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May 1: We Work to Live a Good Life

Today is Labor Day. Except for a few countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, May 1 is a non-working holiday worldwide. Workers have every reason to commemorate it as theirs. On this day in 1886, in Haymarket Square in Chicago, US, scores died in a rally that sparked social unrest among the working class in America, which was fighting for an eight-hour work day and better working conditions.

For centuries, an overwhelming majority of those who labor and toil for a living have not had any good moment to savor the fruits of their work, which has gone monotonous and soul-deadening. Is this about capitalism alienating or disconnecting the individual from one’s work or surroundings?  When workers do their job merely as a meaningless everyday action that siphons off one’s energy to create for a meaningful purpose?  When workers do their job for pay, even if significantly low, to survive amid a fiercely competitive world?  Last March, the SWS reported a record high of 14.2% of Filipinos experiencing involuntary hunger, the highest incidence since May 2021. Poverty and inequality afflict the working class forever more.    

Why do we work?

Why do we work? This question is not as simple as it seems. It’s a question I asked my husband, and his response was dismissive. But I persisted, pointing out that our reasons for working are not the same. For many, work is a means of survival, a response to financial and material needs. But for a fortunate few, work is a path to a good life. Doesn’t our reason for working reflect our social class, status, and values?

I asked this question to employees working at Mariners, at the JaimEliza, in the social enterprises that Tabang Bikol Movement helped organize with the Social Enterprise Development (SED) project with a two-year grant from the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) central office, to the market vendors, the gasoline station attendants, the drivers and the barkers at the bus/jeepney/tricycle terminals, and the uniformed young ladies and men at the food stalls that I meet and encounter whenever I get the chance.

My husband was right. Everyone I asked did not take the question seriously. The answer is obvious. They work for the money to feed the family and buy other basic needs, such as shelter and education for the children, pay off debts, buy medicine for a sick family member, or occasionally buy themselves an exceptional luxury.

The same reply applies to the workers at the quarrying sites of Sto Domingo, Albay, and the low-paid miners who work in high-risk pits and sites in Masbate and Camarines Norte. The struggling fisher folks in Camarines Sir and Albay persist in working on the fishing grounds of  Bicol, but there is now a critical decline in fish production. Thousands of dockyard workers work under oppressive conditions in exchange for measly pay. The urban poor junk or kalakal semi-proletariat of the cities of Naga and Legazpi continue to scavenge for left-over foods for pagpag and use plastic bottles, forks, and spoons to wash and resell.  They all work to have enough food on the table, to buy for the family›s basic needs, buy medicine for my sick wife and pay for my children›s education and dren, pay for our rand ent, and pay off debts. The list of these needs is endless.

Chef Santos cooks one of the best pinangats in town, and now he needs to work double the time for his sick wife, who undergoes weekly dialysis at the BMC. Aris is Glady’s husband, who has to leave his family to work in Batangas for three months to help augment his wife’s minimum wage earnings. Twenty-eight-year-old Dencio needs to return to work after being beaten up by his father. Marlyn, a young widow who lost her husband to a tragic flooding incident last year, has seven children to care for and now shuffles work as canteen utility, cleaner, and laundry woman; she is now learning other skills with the CHEd-Mariners-TBM led Social Enterprise Development (SED) project so she can have more jobs. They all work and struggle to continue living, survive, and meet both ends, with the rising prices of staple foods and the high cost of education and medical care. It is the same with the lower-income middle-class workers in collared jobs at the call centers, as sales account managers, bank tellers, and department supervisors who work to get paid in their graveyard shifts.    

People ask me why I  still have to work when, upon retirement, I  can already enjoy lifetime savings. I work for a different reason. I know that many others like me have now embraced a life where working means not just to live but to live the good life. I have learned more things I have not done before regularly - paint, graphic arts, social entrepreneurship, business, education, dabble in broadcast media, Chamber, and even do a weekly column for Bicol Mail. Some work for fun or to enjoy life. I still work to earn so I can give more. Work has become part of a mission, a social function. People find meaning when they see a clear connection between what they highly value and what they spend time doing.

An American intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, honorable, compassionate, and have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” The world’s workers need an enabling social environment to achieve this, not only to work for pay but for a better life with others. They need a safe, purposeful, caring, just, and fair environment to realize their full potential as human beings.


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