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Foreign businesses to Arroyo: Stop the killings in the Philippines

November 17, 2006

US-based firms join unprecedented call

Saying violence has no place in a democracy, foreign chambers of commerce and multinational companies yesterday made an unprecedented call on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration to put an end to political killings or risk losing aid and investments.

The statement was issued by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce (JFC) in the Philippines, comprising business groups from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe, Japan and Korea, and the Philippine Association of Multinational Companies Regional Headquarters.

A similar plea was made in a letter sent to Ms Arroyo on Thursday that was signed by local officials of the US-based apparel companies Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren, Wal-Mart, Liz Claiborne, American Eagle Outfitters, Jones Apparel Group and Phillips Van Heusen.

The business groups' appeals came amid unabated attacks on media people and leftist and religious groups, Ms Arroyo's vow to end before her term expires in four years the 37-year-old insurgency waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines, and a legal offensive against leftist members of Congress facing rebellion charges.

In the latest incident, two motorcycle-riding gunmen shot and killed Joey Javier, 42, a director of a farmer's cooperative, in Baggao town, Cagayan province, on Saturday. He was the 71st victim of political killing this year, according to an Inquirer count. Its tally last year was 79.

The human rights group Karapatan lists 765 victims of political violence since Ms Arroyo assumed the presidency in 2001. The Inquirer puts the figure at 256.

"Such violence has no place in a modern democratic state," said a joint statement issued by the six foreign chambers of commerce and the group of multinational companies with regional headquarters in the Philippines.

"For the sake of justice and to deter continued killings, these murders should be investigated thoroughly and those found responsible punished under the law," the chambers said.

They welcomed Ms Arroyo's establishment of the Melo Commission to investigate the killings, but urged the probe body "to hasten the investigation and … to bring an end to a serious blemish on the country's national image, which could impact negatively on future foreign investment and foreign economic assistance."

The JFC has said an estimated $8.5 billion in foreign direct investment could flow into the Philippine economy over the next four years, generating employment for 2.9 million Filipinos, if the country's investment climate, labor quality and infrastructure improve.

"The policy of government is clear -- we don't condone these killings," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said, adding that the President's instruction was for investigators "not to leave any stone unturned."

"We appeal to the members of families of the victims and other responsible members of communities to help authorities look into these cases," said Bunye.

He said that during a trip to Europe in September, Ms Arroyo met with representatives of Amnesty International and sought the assistance of the European Community in the investigation of the killings.

"Some representatives will be coming over precisely to look into the investigation. That is how focused the President is as far as this case is concerned," Bunye said.

Ms Arroyo herself has condemned the killings and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice, but human rights groups say the government is not doing enough.

Leftist and human rights groups have been boycotting hearings of the commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, 74, questioning its independence and preventing the panel from proceeding with its fact-finding mission. Only three generals and a resource person have appeared before the commission since it was convened in late August.

A Human Rights Watch report in September found deep public distrust of the government's investigative effort, widespread fear among witnesses and victims' families, and a climate of fear in areas where the killings occurred.

Police Deputy Director Avelino Razon said over the weekend that authorities had narrowed down the number of suspected politically motivated killings to 136 since 2001 and solved 62 cases. Razon didn't say how many suspects had been arrested and expressed doubt over the higher figure cited by Karapatan.

In their letter to Ms Arroyo, the apparel firms expressed alarm over the murder of Bishop Alberto Ramento inside his rectory in Tarlac City in October and the reports of violent attacks against striking workers at the Cavite Economic Zone (CEZ).

They urged the Philippine government to "take proactive measures to ensure the physical safety" of the workers and work for the protection of the rights of workers and labor rights promoters.

The companies, which buy apparel from the Philippines, asked for an impartial investigation into the killing of Ramento, chair of the Board of Directors of the Workers Assistance Center, and the shooting of Gerardo Cristobal, former union president and member of the Solidarity of Cavite Workers (SCW).

On Oct. 23, the striking workers of Philippines-Jeon Garments Inc. and Chong Won Fashion Inc., both Korean-owned garment factories in the CEZ, filed charges with the Commission on Human Rights against officials of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority and the local Cavite police for alleged violent dispersals of their picket line last month.

The workers in the two companies have been on strike since the last week of September due to the refusal of the management to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Marlene Gonzales, former employee of Chong Won and now president of the SCW, said the workers doubted the "sincerity of the companies' commitment to the workers' plight."

"They (companies) must ensure reinstatement of those workers who were illegally dismissed. They should assure us that Chong Won would negotiate with the union on a CBA and refrain from violently attacking workers in the strike," said Gonzales.

Chong Won Fashion Inc. supplies products to Wal-Mart in the United States, such as T-shirts, ladies' blouses, polo shirts, pants, jogging pants, sleepwear and other apparel. Philippines-Jeon produces apparel for such firms as Al Assel and Zico in Saudi Arabia, CNI in the United States and Dream Station in Japan.



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