Rights award night bittersweet for militant RP priest
Date of publication: April 1, 2008
Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer
By TJ Burgonio
MANILA, Philippines—For Fr. Jose “Joe” Dizon, the awards night in a posh hotel in South Korea was a sweet moment tinged with sadness.
The 59-year-old militant priest received the Justice and Peace Award of the Tji Hak-soon Justice and Peace Foundation on behalf of the Workers’ Assistance Center Inc. (WAC) on March 10 at the Sejong Hotel in Seoul.
The WAC, a Church-based NGO founded by Dizon in 1995 to empower factory workers in the export processing zone in Cavite, was cited for promoting workers’ rights and welfare amid repression.
But hours before the awarding, Dizon received the heartbreaking news that the group’s union organizer, Gerardo “Gerry” Cristobal, had been shot dead in his car in Imus, Cavite.
“It was very emotional,” Dizon said in an interview at a restaurant in Manila on Thursday, recalling the moment he walked up the stage to accept the award.
The WAC is the 11th recipient of the publicly funded international human rights award and the first from the Philippines to win it. The award came with a plaque, a medal and a $10,000 cash prize.
The award is given by the Tji Hak-soon Foundation, a Catholic group, to individuals and organizations that significantly contribute to peace and justice, regardless of religion, sex and creed.
Honoring a bishop
The award was set up to honor the late Bishop Daniel Tji Hak-soon, who had campaigned for justice and peace in Korea from the 1970s until he died in 1993.
Msgr. Byeong-sang Kim, foundation chair, wrote the WAC in late January to say they were impressed with its work of “continuously fighting for the rights and welfare of laborers” despite hardships.
For a group that has trained, defended and helped thousands of workers in the Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZ) to form unions in the face of harassment, violence and dismissal, the award was a cause for celebration.
“That’s a good recognition amid the repression,” said Dizon, WAC executive director. “They made our day by giving us this award. We needed this award as a morale-booster.”
How it all began
The WAC had its beginnings at the parish of the Holy Rosary near the 276-hectare CEPZ in Rosario, Cavite, where it grew from a mere “socio-pastoral program” of the Church in 1995 into a full-time NGO.
“For lack of anything better to do, I formed it,” said Dizon, then a parish priest in Rosario. “It being an industrial zone, it was just natural for me to form something like it.”
The reality in sweatshops, he said, was startling: Workers individually had to contend with labor rights violations, ranging from low pay to nonpayment of overtime work to non-remittance of contributions to the Social Security System.
That was when the idea of organizing CEPZ employees into unions popped in the mind of Dizon, an advocate of workers’ rights, who formed the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights during martial law.
Gospel of unionism
“Sunday schools” were opened to train the workers on their basic rights and, later on, the fundamentals of union management, with a lawyer and a team of labor leaders lending a hand, according to Dizon.
Even in Masses, Dizon preached the gospel of unionism.
At the time WAC was formed, an estimated 80,000 people were working in 300 factories at the CEPZ, the country’s biggest export processing zone.
“It’s really empowerment. As Church people, we should be the voice of the voiceless,” the priest, clad in a faded T-shirt, said. “But at some point, we have to teach them to be their own voices.”
Organizing was tough especially against managers who employed thugs to harass, threaten and buy off union members, and who enjoyed the support of the local government and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority, according to Dizon.
No thanks to the provincial government’s unwritten policy of “no union, no strike.”
Cristobal wasn’t the first WAC member to be killed. WAC’s chair, Independent Church Supreme Bishop Alberto Ramento and member Jesus Servida were killed in 2006. Member Cris Abad was killed in 2005.
“We broke through the repression,” Dizon said.
From a union of 30 workers in 1997, the WAC in the next 11 years helped 10,000 workers form themselves into at least nine other unions in the once impenetrable foreign-owned factories in the industrial zone.
The WAC now tends to these workers like a priest to his parish.
Alongside the WAC, Dizon also established a parallel support group—the Solidarity of Cavite Workers (SCW)—for contractual factory workers who still lacked the bargaining power of union members.
“It all started when we were approached by a group of 100 workers who were asked to go on leave by the management,” Dizon said. “We told them to report for work the next day wearing black ribbons. The capitalist owner was surprised to see how organized they were. They felt empowered after that.”
The irony of the Justice and Peace Award wasn’t lost on Dizon and on WAC officials and staff.
It came after the WAC fiercely tangled with two Korean-owned firms that had refused to recognize their workers’ unions, broke down picket lines, and dismissed striking workers.
Irony of it all
“We were fighting two Korean-owned factories, and we were given an award by a Catholic foundation in Korea,” said Dizon, Imus diocese minister on labor apostolate, who now works full-time at the WAC since he no longer handles a parish.
The members of the Tji Hak-soon foundation were “very apologetic” about the factories’ policy toward workers and even accompanied Dizon to the South Korean Ministry of Trade to file complaints against the two factories, according to him.
“I think we were able to prove in the last 12 years that we did the right thing,” Dizon said.