Migrant Workers Organize to Resist “Duteriorating” Philippine Economy
Written by Jackelyn Mariano
On April 6, over 350 Filipino Americans, migrant workers, and supporters gathered at a National Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in the Philippines. The summit was convened by the Malaya Movement, a U.S.-based grassroots coalition that is bringing attention to the grave human rights situation under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. One of the main topics of the summit was around the dire economic situation in the Philippines and the impacts on the poor majority of the country. The Philippines is receiving unprecedented international attention, not just for its vicious state-sanctioned drug war, but also for its volatile economic downturn.
The new year ushered in an unemployment rate of 9.8%, or about 4.5 million people out of the total population of 110 million people. This occurs in the context of President Duterte’s erratic economic policies which largely benefit foreign investors and local big business owners by promising low interest rates and high profitability. The Duterte administration’s failed attempt to stimulate the economy with foreign loans and public investments, has only exacerbated the conditions of the poor forcing over 12 million Filipino migrants work around the world. An average of 6,000 people leave the Philippines everyday to work abroad. There are 4.7 million Filipinos in the U.S.
Migrant workers at the Malaya Movement summit gathered to discuss the economic crisis at a panel entitled “‘Duteriorating’ Philippine Economy: The Impact on Filipino Migrants & Workers.” Bernadette Herrera, chairperson of Migrante USA, a network of Filipino migrant workers, exposed the administration’s broken promises to their sector.
“It’s clear that even before Duterte sat in office, there existed a severe political and economic crisis that urged the Filipino people to search for a candidate who could provide solutions. Duterte took advantage of the crisis by promising to improve the conditions in the Philippines. Filipinos abroad placed their hopes on Duterte’s promises to create jobs that pay enough to raise a family, to end contractualization, and to improve the economy and standard of living in the Philippines. These promises were to solve the problem of chronic mass migration,” Herrera stated.
Herrera critiqued the Duterte administration’s watershed tax law TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion), which lowered income taxes, yet imposed high excise taxes on basic industrial commodities, such as fuel, asphalts, and kerosene, causing a strain on spending as the prices of basic food commodities dramatically increased in price. The TRAIN law allocates 70% of its revenue to military spending, and Duterte’s controversial Build, Build, Build infrastructure development program. The other 30% is allocated to social expenditures for the Filipino people, such as education, health, anti-hunger programs, social welfare, housing, and employment. Essentially, Herrera summarized, the TRAIN law puts the burden of funding Duterte’s Build, Build, Build program on the country’s citizens, who are already coping with a desperate economic situation.
In his first years in office, Duterte expressed openness to engage in bilateral trade agreements with other countries, expanding the Philippines’ economic relationships beyond their traditional partner, the United States. This increased trade tensions between the U.S. and China, each of whom courted the president with attractive deals. From 2016 to 2018, Official Development Assistance from China to the Philippines Increased by 24,200%, according to IBON International. In fact, China and the Philippines have signed 6 bilateral agreements last year, including one loan agreement amounting to PHP 3.6 billion to build an irrigation system from the Chico River to bring water to communities in Kagayan and Cagayan provinces. Critics have characterized the finalized loan agreement as an odious debt, as Philippine national patrimonial assets are essentially marked as collateral to be forfeited in the event of a default. Others claim that the water crisis that justified this odious loan is an artificial problem caused by water systems privatization.
Saddling the Philippines in such debts encourages the administration to continue the system of labor export that has been implemented by the country since the 1970s, during the time of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Herrera characterized Filipino migrant workers as the administration’s “cash cows,” whose only value is to pay debts back with the remittances they send back to the Philippines. In 2018 alone, migrant Filipino workers sent over USD 30 billion to the Philippines.
Migrant Filipino workers face stressful and dehumanizing conditions in their work abroad. In the U.S., Herrera explained, “Migrant filipinos are especially impacted by the issues of trafficking, detention, deportation, discrimination…” and other kinds of exploitation such as wage theft and hostile work environments. The panel highlighted the case of over 400 trafficked teachers in Texas and their brewing campaign to expose the school district that recruited them. They also highlighted the case of Larry Nicholas, a detained migrant Filipino worker in Seattle facing deportation. Despite these hardships and bearing the brunt of the crisis, the migrant workers united to organize themselves to build righteous indignation from abroad against Duterte’s economy.
At the conclusion of the first day of the summit, the workers joined the rest of the summit attendees at a protest action in front of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C., where they confronted the Ambassador to demand for Duterte’s resignation.