Labor pains (My Labor Day column)

This column appears in today’s issue of Panorama Magazine and Tempo. To all our workers, Happy Labor Day!

It’s Labor Day! Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos are expected to visit job fairs organized by the labor department across our archipelago. Under the hot sun, armies of resume-bearing individuals, sweaty and anxious but determined to look their best, will compete with one another for on-the-spot interviews. It’s a new variant of mortal combat, folks. And job fairs have become a fierce battleground of jobless gladiators.

It’s also time to whip out the perennial shopping list of labor concerns and issues. Job security. Higher pay. Safety and health standards. Better working conditions. Fair and faster resolution of labor cases. Non-wage benefits. Health care for all. The list has fossilized with time. Nowadays, trade unionism is like Superman with kryptonite. As it evolves, it weakens; not because it is outmoded or wrong, but because concepts have become diffused, transactions are made at the speed of light, and labor solidarity has its own communication woes.

Should we blame this on technology? Or how about that other big word that employers love to say aloud: Globalization. Another big word: Competitiveness. Put them all in one sentence: We must be globally competitive in order to survive/thrive/flourish in a networked world economy driven by technology and innovation. Fred Moody of the New York Times once described Microsoft as “the factory of the human imagination.” When ideas become products, what happens to those who earn from muscle memory – and not the kind that swings on a golf course?

Nevertheless, the razzmatazz of the world of gadgetry (think IPADs and flat screen TVs) should not and must not put certain labor principles out to pasture. Why should gender stereotypes persist because some women – highly capable and responsible – are not present in after office drinking sessions? In companies that spend so much for marketing campaigns, why would salary increases be a threat to the general health and well-being of its financial statements? Yet, raising these issues would be like building a nuclear reactor within your tiny cubicle. You emit radioactive signals. In the eyes of human resource managers, you are not “safe”.

These are hard times, I agree. But we will always be in for hard times. That is true for any country long left behind in the march for progress. True economic advancement can never take place unless the elite producers of wealth and power in this country realize that all workers are in the end, consumers in the real sense of the world. Your employees are also your customers. Their families are also part of your market.

The more of them left behind – indebted, hopeless, unable to plan well beyond a five-month work contract – the less people able to buy regular bottles of shampoos rather than those little sachets of imperative goodies. As I write this, we already have such an oceanic divide between the rich and poor, the haves, have-nots, and never-haves. It is a tsunami waiting to rise up and sink us.

I know that the Labor Code that my father had put together with the help of his staff and labor law experts such as Dean Froilan Bacungan is outdated. I understand that this is like operating a Betamax machine for an audience that is used to viewing movies in DVDs that uses high definition technology. Or worse – think Charlie Chaplin in an era dominated by the Charlie Sheens of this world.

I will, however, argue that a company that reaches out to its workers, nurtures them, and commands their loyalty and trust, is not old-fashioned, meaning, out of step with the times. Technology does not take away good values, and branding is all about values. In the haste to say no, the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) should be just as quick to say, well here is what we all can do, to help each other out.

We need to put the romance back in labor-management relations, perhaps without government coming in to ruin the mood. The average Filipino worker has been in the “holding pattern” of social and economic inequities. Overseas employment has become the escape hatch for so many of our workers. It is time that we fight to get them back.

On Labor Day, let me ask this. Instead of continuously and traditionally paying homage to the workers who are overseas, why not bestow similar, if not more attention to millions of other workers who choose to stay behind? If government spends time and effort and resources to save OFWs on death row, why not spend even just a fraction of that on an in-depth study on what kind of labor laws and policies would help the bottom millions succeed?

This isn’t about pitting local workers against overseas workers. Or labor against management. This is about giving the labor sector its rightful due, not as second class citizens but as consumers that contribute their fair share to our economy. When around 90% of your population is just barely getting by, shouldn’t the remaining 10% have cause to worry?

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

Share This Post On