Export Processing Zones: the TUCP makes a breakthrough

ICFTU OnLine, 048/980223/DB, 23 February 1998

Brussels. February 23 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): The principle is simple: they are closed geographical areas, usually located near a port, where enterprises, mainly foreign (Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese) enjoy total exemption from taxes and social charges. Theoretically, workers are covered by the national labour code, but there are virtually no inspections, leaving employers free to decide the wages, working hours and conditions that suit them. The four principal zones are managed on a tripartite basis (government, employers and workers' representatives), the others are private.

Today the export processing zones employ about 175,000 people explains economist Cedric Bagtas, the TUCP (Trades Union Congress of the Philippines) officer responsible for organising workers in the zones. At the beginning of the nineties, our membership fell sharply he recalls. We decided to go into the export processing zones, the country's biggest employers. (In 1995, we launched our EPZ organising programme, which was a huge challenge, given how hostile the enterprises in the zones were towards unions.

All attempts to organise workers during the Marcos regime met with failure. Employers were quick to call in their henchmen, and enjoyed the tacit support of the police. Trade unionists suffered constant harassment, dismissal, disappearance and even murder.

The return to democracy has brought gradual improvements. First we got the political authorities to agree to take a neutral attitude in the bodies which manage the zones, who have the right to withdraw tax exemptions from the enterprises that don't respect the law explains Cedric Bagtas. Since 1995, the TUCP has set up offices around the four principal zones, where 25 union organisers are based. Their aim is to form trade unions.

Edwin Canlas is one of the organisers. For the last year and a half he and seven others have succeeded in creating three trade unions in the Cavite zone to the south of Manila where 42,000 people work in 169 enterprises. 73 per cent are women, their ages ranging from 17 to 22. We're considered too old after that, particularly in the electronics industry explains 23-year-old Lynne, who was recently dismissed. We are forbidden from going into the factories in the zone says Edwin so we have distributed leaflets outside, so that people know about us. Workers from three companies in the clothing and electronics sectors came to see us. They described their working conditions: wages below the legal minimum, long working hours, up to 16 hours a day, for which they were not always paid, unfair dismissals, job insecurity, etc. We explained what steps they had to take and above all we assured them of our support, as the complete legalisation of a trade union is a very lengthy process. The first step is to submit a request to the Ministry of Labour, explaining the need for a trade union in administrative and legal terms. The Ministry is very pernickety, and documents often go back and forth. Once the authorisation is granted, elections can take place. The union must convince the majority of workers (50 per cent plus one vote) to vote for union recognition. Of course the employers don't just sit back and watch while all this is happening. Apart from pressuring employees, they can appeal against the Ministry's decision and contest the election results.

So it is a long drawn out procedure concludes Edwin and we have to keep the workers' spirits up while it's going on so that they don't become discouraged. It may take one or even two years. When the elections have been won, the serious business begins for the union, with the negotiation of a collective agreement. Working hours, overtime, wages, dismissals, social security, benefits in kind (often a 50kg sack of rice every three months) and the time allowed for union business are discussed and laid down in the collective agreement. It becomes a legal document and the employer can be prosecuted if they fail to respect it.

We have created a total of 24 trade unions in the export processing zones announces Cedric Bagtas proudly. That's a total of 7,500 members. Of course, we haven't always been successful. We have lost elections, for example at the Honda factory, which employs 6,000 people, but we have shown that it is possible to create trade unions in the export processing zones.

The TUCP also does a lot of lobbying of national political leaders to gain support for the creation of trade unions and to that end is proposing 80 amendments to the labour code.