For call center workers in the Philippines, attempts to unionize the workplace don’t just entail confrontations with local management—but overseas US-based multinationals and the US federal government’s foreign policy agenda as well. Since 2022, the Biden administration has promoted a new economic initiative known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). Touted as a vehicle for “writing the new rules of the 21st century economy,” the IPEF links 14 nations across the Pacific Rim into an emergent bloc that has been compared to the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership. Like the TPP before it, the IPEF attempts to build an exclusive economic regional pact that excludes China.
In a special livestream panel, workers and organizers in the US and the Philippines discuss how trade policy and worker repression in the Philippines go hand-in-hand with the IPEF and the New Cold War on China. The event, moderated by Maximillian Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief of The Real News Network and Ryan Harvey, National Field Director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, is part of organizing efforts for two upcoming rallies in the U.S. during negotiating meetings for the Biden’s administration’s largest trade initiative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Those meetings and rallies will take place in Detroit in May and in Seattle in August. This event is co-hosted by Public Citizen, BAYAN USA, the BPO Industry Employees Network, and Communication Workers of America.
- Mylene Cabalona, President, BPO Industry Employees Network (Philippines)
- Kendra Williams, Member, Communications Workers of America, Local 6215 (US)
- Adrian Bonifacio, National Chairperson, BAYAN USA (US)
- Melinda St. Louis, Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (US)
- Maximillian Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief, The Real News Network (moderator)
- Ryan Harvey, National Field Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (moderator)
- For more info about the May 20th Detroit IPEF/APEC rally: https://bit.ly/Detroit-IPEF / [email protected]
- For more info about the August Seattle IPEF/APEC rally: [email protected]
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News and it’s so great to have you all with us.
And I’m Ryan Harvey. I’m the National Field Director at Public Citizens Global Trade Watch and I’m based here in Baltimore. Thank you all so much for joining us for this special live stream. So this is being produced in collaboration with the B P O Industry Employees Network in the Philippines, also known as BIEN, the Communication Workers of America cwa, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, public Citizen BAYAN, U S A, the International League of People’s Struggle, US and the Real News Network. So since the US invaded the country back in 1898, the government and the economy of the Philippines has been closely aligned with and influenced by the United States from its support for the decades long dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos to the role of neoliberal economic policies during the era of democracy. The US has long prioritized its geopolitical interests in Southeast Asia over the lives and the rights of the Filipino people and the results of course have been terrible.
In its most recent report on global labor rights. The International Trade Union Confederation listed the Philippines as one of the 10 worst countries in the world for working people. Over the past several years, dozens of labor leaders and activists have been assassinated there. And workers’ rights are routinely violated often by companies contracting with US multinationals or companies directly based in the us. So today the Philippines is run by Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The son of the notorious dictator ousted in the 1986 People’s Power Revolution. His vice president is Sarah Duterte, the daughter of the fascistic ex-President Rodrigo Duterte, who is often called the Donald Trump of the Philippines. So this pair are overseeing the violent repression of workers organizations, peasant movements, and the L G B T Q community among others, all while participating in international negotiation negotiations, sorry, over a new US-led trade agreement called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or ipe.
So why is this relevant? Among the 14 countries involved in IPE six provide no guarantee of labor rights according to the International Trade Union Confederation, while three others suffer from systemic violations of labor rights. So that’s why more than 400 organizations, including some of the largest unions in the US, are calling for IPE to include strong provisions, safeguarding labor rights, and guaranteeing their swift enforcement by signatory countries as a condition of their inclusion in the trade agreement. And as we know when we permit companies to exploit workers in countries like the Philippines, it contributes to downward pressure on wages and working conditions for workers in the US and elsewhere.
Despite the deep repression of the Filipino labor movement, workers have continued organizing for better wages and working conditions. Their struggle and the role that international trade agreements like IPE play in shaping the contours of everyday life and work for people throughout the Asia-Pacific is the focus of our conversation today. And we’ve got a really incredible panel joining us today to host that discussion. We are incredibly lucky to be joined by Filipino labor leader, Mylene Caballo, president of the B P O Industry Employees Network or BN Mylene is joining us on the livestream tonight from the Philippines. And we’ll talk about the movement for workers’ rights in the country and what the current reality is on the ground for labor organizers and activists. We’ll also hear from Elena Lopez from the Communications Workers of America CWA about how US labor unions have built partnerships with Filipino unions like BN and the role that US groups and individuals can play in demanding and ensuring stronger labor standards for workers around the globe through international law.
We’ll also hear from Adrian Bonifacio, national Chairperson of BAYAN usa, who will discuss the network of Filipino solidarity groups in the US and how the Filipino diaspora is organizing to support the struggles of workers, farmers, and other social movements in the Philippines. And finally, we’ll be joined by Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizens Global Trade Watch, who will give us a deep dive into the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or IPE F and the role trade deals could but rarely do play in upholding or even raising labor standards and protections. Mylene, Elena, Melinda, Adrian, thank you all so much for joining us today on the Real News Network.
Elena, why don’t you start us off? You’re with the Communications Workers of America, one of the largest unions in the us representing everyone from telecommunications workers to flight attendants, journalists and healthcare workers. I actually first heard about groups like Bion who were with us today because CWA had held a rally in solidarity with workers in the Philippines a few years ago in dc. Tell us about CWAs role in this story and the work you’ve been doing in partnership with workers groups in the Philippines.
Happy to. Thanks Ryan. So hi everyone, my name is Elena Lopez and like Ryan said, I am a legislative specialist here at the Communication Workers of America cwa. And really just want to start off by, thank you all for tuning in to really learn about this fight for workers’ rights in the Philippines and how you know US workers and labor can work to build global solidarity as we go through this negotiation and further on. So I think Ryan gave a brief overview of who our union is, but for those who aren’t familiar, CWA represents workers in the telecom industry among many sectors, but included in that are call center workers. And what we’ve seen over the years is that US call centers are shifting work overseas, whether that’s downsizing, moving call, call centers, shutting down call centers here in the us in all regions, in all industries, they’re shifting them overseas and these are good families supporting jobs.
The average wave to our call center worker, I believe in 2022 was about $17 an hour. So when these call center jobs moves, communities are devastated. There’s a loss of income for these folks. But in many cases what we’re seeing happening is that companies know that they can move these jobs overseas because they can profit off the exploitation of workers like in the Philippines where it can be literal life and death for a worker trying to organize or fight for better wages. And at CWA we’ve heard stories from our friends and allies in the Philippines like Mylene about the persecution, the red tagging and the attacks on labor activists and human rights defenders because it’s much more than just an attack on labor. And from our union, we know that we really can’t fight for our own dignity and respect here in the workplace without helping our brothers and sisters abroad that our fight here for better wages, better working conditions is directly related to whether workers across the country and across the world can organize.
So just for background sake, CWE has had a longstanding relationship with Filipino workers C W A. We’ve worked with I think Filipino workers for a long time and many years at this point. But it really started that when in 2016 when our members were on strike at Verizon, Filipino workers reached out to help us in our fight because Verizon actually routed calls from our striking call centers to them and it was really a brave act of solidarity on their end because of the refreshing of labor rights there. And that kind of really resulted in a growing partnership between our two groups. So in 2019 a group of CWA workers traveled to the Philippines to meet with workers there. And from what I’ve heard from our workers and our leadership that went, it was just truly one of the most eye-opening experiences of their life. They met with call center workers and union leaders and really heard firsthand accounts about how Filipino workers who participated in any union activity were subjected to physical threats and severe intimidation.
They met Ann Kruger, who was a union organizer who showed members around Manila and hosted them at home during their stay. But shortly after our her their visit, her union office and many others were rated by the police and she was arrested under false charges all because of her union activity. They also met a woman named Sarah who shared how both and her and her partner were heavily involved in the union fighting for better wages, but sadly they weren’t able to meet her partner because he was arrested and in jail at the time, likely due to his union activities. Stories like these are just far too common for Filipino workers and union leaders. Even just two years ago we saw the armed forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police perform a series of raids that led to the murder of nine labor activists and six others.
These victims were a advocating for human and labor rights protections. And to this day we are still hearing about the persecution, red tagging and attacks from the government, all because workers went to exercise their fundamental rights to join a union. As Ryan said, for two years in a row, the Philippines were named one of the top 10 worst countries for working people. Because workers there are so vulnerable to violent attacks and intimidation and arbitrary arrests. And from what we see this sort of targeting and attacks, it really leaves a chilling effect on labor activists and their work, which puts more downward pressure on wages and working conditions in the US companies can and very much do exploit these low wages and substandards working conditions and lack of respect for workers’ rights and collective bargainings in other countries. We know that giant telecom companies are prey on Filipino workers.
They’re getting paid pennies on the dollars and don’t have basic rights to organize. A corporation sees factors like those and they know they can profit off that exploitation and they can move our good paying union jobs over seeds. It’s not a level PAing field, but we really don’t want it to be us against them. We’re not in that business, we’re not in the fight. Global labor solidarity is so important because our struggles are all connected. Our fight for better working conditions, wages and unions is all connected. And I think when you talk to union members and workers, they get that argument resonates them. They understand that we all have this common goal of fighting corporate greed and putting power into the hands of workers. And it’s important that we as American workers get involved and unions get involved because we face many of the same struggles that workers face abroad.
We face exploitation in the workplace here along them. And it’s a cheesy line, but I love saying it. A rising tide lifts all boats. We can’t let multinational corporations and corporate greed divide us here. Workers across the globe are in this together. And when we stand together, we fight together, we all win. So that’s why I think it’s so important that we all get involved in this fight because workers in the Philippines must be able to exercise their right to join a union without fear of retaliation or death even. And we cannot stand oddly by, as we watch the government of the Philippines continue to harass and target workers. So when we’re talking about any trade negotiations, whether it’s in the Indo-Pacific or not, we need to have strong labor law and strong enforcement enforcement mechanisms to that so we can hold countries accountable for the human rights abuses that are going on there. So thank you so much for your time. Look forward to the discussion later on.
Hell yeah. Well I thought that was beautifully and powerfully put and we’re definitely going to circle back to the question of why and how working people can show robust international solidarity with our siblings around the world. But let’s keep going around and meeting our incredible panel Mylene. I want to go to you next. And first off, I just wanted to say it’s great to see you again cause I had the honor of being on a panel with you at the Labor Notes Conference. Yeah, I remember that last year. So it’s good to see you again. Now obviously anyone who is watching this stream and anyone who watches the real News is going to already have a general interest in what their fellow workers around the world are going through and what we can all do to show solidarity with them. But I think the fact remains that a lot of folks will have very little background knowledge of the situation for workers and the labor movement in general in the Philippines. So I wanted to ask if you could tell us about yourself and the work that you do about BM and a little bit about the state of the labor movement in the Philippines right now.
All right. Yeah, thank you. Of course. Meant to start with, yes. I’m Mylene Cabalona, national President of BIEN Philippines. We are the call center workers. We’re called BPO O Industry Employees Network. And of course we want to start with the warm sanitation and solidarity to all workers present here. So Bi Philippines is a network of call center workers in the call center industry. Of course, one of the most exploited, overworked, yet severely underpaid and taken for granted sector of the workforce according to a study in the Philippines f o w or family living, which in our country should be around 31,000. Right now it’s around $620 and some change US dollars in a family of five monthly income is not considered poor. According to our government, a call center worker is only getting an average salary of $350 to $400 monthly. And considering that the industry is already considered a better off industry compared to others working in the provinces could bring this income to as low as $200 to $250 monthly.
We work in a graveyard shift to follow the time zone of customers that we are serving, provide world-class seller service, which are used as a marketing strategy for stakeholders to invest in the Philippines and yet collective expenses allocated by our companies to pay our salaries account only to around 10 to 25% of the gross revenue. And as a call center worker, we contribute to 98% of the whole revenue of VPO companies, but we can only get 10% of the profit as of 2022. The IB P, which is the organization of Management organization, released a statement that the com BPO industry has earned 35 billion US dollar imagine. And this is imagine the underpaid call center workers. We are both actually the products sold like commodities wire companies to their stakeholders and workers that make up the revenue and profit of the same product. So as I’ve said earlier, we only get a fraction of this profit.
This generates farther crisis among call center workers. So we’re taking a stand, we are now organizing workers so we can collectively assert from the 10% profit through unions and CBAs, we can make it 30% or even 50%. We are learning the teachers and rigorous process of organizing unions. We have taken the best practices from our partners Solidarity Network and friends in the labor movement to protect rights and welfare of call center workers. And as the national formation of call center workers in the Philippines, we are committed to organize the largest, most advanced and comprehensive union in the industry. We are currently working on the legislation for the Magna partner for bpo. Once passed into law, this will give better platform for B P O workers to organize more unions for better wages and benefits, secure our safety and enforce health protocol. But of course that does not stop there.
We know how unfair policies are enforced in the country for different labor sectors, and that includes the us The BPO unique because there is a creation of an export processing zones that restrict workers from organizing unions. And that’s only in the industry for us. A new hire employee of a call center company in the Philippines who will experience disenfranchisement to join unions from the very first day of joining the company. New hire orientation includes branding of unions or joining unions as illegal. And organizing union is considered a terror act. And of course, not surprisingly, as the government uses this like a marketing strategy to encourage companies to invest in the country, and this is because of those trade agreements frameworks that puts workers even more at the mercy of this big tech companies and where workers will actually suffer based on the embedded biases in the algorithm and ensure, I mean this would actually put more workers in a precarious labor arrangement, especially us in the call center now.
We live in a world where the economic conditions are right to further advance organizing and union building efforts. The demands to form unions is ever present as companies and government continue to enforce policies for workers against the wall, mandatory overtime, unhealthy and unsafe working environment and unfair labor practices. This conditions makes union organizing very conducive regardless of the attacks, red tagging, intimidation, fourth disappearances, and a lot of harassment for organizers for union organizers. So comrades in the labor movement resistance to any crisis is only effective when we join in solidarity among other labor movements. Bien Philippines is turning 11 years this 2023. We are proud that we have be what we have become. We started with 13 members right now we’ve grown to about 4,000 to 5,000 from 45 BPO companies in different BPO hubs. And we did this not, of course, not on our own.
We are thankful to the support of our solidarity friends. That’s including the communication workers of America and many others. They are very helpful and they enabled our work to continue. Yet this is far from over. We have 1.6 million Filipino working in the call center. They are projecting to increase this to 1.9 million by the end of the year. And what is 4,000 compared to 1.9 million? Not even enough to scratch the surface. So we take the challenge to make us 4,000 to 40,000 or to even 400,000. We will generate waves of their waves of resistance. It is our dream, our vision, our goal. Thank you so much and long leave working people of the world.
Marlene, thanks so much for joining us and of course for all the work that you and your fellow organizers and workers are doing there. Yeah, really great to have you. Yeah, a Adrian, let’s bring you in here. So you’re the national chairperson of BAYAN U S A. It’s a coalition of more than two dozen progressive Filipino organizations in the us. I just want to say the Filipino solidarity network is really fascinating and really active and quite large. Tell us a bit about the work that BAYAN and other Filipino diaspora groups are doing both here and elsewhere around the world, and then also the issues that you’re focusing on right now.
Definitely. So as you mentioned, BAYAN USA is a grassroots alliance of almost 30 organizations across the us. We’re fighting for genuine sovereignty, we’re fighting for real democracy in the Philippines, and we’re the largest overseas chapter of Bion in the Philippines. We’re also a member of the International League of People Struggle, which is also one of the co-sponsors of today’s forum. BAYAN has historically been at the forefront of fighting against neoliberal and unequal trade agreements between the US and the Philippines since its formation in the 1980s. Back then, we are under the dictatorship of Ferdin and Marco Sr. The father of the current president who ushered in a neoliberal era in the Philippine economy. And so in the years leading up to his infamous declaration of martial law, Marco Sr opened up the Philippines to unmitigated trade and participation in the global market. He had many infrastructure projects that were funded both by the public, but also massive foreign loans from the World Bank, the International Monetary fund, and other agencies which were meant to win the favor of the people.
But their true impact is actually felt in the economic crisis that came as a result of skyrocketing debt. And so the people are actually still paying for that debt to this day. Under Marcos, we also saw the shift to an import dependent and export oriented meaning that we’re importing a lot and the goods being produced or grown in the Philippines are being exported type of economy. That was a direct result of the liberalization and deregulation of trade in the country. So this persistent economic crisis that marked the regime didn’t go unnoticed. It spurred mass discontent and it spurred a people’s movement. And that’s why Marcos eventually declared martial law in the Philippines in the 1970s. And so it’s really important when we’re understanding and studying neoliberal policies, trade policies, to understand that this goes hand in hand with political repression and fascism, right? Especially when the people’s movements are fighting back to change the status quo.
So again, economic liberalization goes hand in hand with that fascism in militarism. So the formation of BAYAN during this time as an alliance to unite the people against economic and political violence was super important and we continue to play that role until today. Mylene gave a lot of great points of the very concrete condition of call center workers in the Philippines and other workers zooming out a bit, the current President Marcos Jr. So the son of the dictator has made it a trademark of his administration to travel across the world to just cement deals that benefit those in power. And this is at the expense of working people. So Marcos’s attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit later this year in November will be just another opportunity for him to sell out the Philippines through unequal trade agreements to whoever is the highest bidder. One of the biggest mass issues that has come up recently in the Philippines is charter change or constitutional change.
Marcos and allies in the Congress are pushing for constitutional change to open up the Philippine economy to more foreign investments, more foreign ownership of land of industries up to a hundred percent even, right? And so this is really laying the groundwork to make deals that would be negotiated at APAC more feasible. Right? There was also recently a high level meeting between officials from the US and the Philippines called the two plus two recently concluded in DC where there were even talks of renewing or exploring bilateral trade agreements between the two countries. So again, what does this mean for Filipino people today? Of course, lessening restrictions and protections for workers, like Mylene mentioned, it means driving up the costs of basic goods. The Philippines is currently facing inflation that’s the highest in over a decade. It also means that for Filipinos overseas, our remittances are worth less because the money we’re sending back is not able to buy as much for our families back home.
There’s also a big emphasis in APEC and IEP this year on green innovations, green technology. But the way it’s being implemented in the Philippines is coming at the expense of the everyday person Jeep needs, which is a form of public transit. There’s a huge jeepney worker strike earlier this year because there’s going to be this phase out of traditional jeepneys to more eco-friendly ones, which is really driving out folks who are experiencing extreme poverty and not enough, not a living wage at all as Mylene shared. And then it’s also impacting people in the Philippine countryside, reliance on imports, disenfranchises peasants and farmers. And also just reinforces the fact that our agricultural sector in the country, in the Philippines is really just for cash cropping basically in the US as Filipinos overseas, we’ve experienced these impacts of the liberalization of our economy firsthand because of the overdependence on foreign investments in the Philippines, stunted development of sustainable national industries.
And so the Philippines looked abroad for service work abroad to help to supplement the economy. And so the labor export, the forced migration of Filipinos spiked in the two thousands as the government relied more and more on these remittances to stay afloat because of trade deficits. So currently over 6,000 Filipinos are leaving the country every day to find work abroad. And so tied with these economic policies we’re also wary of the ongoing political repression that Elena, that Mylene mentioned go hand in hand with the repression of workers’ rights. And so red tagging, extra judicial killings, mass arrest continue. And there’s even seeking of support from the US government from this. So US military aid, police aid, currently the US military and the Philippine military are training in the largest ever joint exercise. Over 12,000 US troops are currently in Philippines soil. And further militarization does not bode well for the workers, for farmers and the Filipino people.
And so together with the organizations on this call with International League of People Struggle, we are part of efforts fighting to confront Marcos, to confront Biden, to confront other world leaders at the upcoming Apex meetings in Detroit, in Seattle, in San Francisco, wherever they go, we’ll be there. So please join us for any Filipinos who might be watching. We really encourage folks to join with us to link with our organizations. And then as you started off saying, Ryan, the solidarity movement is so important. So for others here, we hope that this is just a launching pad for further solidarity with the Philippines.
Hell yeah. Well, Adrian, thank you so much for the incredible work that y’all are doing. Also, apologies. I’m going to apologize Mia Culpa in front of the whole livestream. I apologize, I mispronounced your last name. I switched up the vows. That was, that’s on me. That’s all in all max. So that’s my bad guys. But we’re also going to end by plugging these actions so that folks watching can know how to get involved, how to stay on top of this. But please, yeah, go follow all these great organizations and unions on social media so you can stay up to date on him. Okay, Melinda, I want to go to you now. You are the director of Public Citizens Global Trade Watch division. And God bless you for doing that because I feel like this is one of those areas where the vast majority of us, our eyes just glaze over.
I’m like, I don’t know what’s in these trade agreements and the medias tell me I’m too stupid to understand them, right? That’s kind of the position that most of us are in. But as we’re hearing here, these trade agreements and just in general the ways and shapes of international commerce, I mean they directly impact working people’s lives in severe ways. And you have been watching kind of how US trade policy has been shaped over the last three decades. So what does trade have to do with everything that we’ve heard so far tonight? And I guess what is in broad strokes, what is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework? And I guess how concerned should we all be about it?
Melinda St. Louis:
Yes. Well, thank you so much and I want to just thank the other panelists for your passion and your struggle, and I’m just really humbled to be a part of this wonderful panel of union and human rights defenders. So yeah, I mean, I think as you said, all these discussions about labor rights and solidarity in the Philippines, they’re actually very particularly relevant right now as the US government is currently in the process of negotiating a new trade, what they’re calling framework with 13 countries in the Asia-Pac Pacific, including the Philippines. This negotiation is going to be very important for us, those of us who care about labor, RI rights to watch and to make our voices heard so that this international negotiation takes into account the realities that we’ve heard about from these workers in the US and in the Philippines. And there may be some opportunities for some positive change, but also we also heard there’s a lot of potential peril and we need to be closely watching this.
So just to give some context, as you mentioned, public citizens Global Trade Watch has been monitoring the impacts of US trade policy on workers, consumers, and the environment for decades. And unfortunately, it has not been a positive stor story for the vast majority of us in the US and in around the world because instead of creating trade policy in a transparent and democratic forum like our legislative process, or even in other international negotiations like in the United Nations, trade negotiations have historically taken place in utter secrecy, not utter secrecy for everyone, for us, but there is a trade advisory system in the United States that’s made up of 500 corporate advisors that have access to the negotiating texts, who are able to influence what is being negotiated while the public doesn’t know what’s in them until they’re finished and it’s too late to make any real changes.
And so the results over the past decades has been that there have been rules embedded in these agreements that benefit big corporations and it make easier for them to take advantage of low wages and lack of worker and environmental protections and facilitated as we talk about a race to the bottom. And this has happened not just because they’ve lowered tariffs or the taxes that we place on imported goods, but it’s also because the rules themselves were particularly rigged to benefit multinational corporations at the expense of workers. For example, there were rules inserted that limited our government’s ability to pass types of laws to protect food safety. Pharmaceutical companies snuck in terms that allowed them to expand their monopolies and block generic competition for lifesaving medicines. They inserted extreme rules that allowed sweeping corporate rights for foreign investors to allow corporations even to sue governments over laws that they thought would impact their profit making.
And then they were decided an unaccountable tribunals outside of our courts and have awarded billions of dollars in taxpayer money to corporations around environmental or public health laws. And none of these rules were really about trade. They were really about expanding corporate power, and they embedded them in this idea of free trade. Republicans and Democrats, no matter who was in the White House since the 1990s until very recently, pushed this model of corporate dominated trade agreements. So unsurprisingly, there’s been massive opposition both here in the United States and another countries to this model. And so one of the ways they addressed this opposition and political backlash was to kind of tack on rules on labor rights in the environment, kind of as an afterthought. Initially, they were weak and meaningless standards that were unenforceable in the original, the North America Free Trade Agreement or nafta for example, had these side agreements that were really just an afterthought to try to get them through Congress in subsequent agreements.
There’s been more and more pressure from labor unions and many in our movement, they started to include labor and environmental provisions into the core text of the agreements. But again, window dressing is still very weak standards compared to the pro-corporate rules that were binding and required and that the corporations could sue governments. But that was not the case for workers, and it really did not result in any meaningful improvements on the ground. And so we saw this continued race to the bottom. We have as our cross through cross-border solidarity, we’ve managed to stop some of the biggest attempts to expand this model. So we’ve had some success, even though it’s been a pretty dire story. We helped to stop a major expansion of the World Trade Organization or so the soho called Doha Round, which was a project to expand this model and expand this model.
In the 1990s or early two thousands, they wanted to expand NAFTA to all of the Americas, the free trade area of the Americas. That was stopped by popular movements. And most recently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the T ppp, which was negotiated during the Obama administration, it could not receive majority support in Congress because these extreme corporate rules were B, they’re because of the backlash behind them. So our politicians have had to respond to the shifting political landscape, especially as the manufacturing base in the US was hollowed out due to these bad trade policies. We saw even right wing populists capitalizing on this anger against trade agreements, but they scapegoated workers in other countries instead of focusing on the real culprits, which are the corporations that have been rigging the rules to screw workers here and exploit workers in other countries. So a few years ago when the North America Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA was renegotiated labor unions and social movements in Mexico and the US and Canada managed to push to remove some of these expansive corporate rights and for the first time included stronger labor rights that and had a rapid facility specific enforcement mechanism that unions in the US and Mexico have been able to use successfully use to support independent unions in Mexico.
So that was a positive development. And President Biden has also responded to this political shift. He previously supported these past trade packs, but now has seen the writing on the wall, and he’s been calling for worker centric trade. And he’s insisted that these new trade initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework or IPE, will not look like traditional free trade agreements. So fair enough, that sounds pretty good, but the devil will always be in the details. And so far we’re not allowed to see what’s it being negotiated. There’s unfortunately still this very unbalanced trade advisory system with hundreds of corporate advisors and just a handful of labor groups that have access to the techs, and it’s CL totally classified for the rest of us. We’ve been demanding a more open process to produce a better outcome that benefits workers here and in the Philippines, but we know that they actually signed five year secrecy agreements by all the countries participating in the negotiations.
Again, not a great sign. The negotiations started last year. They’re picking up pace as the US would like to deliver some results by the APEC meeting that Adrian mentioned that they’re hosting later this year. But countries participating with such dire labor rights situations like the Philippines, like what we heard in the Philippines, but also Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand. We need to ensure that labor and human rights are required as conditions of benefiting from any commercial part of the deal if we’re talking about worker centric trade. And so we need to build off of any enforcement mechanisms that we’re included. As I mentioned in the most recent US, Mexico and Canada agreement, we know corporations would like nothing more than to turn this into another corporate dominated deal. And in particular, and it was interesting that Mylene mentioned big tech companies see this as an opportunity to insert binding rules over so-called digital trade in order to thwart government’s efforts to regulate them and hold them accountable even in here in the us.
And that has huge implications for consumers, but also for workers. We know that there’s some people in the administration such as US Trade representative, Katherine Ty, who have been trying to move this IPE away from the traditional model and to try to fix some of the problems from past packs. But others in the administration just want any deal to counter China’s influence in the region. And corporate interests continue to have this privileged access. So we really can’t let IEP fly under the radar. It’s as I really think that would be a recipe for corporate interest to dominate once again. So it’s important for us to reinforce the importance of centering worker rights in a meaningful way in any commercial engagement we have with the Philippines or any other country. And my colleagues, Ryan, and also Aaeshah will talk a little bit more about some of the education and advocacy events that we’re planning also in Detroit as trade ministers will be coming from across the Asia-Pacific again to ground zero, Detroit, where manufacturing has been hollowed out due to bad trade policies. And so it will be important for us to show up there as well. So I’ll leave it there and happy to answer any questions.
Awesome. Thanks so much, Melinda. And again, thanks to everyone who’s spoken so far. I want to bring in we, I know that Max and I have a number of questions that we wanted to put in front of all of you, but first, as you just mentioned, Melinda, I want to bring in my colleague Aaeshah and then also Adrian, I want to bring you back in just very briefly just to plug some of these upcoming rallies and mobilizations that are happening during IPE negotiations in the us. So Aaeshah, what have we got going on in Detroit?
Yeah, hi everyone. Thank you so much for having me. As Ryan mentioned, name is Aaeshah. I am an organizer at Global Trade Watch and I’m based in Michigan specifically. And basically what we kind of have going on in Detroit is again, the finance ministers from or 13 countries are going to be convening in Detroit. And we have planned a day of action around the meetings. And so that day of action is going to be taking place on May 20th, which is a Saturday. And what we have planned is kind of a morning starting off with some educational workshops and some panels put on by various organizations followed by a rally in the afternoon to kind of rally people together and very kind of go through downtown Detroit and make sure that we bring in more supporters as we go. And so those actions are planned for, again, Saturday, May 20th. And we’re working with various organizations in Michigan, including Michigan Climate Action Network and others. And we would love to get more people involved, more people to come to the events and more organizations to join us. So if anybody would like to get in touch and join us in our efforts, my email is my first name, A S I D D I Q U I citizen.org, and we would love to get you all involved. Thank you.
And Adrian, before we jump to you, I also make sure to mention that the events in Detroit, there’s going to be a very similar mobilization in August in Seattle. And if you get in touch with Isha, we can also connect you with the folks over there from the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, the Trade Justice Education Fund. Adrian. Let’s talk about the Bay Area at the end of the year.
So we’ll definitely also be there in Detroit, in Seattle for the different ministerial meetings happening in May and August, respectively in September, November there will be the Big Apex Summit in San Francisco. So we are planning to mobilize there as well to confront these world leaders and really put the people’s issues at the forefront. So together, Baan usa, the International League of People struggles, us and other partners are organizing efforts, building coalition work to fight back against all of these neoliberal attacks on the people. And so if you’d like to join the efforts, you can also email [email protected]. So Baan is what’s in my title and then at Proton Me.
Oh yeah. So again, everyone watching and listening, you should definitely follow all of these unions and organizations, follow the work that they’re doing on social media, go to their website and be sure to mark your calendars for these upcoming events. Because I think one of the things that’s coming out of this discussion, and hopefully one of the things we have all learned after decades of watching this crap kind of unfold without any say so from us, the rank and file of our respective countries, is that we can’t just keep entrusting the shaping of these deals too. A shadowy cabal of corporate advisors and government officials, so on and so forth, we got to dispense with that crap yesterday and we all have a stake in this. And there are things that we can all be doing in our respective corners of the world, but also collaborating across international boundaries, much like capital itself does.
So the bosses are collaborating across borders, the working people of the world should be doing very much the same. And I kind of want to ask a question in that vein, because we only have a couple minutes left. Y’all have been so amazing, and I know we’ve got a lot of great engagement and thoughts in the live chat, but we do are across multiple time zones here. We just have kind of 10 minutes left here. I want to sort of ask about that question of what we can do and why we should really be working to build robust, tangible, sustained international solidarity to combat this and to ensure that whatever agreements are hashed out are more beneficial for working people, that they safeguard labor rights across borders and that there are actual enforcement mechanisms in place instead of just little finger wagging that does nothing.
And this connects all of us. I mean, my lean, I’m thinking about not just how a lot of US corporations of outsource their call center needs to you and your coworkers, but also you have international behemoths like Amazon that we cover here at the Real News all the time. And Amazon is not just a digital online marketplace. Amazon has its fingers in a lot of different industries and sectors of the economy, including cloud services, security, technol, security services, cloud technology, so on and so forth. So I wanted to ask what role that international extension of companies like Amazon into places the Philippines, what that looks like for you on the ground. But also I wanted to ask, you know, and Elena, just a kind of general question of if you could talk directly to other working people in the Philippines, in the US right now about why we need to correct the missteps of the 20th century, why we can’t just, I don’t know, cut ourselves off from the world and buy American, build American our way out of this and see our fellow workers around the world as somehow the enemies for stealing our jobs when it’s really the bosses who have uprooted and taken our jobs elsewhere and they’re going to pay and they’re going to exploit workers somewhere else and they’re going to pocket the difference.
So how can we continue to get through to working people that is not the way forward that we need to actually be working across international boundaries and that we can in fact be more effective that way?
I think I need to answer that. So this framework actually this, it’s the same as the framework used with Apex and all. And I think international, I mean workers with, say for example Amazon and the workers working for Amazon in the Philippines, which are basically outsourced, they’re experiencing the same repression, the same, what do you call them? Well basically repression in the workplace. So it’s best that we put forward all the struggles for, well, we are all the struggles of the workers as it’s the same. It’s just that we are, I mean the struggle in the first world are just the same struggle as in the third world I would say. So it’s best that we foster international solidarity among all brokers. I think that’s the way to put it.
Enough. I could jump in after my lean. And again, we do a lot of work with my lean and I have nothing but love for her. But that struggle she’s talking about, it is the same. Our workers, what I would say to them is, you’ve seen our employers nickel and dime you when it comes to contract negotiations that they can’t pay you, they can’t do X, Y, Z, guess what? It’s moving your jobs because they think they’re giving you too much wages to good of health benefits, you know, 401k pension. They’re moving those that work and those benefits overseas so they can continue to profit off the work that you’re doing. And I think when you sit down and you talk to your workers, we’ve had Mylene come to our national legislative conference to share her story. And when we have stories like her out there in the open, I think people start to recognize why it is important that we have the solidarity understand what’s happening.
Cause I think it a base level kind of just like people don’t know what’s going on in the Philippines because here you’re struggling to pay your wages, you know, might have medical debts, student loans, you don’t have time to deal with all of that. But once you know learn and you kind of learn of the struggle and the repression, I think they get it. And we’ve seen from our membership. And what I would say is if you want to get more involved, one, see if your union has a human rights committee because that’s how we do a lot of this work to organize your workplace as always. But then you can join your local public citizen group or your Bion group and really get involved in the fight because our struggles are all connected. Why pay you $15 an hour if you’re even making that when you can pay someone who’s going to make $300 a month or not? Yeah, it’s all connected and I think workers get that.
And Melinda, maybe, I think a question here for you, and also maybe for you, Elena, behind a lot of these exciting labor movements, there’s often a lot of really, really tedious, boring policy work done by lawyers and legislative people. And one of the things that we’ve been engaging with at Global Trade Watch and also a lot of our labor partners have engaged with are some of these novel labor enforcement systems that we first saw in the United States, Mexico Canada Agreement, the U S M C A. And I know Max before the show was saying, how do you enforce a rapid response mechanism in a call center? And I was like, that’s a good question for the folks on the panel tonight. So maybe Melinda, could you talk about what this rapid response mechanism is? How do you enforce labor rights through a trade agreement, and what are some of the ways that maybe could look like in something like I p if that was to happen?
Melinda St. Louis:
Yeah, so as I mentioned in the original nafta, the North America Free Trade Agreement had just this weak labor side agreement, did nothing to meaning meaningfully protect the right of workers to organize independent unions in Mexico. And even in subsequent agreements, there was this idea that these are enforceable standards, but they had to show that there was a sustained and recurring pattern of abuse. They had to prove that the US Trade Representative’s office would take years to even investigate these claims from workers’ advocates about sustained abuses. And it didn’t make any meaningful difference on the ground. So labor unions in the US and in Mexico were kind of thinking about, alright, how do you actually enforce something like this that if you’re going to have strong labor standards? And so for the first time, they incorporated this rapid response mechanism. And so rather than having to prove a pattern of systemic abuse, workers at an individual factory can now file a complaint through the US M C A, that the agreement to have their right to organize respected.
And so the government, US government, if they receive one of these complaints, they have to respond to these claims now within 30 to 45 days. And so they have to respond, they have to take it to the Mexican government, the government, they have to respond also within this very short period of time. And they have to go straight to the company and the company must respond or they face penalties it currently, that means that they could eventually have their goods blocked at the border. And for services like Kyle Centers, there are the cash penalties. They actually pay fines until they actually a address this. So I mean, there was a question, is it going to actually work? But there have been some good examples over the past year, past year or so, workers utilized these tools and they won three significant organizing victories in with independent unions.
There were huge dangers and threats and death threats against workers, but they managed to vote vast majorities in favor of these independent unions because this record with response mechanism was taken in place and they actually even got a fair contract at one of the GM facilities. So I mean, it’s really the tip of the iceberg. There’s still widespread worker repression in Mexico and it has to be factory by factory. But we have seen, we started to see how you can use, if you want to, you can use trade policy to lift up workers. It doesn’t have to just be only benefiting the corporation. So I think it’s a good model, it’s something, it’s a floor that we need to build from. There’s a lot more that we should do. But I think it’s it, it’s something to point to and it really was a victory of the labor movement and pushing for that change in that agreement.
Oh yeah. Well, it’s about that time folks. Again, we are talking with our incredible panel here for this special live stream, but we are more or less spanning the globe right now and we have to be respectful of everyone’s time. So we’re going to wind things down. But I just really, really wanted to thank all of you out there for watching and caring about this. I hope that we did a good job breaking down what is normally a very opaque and headache inducing subject. This will not be the last time that we address this topic. And again, you should be following all of the organizations represented here on the call if you want to stay up to date on this. But I feel like we’ve really gotten an important conversation going and we want to respond to more of your questions because I feel like now I have more questions than answers, and that’s the sign of any good conversation.
But there are a lot of real key areas that we need to continue to drill down on here, right? Melinda, I think named one of the biggest ones is that the elephant in the room is that this is all happening in the context of increased international competition and even hostility between the US and China led by the US kind of really trying to encircle China. So that that’s undergirding a lot of this. So I don’t want to convey to people that we’re unthinkingly just accepting the sort of conditions out of which trade deals like IPE are emerging. We understand that we live in a complex world and we’re going to have to navigate these larger forces, and we’re only going to be able to do that by staying true to our principles and staying committed to one another. And that’s really I think the note that I wanted to end on because there was some really beautiful notes of love and solidarity and cooperation in this call alone.
Even just hearing about how Mylene and her fellow workers reached out and showed solidarity with Verizon workers here in the United States. They didn’t have to do that. And in many regards they’d be like, why would we? We got enough crap to deal with in our own country. But just that impulse to reach out and to show that solidarity and look what has become of it right now, think about what could happen if more of us did that. Or we mentioned how the increased regulatory mechanisms and NAFTA 2.0 have enabled workers in Mexico to actually wage vital struggles, which we’ve covered here at the Real News, to have better labor representation, have more independent union representation like workers at the GM plant in Salau, Mexico have done. And in fact, another person who was on that Labor Notes panel with me and my lean, someone whom I’ve interviewed here at the Real News Network, was Israels who worked at the Salau plant in gm.
And in many ways, a that Israel’s story started when he was working at this GM plant in Mexico. And if y’all recall, one of the biggest strikes that we’ve seen in this country in the United States in 2019 was the GM strike. And when that happened, much like Verizon tried to do that, Elena mentioned earlier, GM tried to route a production to some of its Mexican plants to undercut the strike that was happening in the US Israel. And some of his fellow workers refused to be scabs and undercut their brothers and sisters in the United States, and they were fired for it. And that galvanized them to wage this year’s long process of fighting for an independent union. So these are just a couple of stories of struggle that show what even just regular working people up for what’s right and standing with their brothers, sisters, and siblings around the world, what can come of that?
And now I just really want to implore y’all as I do all the time here at The Real News, and as everyone here I think has stressed in their own beautiful and important way, we can actually have a hand in shaping the world that we inhabit. We don’t just have to accept what these larger, imposing, imposing forces give us. I think that is the soul always of the labor movement. And the more that we carry that internationally, the more that we let that guide us to crafting better trade policy, to carving a pathway to a more permanent peace and a more sustainable and livable planet, the better. So thank you all so much for being part of that fight. Wherever you are, please keep fighting. Please keep following this fight in particular. And as always, we will continue covering that fight and your fight and struggles around the world as best we can at The Real News Network. Once again, I want to thank all of our incredible panelists, Mylene Cabalona, Elena Lopez, Adrian Bonifacio, Melinda St. Louis, Aaeshah, and of course, my intrepid co-host, Ryan Harvey. Thank you so much for dealing with us, me. Thank you. This with me, man. I really appreciate it.
And for everyone, we’ll drop in the YouTube link for this event. After the event, we’ll drop in contact info for Ayesha and links to the different organizations’ presence that you can follow them. Thanks.
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