JUNE 1993 - VOLUME 14 - NUMBER 6
I N T E R V I E W
Building a Women's Union in the Philipines
Fighting for Workers' RightsAn interview with Gracia Angeles
Gracia Angeles co-founded Kilusan Ng Manggagawang Kabaibihan (KMK), the Women Workers Movement in the Philippines, in 1984. The KMK, based in Manila, has about 20,000 members throughout various cities in the Philippines as well as in some rural areas. The KMK has an alliance with Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), the May First Workers Movement of the Philippines, the country's largest labor center. Angeles organizes with the KMK for access to productive labor, education and leadership opportunities for women workers; the guarantee of workers' rights and benefits, including paid maternity leave; promotion of a non-sexist society and culture; marital and reproductive rights; and the rights of women to participate fully in political actions and decisions at all levels and in all sectors of society. The KMK is the only all-women workers' federation in the Philippines.
Multinational Monitor: Why is child care such a crucial issue for women workers in the Philippines?
Gracia Angeles: Creating a daycare support system is essential for women workers, especially for those with preschool-age children. Most women with children cannot find extended families to baby-sit or afford to hire domestic help, so the women are often forced to be absent from work. This is one of the reasons companies do not employ married women, especially in the semiconductor and food processing industries.
During Aquino's administration, a law was passed that mandated any company with at least 50 women workers to house daycare centers in its factories. But enforcing that law is a problem. There are only about three companies that have actually implemented the daycare center policy. Even in those cases, management contributes a negligible portion to the building of day care facilities.
Our chairperson worked in a garment factory making clothing for export to North America. Management at that factory contributes only 36,000 pesos a year to daycare - that is only enough money to pay for one teacher's aide's salary. There are about 56 children enrolled in that particular daycare center, so we can not imagine how it is operating on the small amount of money contributed by management. So most of the daycare centers that we set up are being funded by religious institutions and women's organizations.
It is important to keep in mind when discussing child care that child labor, done in the home, is commonplace in the Philippines. Most of the smocking for baby dresses that are sold at Bloomingdales in the United States are embroidered by Filipino children of about 9 to 13 years old in home based work for pennies a day. I found out when I was in New York that the cheapest of these baby dresses sells at Bloomingdales for $30.
MM: What are the conditions faced by workers in the export processing zones (EPZs) ?
Angeles: In organizing for better conditions within the export processing zones, we have to address not only working but living conditions. Workers sleep in factory dormitories within the EPZs. There are about 150 workers per extremely small and cramped dormitory room. The bunks are stacked by fives. There are only two bathrooms for all 150 people. Water is strictly rationed. The dormitories contain only one very small window. No air circulates within the room. Despite these conditions, the bunks are not free: workers are forced to pay to sleep at the factory.
Inside the factories, the common problem is ventilation. The workers are vulnerable to sickness and disease, ranging from tuberculosis to sinusitis. There is a lack of ventilation in all of the factories with the exception of the semiconductor factories, which are required to have an air conditioner. This is not to safeguard the health of the workers, but to protect the products.
The women are also prone to urinary tract infections because there are only three times when they are permitted to use the bathroom - once in the morning, once at break time and once in the afternoon. These three breaks are only five minutes long. You can imagine the women lining up for the washroom. When the supervisor sees that there are many women waiting, they force them to get off the line and go back to work.
MM: Why do the EPZs hire primarily women, especially young women?
Angeles: During exchanges with Asian women workers, I found that as countries in this region - not only the Philippines - establish export processing zones, women are sought for the workforce. Management prefers to hire women, especially very young women, for the free trade zones or for home based work because they keep quiet.
Particularly in the Philippines, women are trained from a very young age not to answer back, not to engage in activities that are traditionally seen as masculine, which includes political activism and demonstrating. Because women are so busy with their work both at home and at the factory, they have less time to participate in trade unionism. Maybe that is the reason why these export-oriented and labor intensive factories employ women.
There is an issue in our labor center with regards to equal job opportunities. Some male workers are telling us that, actually, women have all the opportunities, because most factories want female workers. We respond by saying yes, women are getting jobs, but what kind of jobs? Not skilled work. Women's work does not require training because it consists of repetitious, monotonous tasks like attaching a button or garter or sewing an armhole. It is unskilled work that the women are getting. We do not have equal opportunity to do skilled work.
MM: Which companies are the biggest employers?
Angeles: Reebok, Nike, Avon, General Electric, McDonalds and all the other fast food restaurants - you name it, we have it. There are also many women working at multinational banks, like Bank of America and Citibank. The banks are there solely to exploit workers as cheap overseas data processors for the U.S. banks. We don't actually use Bank of America for our banking in the Philippines.
MM: What obstacles do you face in organizing women workers?
Angeles: The issue at the heart of our organizing work is convincing women workers to take a leadership position in the union. Despite almost 10 years of our work in this area, there are very few women in the top union positions. This is in part because most union men are very aggressive in taking leadership. But more importantly, it is difficult for women to participate because of their work at home. They can not even afford the time it takes to attend regular meetings in the union.
We have to adjust our organizing methods to their situation. For example, if we have a small group meeting, we hold it at a worker's home so that she can watch her children or wash the clothes.
What we are doing is educating the labor movement with regards to really helping the women workers to become actively involved in union leadership. We developed a gender sensitivity training within the labor movement that is getting good feedback. And we are seeing real progress. Last March, during international women's month, we managed to mobilize 1,000 male workers to participate in our women's march. They stayed at the back of the line and let the women lead.
MM: How do these conditions compare to those in factories outside of the EPZs?
Angeles: I have found that the problems are common to all factory operations, both inside and outside the export processing zones. It doesn't matter whether the factory produces garments or cigarettes.
From 1976 to 1983, I was a worker in a Philip Morris cigarette factory in the national capitol. I resigned because I got sinusitis and was hospitalized for weak lungs. The conditions there were identical to those in the EPZs. There were 6,000 workers at the factory and about 1,200 in my department. We had the same experiences - for example, we were given a five minute period in which we could attempt to use the washroom.
After resting for one year, I worked in a garment factory which exported vanity products to the United States. It is common to all the factories: the companies refuse to supply workers with protection. At the Philip Morris factory we were not provided with masks. We were permitted to bring our own, but it was not compulsory. Working without a mask is dangerous, especially for the older women, who work directly with the tobacco leaves, which creates an extreme amount of dust.
Plant closings are common. We had about 3,000 members at the Far East Assembly Plant, a semiconductor factory which was about 90 percent women. That plant closed this year.
Last year the Philip Morris factory where I worked laid off 75 percent of its workforce - from 6, 000 to only 1,200 workers. The older women had been working at the factory since they were 13 years old, when the factory started operating 52 years ago. Philip Morris USA sent its old machinery to the Philippines. The output of these machines is usually met by 150 workers apiece. Now a single worker operates three of these machines.
MM: What are the factories' wages for women workers?
Angeles: As trainees, workers cam about 25 pesos a day, or one U.S. dollar. When I went to work at Philip Morris, I was in my first year of college. My sister had to stop supporting me because she got married. I wanted a job to pay for my schooling. But I realized that I could not work as well as attend classes and study because I was working from six a.m. until six p.m. Twelve hour days, earning 25 pesos a day, were compulsory. I was trained for six months and then placed on a six month probationary period, still at 25 pesos a day. I was regularized after a year and got a raise of one and a half pesos at that time.
MM: Were there unions at the factories where you worked?
Angeles: At Philip Morris, the only recognized union is a company union. I belonged to a minority union that was trying to break with the company union because it was not addressing workers' issues. The progressive union, the KMU, finally succeeded in toppling the 37-year old company union in 1987, I was no longer there.
At the garment factory, I was lucky because the union belonged to the KMU's progressive labor center. After working for one year I was chosen to be an organizer. We managed to get the company to free five union officers to organize on various issues.
MM: What tactics do the companies use to attempt to block your organizing efforts?
Angeles: We are having difficulty in one EPZ because when it began operating, the area governor declared it to be an "industrial peace zone." When you enter the industrial area, you are bombarded by bulletin boards that say "You are now entering the industrial peace zone. We welcome ambassadors." The governor officially warned union organizers that "economic saboteurs" will not be permitted to enter the EPZ and "destroy the peaceful labor and management relationship" in the area.
In October 1992, two women were found dead in the gutter. They had been raped. One was an active trade unionist who was collecting signatures to organize a union. What happened is not really clear. Some say that they were simply rape victims. Some people say that this was an act or terrorism directed against a trade union activist. The issue still has not been settled.
The point is that this incident created great fear among those women whom we had previously convinced to participate in union organizing. Our contact in the local community became so frightened to be associated with us that she moved out of the area.
MM: How have the companies reacted to the unionizing of factory workers?
Angeles: By shutting down the factories where successful trade unionism has taken place. When a company closes shop, management says that it is because the union is too militant, because the workers were striking or wanted higher wages. Our analysis is that the companies use those excuses to justify union busting. That is what is really happening: union busting. The companies claim that they are losing profits so they had to close shop. We found out that they actually just transfer to another area. A garment factory with a very active union was the first to close shop. The company transferred to an export processing zone and is operating again with a new set of workers. Our contacts in the area are finding a hard time organizing there. We found 12 factories that supposedly closed shop, yet had transferred to the EPZs.
MM: What is the focus of your work in the agricultural sector?
Angeles: We work primarily with sugar and banana workers. On the sugar plantations, we have to deal with the issue of wages. Our demand is for a family wage. Because although it is the men who are employed at the plantations, the entire family participates in the work. On a sugar plantation, workers are given a certain task, or a certain number of rows of cane to cut. The companies pay by the task. The family participates in cutting the sugar cane so that the worker can complete his quota. Yet only the male worker is paid, not the rest of the family. We have been successful in organizing women and families on this issue. We managed to negotiate and get a victory on that issue on some plantations. But on most of the land the situation has not yet changed.
But the biggest problem facing sugar workers now is that the United States cut off its Filipino sugar quota. Many of the landowners have converted their land into industrial real estate or subdivisions. The National Federation of Sugar Workers had a membership of 45,000 workers. Now it has lost nearly 50 percent of its membership because of the cancellation of the U.S. sugar quota.
MM: When the sugar plantations are converted for another use, what happens to the workers and their families?
Angeles: About 20,000 families have been affected by job loss because of the cancellation of the sugar quota. Some transfer to another province. Many families attempt to go abroad. But most stay in the rural areas. The men find seasonal work like carpentry or contractual work in industry. Some organizations manage to establish socioeconomic programs in some areas but it is not sufficient to accommodate most of those workers who lost their jobs.
MM: What are the largest U.S. and foreign fruit growing companies operating in the Philippines?
Angeles: Dole Pineapple, Del Monte and Chiquita Bananas. Here, the use of dangerous pesticides and herbicides is the biggest problem. I avoid eating bananas in the United States because I know that when they were packaged in the Philippines they were still unripe. The workers apply chemicals to them to ripen them during transport. The chemicals on the bananas are not safe for workers or consumers.
Another issue we are working on in the banana plantations is the banana display area, where the company shows off beautiful looking bananas for foreign investors. We found out that the area set aside to display the bananas is also the display area for women workers. In this section of the plantation, the companies only employ young and shapely women. The women workers there are required to wear shorts and tight, tucked-in tee-shirts.
We went to management to ask what this outfit has to do with working in the banana display areas. We were told that the workers must also display their legs for the foreign investors. We are trying to negotiate with management on this issue because we think that it is not only an issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, but of hazardous working conditions for women workers. The women must display their legs throughout the eight-hour work day, to the top management and to the male workers. The harassment that occurs actually creates a humiliating and dangerous working environment for the women.
MM: How do the military operations affect your membership?
Angeles: Our membership is diminishing in the agricultural plantations due to the military operations, especially on the sugar plantations. In one area where the military presence is particularly strong, the peasants, farmers and agricultural workers, have been very active around the issue of land reform. The military suspected that the area had been infiltrated by communists and forced an investigation of all the activities - including union activities - of the men. Many were arrested and the president of the National Federation of Sugar Workers is being hunted for a crime that is being attached to him.
He is no longer able to organize locally. He has to move around constantly because not only the military, but many paramilitary groups are operating in the area.
Two years ago, three labor leaders were found dead in the plantation area. Nobody knows exactly what happened to them. Communities are also being affected by the constant military presence. Families attempt to move to areas to avoid the violence of the military. Those families are mostly comprised of union members.
MM: When Marcos was overthrown, did the situation improve for workers in the Philippines?
Angeles: During Corazon Aquino's administration, we thought there would be a move towards real democratic freedom. Prior to the election, some people were advocating a boycott of the vote. I participated in the election because I believed that it was about time we had access to some form of democracy. I decided to vote for Aquino, because she promised so many things for the workers. We were happy about her position on labor. When we saw that conditions remained the same for workers, I was very sorry I voted for her in the 1986 election.
MM: What are your expectations for the current administration?
Angeles: The Ramos administration will not bring significant changes because it follows the same economic policies. The centerpiece of his program is to make the Philippines an industrialized, export-oriented nation.
We are an agricultural country. But we import our rice from Taiwan. Our own rice cannot compete because Taiwan's rice is cheaper. This is because the government canceled its subsidy to the rice farmers in response to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank position to cut government subsidies.
In other words, instead of producing what the nation needs, what the Filipino people need, we will produce what other countries need - microchips, garment;, even-thing. We cannot even afford to buy the products we are producing. The bras that we sew cost two days worth of our salaries.
We are an industrialized nation that does not own a factory that could produce a car, only parts of it. Observers comment that the country has so many factories. In my opinion, you cannot evaluate a country by the number of factories it has but by what those factories are producing.