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ESPECIALLY REFLECTING ON THE SITUATION OF FILIPINO WORKERS IN THE EXTRAORDINARY JUBILEE YEAR OF MERCY

By: Father Ramon Caluza, CICM

When the Holy Father, Pope Francis, announced the holding of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (2015-2016), he was not following the usual pattern of celebrating Jubilee years, usually every fifty years. Rather, moved by the overwhelming situation where injustice and the suffering of the majority of peoples in the world are its telling marks, he decided that holding an Extraordinary Jubilee Year would be an opportune way to promote prayer, reflection for mercy. For us in the Church in the Philippines, the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy compellingly invites us to turn our gaze on the face of one of the most abject victims of exploitation, the Filipino worker.

In an earlier contribution to Missionhurst (Volume 67, Number 2, "Hope for the Working Poor"), I presented the case samples of three women workers in an industrial part of suburban Metro Manila. The case samples exemplified the situation of most workers in the Philippines as they were presented from the experiential viewpoint of the three women workers. In this article I should like to return to the narrative of Filipino workers more in the spirit of the theological discernment process that the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy invites to do: SEE-JUDGE-ACT. 

SEE-ing the Situation of the Filipino Worker

Not dissimilar from that of their counterparts in the industrialized West, the situation of Filipino workers has historically been a continuing struggle against oppression and exploitation. Only, owing to the ever disadvantaged position of being in an underdeveloped country, the Filipino workers' situation has always been worse by far. Towards the outset of the 21st century, however, this oddity of being workers in an undeveloped country was given an even more tragic turn with the advent of globalization. In economic terms, globalization has effectively resulted in the systematic movement of investment funds and businesses beyond domestic and national markets to other markets around the globe, thereby increasing the interconnectedness or integration of these different markets. While powerful corporatist interests make the dubious claim that globalization helps developing nations "catch up" with industrialized nations much faster through increased employment and technological advances, the damning fact, however, has become crystal clear: that it weakens national sovereignty and allows rich nations to ship domestic jobs oversees in undeveloped economies where labor is much cheaper.

Unemployment and underemployment have always been perennial problems of workers in the Philippine economy, unemployment and underemployment have not only become worse, they have also become the main features of a globalization-driven economy through contractualization. Contractualization restricts the dynamic growth and diversity of the labor market as it is oppressively selective in funneling the labor force towards a narrow field of industries and only in the volume and wage rates that the so-called globalized economy dictates. This basic pattern of labor market conditioning has therefore rendered the lot of Filipino workers in a perennially precarious and unprotected labor situation. Today the Philippine labor market registers the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment in the ASEAN region.

Because of this, the vast army of unemployed and underemployed Filipino workers is driven to micro own-account or self-help activities so that they are able to earn a living on a daily basis, mostly in the small buy-and-sell and the menial services-providing kind. This pattern has prompted economic analysts to identify another feature that has now fully developed within the Filipino labor scene - the infomalization of labor or the steady growth of micro labor activities as survival mechanisms outside the usual formal set-up of business establishments. I quote here the story of Belinda "Dang" Cunanan of which I have written earlier, to exemplify the phenomenon of informalization of Philippine labor.

Shortly after her children shall have left for school early in the morning, Belinda leaves home for work. Work means providing manicurist/pedicurist services to clients who may have made 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...

But it is the piece-rate workers that suffer from the most abject form of exploitation under this arrangement. Again, I I quote here the case of Julie Peralta of which I have written in the same earlier article.

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 as 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 pierce 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 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. 

In the Philippines, the most patent product of globalization is contractualization. How has this come about? One important market area that has become the natural target of globalization's integrating tack is the labor market. In order to align the labor market with the integrating principle of globalization, the system of supplying and procuring labor has to be re-organized. In the process, the labor market no longer gets to be defined by client-purchaser relationship between labor and capital but by a new by a new client-purchaser relationship between employment agency and employer. The employer no longer deals directly with the worker to procure his/her labor. The employer now deals with the employment agency that acts as the present-day middleman who outsources labor needs of employers. In being so outsourced, the worker signs a 5-month employment contract. And the the cycle goes on as along as the worker's profitability and usefulness to the agency last. The duration of the contract is fixed for a maximum of five months only in order to get around the Philippine labor code's provision that workers are to be rendered permanent in their employment upon reaching their six month of service. Within this arrangement, therefore, no security of tenure is guaranteed, no regular wage increases can be expected, no benefits that regular workers normally enjoy are provided, such as, social security, health insurance, housing benefits, 13th month pay, vacation leaves with pay and so on. The worker therefore becomes a perennial contractual worker. Thus, this arrangement that is now the new normal in the Philippine Labor scene has come to be called by the neologism, contractualization. Contractualization accounts as the labor hiring scheme for more than 70 percent of the Philippine labor force, that is, about 8.7 million workers that are in almost all lines of industry, particularly manufacturing, construction, sales, domestic and security services, transportation, call centers.

In recent years till the present, the issue of contractualization has been highlighted by the case of the Philippine Airlines Employees' Association (PALEA). In 2012, the management of Philippine Airlines began to implement a scheme to outsource the labor force requirements of "peripheral" services such as ticketing, maintenance, finance administration, food commissary. The immediate effect was to retrench and retire PALEA workers, rehire some of them and hire new ones under a new contractualization arrangement. Even as some members of PALEA agreed to the scheme in return for some compensation package, the majority of members resisted the move and decided to go on strike. The action earned the support of the Church, particularly through the Archdiocese of Manila and the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Management'a promise of concession to their demands. But now more than a year after the lifting of the strike, promised concessions have not yet been given. PALEA is once again poised to go on strike. But this time, the issue is no longer just the benefits and compensations due to them. The practice of contractualization is now primarily in q

Judging the Situation of Filipino Workers

Certain conclusions - socioeconomic, philosophical, theological - can be immediately gleaned from the general picture of Filipino workers' situation I have attempted to draw above. 

First, under globalization and its attendant measures as contractualization and informalization, the situation of Filipino workers has been brought to its worst case position yet. Exploitation of workers has been turned systemic and systematic. Filipino workers now work under the most precarious circumstances - blatant lack of security, decent wages, benefits, democratic rights and the total eradication of those gains that the strong labor movement before has been able to secure for them. Furthermore, consistent with what critics of globalization have said, globalization continues to undermine the sovereign laws of the country pertaining to labor, such as minimum wage, security of tenure, the right to organize and international labor standards that the country has adopted. Overall, the situation of the Filipino worker has thus been reduced to no more than that of modern-day slavery.

Second, the situation of Filipino workers today represents the overall outcome of a fundamental assault on the dignity of labor. As the Catholic Social Teachings assert, the dignity of labor emanates from the intrinsic dignity of the human person. The human person works not only to secure means of livelihoods but more fundamentally to secure the existential wherewithal to live as a human being. Work is also what we do as human beings. Work defines us as human beings. What we see today of the situation of the Filipino worker cannot belie the depth of dehumanization that they have been made to sink into.

Third, globalization as defining the situation of Filipino workers today in terms of modern-day slavery and dehumanization is the "anti-thesis of the Kingdom of God." In his book A Third Look at Jesus, the eminent Filipino theologian Fr. Carlos Abesamis, SJ bursts into an agitated call against globalization in a tirade that is quite uncharacteristic of him.   

Globalization is the anti-thesis of the Kingdom of God. Motivated by Jesus summons, let us join our present hosts - organizations of youth, environmentalists, women, workers, peasants, mothers, overseas, workers, drug and alcohol rehab groups, indigenous peoples, small vendors, urban poor and other grassroots organizations - who assert, in world and action, that something of the new earth has got to be visible and tangible today. Kingdom-work means to join in the global project to find alternative paradigms for living

ACT-ing on the Situation of the Filipino Workers

Beyond being a call for prayer and reflection, the celebration of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is also a call to action. In the case of the Filipino worker, it is a call for solidarity with them.

It is a call for solidarity with their struggles against oppression and exploitation and for the promotion of rights and welfare that are due to them as workers. It is a call for solidarity that believes that the promotion of workers' welfare redounds to the welfare and well-being of society as a whole.

It is a call for solidarity to be one with workers. The struggle for the dignity of labor is humanity's struggle to preserve the inalienable character of labor that also lays the foundation of being and becoming ever more human. 

It is a call for solidarity with the mission of Christ - a call for all of us to make His mission our mission. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-20)