Global Justice Tour 2013 – July 11: Bagbag and Abbey Road

In cooperation with Canadian and Filipino trade unions, the Ontario Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (OCHRP) sent 3 people as part of a 12–person human rights delegation to the Philippines in July 2013. Members of the delegation participated in exposure missions to sites of repression and resistance in the archipelago, visiting locations where gross human rights violations have occurred and actions opposing water privatization activities take place. They also attended the three-day International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, which gathered “human rights defenders and peace advocates from around the world, aimed at deepening our understanding of the current state of human rights and peace in the Philippines.”

OCHRP and its partners, including CUPE National, CUPE 4600, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers – Philippines (ACT), and the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE), first started a Global Justice Project in 2009 in order to build ties and understanding of shared struggles among workers in Canada and the Philippines. As Phase Five of this ongoing initiative, the tour in July further strengthens the solidarity movement and support for Filipino human rights advocacy and action among Canadians.

July 11, 2013

Our local partners have our days packed with meetings and activities over the next couple of weeks, but the things the Global Justice Tour delegation saw on our first day may prove to be the most powerful and memorable for some.

Scheduled to visit some urban poor communities in which the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) is organizing, we toured elementary schools as well as the students’ neighbourhoods in Quezon City’s Bagbag Barangay.

Students greeting us from their over-crowded but cheery classrooms were enthusiastically welcoming and fresh faced in their spotless uniforms, but we were unprepared to see the conditions in which most of them lived. Most striking were the improvised homes crammed behind stacked tombs and among graves on the cemetery grounds on which one of the schools was built. Most of the students were among the 1500 families comprising the informal settlement, but we met many more children there whose parents couldn’t afford the books, uniforms, and other resources necessary to send them to school.

Most of Goodwill Elementary School’s students live in informal settlements hidden behind these tombs

Government mandated demolitions of these communities – largely to make way for private, for-profit schools and highway expansions – are a major issue around which ACT organizes in Bagbag. For decades, nearby factories brought hordes of Filipinos from other regions in search of work, but they’ve found themselves jobless in recent years when the factories closed due to privatization and union-busting tactics when workers went on strike for decent conditions.

Consequently, finding themselves in Bagbag with no money or income, people were forced to make shelter from whatever materials and space could be scavenged – shelter which the government regularly has destroyed in attempts to relocate them. However, with relocation support inadequate or non-existent,  to locations lacking basic utilities or employment opportunities, they have no choice but to keep returning to the slums.

We spoke with community members and ACT’s Secretary General, France Castro, about the union’s organizing efforts in the area. Castro explained that, in addition to a mandate to advocate for its members’ labour rights, such as benefits and wages, job security, and working conditions, it also sees teachers as playing a larger part in promoting the well-being of their students and community members. Thus, they also work to ensure rights to education, health care, jobs, and basic housing are met, by making connections among various community sectors and empowering them to work together. “They have to organize themselves, because that’s the only weapon they have to fight for their rights,” said Castro.

The leader of the nearby Abbey Road Barangay, Atemar, recognizes the poor living conditions, settlement demolitions, and forced relocations as symptomatic of the government’s prioritization of foreign investment and widespread privatization – trends which promote short-term economic growth as well as high-profits for an elite few. “The priority of the government is you, foreigners, not us, real Filipinos,” Atemar told us, “So they hide us.”

These trends are also among the issues ACT is engaging with as it works toward ensuring labour rights for teachers and all workers in the country. Although union membership is voluntary within a workplace, ACT represents an estimated 50 000 teachers in the Metro Manila area and plans to continue unionizing teachers in other regions of the Philippines. In 2010 legislation passed recognizing teachers’ right to organize a union and recognizing ACT as a collective bargaining agent. Their president, Antonio Tinio, was also elected Congressman, winning ACT a seat in the House of Representatives through the Party-List system, which is designed to allow marginalized groups a political voice.

Private water company ads overlook students at Bagbag Elementary School

Although there is still much work to do, ACT’s presence in Bagbag has given the community a renewed sense of hope. In a country where peaceful activist leaders face the threat of extrajudicial killings, abductions, and political imprisonment on false charges, Atemar is more determined than ever to defend the rights of her community: “With the support of France and ACT, I feel stronger, braver. Because of our unity, our community will be free.”

Photo credits: Alana Roscoe

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