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Thursday, 23 March 2000
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Filipino workers as ‘subcontractuals’:

Overworked, underpaid, unprotected
Gina Mission
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Sunday, beautiful Sunday. A day when people would want to go out and do physical exercises in the park, or perhaps just stay home and curl up in bed a little longer. Not Vivian Aldamar, 27 and a mother of one. All through the weekdays, she did her household chores and took care of her family. Sunday was her day off from household work. But it was no day-off at all. She spent the day working on her high-speed sewing machine, making shirts ordered by a small garment factory in her neighborhood.

.....That was more than a year ago. These days, Vivian’s Sundays are free. She can now enjoy an outdoor walk or a picnic with her child and her husband, but she can’t look forward to getting some hard-earned cash at the end of day.

.....Vivian is—or rather, was—a subcontractual sewer for a garment factory, itself a contractor for a bigger firm. The factory, located in Bagong Barrio, Kalookan City, does not order from her anymore. She was told that the management had found a "big supplier"--a new factory elsewhere in the community.

.....She suspects that this "new factory" doesn’t really exist. "Tingin ko nasulot lang ako ng ibang mananahi, eh (I think another home-based sewer got my orders for a lower price)," she said.

.....Vivian’s case is not uncommon. A research project on subcontracted work shows that home workers like her are at the bottom of the subcontracting ladder in garments, handicraft and other industries. In most cases, they are given a raw deal. They are poorly paid, and their already low pay keeps shrinking with each job order. And they are not sure if they’ll have any work to do next time.

No employer-employee relations

.....Subcontracted workers are part of the reserved labor force not covered by employer-employee relations and are therefore deprived of benefits like security of tenure, maternity and sick leaves, medical and death benefits, and social security. Many, if not most, of these "subcontractuals" are women because the arrangement allows them to work at home, or near their family. Because of their job sites, they are usually referred to as home workers.

.....Last year, an Asian regional research project covering the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan looked at the connections between the global economy and subcontracted work-- from a gender perspective.

.....The Philippine segment of the study was undertaken from October 1998 to August 1999 with the cooperation of the Pambansang Tagapag-ugnay ng mga Manggagawa sa Bahay (Patamaba), an alliance of home workers, and of academics from the University of the Philippines School of Economics and College of Social Work and Community Development.

.....Patamaba was founded in 1991 with the assistance of the International Labor Organization "to strengthen, consolidate and expand the national network of home workers, and provide support services for their welfare, their social protection, productivity enhancement and sustainability of their initiatives and projects." It has chapters in the three major island groups of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. It is engaged in a variety of programs and activities, such as organizing, networking, and advocacy, capability-building through education and training, as well as socioeconomic assistance.

.....The study, Subcontracted Women Workers in a Global Economy: The Philippine Case, aimed not only to shed light on the conditions of subcontracted workers but also to find ways to improve their lives, noting that they are "greatly affected by the effects of globalization and the Asian crisis." It was funded by the Asia Foundation.

Five communities studied

.....It covered five sites: an embroidery community in Malibong Bata, Pandi, Bulacan; a smocking community in San Vicente, Angono, Rizal; a poor community with garments subcontractors in Balingasa, Caloocan City, Metro Manila; a bag-making community in Taal, Malolos, Bulacan; and a papier-mache-making community in Sto. Angel, Sta. Cruz, Laguna.

.....In the first four communities, different facets of the garments industry can be found. The last community provides a glimpse of a sector producing gifts, toys, and houseware (GTH) industry.

.....A home-based worker, defined for purposes of the study, is usually one of a family of six to eight members. He or she does not receive the equivalent of a daily minimum wage rate for the same number of work hours, or any form of employee benefits and protection.

.....In a family engaged in the business, the women do more of the subcontracted labor and more of the housework as well. Daughters are the primary help for the adult women workers in both tasks.

.....When earnings run low and families need to reduce expenses, the budget for food is cut first, then clothes, the study showed. Costs that are usually not cut include those for alcohol and cigarettes, items generally considered to be purchased by men. Women try to cope with the situation by borrowing money or taking on second jobs. Lack of capital is the biggest obstacle to starting new businesses or sustaining existing ones. Because of this, the respondents prefer assistance in promoting alternative livelihood opportunities rather than efforts to protect their rights.

.....Respondents in all five communities admitted experiencing problems, such as a decrease in or loss of job orders (as in Vivian’s case), a decline in piece rates and, consequently, a lower income. Their hardship is compounded by a continuing rise in commodity prices and the cost of living.

Fickle winds of global economy

.....The conditions of home workers are invariably influenced by the changing nature of the country’s globalizing economy, the study observed. Trade liberalization policies, for example, have resulted in more exports for the Philippines and other states, and, on the other hand, more and cheaper imports from other countries.

....."The result is increased competition within the Philippines (among producers of the same goods) as well as from other countries (as in the case of Philippine-made garments, bags and shoes, which are losing in the domestic market because of the influx of cheap imports)," the study said.

.....It noted that some Philippine-based exporters are losing in the global market mainly because exports such as those from China, India, Bangladesh and Thailand are cheaper owing due to the relatively lower wages received by workers in these countries.

.....Several other factors contribute to the high cost of production in the Philippines. These include bad infrastructure and high cost of power and other utilities.

.....All these ultimately affect home workers through the loss of job orders or an increasingly low pay for piece jobs

Can something be done?

.....The study recommended the carrying out of needs-oriented programs in support of subcontracted workers. These workers should be given more opportunities for productive activities to maintain their home and families. Also suggested are community activities that provide social services, improve environmental conditions and secure their habitat and livelihood.

.....At the same, the study called for the re-education of male members of the industry "to relieve the burdens of women and give them opportunities for personal development, better-quality jobs and community leadership."

.....Most importantly, seminars and training should be given to subcontracted workers to make them aware of their rights and what they can do, as individuals and as a group, to improve their plight.