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Listening to labor

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - May 4, 2021 - 12:00am

We are a nation built on the backs of those who have the least. Even when our people were being ruled by foreign kings, what prosperity our nation achieved was wrung from the efforts of those with the least rights, the most vulnerable and invisible. Centuries have passed since those days, our nation, our freedom, having long since been won… and yet, many of our people still remain under the boot of unwanted rulers. Except in this case, those rulers are not Spanish royalty, but instead consist of poverty, exploitation and job insecurity.

I wrote the above for a speech I delivered in 2016 when I was still a legislator, in a push for a bill I had drafted to improve security of tenure of Filipino workers. There is much in the world that has changed since then, but there are many issues that remain the same – or which have become worse since the arrival of COVID-19. Reports from the government’s economic team state that at least 8.7 million jobs were lost during the start of the pandemic and the imposition of the enhanced community quarantine that shut down much transport and commerce.

But while many jobs have been created since, these are not necessarily the same kinds of jobs, nor of the same level of quality, as those that were lost. Many of these jobs are not full-time, nor come with the security of tenure that would provide stability for a family. The number of underemployed – those who were unsatisfied with their pay or wanted to work more hours – rose to 7.9 million or 18 percent of the labor force last February, from 6.6 million last January. Although I understand the necessity of the reimposition of a stricter quarantine level in the NCR Plus and other parts of the country in March, this would not have helped matters for our workers.

The important nuance provided by the underemployment data shows that we have to go beyond surface numbers in order to truly assess the needs of the Filipino people, particularly those who survive in poverty. Many families who were managing to eke by before the pandemic have been pushed into poverty because of the instability and restrictions brought about by the fight against COVID-19 – all the more if they have been stricken by the disease. They are not mere numbers to be weighed and measured. They are our countrymen who have the least, those that the State has the highest duty to protect.

May is a good month to remember this as we celebrate our national Labor Day on the first of the month. Since the very first Labor Day gathering in 1902, it has been a day to hear the needs and desires of the working man and woman, and the State to be reminded of its obligation. The reason that this is such an important obligation is because history will show us that for almost as long as the concept of “jobs” has existed, the balance of power between those who provided the work and those who did the work has always been skewed.

It didn’t take long after humans began to make permanent settlements for them to invent the concept of slavery. Slavery was created as the most cost-efficient way to ensure profit for the few at the expense of the many, and it’s the starkest example of how an obsession with cold efficiency and individual profit can lead to dignity and humanity being sacrificed at a false altar.

The formal institution of slavery has been all but abolished at the State level, but many of the structural causes that made slavery possible remain prevalent: inequities of wealth, systematic discrimination and the resistance to the fundamental idea of a living wage in return for honest work. The continuing drive to maximize selfish profit has ensured that these structures enable the exploitation of other human beings to continue in other forms.

I see the most blatant new forms of this exploitation as a part of my job at the DOJ on a daily basis, in the continual trafficking of human beings, inside and outside our national borders. I see it in the way our migrant workers are treated, in how the needs of seafarers during the pandemic were neglected, in how technology and human desperation have facilitated the rise of the online sexual exploitation of children.

Yet the less drastic forms of exploitation are no less important to address – the fact that something is common practice may mean that it affects a great many more people, even if it does not grab the headlines. Many of the acts I worried were undermining the security of tenure of workers in 2016 continue today, such as inequitable and improper labor only contracting and the abuse of the probationary period. Such tactics are all the easier to employ during the pandemic, with so many people desperate for work or additional income.

Positive change does not happen if we do not listen. And when we change in response to legitimate concerns, we make a better world for everyone. Standards and limits that we now take for granted, such as the eight-hour workday and the existence of the weekend, owe their existence to laborers making themselves heard, and people listening. Now, many of us can hardly imagine what life would be like without those limits (even if there are still many who do not enjoy them).

The pandemic has forced many compromises. But we cannot compromise on our commitment to listen to our workers, to those who produce much of the wealth that powers our nation. What the Constitution promises – what we in government promise, when we swear to serve it – is full protection for our workers. Not protection when convenient, not protection during times when business is good.

We are a nation built on the backs of those who have the least. The least we can do in return, is listen with open minds and open hearts.

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