Year of the Strike: Filipino Workers Battle Contractualization, Duterte

Year of the Strike: Filipino Workers Battle Contractualization, Duterte
Credit: Neil Ambion
What you need to know

Resentment is growing among contractualized workers fed up of broken promises.

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The Philippines is beset by factory strikes, worker actions, and labor disputes.

In July, the national militant labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1 Movement) tallied 25 simultaneously ongoing factory strikes and worker demonstrations. This number has likely grown amid a wave of new sit-down strikes, deadlocked negotiations, and mass layoffs.

While some labor disputes, such as the NutriAsia strike, have made headlines, the mainstream media has been slow to report on the action. Some high-profile labor entanglements have been excluded from coverage entirely, adding to the difficulty of documenting the gravity of labor grievances in the Philippines.

This trend is unprecedented in recent decades. Folks say the last time something like this has happened was during the 1980s, when workers were fed up with unfair labor schemes during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

Above all, two distinct phenomena have contributed to making 2018 a year of strike action in the Philippines.

A broken promise, a swift response: Ending contractualization

During his presidential election campaign, President Rodrigo Duterte promised on live television that the moment he assumed the presidency, he would end all forms of contractualization.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Then Philippine presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte raises his arm while campaigning in 2016. Duterte promised to bring an end to contractualization if he was elected president.

Contractualization is the practice of companies hiring and keeping workers solely on a contractual basis. They can work for years and never end up as regular employees with the benefits and wages befitting their positions.

Contracts usually last for six months, meaning employees work every day until their contract ends and the company rehires them or moves them on, starting the process over again.

This has severely hurt unions over the past few decades, as contractual and casual workers are by law not allowed to form unions or participate in any union activity. In some cases, this has left them vulnerable to brutal and discriminatory treatment from company management. Staff often work in extremely hazardous conditions, such as when factories tragically burned to the ground in Manila while workers remained trapped inside.

Suffice to say, Duterte’s promise was loudly applauded and welcomed with open arms. It marked the first time a leading public official had addressed the matter openly; Duterte’s pledge opened public discourse.

KMU noted that none of its activities, whether large protests or high-stakes dialogues, had ever received much media attention – partly because media companies were also practitioners of contractualization, or "Endo" as it is known colloquially for the term bosses tell their staff when their six-month contracts are about to expire.

But once in power, Duterte and the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) reneged on the promise, and what's more, moved to reinforce the legal mechanisms that promote contractualization.

Two years and change after Duterte’s promise, his government employs more contract workers than ever before.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, 54 percent of establishments with 20 or more workers in the country engage in contractualization. This is made possible through the numerous manpower agencies which offer labor contracting in the Philippines.

Two years and change after Duterte’s promise, his government employs more contract workers than ever before. In 2016, there were 595,000 “contract of service” employees in the public sector. This increased to 660,390 in 2017, a year after Duterte assumed the presidency.

By virtue of Department Order (DO) 174 and Executive Order (EO) 51, the latter signed on Labor Day 2018, Duterte assured the public that he was intent on keeping his promise. Except he didn’t.

Instead, both policies have strengthened Endo, particularly EO 51 which though born out of a draft intent on prohibiting contractualization altogether, merely stipulates that companies and unions should abide by the existing labor code.

The only change is that workers can now become regularized within their respective manpower agencies – but not with their principal employer, unless this is allowed by the company.

The other important event that triggered the current surge in strike activity was the coming together of the most prominent federations and labor centers in the country. Many labor groups have been divided on a number of issues, such as their opinions on a new legislated wage increase or on Duterte himself. One thing that has bound them all, however, is a common rage against Endo.

Aside from KMU, the Nagkaisa (United) Coalition, a relatively new coalition formed from the plethora of labor groups, came together to lead the first joint Labor Day demonstration, drawing in 150,000 workers and supporters nationwide.

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Credit: Neil Ambion
Labor groups band together to signal their disgust at the Duterte government's failure to fulfill its election promise to end contractualization.
How the NutriAsia strike galvanized Filipino workers

That is not to say that worker disquiet has gone entirely unreported. The NutriAsia workers strike has made a massive social impact since the company’s failure in June to hire 1,000 of its contract workers as regular employees, despite being instructed to do so after the DoLE found evidence of abusive labor practices.

Many NutriAsia workers were contractual and had no formal union. They decided to form a union in secret, outside of the laws. The company found out, and the employees were laid off. Other workers responded with a 15-minute noise barrage protest by clapping nonstop during work hours. When management continued to make threats, about 300 workers decided enough was enough and manned a picket line outside the factory gates.

NutriAsia produces most of the country’s soy sauce, vinegar and ketchup products, all of which are cooking staples in any Filipino household.

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Credit: Wikipedia Commons
UFC Banana Catsup is a brand of ketchup owned by Nutri-Asia, Inc.

Speaking to Anakbayan, an organization of Filipino youth and students that campaigns for greater democracy, striking worker Cherroby Santiago said: “Every day for 10 years I have made 90 packs of Mang Tomas Sauce, taking home US$7. I have two kids in school. We can’t take it anymore. NutriAsia is robbing us blind, we are made to pay for health insurance, uniforms and shoes, and even the Christmas party of the management!"

Alvin Lascano, another striking worker, told Anakbayan that often “we work six days a week, all with forced overtime. We get sick and our health insurance is nowhere to be found."

On June 13, police charged the NutriAsia picket line with batons, truncheons and stones, pummeling the workers and supporters in what has become the normal response of the authorities under Duterte.

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Credit: League of Filipino Students
NutriAsia protester Leticia Retiza, 56, is escorted from the scene of a violent police intervention on the picket line.

NutriAsia is owned by Joselito Campos, the son of Jose Yao Campos, a food and beverage tycoon who amassed his family’s fortune during the Marcos administration by staying close to the late dictator.

A second violent dispersal happened July 30 while the local church was holding mass at the picket line. Dozens were injured, while 20 workers were arrested and one was accused of possessing drugs; KMU slammed authorities for planting fake contraband on the arrested protesters.

The brunt of the cruelty was summed up by the image of Leticia Retiza, a 56-year-old supporter whose skull was fractured across the right side of her face when she was struck by a cement block some observers believe was thrown by the police. She was only recently released from hospital.

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Credit: Michael Beltran
Leticia Retiza suffered a fractured skull during a clash with police on the picket line.

Acts like this have not gone unnoticed internationally. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the Philippines has had the worst score in terms of respect for worker’s rights in the last two years – Duterte’s tenure, certifying the country’s status as one of the worst places to work in the world.

Despite this, NutriAsia management and DoLE attempted to twist the story by pinning the blame on the workers. Public outcry was immense after the tumult that transpired. A boycott was rapidly instituted, grocery stores had to reduce prices of NutriAsia products just to get them off the shelves, restaurants began banning NutriAsia products, and people started throwing out their soy sauce and vinegar bottles in disgust.

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Credit: Menchani Tilendo
A restaurant in Metro Manila puts up a sign boycotting the use of NutriAsia products.
Picket lines are now the frontline

Another notable strike is that of workers of the telecommunications giant PLDT. In late June, the DoLE ordered the regularization of some 7,000 workers. Instead of complying however, the company laid off 12,000 contractual workers.

The news sent shock waves through the public, which was stupefied by the massive retrenchment ordered by the telecom giant. Contractual workers have been camped outside the PLDT premises in protest ever since.

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Credit: Defend Job Philippines
Workers on strike outside the premises of PLDT.

The internet went haywire – literally. Many subscribers periodically lost their connections. At the same time, stories from the families and friends of PLDT contract workers went viral.

On Sept. 4, the supervisory staff of PLDT filed a notice of strike, citing the triple workload they had to endure by shouldering responsibilities left in the wake of the recent layoff. In doing so, they joined thousands of fellow workers in defiance.

Surprisingly, at the start of the month, the United Employees of Alorica (UEA) also filed a strike notice. This marked the first time in the country’s history that call center agents at a business process outsourcing (BPO) firm have gone on strike. Despite the unprecedented nature of the action, there has been little to no reportage on the matter.

Marketed as a new frontier for the digital age, the BPO industry markets itself as an easy fix for young people and college graduates on the lookout for employment in one of the most hostile job markets in Asia. But the situation at Alorica presents a bleaker and more prevalent side of the industry.

The UEA is relatively new, forming after entering into dialogue last August with the Alorica management and its sister company West Management about the right to unionize. UEA alleges a number of labor abuses including contractualization, cancellation of leave days, disallowing the use of restrooms during work hours, decreasing wages, and arbitrary layoffs. However, the chief reason for striking is Alorica’s union busting efforts. Shortly after the strike announcement, more than 200 employees were laid off, including the union’s secretary general.

“Even if I have been laid off, I want to fight for the employees still working at Alorica,” UEA member Christalyn Jamolin told The News Lens. “The management is using us as a scapegoat to intimidate and remove other agents who may or may not be supportive of UEA. Whatever the case, for the sake of our fellow agents, we want to do everything to expose the company’s abuses.”

“The act of strike is one born out of frustration and our commitment to our fellow workers,” said UEA President Sarah Preztoza. “We humbly sought dialogues with the Alorica management to air our grievances albeit to no avail. Instead they answered with the unjust termination of union members.”

Duterte responds

In the wake of the collective outrage, Duterte himself made public his distaste for unions and strikes. A few days ago, the president went live on national TV in a scripted discussion with his legal counsel addressing pressing issues of human rights, his administration’s future, and economic problems, for which he blamed KMU and its crucial role in the surge of the working class movement.

“I’ve been telling foreign investors to do business here so we can get a cut,” said Duterte. “But here we have KMU screaming ‘strike strike strike.’ When companies close, won’t the families of employees go hungry?”

KMU hit back, saying: “The upsurge of workers’ strikes these past months are results of Duterte's failure to end contractualization, refusal to address the rising prices of commodities by implementing a significant wage hike and of the government's fascist attacks against trade union and human rights.”

Duterte also pointed to China as an example to learn from in terms of economic development. “Look at China, there are no strikes. Just people working,” he said.

Duterte feels that growth will primarily come from outside our shores. He also appears increasingly drawn to China as a beacon in the region. But is this really the example we want to follow, particularly in terms of human rights? One thing is sure, the Philippines is not China, and without government action to address workers' concerns, people are increasingly likely to take matters into their own hands.

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Credit: SIKAD
Read Next: Who’s Afraid of the Filipino Poor? The Story of a Mass Occupation

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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