Portraits of Philippines Unionista

Posted February 29, 2004

LIKE ALL WOMEN workers, Filipina workers’ experiences in the labor force are shaped by gender.  Tracked into the lowly-paid service economy doing “feminine” labor, they often have dead-end jobs with a secondary wage-earner status.  In mixed-gender unions and labor movements, their status is also secondary.

Women workers, however, are fighting the sexism of the workplace and labor unions with their own strategies.

Emilia Dapulang, national vice chair of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU-May First Movement), noted that women “comprise 37.5% of the 32 million workers in the Philippines.  Moreover, the majority are mostly employed in the service industry and export processing zones (EPZ) where they are 75% of the workforce (Sabaratnam 2000, 5).

Seventy-seven percent of workers in the garment industry are women, and 72% in electronics.  Also, mostly women work in sales, education, and in domestic labor, in jobs “that earn below the average wage rate.”  This fact is particularly alarming because it means they make less than the daily minimum wage, which was 250P (US $5) per day in Metro Manila.  This was less than half the daily cost of living for an average-size Philippine family of six (Dapulang 2002: 7, 3, 5).

Shoemart Strike

While I was in the Philippines last year Shoemart workers, mostly women, went on strike.  Shoemart has been one of the most ubiquitous department stores in the Philippines, employing 20,000 workers.  According to Antonio Tujan Jr. of the IBON Foundation, only 1,731 rank-and-file employees were protected by the collective bargaining agreement.

The other workers came from recruiting agencies with contracts of six months or less. “Such labor flexibilization schemes are the reason for the very small percentage of unionized employees and the beleaguered state of the labor union.”

These labor schemes “are so disempowering and reinforce feudal-patriarchal views and relations among the mostly female salesforce” and often mean that “female employees have to pass through a ‘casting couch’ in order to pass hiring tests, and would again have to fulfill the sexual desires of superiors in order not to be laid off” (Tujan 1998, 2).

During the last three years, Shoemart workers have gone on strike four times.  Henry Sy, the owner, then hired the Star Force as security guards to deal with the mostly female strikers.  Interestingly, these ex-military men had been previously deployed to battle Muslim insurgents in Mindanao.

I visited the strikers at the Cubao branch where sixty-three workers were on strike.  The woman picket commander, Estrellita Mil, introduced me to some of the other strikers.  These saleswomen had been working twenty or thirty years and earned P354 a day while a new trainee made P305.

Workers were not making enough to provide for even their daily protein requirements.  One of the workers’ demands was a pay increase of P40 more a day while the management was insisting on P14.  Mil commented, “That won’t even by a kilo of rice.”

They were concerned not only about their low wages but about job security.  Shoemart is trying to convert all its workers into short-term contractual workers.  Short-term workers only work three or four months; after their term ends they cannot work at SM for another year.

Strikers told me that saleswomen were required to stand for their eight-hour shift except for coffee breaks and lunch.  They could not enter the restroom without a pass. Workers were constantly frisked—sometimes twelve times a day.

Mil noted that some women workers were afraid to join the strike because they feared their husbands would quarrel with them. Also, management pressured its workers not to support the strikers—if found to be supporting them in any way, they were immediately fired.

Spies lurked among the workers.  One gave management a list of thirty workers who were sympathetic to the strikers, and they were fired.

The store blared loud dance music to prevent strikers from using bullhorns or giving speeches.  Workers then used banners, signs and colorful streamers.

As I sat with a few Shoemart strikers on a ledge just a few feet from the entrance of Cubao branch, one worker observed that the security guards watching us were also lowly paid, receiving only minimum wages, and only two pieces of candy and water for their merienda (snack).

I was struck by the sympathy these workers had for the security guards who had been hired to intimidate them. A few days later, at a rally supporting the workers, a guard grabbed the breast of one of the female labor organizers.  Although the women workers saw the guards as fellow workers, the guards viewed them only as sexual objects.

Women in the EPZs

The concentration of young, single women workers in the EPZs, according to Dapulang, was deliberate.  Managers choose them because of traditional gender stereotypes.

Women had “nimble fingers” suitable for small parts assembly, are more diligent and patient—perfect for highly repetitive work, and more docile, therefore less likely to join unions or cause trouble.  They are more “willing to work for low wages and have a higher rate of voluntary turnover due to their supposed status as ‘secondary wage earners’ and the primacy of their reproductive role in the family.”

During their contract, women usually work twelve- or fourteen-hour days, six to seven days a week. Their demanding schedules make them susceptible to a host of health problems.  As well, they are exposed to sexual harassment and rape.

Many companies regulated the reproductive activities of their employees.  Single women are given “virginity tests” or else not hired.  Married women workers are required to practice birth control or undergo tubal ligation (Dapulang 2002, 6).

Women workers in the EPZs have very little recourse to challenge these repressive policies.  They are not allowed to unionize.  EPZs are “notorious for their unwritten no union, no strike policy” (Dapulang 2002, 5).  Teresita Borgoños of Makalaya said that they sometimes call EPZs “union-free zones” and very difficult to enter because they are protected by local government officials.

Women labor organizers need creative strategies to make contact with the female EPZ workers.  One federation in Cavite organized women workers into mutual aid organizations rather than unions.

The EPZs recruit marginalized workers—young, single women—and keep them in an isolated compound under constant surveillance.  But women organizers have used the innocuousness of women’s organizing like a Trojan horse.

“Because they say that women’s organizing is not very controversial, not like union organizing, so it’s just a strategy where you can go inside, know the workers there, have contacts, and you can give them support,” said Burgoños.

Unions and Women

As in many countries, most labor unions in the Philippines are dominated by men. Although women are half of all laborers, they make up only 35% of union members.  Out of the 1,260 union presidents, only 177 (14%) have been women.

“Unions started off as an ‘all boys club’ and were therefore shaped by male consciousness.  Thus, women’s issues tend to be considered as non-priority issues,” said Reggie Aquino of the autonomous women’s organization, Makalaya (Sabaratnam 2000, 5).

The Philippines have a number of organizations for women workers.  Makalaya (Manggagawang Kababaihang Mithi ay Paglaya, Women Workers Fighting for Freedom) was started in 1998 by women trade unionists, community leaders, and women in the informal economy.

Tes Borgoños, the secretary-general, explained: “Makalaya is trying to mix two perspectives in organizing—those of trade unionism and community organizing.  In this way, we are acting as a pressure group within and outside the union movement.  There is a big debate whether to be separate from the union or let women members in the union take it forward” (Mather 2003, 18).

This has been a theme in Borgoños’ life. Before becoming secretary general of Makalaya, Burgoños was president of a 600-member garment factory union that was 90% female.

Burgoños pointed out that community-based organizing “is very important because we belong to one area and if there are problems in our factory, the first that can help you are the factories nearby you.”

I asked if there were any women’s trade unions in the Philippines.  Burgoños replied that there were none. Women workers in the formal sector of the economy belong to a particular trade union.

Makalaya works outside the unions, as a pressure group for women’s issues as its members were generally members of the women’s committee within their unions.  Said Burgoños, “If you belong to a union which is a mixed organization, there are men and women, you will encounter lots of difficulties in lobbying for women’s issues in the workplace or in the unions.  Makalaya as a group gives encouragement and strength for [the women] when they go back to the unions.”

Unions, Federations and Centers

Three different types of labor organizations exist in the Philippines: labor unions, labor federations, and labor centers.  Local company-based unions are members of the over 250 labor federations.  The labor federations, in turn, belong to nine labor centers.  The labor centers advocate, including legislative lobbying on a national and international level.

The labor federations also focus on specific workers’ issues at the workplace—such as legal service, education activities, and organizing.

Borgoños told me that because empowerment relied on the quantity and quality of their members, their organization prioritized organizing and education.  “The first step is to organize them through their particular issues, in the community, in the workplace, in the home.”

Mylene Hega of LEARN (Labor Education Advocacy Research Network) explained that labor unions need different methods to reflect their democratic goals.  “We need different methodologies for workers’ education like workshops and study circles.  This should reflect democracy in action by creating space for participants to express themselves.”

While some Filipino trade unions use formal education seminars, “LEARN has tried to put more emphasis on the learning process.  We have introduced games and structured learning exercises, which relate to the conditions and everyday experiences of workers.  We have also used cultural activities like song and dance to raise awareness around particular themes” (IFWEA 1998, 2).

Hega continued, “Women workers need to develop a global perspective.  Yet international trade union work is usually dominated by men. In analyzing globalisation, women will have a different angle.  This angle needs to form an integral part of our understanding of globalisation.  The international study circle will also allow us to develop international solidarity links which opens the door wider for women workers.”

She noted that “There has been a lot of workers’ education on local and national issues, but very little on international issues.  LEARN must take up the challenge of delivering education with a global focus.  But we also need to concentrate on education activities, which will strengthen trade unions at a local level.  For example, skills development and the political participation of workers.  We have to address the role of Filipino trade unions in the changing political and economic structure of the country” (IFWEA 1998, 2).

Dapulang pointed out that “women’s participation” was not enough “if this simply means integrating women in the neoliberal development model.”  She added, “It is grossly misleading to banner the empowerment of women without addressing the economic and political basis of our disempowerment and marginalization in the decision-making structures of society.  This is because the marginalization of women is embedded in the structure of class, race and national oppression” (Dapulang 2002, 8).

Women workers have had to work within and outside the labor movement to fight for their rights and find support for their concerns where they are not seen as “legitimate workers.”  Their gender has pegged them as less likely to cause trouble or raise their voices.  But as women transforming the global labor force, they are reinventing women labor organizing and the labor movement.

Works Cited