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PHILIPPINES: Labour department's complicity in unlawful acts deprives sexually abused workers from creating a union

July 31, 2008


Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAC-173-2008

1 August 2008
PHILIPPINES: Labour department's complicity in unlawful acts deprives sexually abused workers from creating a union

ISSUES: Trade unions; right to employment; women's rights; multi-national companies; working conditions; sexual abuse; equality before the law

Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) writes to inform you that several union leaders and factory workers of a footwear company were illegally terminated when some of their female colleagues exposed their employer's sexual abuse on them. Their termination had also effectively deprived them possibility from having their union legally recognized. As they were terminated a day before the certification election was held this effectively frustrated their chances of having a necessary majority to win the election.
CASE DETAILS: (According to information from the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR))

On July 24 of this year, more than 50 factory workers of the Bleustar Manufacturing and Marketing Corporation (BMMC), a manufacturer of branded footwear Advan, were illegally terminated from their work. The workers, some of whom began working in the company in 1993, were neither not informed beforehand nor given adequate explanations as to why they were terminated.

The workers though believe that their employer had terminated them in order to effectively deprive them the possibility from having their union, the Bleustar Workers Labor Union (BWLU), obtain legal recognition in the Certification Election (CE) which the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) held on July 25. Had they won, they would have the right to represent the workers in negotiations.

In the Philippines, before any union is legally recognized both by the employer and the DoLE they had to first obtain majority vote in the CE wherein the workers involved would cast their vote to decide whether or not they favor the union who would represent them in any negotiation for their rights and welfare. The workers, who belong to the rank-and-file employees, are the only ones that can vote for the union, which is seeking certification.

In the BWLU's case though, when the election was held on July 25, the DoLE prevented those illegally terminated union leaders and other workers from casting their votes. Had the staff from the CTUHR not argued and insisted upon the DoLE representatives to allow the 43 workers who were illegally terminated to be allowed to cast their votes, pending the challenge to the legality of their termination, they would have not been allowed in.

Also, the DoLE had also allowed workers from managerial positions and included their votes in the official counting--which should have not been allowed. Twenty eight employees in managerial positions voted and had their votes counted. This is in contrary to the labour code, which says that only rank-and-file employees should partake in CE seeking for the establishment and recognition of a union formed by rank-and-file workers. In doing so, the DoLE representatives present during the election had effectively tolerated and acquiesced to these unlawful acts.

After the illegally terminated workers were allowed to cast their votes, the DoLE excluded their votes from the counting which resulted in the failure to acquire certification. In the election 87 voted for No Union, while 60 voted for Yes. Had the 43 ballots been counted, the BWLU would have won the CE. Once the union loses an election, they need to wait for one year before they could seek for another election for certification.

When the CTUHR staff questioned the DoLE representatives and the employer regarding the irregularities in the conduct of the election, some security personnel arrived and drove them out of the factory. Even before the election, the company had already made attempts to deny the worker's effort to have their union created and represent their colleagues.

On July 12, the company tried to take the industrial machines out from the factory reportedly in an attempt to abscond on pretext of bankruptcy, which could have sabotaged the schedule CE for July 25. At that time, more than 60 workers were forced to alternately hold a die-in protest in front of the company's gate to prevent the trucks from leaving. They succeeded, except that 59 of them were prevented from coming back to work, and their salaries were withheld.


As mentioned, before the CE was held some of the female workers had already been exposed to sexual abuse and harassment from their employer, Filipino Chinese Jimmy Ong. The abuse began as long ago as the early '90s.

When the CTUHR interviewed some of the workers, they recounted that Mr. Ong started sexually harassing and abusing some of them in 1993. Mr. Ong often arrives at the workplace drunk. He then calls on some of his female workers--who were young at the time--and started touching their breasts, genitals, and butt. The workers were then between 17 to 22 years old. He also forcibly kisses them on their lips, asked them to sit on his lap, and showed them his private parts.

Mr. Ong also made indecent 'invitations' to female workers whom he liked. Those invited could not do anything. They are forced into agreeing fearing that they would be terminated should they refused his invitation. One of them, who asked her name be withheld, said she had to submit to some of her employer's requests because she feared that he would terminate her. BMMC was the first place where she had acquired employment.

Her colleagues also said that they were so young and naïve then and they were not courageous enough to complain. Some of them have already developed serious trauma from their experience. Violeta (not real name), a seamstress in the company for 18 years, said that since Mr. Ong's indecent proposal, she has gotten scared and would hide under the tables and behind cabinets every time she saw him to avoid being summoned and harassed.

Another worker, Girlie (not her real name), also a seamstress at the company said that at times they complained to their supervisors and manager. However, even though their supervisors had already been informed or are fully aware of Mr. Ong's sexual abuse and harassment on these girls they failed to take any action. They were sorry on Mr. Ong's behalf but they simply told to the girls to just keep quiet: "wash your face or take a bath to make you feel clean again" (Ihilamos o iligo mo lang 'yan, tanggal yan!).

When asked why it took them 14 years to make this known, the workers replied that they had tolerated these traumatic and degrading experiences for long years due to a lack of choice.

According to Girlie, these experiences prompted them to organize union as protection not only against sexual harassments and abuses but also to improve their economic conditions. She noted that whilst there were reports that supervisors were paid hefty sums of money, they are still paid the minimum wage (Php 382 per day/ USD 8.64) after 18 years of service plus a Php 2 seniority pay given every three years.

The worker's union, the Bleustar Workers Labor Union (BWLU-Independent), represents 205 rank-and-file employees had been registered on 2 October 2007.

Although there is already an existing law, Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 (RA7877), that is supposed to protect women from being sexually abused and harassed, the workers did not complain for fear of losing their jobs. The law also only imposes maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and a Php 20,000 fine (USD 450).

The BMMC produces and distributed about 5,400 pairs of Advan-branded rain boots and 2,700 pairs of shoes per day. Its biggest buyer is the SM chain of department stores. It employs 205 rank-and-file workers, 85 percent are women, five supervisors and less than ten are office personnel. It is located in Wilmark 2, RMT Industrial Complex, Tunasan, Muntinlupa City.

Please write letters to the authorities below; requesting for a thorough investigation into the allegations of irregularities of the union's election. Also, please request that the complaints involving sexual abuse of workers be investigated. The authorities must also ensure the victims' complaints are acted upon.

The AHRC has also written to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on human rights, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and transnational corporations and other business enterprises calling for their intervention.

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PHILIPPINES: Labour department's complicity in unlawful acts deprives sexually abused workers from creating a union

Number of terminated workers: Around 50 rank-and-file employees. They are members of the Bleustar Workers Labor Union (BWLU) which represents about 205 workers in all.
Workers who are victims of sexual abuse: Several of them, so far two have openly come out. Most of them began to suffer abuse when they began working in early '90s
Name of company:  The Bleustar Manufacturing and Marketing Corporation (BMMC) located in RMT Industrial Complex, Tunasan, Muntinlupa City. One of their employers is Mr. Jimmy Ong. He is allegedly responsible in sexually abusing the female workers.
Name of agency who allegedly acquiesce to unlawful acts: Department of Labour and Employment (DoLE)

I am writing to draw your attention to the plight of the rank-and-file employees of the factory whose name is mentioned above.

I have been informed that these workers have been deprived the possibility of establishing a union to represent their fellow workers following the termination of at least 50 of the union leaders and other workers prior to the holding of a Certification Election (CE) on July 25. The election was to be held for the purpose of recognizing their union.

The union's bid to have their union established and represent the rank-and-file employees in negotiations on matters involving the workers rights and welfare had been prevented after the management illegally terminated workers without prior notice, and no proper explanation, which took effect on July 24.

I am aware that the workers are supposed to conduct their CE on July 25; however, since at least 50 of them had been terminated immediately prior to the vote, their votes were not included in the counting of the election. They lost because not only were their votes not counted on pretext that they had already been terminated, the DoLE representatives also allowed workers in managerial positions to cast votes--which should have not been allowed.

As you may have known, in doing so, the DoLE has violated the provisions in Philippine Labour Code and has in fact acquiesced to these illegal acts being carried out by the BMMC. By failing to have the workers serious allegations of illegal termination investigated effectively and promptly, and recognizing its implications on the CE, the DoLE had instead become in this particular case an instrument to crush any effort of these workers of their right to associate and to collectively bargain.

I am aware that the workers' effort to establish a union has itself been part of their long overdue struggle to collectively bargain and defend their rights, particularly the rights of those who are victims of sexual abuse and harassment by their employer, Filipino Chinese Jimmy Ong. Mr. Ong had been able to exploit and abuse his authority upon his female workers so those workers have had to continuously endure his abusive behavior suffering since early '90s for fear of losing their jobs.

It is disappointing that the concerned authorities have failed these workers, particularly regarding the abuses perpetrated on the female workers. Two of the workers have claimed that they had been abused by him by touching their breasts, genitals and butts. He also forcibly kissed them on their lips, asked to sit on his lap, and showed them his private parts. They were then between 17 to 22 years old.

I therefore urge you to ensure that the investigation into the workers' allegations of irregularities in the conduct of election is held. The said election must be declared invalid given the said irregularities; if not then the votes of those terminated workers should have also been included in the count so as to ensure they are not deprived of their interest in the matter. The union leader and other workers who are terminated must also be reinstated without further delay.

I trust that you take immediate action in this case.

Yours sincerely,


1. Mr. Marianito Roque
Acting Secretary
Department of Labor and Employment (Dole)
7/F DOLE Building, Intramuros
Manila NCR 1002
Tel: +63 2 527 2131
E-mail: sec_art_brion@yahoo.com.ph 

2. Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
Republic of the Philippines
Malacanang Palace
JP Laurel Street, San Miguel
Manila 1005
Fax: +63 2 736 1010
Tel: +63 2 735 6201 / 564 1451 to 80
E-mail: corres@op.gov.ph
3. Ms. Leila De Lima
Commission on Human Rights
SAAC Bldg., Commonwealth Avenue
U.P. Complex, Diliman
Quezon City
Fax: +63 2 929 0102
Tel: +63 2 928 5655 / 926 6188
E-mail: chr.delima@yahoo.com or mtm_rodulfo@yahoo.com 

4. Deputy Director General Avelino Razon
Chief, Philippine National Police (PNP)
Camp General Rafael Crame
Quezon City
Fax: +63 2724 8763
Tel: +63 2 726 4361/4366/8763
E-mail: bluetree73@gmail.com 

5. Mr. Raul Gonzalez
Department of Justice (DoJ)
DOJ Bldg., Padre Faura
1004 Manila
Fax: +63 2 521 1614
E-mail: agnesdeva@yahoo.com 

6. Mr. Peter Favila
Department of Trade and Industry
4/F BOI Building
385 Sen. Gil J. Puyat Avenue
Fax: +63 2 896 1166
Tel: +63 2 899 7450

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrchk.org)

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.