The Pandemic and the (Non)Working Filipina

Women account for 39 percent of employment worldwide but constitute 54 percent of job losses during the pandemic (as McKinsey and Company reports). In the US, this phenomenon has been termed she-cession.

The same thing is arguably happening in the Philippines. As of October 2020, The Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) for women was 27 percent lower than it was for men.  What these figures do not get at, however, is how difficult it might be for most working Filipinas to identify which of the two—being laid off or keeping the exploitative job—is worse these days.

On International Labor Day, in the sweltering heat of Manila, I sat down with four Filipina workers to talk about their previous working conditions, struggles at finding new jobs amid the pandemic, and their respective ways of coping. They are members of Kilusan ng Manggagawang Kababaihan (Women Workers’ Movement), a labor organization pushing for women workers’ rights in the Philippines. All of them work in the city of Valenzuela, the country’s top manufacturing hub and, in 2015, the site of the worst factory fire in Philippine history. Had cops from the Manila Police District not blocked Liwasang Bonifacio, the original location of demonstrations, there would have been plenty of shade for us to sit under and talk. But because of the cops, the five of us had to make do with the gutter.

Emily, 20

Emily used to work in a plastic factory. From 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., she would sit with her co-workers and separate rubber from plastic. She usually took home around $3.50. Emily describes the working area as extremely hot and dusty, with plastic particles clinging to the workers’ clothes and even to their faces. Despite this direct exposure to harmful amounts of plastic, they were not provided any sort of protective gears.

A second-year college student, Emily works to support her studies, especially now that classes have migrated online. She mostly spends her wages on paying for load (prepaid phone credit) in order to join virtual classes and download PDF readings, which eat up a lot of data. Before she knows it, Emily has to load her phone again, except on occasions when she goes to her cousin’s just to connect to the internet.

Emily was laid off recently and the small amount she has left is running out.

Eloisa, 25

A mother to an eight-year-old, Eloisa also used to work in the plastic factory. She usually took home $4.40 per day for having “a faster set of hands,” which in turn got covered with blisters. Her husband is still working, but since his wage is at the provincial rate, even when it was combined with Eloisa’s it could barely keep them afloat.

Unlike last year, Eloisa and her husband didn’t receive any monetary support from the government when it re-imposed Enhanced Community Quarantine, the strictest form of quarantine in the country, on Metro Manila and its neighboring provinces in late March.

Pia, 33

Pia worked in the same factory and usually took home $4.00 per day. She also used to work in a detergent factory owned by Pepmaco Manufacturing Corporation which, along with other corporations, has been known to be abusive to its workers. Pia recalls her direct exposure to harmful surfactant chemicals and, even in those circumstances, not being provided with protective gear. If they ask for gear, workers are given just one face mask per day, so they have to make do with handkerchiefs wrapped around their noses and mouths. Pia’s primary job was to keep the machines from overflowing with detergent. With her bare hands, she had to take away excess detergent, which she described as being as “hot as newly cooked rice.” She said that Pepmaco doesn’t provide the workers gloves as these would contaminate the detergent. This job also left Pia’s hands blistered and scalded.

Unlike other people she knows, Pia received only $40 from the government this year. When she inquired why, the agent explained that she and her mother could receive only $20 each as per Special Amelioration Program (SAP) guidelines.

As a labor leader, Pia currently helps organize the organization’s community pantry in Valenzuela.

Daliza, 51

A single mother of three, Nanay Daliza used to work as a household helper earning $4.00 per day. She was laid off in August 2020 but recently found work as a charcoal chopper earning about $5.00 per day. Nanay Daliza says she always worries about what to put on the table. Meat and vegetables are getting expensive, so her family mostly settles on dried fish. Nanay Daliza’s eldest is already working, but her wages are just enough to pay their credit at the nearby sari-sari store.

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Other than Nanay Daliza, the rest of the women are still looking for new jobs. They would have found jobs much sooner if not for the high cost of completing requirements, including a swab test amounting to at least $60, way more than their wages could afford.

They were quite timid when asked about how they exercise creativity despite the current crisis. Emily said she reads and writes stories. Pia and Nanay Daliza both reported growing vegetables. For Pia, gardening eases the budget whenever a plant gets sold online. Eloisa likes to sing on videoke, but since they she and her husband currently don’t have electricity at home, she still has to go to her mother’s for this simple joy.

Filipinos are known for exhibiting great creativity in the face of adversity, but it can be difficult to do on an empty stomach. Globally, 70 percent of women’s employment is in informal work, and this sort of work is the first to disappear during phenomena like the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippines’ lockdowns have been and the number of unemployed Filipinos climbed to 4.5 million in January 2021. Considering that women make up 46% of the Philippine workforce, it is only fitting to call the Duterte government’s pandemic response gender-blind.

On our way back to the International Labor Day demonstration, Pia briefly talked about the pantry that she helps run for the Women Workers’ Movement. Held in different locations, the pantry usually operates on Sundays through the efforts of volunteer workers.

Community pantries sprouted across the Philippines (and even reached East Timor) as a response to the widespread hunger that the extended lockdowns caused among millions of Filipinos. The first pantry appeared at Maginhawa, Quezon City in April and was started by activist Ana Patricia Non. In setting up a simple bamboo cart filled with goods, which operates on the philosophy, “Give what you can, take what you need,” Non renewed the Filipino Bayanihan spirit and inspired people to organize their own pantries as well. There have reportedly been 400 pantries, and the pantries have helped farmers distribute their produce at a reasonable price. This took the government by surprise; cops were quick to profile the organizers out of fear of a communist insurgency.

But why wouldn’t people organize themselves when there is nothing left to eat? In 2020, a government subsidy of $112 per family for 17.6 million households only arrived in May, more than a hundred days after the lockdown began. Only 251,776 out of 568,026 individuals received a social amelioration of $135 from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Of 3.4 million formal and informal workers, only 1.97 million received aid of $104 from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). Workers who lost their jobs are reportedly being served electricity and water disconnection notices and getting evicted from their rented houses while those who have gotten to keep their jobs are losing almost a third of their wages just to get to and from work. Community pantries like that of Women Workers give them some reprieve. Importantly, the pantries become spaces for solidarity.

Noon was approaching and the heat was becoming unbearable, but this did not deter Emily, Eloisa, Pia, and Nanay Daliza from joining the call to lower prices and raise wages, end contractualization, and raise the national minimum wage to $15 across the board. A few more steps and we were right on time for the singing of the Internationale.

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Roma Estrada

Roma Estrada has taught for ten years in different high schools and universities. Currently maintaining a monthly opinion column for Davao Today, she also does volunteer work in different art and cultural organizations. Her works are archived at romaestrada.wordpress.com. Reach her at romaestrada@protonmail.com.