Three Filipino women workers from barangay mapulang lupa

By: Father Ramon Caluza, CICM

It was my own theological formation in the seminary that first impressed upon me the profound importance that the Church’s social teachings, since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1981, laid on the issue of labor in addressing the entire “social question.” But the concrete conscientization that would begin to deepen my initial theoretical grasp of the situation and plight of workers would come a bit later. That would be in the mid-1980s. I was then the formator of the CICM theology students in New Manila, Quezon City.

The theological formation program that we then pursued included activities of exposure to workers’ situations and struggles. In partnership with and through arrangements with the Urban Missionaries (UM) – the mission partner in labor apostolate of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines – we visited the workers and their families in their homes and, as far as it could be arranged, in their workplaces, too. We expressed solidarity with them on the picket line whenever they went on strike. We joined them in their “education” activities where they discussed the theory and practice of unionism. I say “we,” meaning the students and myself. Although the exposure activities were meant primarily for the students as an adjunct of their formation program, I could not deny that I myself was formed as I accompanied them in these activities. It was a formation experience both for me and the students that impacted in some way as well the mission thrust of the CICM in the Philippines.

After my term as formator I was then assigned for mission work in the Dominican Republic. When I returned in 2013, I got to renew ties with the Urban Missionaries (UM) when the CICM Provincial Council invited them to set up their office at the Centennial House within the CICM Provincial Compound. Shortly thereafter, the Urban Missionaries elected me to be part of their Board of Trustees. Thus, my conscientization on the situation and plight of workers has begun anew. And such conscientization could not come at a better time. So much has happened and so much has changed in the labor front in the Philippines for the last twenty years or so, such that those of us who are involved in labor apostolate are still figuring out the real situation of workers today in the country and the proper response to this situation that we should draw.

It was in connection with this ongoing study of workers’ situation that I got to join the UM staff and Board in exposure activities in workers’ communities in certain parts of Metro Manila, particularly, Valenzuela City, Quezon City and Paranaque City. In urban poor and workers’ communities in these cities, the Urban Missionaries have organized chapters of a women worker’s association called KAYUMANGGI. In later part of February, I went to Valenzuela City to interview three leading members of the KAYUMANGGI chapter there. Here are some salient parts of their story.

Belinda "Dang" Cunanan (44), Jinky Fulgencio (44) and Julie Peralta (45) are three leading members of the Kayumanggi Chapter in Barangay Mapulang Lupa, Valenzuela City. Their community is an urban poor community collocated within a belt of factories in Valenzuela City. But even as the area may be considered an "industrial zone", it does not provide the basis of defining people there as workers. Only 1 out of 5 people work in a factory. Women laborers, most often, work under an outsourcing arrangement where the worker is hired and paid by an employment agency on a piece-rate basis. The profile of the community may at first be confusing. How can a community such as Barangay Mapulang Lupa be considered a workers' community when the majority of the people there are in the usual sense unemployed?

Perhaps the circumstances of our three respondents will provide the clue. Belinda, Jinky and Julie are all married, have school-going children and are all the primary breadwinners of the family. All families live on lots they have built their modest dwellings on by "rights" provided by the National Power Corporation, a government-owned corporation. Belinda's husband is a person with disability, afflicted as he is with a form of psoriasis. This condition makes it difficult for him to find work as it also renders him quite unwilling to look for work. But what he lacks in gainful employment he is able to compensate in contribution of unpaid labor through all the household chores he does at home - house cleaning, cooking, laundry, child care. He is a “house husband” and, according to Belinda, a good house husband to whom the children are particularly attached. (Maka-ama sila). Similarly, Jinky’s husband is more severely disabled. He has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Up until recently, he was entirely bedridden and was given a few months to live. But for some unexplainable reason, he seemed of late to be getting better, a development that Jinky considered no less than a miracle. Jinky loves her husband with such unabashed faith that “God would not send me these trials if He does not think I can prevail upon them.” For Julie’s part, her husband is relatively of better help for the upkeep of the family. He is employed as a barangay tanod (security officer) in the village. It is not a permanent high-paying job but still makes for a contribution to the family’s income.

A run-down of a regular day in the lives of these women can perhaps better describe the quotidian quality of their lives as workers. All three rise at about 4 a.m. They all prepare breakfast for the children before they go off to school. Julie makes sure that she gets before 5 a.m. to the paper mill factory where she works. For twelve hours, that is, until 5 p.m., she inserts as many coil springs as possible to the side border of school notebooks. She is what we call a piece-rate worker. She would be paid 90 cents per piece of notebook she would be able to insert the coil spring to.  On a regular day, she would be able to complete some 3,500 to 4,000 pieces. This undertaking would earn her about 300 pesos a day. She is an agency-hired worker. Her relation to an employer is that to the agency. This means she is not a regular employee of the factory and does not enjoy the usual benefits, such as SSS benefits, over-time pay or holiday pay rate. At 5.p.m, after twelve hours of continuous work, she goes home to her family and retires at 8 p.m. so she could rise at about 4 a.m. the following day for another day of work. She works even on Sundays and holidays on the same per-piece rate.

Shortly after her children shall have left for school early in the morning, Belinda leaves home for work. Work means providing manicurist and pedicurist services to clients who may have made an earlier appointment with her or may seek her service right there and then. She does “home service” most of the time but accepts providing service as well in her house to those who would prefer to come to her. She charges 25 pesos per hand/foot or 100 pesos on all two hands and two feet. On a normal weekday she would earn about 300 pesos, which she tries to augment by engaging in mobile buy-and-sell (paglalako) of fruits, vegetables and condiments on weekends. Like Julie, there is hardly a day-off for Belinda. Every day is a work day, to ensure that there will be food on the table or fare and lunch money for the school going children during the week.

After sending her children off to school early in the morning, Jinky picks up the children whose parents have arranged for her to baby-sit in her own home. Her entire morning is devoted to baby-sitting. Towards noon she then returns the children to their respective parents. In the afternoon, she goes around the village to sell biscuits and chicharon, her own concoction. In a week she makes about 500 pesos on the chicharron and about 200 pesos on the biscuits. Even with the money she makes from baby-sitting she is barely able to make both ends meet for her family.

The case of the three women workers in barangay Mapulang Lupa, Valenzuela City typifies the lot of the majority of workers in the country – such a lot that has earned the name informal labor.

Informal labor came around to become the defining character of Philippine labor since two decades ago. It aptly explains why chronic unemployment and poverty remain despite impressive growth in recent years.

There has always been growth. It has to be recognized that despite being a laggard to the more developed Asian neighbors, the country’s economy had achieved some degree of sustained growth, suffering only 5 negative growth years in the span of 30 years from 1980-2012.

This growth, however, follows a consumption-led pattern by the same sectors that had been contributing mainly to the growth of the GDP since the 90s. It is primarily the service sector that keeps on growing because of the mounting dollar remittances from millions of OFWs and the way our economy is organized into small, service related trades.

Moreover, lack of formal jobs drives many Pinoys into enterprising activities on own account and these activities are tightly connected to the supply chain in the service sector. Thus, in terms of employment, it is the service sector, represented mainly by the wholesale and retail and the transport sector that gets the absolute share.

Since the term informalization came into use, it has assumed different names in the attempt to accurately describe this phenomenal rise in the number of workers involved in non-formal, irregular and precarious work arrangements. In the Philippines, the terms sariling sikap (self-help) and palamunin (dependent on family members) approximate a big section of the population who lives on own-account or those who render mean and unpaid jobs in small family-owned or managed enterprises.

Globally, the most popular among the terms is the precariat coined recently by Guy Standing. In his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Standing describes the precariats as the “multitudes of insecure people, living in bits-and-pieces lives, and in and out of short term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development.”

This huge army of precariats, according to Standing, includes in general the frustrated educated youth, the millions of women abused in oppressive labor, the growing number of criminalized tagged for life, those categorized as ‘disabled’, and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world.

The ILO has tried to describe this picture in a simple equation: own account workers + unpaid family workers = informal sector. They are workers in survival type activities, such as day laborers, street vendors, shoe shiners, garbage collectors and scrap-and-rag pickers; domestic workers employed by households; home-workers in sweatshops who are “disguised wage workers” in production chains; and the self-employed in micro-enterprises operating on their own, as well as their contributing family workers, apprentices and employees.

It should not be mistaken, however, that informal labor includes only those who are self-employed or unpaid family laborers. In a broader sense the precariats likewise include those who are employed in organized production such as home workers working on piece-work basis and those who are casually employed in large-scale production without a contract. This is because they share important characteristics: that is, trying to sell their labor or the products of their labor in an unprotected labor market.

Accordingly, it is the women who suffer the most in this process of informalization not only in terms of number, pay and position gaps, but also because most of them are concentrated in the “most vulnerable and poorest forms” of informal employment such as domestic service, home-based work, street vending, and even in casual/contractual works in the manufacturing sector.

Amid such gloomy situation of work and living, do our women workers – Belinda, Jinky, and Julie – still dare to hope and dream? They do, and with such positive outlook and unflinching faith. Foremost is their dream of a future for their children that would be a lot better than the life these women have known. If only the children would finish schooling (meaning, graduate with a degree from college), then their dream would have been achieved. And they are determined to do everything to bring about the realization of this dream. As Jinky remembered, “kapag nawalan ka na ng kapasidad mangarap, nawalan ka na rin ng kapasisdad na mag-mahal.” (When one loses the capacity to dream, one loses as well the capacity to love.)

A big part of doing everything to achieve their dream is their involvement in KAYUMANGGI. Surely, they derive benefits from their membership, such as small loans for their business ventures, educational assistance for their children in the form of fare-and-lunch money (baon) during the week. But above all, of these is the opportunity that KAYUMANGGI provides them to grow as workers and human beings through education activities and seminars – workers’ organizing seminars, values education seminars, micro-finance seminars, leadership trainings. They also see their involvement in workers’ struggles on the local and national levels as part of their growth. They see this kind of involvement as a necessary component of realizing their dream as workers to help change society. Again, as Jinky remarked, “kapag nawalan ka na ng kapasidad mangarap na baguhin ang lipunan.” (When one loses the capacity to dream about changing one’s lot as a worker, then one also loses the capacity to help change society.)