It has often been said that it’s dangerous to be an outspoken union leader in the Philippines, and Raymond Basilio should know: the right-wing populist government of President Rodrigo Duterte has labelled him a terrorist.
Basilio, Secretary General of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), is in Montreal and at Convention this week to sound the alarm about the targeting of labour and social justice activists in the Philippines. The Duterte government, whose policies benefit the rich and corporations, routinely tramples on civil rights with campaigns of targeted harassment and intimidation. Death threats, police investigations and beatings are common tactics used to silence dissent.
That’s exactly what has happened to Basilio, who heads a public education union representing 220,000 teachers, support workers, early childhood educators and other staff at post-secondary colleges. As the visible face of ACT’s campaign seeking a cap on class size and better wages for teachers, who earn only 20,754 pesos (the equivalent of $400) a month, Basilio has drawn the ire of the government. When ACT mobilized and held a ‘sit down strike,’ he joined the call for a national strike of public sector workers, including the teachers and education staff represented by ACT. Basilio was targeted along with other union leaders and families.
“Teachers who fight for better education supports for students, lower class size, higher wages for teachers and social justice do not deserve to be persecuted. Unionism is not a crime. We should not be subjected to human rights violations against us,” says Basilio, who has spent the last few years going from safe house to safe house, constantly changing his phone number, and fearing for his family’s safety and his own life.
There are 27.7 million students in the Philippines in 42,000 villages – but only 39,000 elementary schools and 8,000 secondary schools. For post-secondary education, there is pressure from the International Monetary Fund and its loan agreements to promote private universities. The World Bank, too, is pushing for the construction of malls and corporate offices as part of these private universities.
In the Philippines, public sector workers—including education workers—cannot negotiate wages. Salaries are legislated by the national government. The ACT collective agreement provides limited ability to negotiate benefits. But perhaps most concerning is that teachers and education workers have little influence on the quality of students’ education. They cannot negotiate class size, funding for special needs, or support worker staffing levels. And there is no mechanism to fight the privatization of post-secondary education.
A human rights activist for most of his adult life, Basilio, 30, says the government’s recent campaign marked the first time he experienced these bullying tactics. “With this kind of blatant intimidation, you question if you can protect your family,” he says. Boldly, Basilio openly challenged the police on national television and filed harassment charges against them.
He’s not the only union leader subjected to the Philippine government’s campaign of persecution. But now that he’s travelling outside the country, talking about the erosion of labour rights within it, he is one of its most high-profile activists.
“In these trying times, union leaders can’t waver. They need to be visible. They do need to take a risk. I continue to organize, be public about my human rights (and those of others in my country) being violated, and I will not be silenced about better funding for education, higher wages for teachers and education workers,” says Basilio.
Commenting on his general perceptions of Canada and labour unions here, Basilio says that what he sees is democracy at work, both at union and state levels. “This is the ideal of solidarity,” he says. “These are important rights to fight to keep. Because in the Philippines, where we’ve seen the shattering of democratic processes, even mild forms of protest like speaking out and criticizing the policies of the state are seen as terrorist activities. I am an example of that repression.”