If you have the privilege of working a 9 to 5 job with stable income and benefits, you most likely have labor unions and workers’ organizations to thank for. Labor unions, sometimes called trade unions, are organizations formed by workers from different fields and sectors that aim to serve their common interests. These organizations help workers fight for better working conditions, fair pay and to protect their rights as part of the labor force. Unions not only benefit employees through collective bargaining and representation, but they also help employers improve their management by providing consistent employee feedback, reduced turnover and employee satisfaction.
While the International Trade Union Confederation’s global rights index already listed the Philippines as part of the top 10 worst places to work in, we could only imagine how hard it is for trade union organizers to work amid the pandemic. COVID-19 has not only put a halt on several businesses and livelihoods, it has also created barriers that made it difficult for unions to organize. Moreover, the country already has a notorious reputation of red-tagging workers and organizers which could lead to violence, intimidation and murder.
Studies also show that labor organizing in the Philippines is a male-dominated field with the number of women who are unionized paling in comparison to men. However, it’s quite the opposite for fields like education, health and social work because women are mostly associated with these sectors due to gender-stereotyping.
To learn more about the struggles of organizing as a woman amid the pandemic, we spoke with community organizer and researcher Ia Marañon who is a labor organizer for Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers) and a campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice.
Good day, Ia! Could you give our readers a brief introduction and your organization Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino?
Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) is a socialist labor center in the Philippines, composed of federations, trade unions and informal workers’ associations. It was formed in 1993 following a very tumultuous time for the Philippine left, which required a paradigm shift to a more socialist orientation.
I came across BMP before I graduated from college in 2018. I took AB Development Studies in ADMU, and was in the student council during that time. I went to one of the camp outs they had at the time in Mendiola, protesting contractualization.
How long have you been a union organizer and what are the recent protests and events that you’ve been involved in?
I’ve been involved since May 2018—if we’re being strict. I went to some union meetings to get myself acclimated into the work—strike support, manning the picket line, holding meetings and the like. But I think one of my major contributions came much later on, around September when we started organizing the Zagu workers who had approached us for concerns about their workplace. That eventually led to the Zagu workers strike from June 2019 to December 2019. The Zagu workers were a refreshing change of pace from the usual very masculine environments involved in labor organizing because majority of the officers were women.
What are the difficulties of labor organizing as a woman and how do you cope with it?
I think as a woman there’s an added pressure to be correct, to be sure of what you say. Which was hard enough to do considering I just got out of college and barely knew anything—and here I am talking about labor laws, tactics and what not. It’s not so much because I’m a woman that these things crop up but because I’m young and inexperienced. But I think the aggravating factor here is precisely that: I’m a woman. My voice needs to be validated by a male colleague for points I’ve raised to matter. It was difficult finding my voice in that context.
A story that comes to mind is a simple thing such as giving my contact number would be turned into an “uy grabe chix” kind of joke. When it happened, I honestly laughed. I didn’t know how to respond. In my head I was just thinking, “Should I call it out? How would they respond?” Thankfully, my male comrade gently called out the behavior and it stopped. I wish it was that easy for me to respond to be honest.
I guess another aspect added to the difficulty is the sheer fear of getting harassed [or] assaulted because most of the time, I went to meetings alone. And usually these meetings would be held long after work hours. Some days it didn’t bother me as much—to be honest those ride homes in the almost empty jeepneys can be quite soothing. I’m lucky nothing happened to me yet. But there is always that fear.
How did the pandemic affect these difficulties?
COVID-19 really made things a lot more difficult for organizers—well COVID and that Anti-Terrorism Law. I think since we’re now staying at home, the fear of being harassed by strangers isn’t so much of a problem. I think one of the ways organizing has been so inversely affected by the pandemic is the heavy use of social media that really intervenes with the clarity of what we’re trying to say to each other. And so that aspect of relating to each other, being able to articulate to one another is really lost if we solely rely on these things. Organizing isn’t a mechanical relationship; it’s really a process of mutual learning from one another.
Another thing the pandemic really aggravated is the fear of workers to organize. There’s a lot more barriers to organizing than before. A lot more women who use organizing as a way to combat sexual harassment in their workplaces are left with barely any viable course of action to combat it. At the same time, because of this government’s incompetence, a lot more people will risk their lives just trying to earn enough money to have something to eat for the day. Informal workers like vendors suffer from this, and some vendors were even arrested for doing so. The pandemic really justified the iron clamp this government has been wanting to do for the longest time. “Peace” and “order” but only for those who can.
What does your daily routine look like? How is it different from what you’ve been doing before the pandemic?
Haha honestly, I don’t have one. Since I’m at home most of the time, I do what every other Ateneo graduate stuck at home does: work, maybe get some exercise, experiment with fermentation—that kind of thing. While I am a trade union organizer, that doesn’t erase the fact that I have a degree from one of the most expensive universities in the Philippines. That really doesn’t go away no matter how hard I try. I just work extra to make sure that fact doesn’t solely belong to the 2,000 or so graduates from Ateneo every year.
Being a trade union organizer is a volunteer thing for me. My day job is a campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, which isn’t wholly separate from the workers struggle.
I guess before the pandemic I really went out more. Going out means going to meetings on the weekends or at night, to rallies and other protest actions. It had a lot more face to face interaction, a lot more movement. These days I just look at my screen.
How may we support your organization’s cause?
We actually have an ongoing fund drive for one of our unions who have been displaced. If you’re familiar with Cosmic 10, wherein trade unionists and organizers were illegally detained by the police—this is the union that we’re collecting funds for.