Reflections on Labor Day 2014

The way I see it, Labor Day is like birthday.  Each year, when the date arrives, I feel older, as a professional, a working woman.  And as on birthdays, when the party’s over and the last guest has gone home, the questions finally overtake you:  What do I have at this point?  Have I realized my dreams?  If not, why, what, how?  Am I happy with my life, work, career?  Do I feel fulfilled? What’s in store for me tomorrow?  What’s my life at 70?  Would I be enjoying a comfortable retirement fund by then?  Or, would I be at the mercy of others?  But you don’t want to visualize too far into your future because then you’d realize the farther you try to reach out into time the less your control over it is and that might bring on an anxiety or panic attack. Labor Day is a day of reckoning with the worker-self.  We practically define our life by our work and its fruits — that’s how meaningful Labor Day is.  It’s also a holiday, and maybe it’s so to give time for reflection.

On Labor Day here, it’s typical to expect the government to “gift” the country’s workers with an increase in minimum wage.  But, can we, this time, stop a while and think: (a) the side of government: have all workers moved up in quality of work to justify the increase?  (b) the side of workers:  have all of us learned and utilized new skills or tools, upgraded ourselves to justify asking for the increase? Yearly increase in minimum wage is to my view a stop gap measure that does not really translate into improved quality of life for workers. It’s the lazy policymaker’s solution. Too much focus on it clouds the real labor issues. My view is, take care of non-wage concerns (i.e. quality of labor, compliance to labor standards, job creation, etc.) and the market will take care of wages.

Let’s take the case of coconut harvesters — hired by plantation owners to climb coconut trees and harvest the fruits.  These laborers are not young (although sometimes there are children hired as well).  They’re middle-aged.  They’ve been doing the work all their life and don’t foresee a “career” change in the near future.  They will harvest coconuts all their life.  How much do they make?  Roughly PHP500 a week on harvest season.  They have six children, all school-aged, whose days in school could end after Grade Six. The wife either peddles home grown vegetables or makes broomsticks to augment.  How much does she make?  Roughly PHP500 a month.  Besides these, there may be a small farm to fall back on which they may or may not own.  The lot on which their house is built isn’t theirs.  Unless the landowner has given them go-signal, they can’t build a toilet on the premises.  No one in the family is insured for health. The adults have no social security.  When they run out of food or rice they borrow from their neighbor or relatives or if they’re lucky buy on credit from the corner store.  No tap water in the house, instead everyone in the family does his or her part fetching water from the communal tap that could be as far as half a kilometer.  These families could not even afford the basic necessities in life. How is it that in this century many have work but are still poor?

Clearly, increasing minimum wage by a few hundred pesos won’t mean much to elevate the daily life of the coconut harvester and his family. There are other non-wage issues at hand. Senator Drilon vowed passage of pro-labor bills which is something to look forward to, but the more urgent measure is action on current labor laws, monitoring of authorities of employers as to their compliance to labor standards of the country, and movement in the courts of labor cases left sleeping for years.  Indirectly, housing for the working poor need to be brought up to quality standards.  Quality of the house affects the well-being of its dwellers, the workers, and rent takes up a huge slice, at the top, of tenants’ monthly budgets.  Many working poor are at the mercy of property owners who, knowingly or not, violate rights of tenants.  Many properties that are rented out are not compliant to building and housing standards but inspite of it there are takers because the “better” houses – ones that are up-to-standard – are beyond their budgets.  There is the Rent Control Act of 2009 but its IRR has yet to be drafted and passed.  Renters, same with consumers, are right to receive and demand the value of their money.

Improvement of the situation of labor starts with the worker’s personal vision of quality of life for him(her)self and family or loved ones.  They have to have a certain level of discontentment of their situation and want the vision badly.  Many laborers have in their mind given themselves up to the manacles of poverty making it difficult to imagine for themselves a future removed from its grip.  The second step is to acquire a certain level of sophistication in the matter of ‘labor’ as it goes far and beyond minimum wage.  Part of this sophistication is organization or aligning themselves with other workers with the same vision and concern(s).  And need I say the rest is hard work and persistence?

I’ve interviewed (and worked with) countless laborers – tenant farmers, small fishers, seasonal construction workers, etc. – and while I admire their individual persistence in the face of hardships, I’m also alarmed that there is little initiative to organize themselves around common concerns.  Many farmers are members of their local cooperative, if there’s one, but a cooperative is not the organization that would talk about how to bring about fundamental changes in a marketing system favoring big time producers, for instance; the cooperative is the alternative system that has somehow played along the traditional system thereby a part of the status quo.  It had to be an outsider, the I/NGOs, who bring together the farmers and facilitate formation of, if not farmers’ cooperatives, farmers’ groups and organizations.  But the trouble has been that of sustainability:  many of these groups and organizations dismantle or become inoperative as soon as the I/NGOs leave.  My initial view of this was that the I/NGOs coddled these groups too much, but then I learned from studies of dynamics in the groups that were successful on their own that members badly wanted their group intact that they did everything to keep it so.  They needed the group.  They cared about it.  Lack of funds (as a result of the I/NGOs assistance) didn’t deter them.  They utilized what they learned (proposal writing, for example) and brought in funding, on their own.  They went out and talked to local officials, on their own.  Unfortunately, this attitude is rare.

Labor, according to Adam Smith, constitutes the wealth of the nation. It’s time this country – the government and laborers – give this wealth serious thought and attention.

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