FEATURE: Atty. Saladero, champion of workers’ and human rights*

June 27, 2013

Atty. Remigio Saladero was not yet in his office, but the number of clients waiting for him has steadily grown. The clients included an organization of street sweepers being filed administrative cases for holding a protest against their administrator, union leaders facing illegal suspension, and labor organizers facing harassment.

Obviously, this was no ordinary law office, and neither is the lawyer receiving the clients.

Atty. Ming, as his clients call him, remember watching protests, demonstrations, and street battles along the historic bridge at Mendiola, safe within the confines of his school, San Beda, where he was a law student during Martial Law.

The conservative atmosphere in the Benedictine-run university, along with the demands of earning his law degree, prevented him from joining youth and student organizations.

Despite this, however, Atty. Ming remembers that he has always understood the necessity of fighting for the rights of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

Two years after passing the BAR, Saladero applied for the Movement for Attorneys for Brotherhood, Nationalism and Integretiy (MABINI), which served as a gathering of lawyers who wanted to defend the people against the iron fist of Martial Law. The organization was founded by known human rights lawyers at the time, which included Rene Saguisag and Bobbit Sanchez, who also served as Saladeros’ inspiration in the field.

After the mass uprising in EDSA that toppled the dictatorship, the government of Cory Aquino, basking in the glory of being an “icon of democracy,” called upon the leaders of MABINI to head various government offices and institutions, such as the appointment of Jejomar Binay as a temporary City Mayor of Makati.

According to Atty. Ming, the assimilation of its leaders, along with the fall of the dictatorship, sent a signal to the members of MABINI that the fight for human rights has already been won.

The illusion of democracy perpetrated by the Aquino regime was bloodily shattered by the Mendiola Massacre, which left 14 farmers dead in the streets. The members and applicants of MABINI, including Atty. Saladero, were called upon to continue the unfinished task of the organization.

“Meetings.” This, however, according to Atty. Saladero was the usual order of business for MABINI, and the young lawyer wanted more concrete victories. In 1987, Atty. Saladero became a lawyer for the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), that he may represent those who cannot afford the hefty fees of a private lawyer.
Within three years however, Saladero left PAO. In his own words, he felt that as an agent of PAO, and thus a “government employee,” the help he can provide was “limited.”

Contacts from MABINI urged him to join the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), which provided similar services to PAO, but without the restrictions that hindered a government employee.

But FLAG during that time cannot afford the cost of hiring another full time lawyer, so he joined the organization as a volunteer. It was within the organization, representing suspected members of the New People’s Army, as well as leaders of various people’s organizations facing trumped-up charges that the integration of Atty. Saladero with people from various social classes deepened – a process that, in his own words, was “outlook broadening” – as he listened to, heard, and defended in court not only his clients but their causes and struggles as well.

It was also the impetus for Saladero to ask himself why for many of his fellow lawyers, “human rights” were confined to the sphere of the political – the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly – but not the economic.

“The problem with these human rights lawyers is that their clients include companies and capitalists. While they fight government policies on one hand, their primary source of income are private companies as well,” said Saladero. He thus realized that lawyers will not bite the hand that feeds them, and shall inevitably be pro-management during labor disputes.

“For many lawyers, workers rights are not human rights,” said Saladero.

With this realization, Saladero actively sought workers unions, until he applied as the legal counsel of the National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU). His application was timely as the organization’s lawyers have just resigned during the period.

Atty. Ming recalls that the Federation’s leaders at the time were surprised that a lawyer who worked for PAO, receiving around P12,000 would apply for a job as a full-time lawyer for a labor institution.
“Nasa kama ka na, lilipat ka pa sa sahig (You are already in bed, why move to the floor)?” Saladero remembersas the question posed to him by the Federation.

But his resolve was strong, and his dedication to the labor movement that he grew to appreciate was steadfast so he still took the job despite the meager P3,500 monthly allowance that he will be receiving. This was in 1990.

In the middle of the 90s, Saladero’s integration and commitment to the labor movement would be tested by internal clashes within the organization, when certain individuals, and leaders of the labor federation NAFLU, were expelled from the labor center, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).

It was found that these individuals were conniving with company management in labor disputes, compromising workers’ demands.

Saladero was initially swept to the camp of the expelled leaders, but discussions and presentation of workers’ complaints finally led him back to the side of the KMU. Saladero then became a part of the core group that applied for the accreditation of a new federation – NAFLU-KMU – with the Department of Labor and Employment, the labor center’s acronym affixed to differentiate the new NAFLU from the old.

Finally, in 2001, Saladero along with other labor lawyers decided that the well of workers’ disputes was far from dry, and many more were in need of legal aid, especially unions who did not enjoy the benefits of being affiliated with a federation. He co-founded the Pro Labor Assistance Center (PLACE) to serve as the center for legal assistance to individual workers and independent unions.

However, the cases he held at PLACE were not limited to labor disputes, as he also continues to be approached with human rights cases – illegal detainment, habeas corpus, charges of rebellion. Such cases have made Saladero not just a defender, but a target as well, of human rights violations.

During the height of the campaign calling for the ouster of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Saladero, along with community leaders from the Southern Tagalog Region, were charged with fabricated crimes that included multiple murder and multiple frustrated murder in Mindoro (with 72 other individuals), arson in Batangas (with 27 others), and murder in Rizal.

For three months, Saladero was incarcerated at the Calapan City Provincial Jail while awaiting trial. A warrant of arrest was issued against him despite the lack of a preliminary investigation.

The harassment only served to strengthen his resolve. In jail, Saladero remained the busy defender of the rights of the poor. He became a source of legal advice for his inmates awaiting trial. Here, he was further exposed to the problems of the slow legal justice system in the country, with inmates being in jail for months and years without a sentence.

Saladero’s release became one of the prime cases in the international campaign against illegal detention in the Philippines. His defense in Mindoro was handled jointly by the Public Interest Law Center (PILC), PLACE, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), and FLAG.

The cases filed against him in Batangas and Rizal were handled by PLACE, and lacking evidence, were dismissed by the Prosecutor’s Office and did not reach trial.

Says Saladero, the harassment against him and his defense is no different from the fabricated charges being filed against labor leaders today. He says a Motion to Quash must immediately be filed because more often than not, cases are being filed without a preliminary investigation.

“What happened to me served as an inspiration and gave me lessons in handling cases regarding political detainees. We may even consider countering their attacks by filing perjury cases against the false witnesses that they present. We plan to do that this year in the case of the ST 72,” said Saladero. He is currently handling 11 separate cases of political detention.

Upon release owing to local and international pressure, Saladero returned to work at PLACE, unfazed and still determined.

Asked about his opinion of the labor laws that exist in the country, Saladero replied that for anti-worker provisions in the labor code such as the Assumption of Jurisdiction and the Herrera Law, pro-people representatives at the House of Representatives must not stop filing bills for their removal.
He explained that while the chance of such proposals to gain ground is slim under the current Congress dominated by anti-worker representatives, public hearings and debate shall provide us with the opportunity to explain to the public the basis for our opposition to such anti-worker provisions.

“In other words, we must be able to use Congress as a venue for explaining the principles that we are fighting for,” said Saladero.

With regard to the recently-implemented Two-Tiered Wage System (TTWS), Saladero said a case must be filed to question its constitutionality.

“As a test case, we may file a petition with the Regional Tripartite Wage and Productivity Board for a new wage order, arguing for an increase in the minimum wage because it is not enough. As a matter of course, under the TTWS, the Boards shall argue that this is not possible because we must wait for the period of the implementation of the second tier to end. If the Board denies our petition on the basis of the existence of the TTWS, then we may appeal to the National Wage and Productivity Commission. If we lose here, then we may finally be able to bring the case to the Supreme Court,” explained Saladero.
Saladero explains however that the current Congress and Courts dominated by landlords and big business shall ultimately prevent pro-worker bills from being passed.

Says Saladero, “The problem is, the courts remain pro-capitalist and anti-worker. They interpret the law for the benefit of the rich.”

He adds that more than changing the labor laws, workers must also fight to change the people who make and interpret these laws.

Saladero concludes, “We lawyers can only do so much, but we need genuine change. The question is how.”
Someone in the office replied, “Revolution!”

In reply, Atty. Saladero just smiled. •

*This is an article from the CBBRC Update April-June 2013 issue.