FES helps Philippines face challenges from climate change to workers’ rights to violent extremism

The globalization of work, the tectonic shifts in geopolitics, and climate change are all having an impact on the archipelagic South-East Asian nation of more than 100 million inhabitants where FES has been working since 1964.

The Philippines is a complex and dynamic country, facing a range of challenges and opportunities. Some of these it shares with others in South-East Asia, but others are specific to its own particular circumstances and history. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) has been working alongside stakeholders in this unique country since 1964, bringing a voice for social justice and democracy through dialogue and international cooperation. 

The Philippines is facing many of the same challenges of the 21st Century as any other country, but some more than most. The globalization of work, the tectonic shifts in geopolitics, and climate change are all having an impact on the archipelagic South-East Asian nation of more than 100 million inhabitants.

With respect to climate change, there is a need for urgent action on both adaptation and mitigation. The Philippines is the world’s fifth most climate-vulnerable country, and has borne the brunt of some of the strongest typhoons to make landfall anywhere. On the other hand, the Philippines’ own electricity is produced largely by burning imported coal, which is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. 

What the country needs is a generation of its own renewable energy experts, with the technical, business and political skills to build a sustainable and adequate energy supply. This is precisely the objective of the Renewable Energy Boot Camp, a training programme supported by FES, which entered its second year in 2018. 

The courses last 12 or 18 months, and bring together young people with some relevant background and, more importantly, the potential and attitude to become leaders on renewable energy. “Last year the focus was on helping units of local governments to switch to renewable energy in their own operations,” FES Resident Representative Johannes Kadura said. “Under FES guidance, the teams went into the provinces, and pitched the business case for making the switch to the local offices.” Around half of the plans drawn up have been taken forward to the stage of discussing implementation, he said. 

In addition to helping shape future generations of experts, FES also works with current decision makers to inform energy policy and practices. In this it can contribute lessons from Germany’s own energy journey. Some Philippine decision-makers have been considering nuclear power to help wean the country off imported coal and reduce emissions. However, the cornerstone of Berlin’s own Energiewende, or “energy transformation”, is the aim to phase out nuclear power by 2022. This decision was driven by public demand, but also by the weighty business argument: The true cost of nuclear power must include the future handling of the waste, as well as the decommissioning of power stations.

To give them an insight into the German experience, FES supported a visit by Philippine legislators in 2017 to Germany, including the chairman of the energy committee. Over the course of the visit, many ideas and arguments were exchanged, and the senators were able to explore how the nuclear option may perhaps not have all the security and cost benefits that they had been hoping for. 

Besides the various issues surrounding the future of energy, another important part of FES work in the Philippines is supporting labour organizations. In particular, FES works with organizations such as SENTRO, or “centre”, the country’s largest association of labour organizations, representing workers from across all sectors.

A particularly problematic trend in the Philippines is the increasing use of short-term contracts, described locally as the “contractualization” of work. 

“Trade unions in the Philippines are not in an easy position,” Kadura said. “For historical reasons, the structure is very employer-friendly, and the labour rights scene is very fragmented.” One particularly problematic trend is the increasing use of short-term contracts, described locally as the “contractualization” of work. “A lot of workers are hired for six months, then fired, then hired again,” Kadura said. This allows employers to avoid providing the job security or benefits that are mandatory with longer contracts.

President Rodrigo Duterte promised to curb the practice ahead of his 2016 election, but so far there has been little progress.

“For the last two years this issue has dominated the labour debate, and is driving our efforts to build capacity for workers’ representation,” Kadura said.

Part of this capacity building includes a programme of intensive paralegal training for trade unionists and labour leaders. “2018 is the third year of implementation,” said Carlo Emmanuel Cabatingan, FES Assistant Programme Coordinator. “We are also thinking of holding a conference in November to bring together all the programme graduates for the first time.”

FES has also been supporting the research and publication of the annual Philippine Labor Outlook since 2015. This year, the foundation is additionally piloting a study on gender justice among unions in the Philippines, in partnership with the government’s Institute for Labor Studies, Cabatingan said.

Looking ahead, FES is planning a centre of excellence with the working title of Center for Renewable Energy Innovation and Policy Development, in partnership with the University of the Philippines. “The idea is to have one go-to institution where politicians, civil society organizations, students and other stakeholders can get the latest information, all under one roof,” Kadura said. 

The Manila office of FES also manages some projects that are more regional in scope. One of these is coordinating FES support for the Network for Social Democracy in Asia, or Socdem Asia. This is a network of the region’s political parties, pre-party formations, and progressive politicians, scholars and activists who share social democratic values and perspectives.

“The political space for social democratic alternatives is shrinking right across the region,” Kadura said. “It has never been more essential for like-minded progressives to reach out across borders, not only to learn from each other’s experiences, but also to coordinate actions at an international level to improve coherence and impact.” FES support of Socdem Asia includes hosting discussions among experts, providing skill trainings to a range of actors, and engaging in online platforms of exchange. 

In 2018, FES will also be taking a look further into the future, with a workshop and study to explore the topic of South-East Asia and the Philippines in 2030, in cooperation with the  Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs.

“We are going to be looking at Chinese foreign policy in the region, as well as the US attitude after [US President Donald] Trump,” Kadura said. Several scenarios will be considered regarding the future balance of power between regional and more global forces, with the workshop and study both set for the end of the year.

Also in 2018, FES will be bringing together practitioners and experts in the fight against violent extremism, in the wake of the previous year’s clashes in the Philippines. Delegates from Malaysia, Indonesia and Europe will join their colleagues in the Philippine for a conference, probably in September.

“As a social democratic foundation we are looking at the root causes of extremism,” Kadura said. The event will focus on the conflict in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, where Islamist militants and government forces clashed for five months in 2017, leaving swathes of the city destroyed, and tens of thousands of people displaced. 


For more information about the work by FES in the Philippines visit the official country office website and follow their Facebook fan page for regular updates. 

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