Philippine struggles for social and economic rights

Presentation at the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines

Quezon City, Philippines
20 July 2013

PANEL 3. Struggle for just and lasting peace

Executive Director, IBON Foundation

Magandang umaga.

It is a privilege to speak today before all of you, among the closest friends from around the world of the Filipino people. Your solidarity and support is so important and appreciated.

And it is an honor to have been asked to speak about something that is so close to the heart of every Filipino activist, of whatever generation, and that drives and consumes us – the struggle for a just and lasting peace, and for the humane society that is the only thing that can bring that about. This struggle is everywhere.

Poverty and inequality

The Philippines is a country of some 100 million people. We are the 2nd largest country in Southeast Asia and 12th largest in the world.

We have vast natural resources: over 10 million hectares of agricultural land; billions of tons of mineral resources that rank us among the most mineral-rich in the world (ranked 3rd in gold reserves, 4th in copper, 5th in nickel and 6th in chromite by mineral intensity); extensive energy resources (including natural gas, geothermal sources, hydropower, wind, wave, solar energy, biomass and even some oil); and rich biodiversity where we rank 25th worldwide in the number of plant and animal species. Our Tubbataha reefs which the US 7th fleet vessel USS Guardian intruded in and destroyed is part of the Coral Triangle which is recognized as the global center of marine biodiversity with some 40% of the world’s coral reef fishes and 80% of its corals.

These are more than enough resources for a life of dignity for all within a just and peaceful society. But despite this – or indeed because of our riches and potential – we are poor, backward and underdeveloped. This is our national condition.

The president gives his state of the nation address (SONA) before the country’s elite on Monday. He will say many things but not the true state of the nation, nor of the people. For some months now much has been said about the economy – the fastest economic growth among the major countries of East and Southeast Asia, consecutive record highs in the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE) index which is among the best performing in the world, record gross international reserves, investment grade ratings from two major international credit ratings agencies, and going up world competitiveness rankings. True perhaps, but not the truth.

The truth is this. Job creation has been falling and we now have the most number of unemployed and underemployed Filipinos in the country’s history: 11.9 million in April 2013 consisting of 4.6 million unemployed and 7.3 million underemployed. Our jobless includes the 822,000 farmers, fisherfolk and workers and the 21,000 professionals who lost their jobs in the year leading up to April 2013.

This is why some 12 million Filipinos have been forced abroad to find work with 4,924 Filipinos leaving the country each day last year. We are all familiar with the horrible abuses migrants suffer on top of the separation from their families. It is worst for those with irregular or undocumented status and they have been growing in record numbers in the last years.

This is the breadth of poverty in the Philippines: we estimate some 68 million poor Filipinos which is the worst scale of poverty in the country’s history. The government officially counts only some 27 million poor which is already a huge number. But to do this they use an absurd poverty threshold of just Php52 per person per day. So the government expects that for just US$1.20 a day – or the price of a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola here – a Filipino will be able to provide for all of his or her food, shelter, clothing, medical, education, utilities and other needs.

This is the depth of poverty in the country: each member of the country’s poorest 1.9 million families, or the poorest decile, try to live off just Php22 per day. For the next poorest 1.9 million, or the second decile, they have Php35 per day. Then it is Php45, Php55 and Php67 for the succeeding deciles.

This is the severity of inequality: the income of the top 1% of families (185,000 families) is equivalent to that of the poorest 30% or 5.5 million families. But the survey that gives these figures does not capture the super-rich. The net worth of the richest 40 Filipinos equals the combined income in a year of the poorest 70 million Filipinos.

Amid all this – others would say because of all this – corporate profits and the wealth of the few continue to rise. The combined profit of Philippine stock exchange-listed firms rose 17% last year to Php501 billion. The combined profit of the country’s Top 1000 corporations – nearly half of whom, by revenue, are foreign transnational corporations – grew 8% in 2011 to Php868 billion. The combined net worth of just the 40 richest Filipinos grew 38% to US$47 billion in 2012; this is equivalent to over one-fifth of the economy (measured by GDP for the year).

Oppression and exploitation

There is extreme poverty and inequality in the Philippines. More precisely, there is severe oppression and exploitation. The social and economic rights of the broadest number have been methodically subordinated to narrow economic interests for many decades and have affected generations of Filipinos.

The economic policies in place systematically create the conditions for increasing the profits and wealth of a few. These are not accidental outcomes – much less due merely to corruption or rent-seeking – but are rather the inevitable result of long-standing and accumulating economic policies aimed at creating favourable conditions for foreign capitalists and domestic big business interests to profit and to flourish.

The Filipino people suffered hundreds of years of Spanish then American colonial rule. After sham independence in the 1940s came the decades under the American-designed neocolonial system. US imperialism has made sure that their economic and political domination of our economy, politics, military and culture remain intact.

In the last three decades the cutting edge of imperialist plunder in the Philippines has been the free market policies of neoliberal globalization. The first and biggest wave were trade and investment liberalization, privatization and deregulation in the 1980s and 1990s. The 2000s continued these policies but with increasing attention to the nuts-and-bolts of capitalism – corporate governance, financial codes and standards, and the like. Today we also have social protection and targeted poverty reduction including a multibillion peso conditional cash transfer program to create political legitimacy and fabricate popular support for continued neoliberalism.

So-called globalization was promoted especially in the post-Cold War era and upon the supposed discrediting of Socialist and Communist alternatives as the way to development. Yet after three decades the Philippines still has a rural economy where seven out of 10 peasants are landless and a third of landowners own or control more than 80% of agricultural land, mandated minimum wages are not even half needed for decent living, six out of ten workers don’t have written contracts, 30 workers a day suffer trade union-related rights violations, over 1,500 urban poor families are displaced monthly by commercial projects, three-fourths of households are food insecure, three million families or 15 million people do not have access to clean water, infant and maternal mortality are ten times worse for the poorest than the richest, government spending on debt payments is thrice what it spends on education and fifteen times on health, and there are two million child laborers.

Imperialism grossly and disproportionately benefits from Filipino labor and natural resources. We are plundered for our labor, agricultural and fisheries resources and minerals, exploited through overpricing of oil, power and water, and are denied opportunities even in our own domestic markets. Half of approved investment in the country in the last decade is foreign rather than Filipino; this is aside from the capital of the local comprador enterprises who are their domestic collaborators. Our economy has paid out over US$150 billion in debt servicing and over US$25 billion in profit remittances since 1980. We have exported over US$30 billon worth of mineral exports since the 1970s while our local industry remains stunted and our mining communities are among the most ecologically destroyed and impoverished in the country.

The country’s elites have reproduced this system through their control over the formal mechanisms of traditional political power including especially the brutal armed forces of the reactionary State – the police, military and paramilitaries. This is the Philippine face of neoliberal Western electoral democracy.


All this is intolerable and the Filipino people have always risen up against their oppressors. Our current struggle draws its lineage from the Katipunan-led uprising against Spanish colonial rule in 1896 – the first successful anti-colonial revolution in Asia that set up, briefly, the First Philippine Republic in 1897. We have fought US imperialism since the turn of the century, battled Japanese military occupation during the Second World War, fought neocolonial rule by landlords and compradors, struggled against the Marcos dictatorship, and are waging struggles to this day.

We tackle every issue that pertains to the rights and welfare of the Filipino masses: agrarian reform, jobs, wages, mining plunder, health privatization, public education, housing, the oil cartel, ancestral land, water privatization, power privatization, violence against women, free trade agreements, the World Trade Organization, militarization, human rights and many many others. The Filipino masses are fighting for their rights and welfare.

We know that the market and constantly giving priority to private profits will never eliminate poverty and reduce inequality. We seek national development and to uphold the people’s welfare through radical redistribution of wealth and assets, through modernizing our economy via agrarian reform, rural development and national industrialization, and through sustained public provision of education, health and housing. We know these require a democratic and pro-people government so we work to build this as well.

We fight in every possible realm using every possible combination.

We work on the basis of an understanding of the structural problems of the country and the crisis of capitalism. We give primacy to working class politics as the building blocks for wider social change which means a great emphasis on ideological work and organizing peasants, workers, national minorities and other oppressed groups into people’s organizations and mass movements towards claiming political power for the people.

We also engage in the legal and parliamentary realms – legitimate arenas for gains victories, big and small. While we are fully conscious that any even these will ultimately depend on the political power we have built outside in the mass movement.

Our struggles have had successes and will reach even more and greater heights in the decades to come. Workers’ trade unions of the KMU have eked out higher wages and benefits at the firm level while fighting for a nationwide across-the-board wage hike; peasants of KMP have seized or won land struggles across the country including a historic, if yet partial and incomplete, victory in symbolic Hacienda Luisita; national minorities in Mindanao have resisted the incursion of big mining firms into their communities and ancestral lands; multi-sectoral struggles have opposed oil monopolies; and much more.

The situation especially in our vast backward countryside is so intolerable that even armed revolutionary movements have emerged and flourished. The currently active forces with parallel governance structures in large portions of the country’s territory include the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP) that operates in 70 of 79 provinces, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front-Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (MILF-BIAF) which is active in 14 provinces in the southern Philippines though currently in peace talks with the Aquino government. Such radical alternatives are objectively the strongest counterpoint to neocolonialism and capitalism in the country.

We are peasants, fisherfolk, workers, migrants, national minorities, women, youth, students, health workers, teachers, scientists, cultural workers, government employees, church workers, human rights workers, environmentalists, urban poor, drivers, entrepreneurs, lawyers and other professionals. And we are organized and collective and democratic in our struggles.


And because we are strong and growing stronger we are repressed violently and systematically.

The current Aquino administration professes to respect human rights, has supposed progressives and civil society leaders in government, and is internationally praised for its ‘good governance’. Yet it has seen 142 extrajudicial killings (EJKs), 12 enforced disappearances, and 148 additional political prisoners. There are thousands of victims in just the last decade since 2001 – 1,345 EJKs, 222 enforced disappearances and 430 political prisoners – with zero accountability.

These human rights violations of EJKs, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and others continue. And because they are State-sponsored they continue with impunity.


But because we are unafraid, we are defiant. We are hundreds of thousands of activists, organizers, campaigners. We are millions of people believing in, mobilizing and taking action for a truly free and democratic Philippines.

This is the arc of our struggle: resistance, defiant struggle, and victory for the people!

Maraming salamat at magandang umaga sa ating lahat.

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