We open in Metro Manila, the Philippines' capital with a population of more than 20 million, where a woman wakes to an early-morning alarm call.

She gets up, puts on make-up and her uniform, commutes through traffic jams and pollution to work at the the country's largest shopping mall. After clocking off, a treat from a roadside vendor provides her sole moment of happiness. Day after day — like most hardworking employees from the lower and middle class — she looks forward to a better future. This appears to be a romantic story — she will eventually be with “him.”

Eventually, viewers will discover that the subject of the film is not the woman's relationship — it’s the contract work she hates but cannot shake — hence the title "Kontrata", which means contract or the state of being contractualized in Filipino.

Like this seven-minute long film, Filipinos often impress as warm and friendly, no matter how much they’ve suffered or been exploited in the workplace. Yet after seeing her colleague's contract terminated, our protagonist is struck low by illness and starts to doubt how everything works...

'Kontrata' from mayday multimedia on Vimeo.

Warm reception

When the film was released just before Labor Day (May 1) last year it became a hit on social media. Understanding why requires a bit of socio-economic context.

While the Philippines is recognized as a rising star among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations for its impressive economic growth, it is also has one of the widest gaps between the rich and the poor. This inequality provides the tension that drives the film.

"Kontrata" depicts employees of big enterprise who are sandwiched between richest and poorest but still struggle to survive in an unjust system. Among the 100 million people in the country, 70 percent are under the age of 35, and are regarded as the most productive "demographic dividend.”

They are also the most easily exploited. Up to 50 percent of the workforce is contractual labor — amounting to more than 20 million people. Despite the high level of educational attainment of Filipinos, many end up as contract laborers in highly contractualized industries such as services or processing and export manufacturing.

Every five months, they are replaced in order for companies to avoid Philippine Labor Law regulations that provide workers with higher wages and stronger protections. They are inexpensive and disposable, like canned sardines in grocery stores. This scheme effectively lowers their wages and attacks their right to organize.

SM Supermalls, which operates the most department stores in the Philippines, dominates the industry and is notorious for contractual labor. At one time, reports suggest 90 percent of its employees were employed as on this basis, leading Henry Sy, chairman emeritus of SM Investments, to be nicknamed the “King of Contractualization.” Sy is also considered to be the wealthiest man in the Philippines and has landed on Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List several times.

Although the employment rate in the Philippines is around 90 percent, the jobless rate does not take into account the plight of underemployed contract workers. Many well educated people are forced to seek work overseas, and the heroic and self-sacrificing image of such migrant workers is a theme often played upon my media.

This kind of story in almost every Filipino family: someone facing low-paid employment is forced to work abroad in uncertain conditions. As the beginning, "Kontrata" bring us in by saying: "This is a common story for many of us.”

Mayday Multimedia and the illusion of warmth

The team behind "Kontratra", Mayday Multimedia, is the only alternative media in the Philippines based on the vision of "serving the working class." It's a member of Altermidya, a network of 34 small independent media outlets that spans books, radio, multimedia, online and print news, aiming to form an alliance different from the mainstream media, which is more commercially oriented and often fails to advocate for the marginalized.

While studying films and fine arts in the University of the Philippines, “Kontrata” director Myan Lordiane was able to integrate with the student movement. She observed many strikes, including a nationwide SM Supermalls strike that was violently suppressed. After leaving the university, her first job was a researcher at a nonprofit, nongovernmental labor organization, before she moved on to join Mayday.

Working with other cause-oriented organizations allowed Lordiane to take in various movements as she traveled around the Philippines.

As a result of the collective work of Mayday members, the true face of laborers wiped out by capitalism have emerged, and the illusion of warmth fabricated by a profit-seeking society has been unmasked. Recently, the group created a video showing how the Korean-owned Shin-Sun Tropical Fruit Corp. banana plantation suppressed its striking workers by using martial law as a pretext.


Mayday Multimedia

A still from the short film 'Kontrata'.

"Kontrata" is one of the few fiction films produced by Mayday and it has drawn more than a million views in half a year. Unlike their former productions, "Kontrata" has less narration and supplementary data. It is edited in quick takes and imitates the style of commercial short films produced by Jollibee (the most popular local fast food chain in the Philippines) that portray stories of ordinary people and touch the viewer with affecting lines and audio.

“People who left comments under the video said the film resonated with them. Because this is their reality,” says Lordiane. When the video went viral, it was even used by other groups to further their own causes. Mayday didn’t put credits at the end of the film in the belief that “The work belongs to everyone.”

For most media, social networks are the most important platform to communicate with the public. However, for Lordiane and others at Mayday, meeting and talking to people is still the priority.

Whether acting as labor organizers or alternative media workers, Mayday members often face constraints of manpower and resources. For instance, from pre-production logistics to actual filming and then distribution, Lordiane must perform a multitude of roles due to a lack of funding. It’s also common for other people engaged in the project to volunteer.

During the whole process, the team usually has fairly clear goals – to help people concerned with the issues to understand the real situation, or to be a catalyst between unions and unorganized people.

“Film is a very good medium for arousing people’s sensibilities, and it is often easier for organizers to interact with people after the movie," the director says.

According to Lordiane, they also host "sine obrero" (workers’ cinema) in the communities, picketlines, union assemblies and protest camps.

"When I saw the expressions of people seeing this film for the first time and I listened to reflections and feedback during the post-screening discussion … those [moments] were very fulfilling." Lordiane says this motivates her to continue, despite the at times unpredictable audience responses.

One viewer insisted that to totally abolish contractualization was impossible for her as the owner of a small company. Lordiane also met a former salesperson who was working at SM Supermalls when the protest happened 13 years ago. Now, the salesperson is a domestic worker in Taiwan, and she still finds it hard to agree with launching protests and rallies. How does Lordiane confront these situations?

“I will not say all my opinions are right after the screening. I rather listen and ask questions: there are things I need to learn from different people,” she says.

While cooperating with different unions and people’s organizations for several years, Lordiane tries to balance her role as an independent film worker and as an advocate through film making. During the editing of "Kontrata", Lordiane discussed with the editor — who is also the director of photography — if they should put a stronger message in the last scene.

“Originally, the title of this film was ‘Happy to Serve'. The scriptwriter and I wanted to make the ending more ironic: The girl went back to the department store and said ‘happy to serve’ with a smile on her face. But then my editor reminded me: We can only tell one story in one film. And Kontrata’s ending is enough.”

Mayday Multimedia's other work can be found on Facebook, Vimeo and Youtube, and they can be contacted by email.

Editor: TNL Staff