Courageously, Philippines president Corazon Aquino has released all political prisoners of the Marcos regime, including the leaders of the Communist Party. The only way to counter the rising strength of the communists in the Philippines is to restore true democracy.
By a stroke of luck, a conference on the repression of labor rights in the Philippines and other Third World nations will take place today on Capitol Hill under the sponsorship of Rep. Don. J. Pease (D-Ohio). For years, Pease has called attention to the unchallengeable fact that much of the economic progress in countries ranging from industrialized South Africa to the developing nations in Asia has been at the expense of workers' human rights.
Pease is among those in Congress and the labor movement whose ultimate concern is the connection between worker exploitation, and the shift of American jobs overseas, worsening the huge U.S. trade deficit. There is a danger of oversimplifying both problems and using legislation in this area as a protectionist tool.
And the United States must be careful when it starts preaching morality to the rest of the world: there are blots on our own theoretical dedication to real economic equality, visible in any big-city ghetto.
But there can be no doubt Marcos built up the obscene fortune he now is attempting to preserve in a comfortable exile in part by the worst kind of exploitation of workers.
As part of the feudal system installed by Marcos for the benefit of his family and cronies, Marcos banned strikes in so-called vital industries, which included all industries producing goods for export. According to the International Labor Rights Working Group, employers under Marcos commonly hied private squadrons of ex- soldiers to spy on, harass or attack workers as a way of enforcing "discipline" in the factories. All told, 42 union activists have been killed since 1982 for their involvement in labor activities.
As is true elsewhere in Asia, women workers in the Philippines are especially disadvantaged, and of course paid even less than men. In one of his many reports to Congress, Pease says that the multinational companies search for single women, willing to do boring assembly work, and routinely require pregnancy tests to avoid the possibility of maternity benefits.
Often, American corporate executives defend extremely low minimum wages in the Third World on the theory that the money is enough in view of the lower standard of living in such countries as Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. But under Marcos, starting wages in an American-owned electronic plant were running between $34 and $46 a month in 1984, while the basic cost of living for a single person was estimated at $37 a month.
The great majority of Philippine workers today earn only the minimum wage of $3.17 a day, less than the daily food costs for a family of six. But under Marcos, many companies were exempted from paying even the minimum, while others ignored the standard. And as for benefits such as retirement, unemployment compensation or the barest of medical programs -- forget it.
The situation worsened dramatically in the final two years of the Marcos regime. Philippine workers risked imprisonment, torture, abduction and murder for engaging in trade union activities. Beginning last year, gutsy workers took to the streets in open defiance. They engaged in an action known as the "people's strike," designed to bring activity in a local area to a halt.
What can this country do to help Aquino in her struggle to get her nation out of the Marcos rot; what can it do to inhibit the growth of privileged elites in Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere?
Pease's answer is that plenty can be done in all these countries, which according to new State Department reports on human rights have bad records. Legislation already on the books is supposed to cut off preferences for imports from countries that exploit workers, if the goods compete directly with American-made products.
Trade legislation before Congress undoubtedly will seek even tougher restrictions, especially on American- based companies that gravitate for off- shore production to some 10 developing countries with the worst records in exploiting cheap labor. Beyond that, it is time for the World Bank and the IMF to draw the line: it would no doubt help Aquino and reformers elsewhere if the U.S. executive directors at the Bank and IMF were required by law to vote against loans to countries that flagrantly ignore labor and other human rights.