At Triumph International: A hard life on the assembly line
By Gina Mission

FOR a woman who earns a living sewing undergarments for Triumph International Philippines (TIP), it is ironic that Sotera Cortez cannot afford to buy any of her company’s products for herself.

Saying it all in one placard.

   Except for a piece of defective brassiere that she gets as a company giveaway every Christmas, Triumph products are considered a luxury for a woman who gets to take home P4,000 a month for the nine-hour daily work she renders under harsh conditions.

   And to think the 48-year-old Cortez has spent half of her life on TIP’s assembly line.

   Like most garments manufacturing companies, TIP used to employ the "quota plus incentive" scheme to encourage productivity among its workers. In this setup, each employee was required to put together a certain number of brassieres for which she would be paid her daily minimum wage. For every piece she finished beyond her quota, the employee received extra pay.

   "So even if the take-home pay was only around P4,000 (a month), those who need more money can work harder and get as much as P10,000 every month as incentive," says Reyvilosa Trinidad, the union’s vice president.

The union’s version of Triumph’s $1.9 million millenium bra

   Given the incentives, TIP’s 1,695 workers, 88 per cent of them women, were more than willing to endure whatever toll the extra work would take on their health.

   Before 8 a.m. every day, workers would position themselves at the rows and rows of sewing machines inside a poorly ventilated plant within TIP’s 20,000 square-meter plant at the FTI Complex in Taguig, Metro Manila.

   From the time the bell rang to signal the start of the working hours, the sewing machines would not stop roaring even through the 10 a.m. recess, lunch break, and even after the air conditioner was silenced to mark the 4 p.m. timeout. The principle was: the more rest time they didn’t take, the more brassieres they could finish, the bigger extra income they would earn.

   So caught up were the workers in meeting the quota that, Trinidad reveals, they would rather forget about going to the canteen or even the rest room just to finish their work. The workers, she says, even seemed oblivious to the hellish heat that enveloped the work area after the air conditioner was turned off at 4 p.m.

The picket line

   As a result, a number of employees were diagnosed with urinary tract infection, ulcers, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, and eye sight problems during their annual medical checkups.

   Workers on the assembly line could not be blamed for enduring such inhumane working conditions. According to a study conducted by the Center for Women’s Resources in 1996, Triumph workers, aged 20 to 60 years old, are mostly breadwinners for their families. Eighty-eight per cent of these workers are married and are sending four kids to school. Those who are single, meanwhile, live with extended families and are supporting the studies of a sibling or two.

   Realizing how much workers were earning for the extra work they were rendering, the Triumph management started adopting policies that would make it difficult for the workers to go beyond their quotas.

   First, the management ordered all sewing machines turned off during break time. It cited a study conducted on Triumph plants in Japan and Hongkong, which showed that the same number of pieces could be put together even if the work period was shortened. Even if the management acknowledged that Triumph plants in those countries provided "superior (working) conditions," it insisted that the Philippines could duplicate their output despite the inferior ventilation, space, and machines of the factory here.

   But the workers were desperate to finish more brassieres and earn more. So with the sewing machines turned off, the workers instead used their rest periods doing other aspects of the job, such as trimming and cutting.

   When the management learned how the workers skirted the company policy, it assigned them to work on a different style of brassiere every other month. This made it impossible for workers to master the styles, thus slowing down the assembly of parts, not to mention affecting the quality of the output.

   Eloisa Figueroa, union secretary, recalls how one worker broke down when she failed to earn extra for two consecutive months at a time when her husband lost his job and there were tuition and house rentals to pay.

   When a worker contracts a work-related illness, as shown in the annual medical exam, he or she would be relieved from work for up to three months. Because of this, Trinidad says, the workers end up spending their extra incomes on medical expenses and on their families’ sustenance during the entire time that the company tells them "to rest."

   Aside from the health hazards, there are also emotional pains that employees endure. Cortez recalls how she, as a new employee, was called to the "aquarium." The "aquarium" is a glass-walled office from where the company manager would watch the workers.

   "Palagi kang pagagalitan. Hihiyain ka sa harap ng maraming tao. Palakasan lang talaga ng sikmura at pakapalan ng mukha (They’d always scold you, embarrass you in front of many people. You’d have to have the guts and the face to survive this)," Trinidad explains.

   "Pero okey lang ’yun," Cortez shrugs off. "Maiiyak ka talaga, pero titiisin mo dahil kailangan mo ng pera. Minsan, kahit pagdating sa bahay, dala-dala mo pa rin yung sakit ng loob mo." (But that’s okay. It will reduce you to tears, but you have to take all these because you need the money. Sometimes, you go home still hurting.)

   Still, TIP’s legal counsel, Lozano Tan, insists that the company is not engaged in illegal labor practice, citing the fact that it pays more than the daily minimum wage prescribed by the government.

   But for the union members, there’s only one way for the Triumph management to change its mind on its detached and harsh policies. "If only they could live our lives for one day," Trinidad wishes, "then they’ll understand that we are humans and have needs, just like them." 

From the assembly line to the picket line

Eloisa Figueroa: “Life on the picket line is tough.”

GIVEN the difficulties on the assembly line, most employees of Triumph International Philippines (TIP) now think that the only way to improve their lot is to move to the picket line.

   "Wala rin palang mangyayari sa akin sa tinagal-tagal ko rito (As it turned out, my life has not improved despite my years of service here)," the 48-year-old Sotera Cortez mused as she joined more than 1,100 other union members who have been on strike since November 18.

   TIP’s regular employees, 88 per cent of them women, are not just protesting the company’s rejection of their demand for salary increase and additional benefits; they also resent the way it was rejected — with the arrogant excuse that workers should be thankful that they still have jobs when a lot of Filipinos don’t.

   The members of the Bagong Pagkakaisa ng mga Manggagawa sa Triumph International are asking for a P140 daily wage increase spread over three years, but the company insists it can give only P45. The rest of the demands being made by the union — a retirement plan, increment in hospitalization subsidies, and transportation and rice allowances — were reportedly not even considered.

   The management gave two reasons why it won’t give in to the workers’ demands. First, it said, the company simply cannot afford to shell out more. Second, Triumph workers are already one of the highest-paid in the garments industry.

   To refute the company’s first excuse, the union cited the recent launching of the "new millenium bra." Worth $1.9 million, the brassiere is decked with gold and diamonds. Only one piece is produced in every country where Triumph maintains a plant.

   The union, however, can hardly belie the management’s second excuse for not increasing the workers’ pay. A study conducted in 1996 by the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR) showed that, indeed, Triumph workers are not underpaid.

Work starts early at the picket line: women strikers prepare food for the day.

   From 1980 to 1995, TIP employees workers were receiving five to 88 per cent more than the daily minimum wage prescribed by the government. At present, a regular rank-and-file Triumph worker gets from P239 to P322.50 daily when the daily minimum wage in Metro Manila is only P223.50.

   But what gives union members reason to complain is the fact that the daily cost of living in Metro Manila is now pegged at P460, or way beyond what the longest-staying Triumph employees are getting.

   In addition, the employees get to receive bigger pay only if they endure the nine-hour daily work that puts their health at risk.

   While long-time employees have yet to see their lives improve, TIP has prospered at their expense.

   Triumph International Philippines, with a total workforce of 1,695, is a subsidiary of the Hongkong-based Triumph International. TIP, with its factory at the FTI Complex in Taguig, is a manufacturer of ladies’ undergarments for export and local markets. It is also a subcontractor of Marks & Spencer, Mast and Victoria’s Secret apparel.

Life goes on: Women strikers play bingo at night.

   Established in 1977 by a German national known to the union members only as Mr. Spieshofer, TIP has grown to capture the biggest share in the local underwear market, making it the 600th in the list of the top 1000 corporations in the country.

   Except for the period 1988 to 1991, the company registered a steady increase in gross revenue. According to the union, the company’s profits have been increasing at an average of 10 per cent every year.

   In 1993, TIP started distributing its products exclusively in the export market. This was made possible by its establishment of a sister company called Star Performance, which makes Triumph-branded underwear for the local market.

   According to a 1996 study by the Center for Women’s Resources, TIP benefited tremendously from such move. "Triumph saved a lot in production costs, as Star Performance uses cheap local raw materials," the study said.

   In addition, Star Performance hires only contractual employees and is therefore not obliged to give them the benefits that Triumph workers are getting.

   And that would be a different labor problem altogether.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.12.09