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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 925

Senator MARSHALL (12:45 PM) —I rise today to speak in solidarity with those fighting for change in the Philippines. I am proud to speak on this issue today because, while we in Australia enjoy all the privileges of a healthy democracy and the protection of the rule of law, those fighting for change in the Philippines seek justice and basic human rights, and they do so in the face of violence and oppression.

As I have pointed out to the Senate previously, the situation still continues to be dire for those who speak out in the Philippines. Progressive political parties in the Philippines, such as the Gabriela Women’s Party and Bayan Muna, remain subject to continual harassment and extrajudicial killings. Hundreds of members of these parties—hundreds of people who have been brave enough to stand up to injustice—have been murdered over the past decade. I question whether many of us here in this place would have the courage and stamina to continue our work while our party members, our staff, our friends and our families were systematically harassed and murdered.

In the Philippines, the institutions of the state have failed in their duty to protect their citizens. In Australia we watch this failure from afar. It is a shocking yet important reminder of the value of our institutions and political freedoms. It is also a reminder that we must reject outright those people, companies or political parties that employ violence and oppression.

In the Philippines, the murderous blight on democracy and human rights is not limited to people actively engaged in the party-political process. Victims of extrajudicial killings include unionists, lawyers, church workers, human rights advocates and journalists. These killings continue almost daily and are depressingly commonplace. The common factor that links the victims of these crimes is that they have all been outspoken on issues of justice, poverty, civil liberties, workers’ rights and human rights. They have advocated on behalf of the poor and oppressed in the Philippines and many have been directly critical of the government or military.

These abuses have been clearly linked to the government and the military by a number of international organisations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations. Professor Philip Alston, an Australian human rights academic and a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, investigated these killings and concluded:

… the executive branch—

of the Philippines government—

openly and enthusiastically aided by the military, has worked resolutely to circumvent the spirit of these legislative decisions by trying to impede the work of the party-list groups and to put in question their right to operate freely.

This goes some way to explaining why so few of these crimes have been appropriately investigated and why those responsible for these atrocities have not been brought to justice.

I greatly admire the courage shown by anyone willing to fight for change in the Philippines. It is a great testament to their commitment and bravery that they are not cowed by the might of military, industry and elements of government. Despite the great risks, many people continue to strive to bring about social change, publicly challenging injustice and toiling alongside people from all walks of life in the Philippines.

Recently, the struggle of workers and ordinary Filipinos was brought back to my mind when I learnt of yet another brutal killing of a trade union leader. On Friday, 12 November last year, Carlo Rodriguez, who was 41 years old, was gunned down at an intersection in Calamba City, Laguna while on his way home from a meeting with fellow union leaders. His unidentified assailants were riding a tandem motorcycle. The method is a hallmark of the extrajudicial killing program that has targeted leaders and supporters of progressive organisations throughout the Philippines. ‘Caloy’, as he was known, was a progressive and effective union leader and a genuine public servant. He spearheaded collective negotiations, seeking to improve the economic and working conditions of workers and union members in Southern Tagalog. He fought for substantial wage increases; he fought against privatisation and in defence of jobs and public services. Caloy, together with other union leaders in the province, mobilised government employees and peasants for land reform.

The murder of Caloy is a tragedy, but more importantly it is a great setback for all those who had hoped that with the election of the new government of Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III on 1 July 2010 there would be a break from the brutal and violent past of the Philippines. In the 2010 presidential elections it was hoped that tolerance of political discussion and dissent would grow. It was hoped that there would be a new-found resolve to take on those elements of the government and the military who believed it acceptable to engage in wanton murder of their opponents—those brave enough to stand up to their greed. It was hoped that the 2010 presidential elections would usher in an era where crimes against the people of the Philippines were investigated and those responsible for those crimes held to account. Yet Caloy is the 22nd extrajudicial killing under the Aquino administration and the sixth government employee and union leader killed for their uncompromising commitment. We have not forgotten the 800 victims of summary executions, torture and enforced disappearances under the previous, Arroyo, regime. The killings simply must stop. If they do not then the new administration is no better than its predecessor—rotten, ruthless and a butcher of civil society.

The Arroyo presidency, from January 2001, greatly damaged Filipino society. Her administration was associated with widespread corruption and the terrifying day-to-day reality of military death squads acting with impunity. In the May 2010 national elections, Aquino was elected in a landslide. President Aquino was elected on a wave of support that sprang from the fervent hope of ordinary Filipinos that corruption and violence could be stopped and that peace, democracy and prosperity could come at last to the Philippines. Alongside the Filipino people I share that hope.

Shortly after hearing of the murder of Carlo ‘Caloy’ Rodriguez, I was in a position to welcome two Filipino activists, Luis Jalandoni and Coni Ledesma. These two activists were in Australia on a speaking tour organised by community based groups such as the SEARCH Foundation, Action for Peace and Development in the Philippines and the Philippines Australia Union Link. These groups have led the work in building stronger ties between Australia and the Philippines, as well as raising public awareness of the plight faced by Filipinos advocating for change. The speaking tour was vitally important in informing the concerns and ongoing discussions of Australians who are interested in a safer, just and more prosperous Philippines.

Luis is the chairperson of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and has been involved in the movement for radical change in Philippine society for over 40 years. Practising as a Catholic priest from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, he lived among the sugar workers and peasant settlers of the southern province of Negros Occidental—the Philippines’ sugar capital. Luis actively supported and joined the mass struggles of sugar workers and peasants. He was a founding member and national executive board member of the Christians for National Liberation, a progressive organisation which helped form the National Democratic Front of the Philippines in 1973.

Jailed as a political prisoner in that year, he got dispensation from the priesthood in 1974 and emerged with greater fervour for the Filipino people’s struggle. In October 1975, he helped launched the La Tondena rum distillery strike—a groundbreaking workers’ strike that helped break the back of state repression during the martial law years. From 1992, Luis has been involved in the Filipino peace negotiations and since 1994 he has been chairperson of the NDFP negotiating panel for peace talks with the government of the Republic of the Philippines. He is also a signatory to many Philippine peace agreements, including The Hague joint declaration and Oslo joint statements 1 and 2 from 2004.

Coni’s politicisation began in the early 1970s after exposure to student struggles. A Catholic nun at the time, she continued her progressive journey when she was assigned to the social action office in Cebu City in central Philippines. Her political involvement further deepened as she joined mass actions such as those of the sugar workers and peasant settlers of Bacolod City in Negros Occidental. Coni assisted in organising the Christians for National Liberation—the CNL—in the Visayas in central Philippines. She was elected as a member of the CNL national executive board at its first national assembly in August 1972. Coni was arrested by the Marcos dictatorship in September 1973, and then released the following year. Together, Luis and Coni were the first Filipinos to ask for and receive political asylum in the Netherlands.

I have given a brief outline of the activism of these two Filipino activists to demonstrate their commitment to peace and change in the Philippines. I commend them for coming to Australia and seeking out ordinary Australians in an effort to inform and educate us about the turbulent political situation and ongoing work towards peace within the Philippines. Unfortunately, for too many Australians the Philippines is simply a holiday destination—not a country traumatised by corruption and institutionalised brutality. I sincerely hope that, in the wake of their visit, members of this parliament will be able to take the time to gain a deeper understanding of the situation in the Philippines and do what they can to support the work underway to recommence the stalled peace process.

Today, Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade union leaders. The Philippines has the dubious distinction of being the second-most dangerous place in the world. Afghanistan, whose situation many parliamentarians have raised in this place, is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Again, the second-most dangerous place in the world for journalists is the Philippines. It is important to be clear about why this is the case. Trade union leaders work with oppressed people to empower them to challenge their oppressors. Journalists have the power to spread that message and allow others to break free from their oppression. Unfortunately, like in many other developing nations around the world, it is large multinational companies that allow and benefit from the oppression of the poor and oppressed. In many cases, these companies operate with a high profile within Australia.

There is no better illustration of how difficult and dangerous is the battle that Filipino workers face when fighting against exploitation than the struggle of the Nestle Philippines Cabuyao factory workers. These workers have now been on strike for over 10 years. This strike is indicative of the efforts by large multinational companies to drive down the wages and conditions of workers and to undermine their human rights. Over 500 workers were dismissed for simply trying to exercise their right to have retirement benefits included in their collective bargaining agreement.

This dispute has demonstrated the harsh reality for workers in the Philippines, the harsh reality of violent repression in response to legitimate industrial action and it has demonstrated the impunity with which companies like Nestle act in the face of court orders to negotiate properly with the union. In the Philippines, however, Nestle chooses to ignore court orders to reinstate all sacked workers. This is over a simple dispute about a collective bargaining agreement. It is a dispute over things that we are lucky enough to take for granted in Australia.

As a result of this dispute, two of the workers’ union leaders have been murdered. One of these leaders, Diosdado Fortuna, president of the Nestle Philippines workers union, was gunned down by men on a motorcycle after visiting the picket line of striking workers at the Nestle factory. These circumstances were all too similar to those of the murder of Carlo ‘Caloy’ Rodriguez, as I described earlier. Diosdado Fortuna is sadly one of 97 Filipino trade union leaders murdered in this way between January 2001 and November 2010. Even after groups such as the Uniting Church requested that Nestle condemn this murder, they simply remained silent. Those workers who have not found new jobs now live in makeshift slums and they have been forced to withdraw their children from school due to a lack of money.

Nestle Philippines still refuses to comply with a decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines to allow a decent retirement plan to be included in the collective bargaining agreement for the factory workers. Nestle still refuses to reinstate the striking workers at the Cabuyao plant and negotiate in good faith on the collective bargaining agreement.

This is the same company we see regularly trumpeting their social credentials on our TVs here in Australia. If a company like Nestle is prepared to ignore the rights of workers in developing countries like the Philippines, it begs the question: what circumstances would it take for them to show Australian workers equal contempt? The just action for a company as large and as wealthy as Nestle would be to seek a speedy resolution to a dispute about a retirement plan with vulnerable workers in the developing world, yet they have chosen to sack their employees and leave them languishing in a slum. When unionists connected with its operations are murdered, the just action for a company as large and as wealthy as Nestle would be to come out and strongly condemn such terrible acts and make it very clear where it stands, yet what we see is a company exploiting the absence of the rule of law—(Time expired)