The Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) strongly condemns the attack against our fellow researcher and trade union activist Otto De Vrie. The Philippine government cancelled his permanent visa and issued a deportation order to De Vrie because of his active participation in the labor rights  advocacy. 

According to documents issued by the Philippines’ Bureau of Immigration, De Vrie has been accused by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency or NICA of participating in protest rallies organized by “Communist-Terrorist Groups (CTG) front organizations.” After the passage of the Anti-Terror Law, the Duterte administration has intensified its already unabated red-tagging spree. NICA has labeled the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), the labor NGO for which De Vrie has been volunteering, as “CTG-affiliated.”

De Vrie, 62, hails from the Diocese of Rotterdam, Netherlands and started his immersion in the Philippines in 1991. He was invited by Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, OCD of the Prelature of Infanta to do pastoral work in the country. For more than 30 years of his pilgrimage in the Philippines, he has witnessed the dire conditions of Filipino workers and other marginalized sectors of society. He has regularly visited striking workers in picketlines and has lived in urban poor communities to see the workers’ plight and hear their demands and struggles. As part of his mission for the working class, De Vrie has been a volunteer researcher for EILER five years.

He also worked as an electrician in various construction projects to investigate the harsh working conditions in the construction sector. His immersion among construction workers provided the material for his contributions to studies. Among the notable research papers with which De Vrie was involved are: “Mega-FTAs and Their Implications on Asian Workers” (2017), “Garment Workers Training Manual” (2018), and “Will Healthcare Become Universal in the Philippines?” (2019).

De Vrie’s present predicament is reminiscent of that of late Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” 

EILER is an active member-organization of the APRN in Southeast Asia. It participates in workshops and webinars aimed at advancing the rights of society’s marginalized sectors, and engages with other regional CSO formations such as the ASEAN People’s Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) and Asia-Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM).

EILER’s humble beginnings can be traced to the 1970s when it started as a church labor center. It continues to be an ecumenical service institution devoted to labor education, research, training, and advocacy work. Its flagship output in the 1990s, “Genuine Trade Unionism” has brought together church groups, academic institutions, and the youth working to defend workers’ rights. EILER has become a worker’s school — building the capacity of workers for forming unions and training new leaders and educators.

The APRN expresses its concern over the government’s “communist-terrorist” tagging of EILER, a labor think-tank which the APRN has worked with over the years. This is the Duterte administration’s maneuver to vilify its critics to silence them.

The grave terror and communist tagging of NGOs and people’s organizations are part of the Duterte government’s vilification campaign against independent and critical voices. Instead of heeding the plight of the marginalized in the country being given voice by institutions like EILER, the Duterte government chooses to silence them.

Despite, for example, the record levels of job losses, price hikes, and hunger during the pandemic, the National Task Force To End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), one of the government’s machinery that orchestrates these wrongful accusations, has received a total of P 16.4 billion (USD 339,430,800) for its 2021 budget, which should been allocated to social services and aid that will benefit the workers and the poor. 

The administration has been negligent in its duties to its people. More than 500,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus. Joblessness is worse than ever with 10.9 Million workers who lost their jobs and are suffering from lower income. Hunger spikes due to price hikes. The trend of shrinking and closing civic spaces rapidly escalates with the spate of illegal arrest, fabricated charges, and killing spree against rights defenders and activists.

It is no wonder that the Philippine government ranks lowest among ASEAN countries in terms of Covid-19 response. According to a recent survey titled “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021” published by the Asean Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, 53.7 percent of Filipino respondents expressed disapproval of the Duterte administration’s pandemic response, 17.9 percent expressed “strong disapproval, and only 6 percent expressed “strong approval.” Continuing protests of various people’s organizations and CSOs amid the pandemic is proof of the people’s dissatisfaction with the government’s actions.

APRN stands with EILER and Otto De Vries. The research group urges the Philippine government to halt the revocation of De Vries’ permanent visa and revoke instead its terror- and communist-tagging of EILER. APRN is also inviting its members, affiliates, and network of advocates to express solidarity with De Vries and EILER and condemn the Duterte government’s continuous and rabid red-tagging rampage.