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Opening Doors of Dialogue during COVID-19

In the midst of the pandemic, one Fund-supported group in the Philippines is seizing a new and unexpected opportunity for securing workers’ rights—conversation with a company previously called out for abuses.

The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) focuses on empowering workers to organize and secure their rights. Labor rights is a major issue in the Philippines and activists and striking workers frequently endure intimidation or physical attacks.

Despite these challenges, CTUHR is a leader in securing the rights of workers at several multinational companies and advocating for greater labor protections locally and nationally. For the past four years, one of its projects has been monitoring working conditions at a sardines-packing facility that employs 400 people, mostly women. Together with the workers, CTUHR has documented low wages, a lack of coverage for workplace injuries, and poor sanitation at the plant.

When the pandemic began, CTUHR remained in contact with workers from the factory, staying connected about their organizing efforts and provided relief to many, including those whose family members lost livelihoods during lockdown. Then, CTUHR found themselves in the surprising position of coming to the company’s defense.

In March, the company shared several social media messages announcing they would be donating to locally led COVID-19 relief efforts; its corporate giving did not include President Duterte’s public funds, which had been criticized for a lack of transparency. Another post took direct aim at the president’s newly-granted emergency powers. Concerns have been raised by human rights groups worldwide that President Duterte will abuse these special powers to further crack down on dissenting voices.

CTUHR appreciated how businesses used their social media to call attention to overreach by President Duterte during the pandemic.

The president’s supporters were displeased, and they began using CTUHR’s earlier report in their calls for a boycott of the company. When CTUHR caught wind, they boldly spoke out, saying in a public statement, “…we shall continue to stand for the workers, but we do not appreciate it [our report] being used by entities with malicious intent to fuel misplaced anger or to undermine sectors of society, including businesses that are expressing valid criticisms against this government’s policies and actions.” The company reached out to thank CTUHR and issued a statement on workers’ rights, measures that would not have happened previously.

To date, the company has not taken any concrete action to improve workers’ health, wages, and well-being, but CTUHR is committed to taking this opportunity and holding the company at its word. So, they are pursuing greater dialogue with the company as well as local government. They are compiling a new report outlining workers’ experiences and needs to present to the company’s management, along with an invitation to advance this conversation and for the company to demonstrate leadership on a critical human rights issue.

The Fund has supported CTUHR since 2009, with the strategic assistance and financial support they need to protect the rights of workers across the Philippines.