On Bonifacio Day, workers stand up for higher wages and right to organize


MANILA, Philippines — Workers' groups and their allies marked Bonifacio Day on Wednesday by calling for higher wages, job security and better working conditions and their right to organize unions to push for these.

Nagkaisa Labor Coalition, an alliance of labor groups that last protested together in 2020, said that not much has changed for workers since Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. became president and that there have been no major policy announcements for them.

"Inflation is rising, wages are shrinking and the kinds of jobs that are being created as we open up our economy leave much to be desired," Josua Mata, secretary general of trade alliance SENTRO, said in Filipino in a briefing on Tuesday. He said underemployment — part-time workers and those looking for additional work — has also been increasing, which contributes to a lack of job security for many workers.

According to government data, the unemployment rate was at 5% in September, down from 5.3% in August and 8.9% in September last year. Underemployment, however, was at 15.4% in September, up from 14.7% in August and 14.2% in September last year.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said earlier this month that the underemployment rate worsened as more than 882,000 people looked for additional income to cope with rising commodity prices.

Labor leader Leody De Guzman said that the continued use of contractual labor through manpower agencies has also contributed to lack of job security. Ending labor contractualization was a campaign promise made by Rodrigo Duterte and one that he failed to deliver on during his presidency.

"Our Constitution clearly states that it is the government's obligation to provide full employment — full employment! — to workers, but the past administrations and the current one has always favored the capitalists," De Guzman, who ran for president in the May polls on a platform of changing the political system, said.

Ferdinand Gaite of government workers' group COURAGE said that workers need an across-the-board wage increase if only to regain what they used to earn before inflation hit 7.7%.

He said the current minimum wage of P570 in Metro Manila — wages are lower outside the capital — is too low for Filipino families to live on. The minimum wage, he also said, should be uniform across regions and industries. "Do farm workers need less food than company workers?"

Repression of labor organizing

Lawyer Luke Espiritu of Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino said that while low wages and high prices have led to the "pauperization" of workers, they are denied their rights to form unions, to negotiate with management for better conditions and to raise wages.

He said that even though these are guaranteed under the Constitution and the Labor Code, "all of these are voided in practice" because union organizing has been equated with terrorism. 

He said that when workers call attention to issues like wages and labor contractualization, "they are met by the [National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict], they are met by the police, they are met by the military." 

At the protest, labor lawyer Sonny Matula of the Federation of Free Workers reminded the crowd of why labor groups time their protests with the holiday for Katipunan founder and leader Andres Bonifacio: "One of the things that Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan fought for was the right to organize and form unions."

He said that unions and other associations were illegal during the Spanish colonial period but that the 1899 Malolos Constitution guaranteed this right as well as the right to petition authorities over grievances. These guarantees are also in the 1987 Constitution.

In a statement on Wednesday, Sen. Risa Hontiveros joined the call for the Marcos administration help workers cope with issues of income and employment as she backed Nagkaisa's labor agenda.

"Their proposals are vital to understanding the most pressing issues of our economy as well as what many Filipino families face daily. If anything, these should be the first thing on the agenda," she said.

"The government should consider programs that guarantee income and employment. Let us also make the issue of security of tenure a priority again. Anti-poor policies like contractualization need to be seriously reconsidered in this volatile economy."

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