines

■ Michala Lafferty works for UNI Global Union and is based in Nyon in Switzerland. She heads a team fighting for the unionising of the contact-centre sector in the Philippines, which employs more than a million people. Here she recounts some of her team’s experiences over the past year.

Mother, son, friend, wife, father, husband, daughter—all tags that we wear quite easily, tags that show we mean something to someone else. However, in the Philippines you can have another tag, a sinister tag that you don’t wear so easily: you can be “red-tagged.”

This is a tag that you do not choose. It means you are a threat to others; it is given to you by a faceless malevolent murderous state, and it marks you for execution.

“Red-tagging” is a despicable process whereby individuals or organisations are blacklisted if they are considered to be critical, or not fully supportive, of the Duterte government. They are tagged as communists or terrorists, or both, regardless of their actual beliefs, or evidence. The Catholic Church, human-rights advocates and organisations, academics, law-makers, charities, feminist groups, ethnic rights groups and our partners and comrades in the BPO [business process outsourcing] Industry Employees’ Network, or BIEN, have all been red-tagged.

Some 328 people who have been red-tagged have been murdered, including Jora Porquia, the president of BIEN, and more than 2,600 have been illegally arrested, and almost a thousand citizens have been illegally arrested and detained.

After the most recent massacre, on 7 March, when nine activists were murdered, BIEN held a conference on safety and discussed different steps that their organisers and volunteers needed to follow to keep themselves safe from execution. When our lives are threatened or our property invaded and destroyed, we call the police; but what do you do when the police are the perpetrators? What do you do when neighbours and friends could be the eyes and ears of the state? Where do you go when you have nowhere to turn?

Here are some of the stories of our organisers. I have changed their names to try to give them some protection.

Jasmine is thirty-eight, a mother of six children, a mass communications graduate, and a qualified high-school teacher. Jasmine became involved in the movement many years ago, and it is how she met her partner. She is a member of the Executive Council of BIEN and works tirelessly on behalf of call-centre workers in the BPO Industry in her country.

In October 2019 Jasmine was working in the office of the women’s organisation office. She had just finished folding laundry into neat piles when they burst in, terrifying her young family. There was little she could do but watch and try to comfort her children. They marched everyone outside and held them at gunpoint while they read them the search warrant.

Jasmine was frightened but needed to be calm for her children and not risk antagonising those who were destroying her place of work. She could not give them any excuse to react against her. She had heard the stories; she had already lost friends and colleagues to state murder; she knew what could happen if she resisted in any way.

The army left, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The noise of screaming children was soon silenced, however, when ten minutes later the police arrived to search the office. The office and her children were to be upset again. Jasmine defiantly quipped to one of the police that they had better not destroy the clean clothes she had painstakingly washed, dried, and folded—a typical response that would resonate with mothers and home-makers everywhere.

During this illegal search the police found two weapons—clearly planted by the recent military raid—and this time Jasmine was arrested and detained, and ripped away from her children while they watched helplessly as she was taken away. She was detained for twelve days and is still facing trumped-up charges of the illegal possession of firearms.

Jasmine has been red-tagged twice already this year. Her faceless accuser names her as a high-ranking official with the armed communist militia.

Jasmine periodically has had to separate herself from her family, to move and stay with her elderly father, move again to stay with her husband’s family, never really settling. Those close to her know that she was arrested in 2019, but they have no idea that she is now-red tagged. Her face is on social media, accusing her of being an enemy of the state and a member of the New People’s Army.

There is no place of safety for Jasmine. She is constantly treading water, constantly having to be vigilant, constantly hiding the worst from her friends and family, who have begged her to give this work up. The threat against Jasmine is now even more real, because the anti-terror law has come into effect, and this has struck fear into the hearts of everyone who loves her but especially her two older children. Jasmine says:

“I always remind them that in a fight for our rights and freedom, we do this, even giving our own lives to win. They have been prepared to expect things like this, that this is not an easy job. Organising my own children will help them survive in this kind of system and to be strong in the face of repression.”

Jacob is thirty-two. He would have been a happy-go-lucky character, but living under the shadow of being red-tagged and being under surveillance has had a detrimental effect on his mental health. Jacob lives with his sister and his elderly mother in a compound but is almost always under surveillance. He has been involved with BIEN since 2011 and became involved in activism and leadership when he was a student.

He was under surveillance even then and knows the signs, the seemingly innocuous situations that stands out to him that others would readily dismiss. The police car, doing a second or third lap of his block; the delivery driver who calls asking to deliver a parcel but using Jacob’s real name, a name he now never goes by; or the vendor going round the district in the evening despite the curfew, in full view of the curfew marshals, selling fresh taho, a breakfast product that is usually sold in the mornings.

Jacob now suffers from severe bouts of anxiety and panic. He is unsafe in the place he called home, a place that he grew up in, where he is surrounded by his entire family. He feels homeless, and to a great extent he is; he is unsafe, on his own, and he is exposed and vulnerable, but he puts his family at risk if he goes back and lives among them.

Jacob knows some of the people, his friends and comrades who have been arrested and killed after being red-tagged. He lives in fear for his life, and this fear has damaged his mental health. He recently attended his doctor’s office to obtain counselling and much-needed therapy, but a few days later he was contacted by the office saying that he had been in close contact there with someone who tested positive for covid.

Jacob has now tested positive for covid. His choices in reality are no choices at all: he can go home, where he exposes his family to covid and red-tagging, or he checks in to a special government isolation facility, where he identifies himself to the very government that has red-tagged him. Clearly Jacob can do neither, so he has had to scrape together some money for a hotel room, where his friends bring him medication and food every day.

Reggie is one of our organisers, a natural leader. He became involved in politics and activism while he was a student. He left university and went to work in the call centre to support his parents. His father is a chronic asthmatic, and his mother has suffered from a stroke that has paralysed one side of her body. He is their main carer.

Reggie went to a rally a few years ago, where he met an old university friend. He was asked to help out in the campaign for call-centre workers and began to do so part-time before deciding to work. He witnessed so much exploitation of call-centre workers that he decided to take on a full-time role supporting BIEN.

Last year BIEN carried out a protest action to demand the full thirteenth month pay for BPO employees. It wasn’t long after that that the entire executive of BIEN were red-tagged on social media. A few weeks ago BIEN issued a statement criticising Duterte’s inadequate response to the covid pandemic. Since then they have all been red-tagged again on various social media.

Reggie is frightened now, because he knows he is under surveillance. He is almost thankful for the lockdown and the curfew, as it reduces the chances of any incidents against him. However, it is difficult if not impossible for him to see his frail parents. He is concerned for his safety, because, although he lives in a quiet residential estate, the police frequently set up a checkpoint in front of his apartment in the middle of the night, even when there is little or no traffic. Reggie has told me:

“We fear every day for our safety. People or organisations who get red-tagged usually end up dead or in jail . . . We hope this would stop. But whatever happens, our organisation will not stop defending the rights and welfare of BPO workers.”

Safra has worked for a call centre as an agent since 2006. Tired of seeing how companies walked around the perimeter of the law, she became involved in the BIEN network and became president of their only union in 2015. Safra has three daughters and one son, and is a widow. Her mother lives with her, as does one of her younger brothers.

Because of her involvement with the union and being a leader she has been red-tagged. This has caused great hardship and heartache within her family. One of the groups that has red-tagged Safra is an NGO called Call Centre Agents for Democracy (CCAD), as well as some other pro-Duterte groups.

Safra’s children and her mother now live in fear and are being harassed by the government; they believe Safra has become involved in “bad work.” Her friends are aware that she has been red-tagged and have shunned her offers to meet for lunch or go for coffee; they do not even want to talk to her any more. Safra feels totally isolated and vulnerable, even within her own home. It is sometimes difficult for family members to understand the passion that drives organisers to continue to fight for the rights of workers, especially in the most dangerous of circumstances.

UNI Global Union represents more than 20 million workers in more than 150 countries in the fastest-growing sectors in the world: skills and services. The general secretary of UNI, Christy Hoffman, extends continued solidarity to officials of BIEN in the Philippines, who are living and working under the threat of execution as a result of being red-tagged, the abhorrent practice that mislabels activists publicly as communist enemies of the state.