”It’s a question of dignity”
- Most Filipinos are not aware of their rights. The majority of the people can’t influence their own lives or the development in their society. Without knowledge of one’s rights, one can’t change one’s situation. This is why I think education makes a difference, says 26 year old Geoffrey “Union” Labudahon, who got his nickname from his strong commitment to union rights.
Geoffrey is one of many Filipinos from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Philippine society is characterized by huge class differentiation and more than one fourth of the population is living below the poverty line. At the same time some of the world’s richest persons are registered in the country and the already huge gap in income is widening. In the wake of the financial crisis unemployment, food prices, privatization and the amount of insecure employments have increased.
– For a poor family with seven children, life was difficult, Geoffrey says. As a child I dreamed of getting a high-ranked position in a well renowned company. My goal was to make a lot of money in order to better the situation for me and my family.
Geoffrey studied at the university to fulfill his dream. In order to finance his education he worked as home deliveryman at a popular fast food chain. The working conditions were bad and as a contractual worker he had no possibilities to influence the situation.
– There are no trade unions in the fast food industry. Salaries are low, there are no benefits and a lot of over-time. Health insurance was taken from the salary but I later found out that the company never forwarded the money to the authorities.
Contractual employment generally equals lower salaries and absence of benefits such as health insurance and paid leave. This form of employment is getting more common in the Philippines and many employers fire permanent employees and then reemploy them as contractual workers. In spite of labour legislation there are many methods used to oppose union organization. Union activists are threatened, harassed and dismissed by employers all over the country. For contractual workers the ever present fear of not getting their contracts prolonged the step to becoming active in the trade unions is even bigger.
Geoffrey’s employment did not last long at any of the fast food companies that he worked at. Eventually he started working at SM Supermalls, the leading Philippine chain mall. The proclaimed goal of the company campaign, SM cares – let’s do our share, is to contribute to a positive change in the country and portraying the chain as a precursor in corporate social responsibility. Geoffrey finds this laughable. Also at SM Supermalls he was, like many others, a contractual worker:
– SM Supermalls have 22 000 contractual employees. Consequently the company is the biggest offender of union rights in the Philippines. According to the latest publication of the National Statistics Office the owner earns more than the total Philippine state. At the same time he actively contributes to marginalizing the taxpaying workers, Geoffrey explains.
The years before his graduation Geoffrey started working for the popular education organization LEARN (Labor Education and Research Network) with a project for trade union rights in the post- and telecom sector. The project was carried out in cooperation with the Swedish union branch SEKO Seafarers and the Olof Palme International Center. Established shortly after the uprising against the Marcos dictatorship, LEARN was the first organization of the Philippine labour movement.
The labour movement in the Philippines today consists of several elements: popular education, trade union organizations and a political party, working together to improve the situation for the workers of the Philippines.
– It is a question of dignity and what road one wants to walk down in life. I don’t have the enormous salary that I used to dream of but my dream of a more fair society makes me want to stay at LEARN. I don’t think only about myself anymore but about how I can improve the situation for every Filipino.
Text and photo: Viktoria Svensson Tordenborn
Translation: Otto Widmark