The appalling work conditions at the Cavite Export Processing Zone are, unfortunately, not unique to the Philippines.
These also happen in Mauritius.
But even faced with brutal labor repression, labor activists continue to work for unionization and workers’ rights. And activists in North America and Europe can play a vital role in supporting their organization efforts.
If you’re in North America or Europe, here is where you can help.
The EPZs thrived on luring foreign investment and maintaining foreign consumers. So instead of focusing on pressuring the government to act for women’s rights, the workers focused on allies who target the foreign investors and their consumers.
In early example, a CEPZ shoe factory refused to give separation pay to 300 employees. The workers tapped into an international network of parishes, whose members then launched a massive letter-writing campaign to Reebok, which subcontracted from the shoe firm. The external pressure from the consumers and from Reebok forced the zone authorities and the shoe factory to resolve the issue with the workers.
In the past few years, zone authorities have gotten more brutal in their labor repression. Last September 2006, over 300 union members working at two garment factories went on strike after their managements refused to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. These factories produce sleepwear, t-shirts, blouses, and other clothes for buyers like WalMart. Workers at both picket lines, most of whom were female, were attacked with wooden clubs, punched, and beaten. Many women later reported being molested, and two sustained serious head injuries. At least sixty-six garment factory workers have been fired in the wake of the strike.
Activists with the Canada-based Maquila Solidarity Network and the US-based and the Workers’ Rights Consortium organized a new round of campaigns. They called on WalMart to act in accordance with its own code of conduct by holding its international subsidiaries to international labor standards. WalMart and corporations such as American Eagle Outfitters and Polo Ralph Lauren have released statements condemning the violence and urging the Philippine government to take action against the zone authorities.
The hope is that the threat of bad publicity and public boycotts, as well as the labor disruptions, will make the corporations leery. They will have to support worker rights in order to maintain their consumer base here. Or they could move operations to another country, an option that the Philippine government would not want to happen.
Such campaigns are ongoing, and labor struggles in the economic zones continue around the world.
If you want to help, the websites of the following organizations detail campaigns and what you can do as a member of a society that consumes products made under these conditions:
These links take you directly to the campaign pages of these organizations. They detail the actions you can take here to support union workers in areas like Cavite.
The need is urgent. In a report issued by the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (pdf) back in 2006, the group documented 982 cases of human rights violations committed by the Arroyo regime, involving an estimated 80,000 workers.
More than half of these violations occurred in the country’s export processing zones.
Please do what you can to ensure that workers around the world do not remain voiceless links in the global supply chain.