When President Duterte called on the police and armed forces to “kill them all” in March 2021, he was referring to anyone suspected of being involved in the armed communist insurgency.  Like his war on drugs that cost the lives of anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people in extra-judicial killings, security forces are again authorized to kill indiscriminately. They do so with the guarantee they will not be held accountable or investigated. They do so with impunity.  So far more than 50 trade unionists have been killed.

But “red tagging” has a much wider purpose, creating fear among tens of thousands of workers throughout the Philippines. “Red tagging” involves an accusation that a trade union organization, individual union leaders, organizers or members are directly or indirectly involved in the armed communist insurgency. This accusation is enough for trade union leaders, organizers or members to be detained and questioned by the military and police. It needs no evidence. Just the accusation.

What makes this even more insidious is that these accusations are not made through official, verifiable channels. Anyone from the security forces, police or military, with or without uniforms, in military bases or police stations, or in the street or in workers’ homes, can tag a trade union leader or organizer as “red”. This adds to the uncertainty and heightens the fear.

The multiplier effect occurs when workers hear of these allegations and – out of fear of also being tagged as red – withdraw their support from the union. They change their minds and vote no to forming a union, quit their union, or join another union declared politically acceptable by the armed forces.

This also creates opportunities for employers. Employers can rid their workplaces of trade unions they don’t like. Workers end up joining only those unions deemed politically safe by the security forces and acceptable by employers. In some cases employers have invited the security forces to visit the workplace to instill this fear. [ See Trade unionists at Coca-Cola Philippines are being red-tagged. Why is the company failing to uphold freedom of association?]

Workers are increasingly led to believe (again without any need for evidence) that union dues are being used to finance the armed insurgency. Even if workers don’t believe it (and the vast majority don’t), it doesn’t matter. The risk of possibly being accused is enough: of being dragged off to be interrogated by the security forces, or being questioned by the police or military in your home. It is a visceral threat. Workers feel it.

As a consequence workers in the Philippines can no longer exercise their internationally recognized right to freedom of association. They are not free to form or join trade unions. Any choice they make is determined by the security forces and – in several cases – employers.  They are told who they cannot and should not support. They come to understand that choosing a trade union is no longer based on whether that union can defend and advance their rights and interests. It is instead based on the likelihood of being targeted as a supporter of the armed insurgency. It’s no longer about rights, but risks.

At this point national laws guaranteeing the right to freely join a union become redundant. And the internationally recognized human right to form or join a union is no longer a right. It is a risk. Integral to all human rights is the certainty of having that right – of knowing that you and those around you have the right. This is compromised in the climate of fear and anxiety created by “red tagging”.  In an environment of such tremendous uncertainty, with unlimited possibilities of severe consequences, workers can no longer be certain they have this right to choose to form or join a union. And instead they may end up choosing not to choose.