The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away

By Butch Olano

I am Butch Olano, Section Director at Amnesty International Philippines. For many years, I have worked with people who are poor and marginalized. My love for doing this work even helped me to survive a helicopter crash in the past during a field visit and, in another instance, gave me the courage to visit a tribal community of head-hunters in the remote mountains of Luzon Island in the Philippines.

For our latest research on labour rights abuses in nickel supply chains, carried out in partnership with the China Abroad project, I was again given the privilege of meeting with community members in the mining areas of faraway Dinagat Islands province. You may read the full report here: Philippines: Undermining Workers’ Rights.

I share some reflections about my recent visits to the communities in Dinagat Islands and, more broadly, on the view of China from the Philippines. 

Nickel is a key element in the manufacture of stainless steel and is becoming increasingly important as a component in rechargeable batteries. About one-sixth of the world’s mined nickel comes from the Philippines, and 90% of Philippine nickel is exported to China.

Between 2019 and 2021, an Amnesty International delegation from the Philippines section and Hong Kong Regional Office travelled to Dinagat Islands province, in the region of Caraga, to interview miners and others involved in the mining industry. Getting up before dawn and travelling by slow boat was such a pleasurable experience. We arrived at the port of San Jose just as the sun was rising and the view of the islands was spectacular and magical. It would have been a perfect island paradise were it not for what we found as we moved inland towards the mountains. There we discovered how mining has pillaged and ravaged what were once virgin forests, with large portions of mountains carved up and the surrounding rivers and sea mud thick with siltation. There is heavy Chinese investment in mining companies operating in this area, with three out of five companies fully or partially Chinese-owned.

In this region, mining is a seasonal operation, so workers are often employed for short periods every year. Even though the work is arduous and can be dangerous, the pay is very low, with around a third of workers receiving the minimum wage. Most workers are hired through contracting agencies, known locally as “labour-hire” companies, rather than directly by the mining companies.  

The people we interviewed alleged various infringements of their labour rights and Philippine labour law, including hiring without a contract and withholding or delaying wages, as well as non-payment of statutory benefits, such as social security and health insurance, or holiday and overtime rates. In some cases, workers were so strapped for cash that they had to borrow money from the companies that were delaying payment, who would then charge exorbitant interest on the loan. This effectively reduces their pay below the minimum wage. If you don’t have a contract, you can be fired immediately if you raise a complaint, and this puts you in a particularly precarious situation if you are waiting on back payments. Workers have also been warned that complaints will make them unemployable, along with their relatives and descendants.

The Philippines has official channels through which workers can raise complaints about such malpractice. While we talked to some miners who had filed official complaints, the barriers to doing so – such as long distances to the relevant offices, up-front fees that would be a strain on seasonally employed minimum-wage workers, and the long delays caused by under-resourcing – mean that many more don’t bother. Even when complaints are upheld, getting companies to pay what the court has ordered them to can take even more, costly, legal action. 

This situation may be similar to other areas and industries in the Philippines. Indeed, one can find similar situations in many other countries where low-wage industries are located in remote areas and where those tasked with protecting labour rights and enforcing the laws are under-resourced and spread thinly. Our research focused on nickel mining in Dinagat Islands province partly because of the involvement of Chinese companies both as buyers of the nickel and owners of the mining companies. Chinese companies operating in this sector are expected to comply with two sets of guidelines drawn up by the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals and & Chemicals Importers & Exporters (CCCMC): the Guidelines for Social Responsibility in Outbound Mining Investments and Chinese Due Diligence Guidelines for Responsible Mineral Supply Chains. These guidelines, if followed, would reduce or even eliminate much of the abuse we have documented.

Unfortunately, we have seen no evidence that the mining companies are conducting any sort of due diligence, and in fact they seem to be ignoring complaints brought to them by workers. We wrote, with summaries of our findings, to all five mining companies in Dinagat Islands and to as many of the labour-hire companies as we could find information for. At the time of writing this newsletter, we had received responses from only one mining company – which asserted that it requires contractors to comply with relevant laws, such as those that protect workers’ rights and prohibit the engagement of minors – and from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

Again, we are concerned that situations like these may also be found in other countries, particularly those involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In many areas, Chinese companies are hiring local workers (possibly through intermediaries) and building facilities to extract natural resources and/or ship them to China. On paper, there are guidelines, or even laws, regulating their activities. In practice, however numerous factors often contribute to pushing workers and their rights off the top of the agenda. These include the distances involved between China and host countries, the division of responsibilities between companies operating under different legal codes, and the pressure on governments to attract and keep the foreign investment.

Amnesty International’s core work is to carry out research, expose human rights violations, campaign for change and try to achieve results leading to meaningful human rights impact. This is certainly what we are trying to do with this research project that was conducted with logistical limitations, difficulties, and challenges brought about by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. We pulled through with the support given by the Hong Kong Regional Office and the Research Support and Global Issues programmes. However, much more work still lies ahead.

It is common knowledge among Filipinos that China is flexing its muscles in the country. This happens both politically, especially on the issues related to the West Philippine Sea, and economically through China’s investments and loans in vital industries such as mining, communications and power. With the current adverse and disastrous impact of Covid-19 on the economy, the Filipino government will be even more hard-pressed to welcome China’s investments. An example is the recent lifting of the ban on new mining applications and the approval of mining licences previously suspended. This is where our role as human rights defenders become more crucial and relevant, since the manner in which business is being conducted between the Philippines and China creates situations where the rights of laborers and workers are easily trampled upon, violated, neglected and forgotten.

During one of our visits to the Dinagat Islands, I remember a point made by William Nee, who was then the Business and Human Rights advisor in Amnesty’s Hong Kong Regional Office. He said: “What is important is that when we do research, we do not leave the people behind after our work has been published.” I believe this is a commitment that we will continue to hold on to. The research, campaigning and hopefully the change that will happen must be done with the affected communities – if not led by them then in ways that empower them. If we want meaningful change, affected communities must own the process and, in doing so, claim their rights from duty bearers and corporations. Only then can we rest assured that the human rights change we seek will happen and be sustained.