May Day: Up close and personal

By CAROL PAGADUAN-ARAULLO
Streetwise

This columnist took to the streets yesterday, May Day or Labor Day. It had been quite a while since I had joined a major rally of workers having been sidelined by immune deficiency and other ailments. The heat, humidity, swirling bacteria-laden air and crowds were formidable deterrents.

But President Benigno “Pnoy” Aquino’s pre-May 1 speech rejecting any wage increase, announcing a hike in social security contributions by
employees, and adding insult to injury by calling on workers to celebrate Labor Day as “good jobs day” rather than complaining about slave wages, insecure contractual jobs, back-breaking work and trade union repression, was enough to spur me to brave Manila’s mean streets once more in solidarity with working people nationwide.

En route to Quiapo church to attend the Labor Day mass celebrated by no less than Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, I witnessed traffic enforcers of Quezon City and policemen harassing a convoy of jeepneys ferrying rallyists from the outskirts of the city to the assembly point in Welcome Rotunda. They had confiscated the drivers’ licenses and only returned these when the people got riled up and after issuing traffic violation tickets.

I tried to mediate, to plead actually, with the policemen to allow the convoy to pass since they were not “out of line” in the strict sense of the word, i.e. plying a route outside their franchise for commercial purposes. After all it was Labor Day, for christsake.

I was met with the deadpan excuse about “orders from higher ups” (mention was made of a General San Diego) and that land transportation regulations were superior to any claimed right to peaceful assembly. To top it all, the policeman said the rallyists should have used “private vehicles” instead to avoid being accosted. So this is how authorities encourage workers to “celebrate” their day, I told myself, fuming.

Finally made it in good time to attend the special high mass at the Quiapo Church graciously allowed by Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio, parish priest, and even more graciously con-celebrated by Cardinal Tagle with about fifty priests led by Fr. Jose Dizon of Church Workers Solidarity Conference. Kilusang Mayo Uno leaders, conscientized church people from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, Ecumenical Bishops Forum and Promotion of Church People’s Response, social activists and fighters for workers’ rights and the everyday throng of churchgoers filled the pews and listened intently to the engaging homily.

Cardinal Tagle extolled the dignity and value of labor. He underscored that Jesus Christ was not just the Son of God and the Son of Man, he was the son of a lowly carpenter. Thus the worker partakes of Christ’s figure who originated from and lived out his brief life on earth not as a wealthy landowner, successful businessman or high-and-mighty government official but as a man of the working people. The good Cardinal underscored the primacy of labor over profit and capped his homily with profuse thanksgiving to all workers for their labor is what makes society possible.

After the mass, Catholic religious, Protestant pastors and lay ministers partook of a proletarian meal of rice, smoked fish, red egg and tomato laid out on long tables lined with banana leaves with workers and urban poor in a symbolic demonstration of solidarity for the hard life and even harder struggle of the people everywhere to liberate themselves from the clutches of deprivation, oppression and exploitation.

Overcome by the heat and feeling hunger pangs myself, I took leave of my companions to seek a place to cool off and take a bite of lunch. But I ran into the main contingent of marchers who had come from converging points in the North of Manila with Makabayan senatorial candidate, Teddy Casino, KMU and GABRIELA leaders holding the marching streamer at the front.

I was swept up by the enthusiasm and the fortitude of the rallyists sweltering under the searing heat of the noonday sun and readily acquiesced to join the march as they gave me space to squeeze in. Without even a hat to shield me but buoyed by the spirit of the marching column, I made the short but punishing walk to Liwasang Bonifacio.

Under the steady gaze of Gat Andres Bonifacio, the working people’s hero, more marching columns came one after the other, not just workers but farmers, students, government employees, teachers and health workers and the poorest of the poor from the slum areas of the metropolis with children in tow (for who would tend to them at home when even the mothers were marching that day).

I stayed long enough to hear the welcome songs and chants of protest and the symbolic smashing with outsized cardboard hammers of the coiled effigy of US President Barack Obama (the new face of Uncle Sam) and Pnoy as a prelude to its fiery end later at Mendiola Bridge fronting the Presidential Palace. I couldn’t stay for the speeches including a heartfelt message from Saranggani Representative Manny “Pacman” Pacquio, whose rags-to-riches story as a prize-fighter is the stuff of hungry
men’s dreams.

I went home tired yet oddly serene in the thought that the broad ranks of the working people in the Philippines were persisting in fighting back. Despite being battered by the anti-labor policies of government in collusion with foreign and domestic big business and buttressed by the neoliberal prescriptions of the World Bank-IMF-WTO, to wit: maintaining a cheap, docile workforce to entice foreign investments; labor export to ease joblessness and put a lid on social unrest; prioritizing debt servicing over social services; surrendering public utilities and other public goods to the profit-hungry maws of private capital; and oh, lest I forget, siccing the dogs of war on militant labor through the counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan.

What did the Pnoy regime preoccupy itself with on the same day to show it was addressing the plight of the legions of the unemployed and underemployed? Same as the regimes before it including that of Arroyo from whom it took over pretty much the same anti-labor policies — job fairs. As if the problem was just a matter of the jobless not meeting up with their future employers.

From news accounts we get bare facts: 35, 765 registrants and 400,000 job openings; most applicants seeking jobs as service workers, clerks call center agents and unskilled workers; “even those with a degree apply for service crew position because is easier to get hired”; the jobs offered were contractual, two years for overseas jobs and six months for local ones; 1,274 hired on the spot nationwide; some applicants were not jobless but looking for better paying jobs.

What difference will this make to the close to 3 million unemployed and 8 million underemployed by official estimates, what more the numbers three times these made by independent research outfits? The kinds of jobs being offered are clearly low quality, contractual and overwhelmingly in the service sector thus unmasking the underdeveloped state of the economy with manufacturing stagnant to 1950s level.

Is it any wonder that official poverty statistics, already understated (imagine P51 per person per day as poverty threshold in these trying times) have not been dented by multi-billion peso anti-poverty programs. Is it such a surprise that the credit-rating agency upgrades, the well-stocked foreign currency reserves (thanks to the toiling overseas Filipino workers), the bullish stock market and all the self-congratulatory back patting at Malacañang mean nothing, absolutely nothing, to the average Filipino worker and his family wallowing in want and misery?

Published in Business World
3-4 May 2013

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