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May 1: Workers then and now

How is the working class in Bicol? How are the workers who daily toil in the plantations, sweatshops, factories, mining, and quarrying areas, the dockyard and boat workers, those employed in supermarkets and malls, other commercial establishments, the delivery and truck-driven garbage collectors, deck and engine workers onboard ships, the bus and truck drivers, street sweepers and countless other service workers of all kinds?

It is another non-working holiday on Monday: May 1, known worldwide as Labor Day or the day of the workers who toil and sweat to earn their keep for their families. Since the historic general strike of thousands of workers in America in 1886 for higher wages and better working conditions, the day has become a yearly event for the toiling working masses around the globe. So, May 1 should be a meaningful holiday. Let us honor our workers, give them a day off, and maybe, for the generous employer and capitalist, give them a bonus or a family day off.

May 1 is called proudly as International Workers’ Day, a celebration of laborers and the working classes, which the international workers’’ movement calls the real unsung heroes. In communist and socialist countries, they are called the proletariat, at the lowest rung of society. In ancient Rome, this so-called proletariat was the “poor landless freemen.” Their only property is their labor, the revolutionary philosopher Karl Marx wrote in his Das Kapital. The workers are the creators of society’s wealth. Without them, the world cannot produce anything. With the industrial revolution, the internet, AI, and SpaceX, will the working class now include robots, electronic dolls, and servers at every rich man’s disposal?

Bicol’s working class

Agricultural workers comprise most of Bicol’s working class because agriculture is the primary industry in this region. There are no industrial manufacturing factories. Extractive industries like mining, forestry, or logging constitute much of the region’s revenues. Coconut, rice, sugar, abaca, pili, and handicrafts are significant sources of rural income. The number of service workers in shopping centers, resorts, and street peddlers is increasing in every emerging town center.

Lorenz, 45, of Sto. Domingo, Albay, is a gravel and sand worker who earns P350.00 along with her husband and a hundred workers who also belong to a self-help organization in their barangay close to the majestic Mayon Volcano. When Mayon erupted in 2018, they were the first to flee their homes along with the families of Camalig and Guinobatan. It was the Pandemic, however, that caused them more serious dislocation when the whole economy almost stood at a standstill.

Farther away, in the urban Embarcadero community in Legazpi City, Sendong lived with his family of six and worked as a dockyard worker for ten years, minus those at the height of the Pandemic. He used to bring home P400.00 a day before he caught Covid-19. Then, again, he suffered a heart attack and returned to work last year with irregular pay. On the other side of Bicol, Millie, at 35, is a single mom who works at the biggest shopping mall in Naga City in the merchandise section earning the minimum wage for her three children, one in high school and one a special child. She sidelines in online selling when she can use her mobile phone. Greg, a graduate of Mariners, just boarded a cruise ship and feels a bit luckier than most of his childhood friends because his job as deck officer has earned him big pay with more prospects of continuing deployment abroad with the easing up of employment restrictions.

They are among the millions of working Filipinos who sweat and toil to earn their keep to feed their families daily. So how has life been for those who depend on wages which the state regulatory board determines across the country? Today’s daily wage is P345 in Bicol, far below Manila and other urban centers. For contractual and self-employed workers, the pay is dangerously minimal and irregular.

Labor groups are one to say that low wages, hazardous and oppressive working conditions, and lack of job security and benefits continue to plague the working class. Abroad, migrant workers suffer from maltreatment, discrimination, and abuse. Unionization is a right that the Labor Code of the Philippines recognizes as a right of workers to self-organize. Workers organize into unions in the US and industrial countries to seek higher wages and representation. Labor unions date back to the industrial revolution in the 18th century. However, in the Philippines, the recorded unionization rate, according to the Department of Labor, was a dismally low 7.4%.

Job inequality

Economic experts say unemployment and underemployment are the most severe problems and critical indicators of the economy’s weaknesses. For example, the PSA reported that of the total labor force, about 4M or 12% are unemployed, and 5M, or 17%, are underemployed. If the underemployed combine with the unemployed, that would mean a staggering 29% with a poor level of productivity. More unproductive people!

In 2015, the Philippines committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth, which promotes sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all (underscoring mine). But the country’s grave income inequality and weak job generation have remained a persistent problem. Time for policy change!


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