Climate and coronavirus justice in the Philippines

Workers from PHILERGY, a German-Filipino supplier and installer of solar energy, install solar panels at a house.

The coronavirus pandemic hit Filipino workers hard - and set back a just transition to a renewable energy economy.

Nearly 10 million workers were unprotected in a time of crisis, and lost their job.

The just transition from oil and gas jobs to decent jobs in the renewable sector has been thrown into uncertainty by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The crisis has not only exposed the deficiencies of a market-oriented healthcare system that treats health as a commodity, but also the situation of precarious workers and income inequality.

Overseas Filipino workers from different parts of the world were transported back to the country - and those in the transport and informal labour sectors suffered loss of income due to lockdown and enhanced community quarantine for the first three three months.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

Authortiarian

Under the pretext of the pandemic, the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) advisory allowed employers and employees to negotiate adjustments in their contract - such as reduction in work hours, compressed work week and increased flexible working arrangement.

Workers who were laid off were unable to file a case as quasi-judicial bodies of DOLE were suspended, and had limited information, procedure and access for filing an online complaint.

To sum up, nearly 10 million workers were unprotected in a time of crisis, and lost their job.

It does not have to be like this. Crises like the pandemic and climate breakdown can be an opportunity for the working classes to build towards social transformation; a shift where the preservation of human life and sustainable environment is the centre of development.

The labour movement in the Philippines is united in fighting the pandemic, climate change and the creeping-authoritarian regime.

Typhoons

For SENTRO, which represents 80,000 workers across different sectors, this must involve rapidly building up the country’s public health system, in order to protect from the health impacts of the continued denudation of the environment, climate change and future pandemics.

It also means seeing this as a chance to alter income inequality in the country by introducing an income guarantee - a prelude to universal income. With the government being forced to bail out corporations, now is the time for the labour movement to press for changes in the power balance underpinning industrial relations.

However, the trade union movement is constrained by legislation such as the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act, the 2020 Anti-Terrorism law and the 2020 BAHO Act (which gave the President additional powers to fight Covid-19).

Nearly 10 million workers were unprotected in a time of crisis, and lost their job.

These laws are designed by the Duterte administration to sow public fear, legitimise human rights violations and undermine democracy and freedom of the press. SENTRO therefore sees the fight against climate change, labour rights violations, looming dictatorship and the recent pandemic as interrelated.

The Philippines are one of the lowest CO2 emitting countries in the world. Yet, as an archipelagic island situated between the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, it is frequently affected by extreme weather events, like typhoons.

Cooperatives

When typhoons hit, the transmission lines and electric distribution posts are heavily devastated, and take three to six months to rehabilitate - a period that hampers provincial economies.

Yet, the current energy supply remains heavily dependent on coal as its primary source for power generation. The long-term Philippine Energy Plan (PEP) has been criticised for its “lack of focus” on clean energy,28 especially as the Shell-operated Malampaya gas field is expected to be exhausted within the next four to five years.

SENTRO has been mobilising with other movements to put the Philippines on the path to clean energy.

This includes mobilising against coal power plants with the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, working with ATM - an alliance to stop mining - to end extractive and open pit mining, and as a petitioner in Greenpeace Philippines’ public case against carbon polluters like Chevron, Caltex and Shell.

SENTRO is also resisting the corporatization of electric cooperatives. For forty years, publicly funded electric cooperatives have provided electricity to 13 million household consumer-members, including rural areas.

Collective

The privatisation of these cooperatives means higher electricity bills for consumers - the highest in Asia, frequent blackouts, unstable supply and many still without power. For workers, it means cutting jobs and increasing reliance on contracted labour with lower wages and no benefits.

In 2013, San Miguel Energy Corporation privatized the Albay Electric Cooperative (ALECO), after five years of workers resistance. High rates and inefficient services led many in the community to refuse paying their bills.

The company disconnected the electric services of con- sumer-members who, in solidarity with striking workers, boycotted the payment of the electricity bill.

On the other hand, the striking workers reconnected the electric service of disconnected community members. With unstable access to electricity, SENTRO introduced pilot renewable energy areas, and concluded a collective bargaining agreement that created a Climate Justice and Just Transition Council.

Power

However, at present, nine electric cooperatives are under threat due to a corporate franchise grabbing bill, which is pending in Congress.

As long as the privatisation of the power industry is permitted, attempts to decarbonise will only sustain business as usual - the transition to renewable energy and green jobs will be controlled by market-oriented policies, which hurts workers and their communities.

Hence, the challenge for the trade union movement is to resist, reclaim and restructure the power industry towards energy democracy. That means public control and democratic governance of the power industry.

Building a united global trade union movement is a must if we are to alter the power relations and change course away from false solutions to climate change.

This Author

Vicente P. Unay, Jr. is secretary general at National Union Of Workers In The Power Industry (Power-Sentro), based in Quezon City, Philippines.

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