Belaboring the point

In most countries worldwide, workers mark International Workers’ Day on 1 May through activities commemorating their struggles in upholding their rights. Workers have been recognized as one of four pillars that hold up a nation’s economic development and growth, hand in hand with capital, its natural resources, and technological know-how. Yet, more often than not — especially in developing countries — they appear to be among the most neglected.

In the Philippines, this legal working holiday called Araw ng mga Manggagawa (Labor Day) is usually marked during various events, ranging from awaiting the President’s announcement of new benefits from Malacañang or before a large crowd at Luneta Park or listening to a litany of complaints of unfulfilled promises and even more uncertain futures at rallies or protests from progressive trade unions and their supporters.

The past two years, however, drastically changed the Labor Day celebration due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The streets were empty of protests for the first time, and there were no significant announcements on labor demands because of the projected bleak economic scenario ahead.

The bulk of the workers’ grievances have been age-old issues that have yet to be resolved:  poor working conditions at the workplace, low wages, long hours, and most recently, problems concerning child labor, illegal termination, abduction, killing and Red-tagging of union organizers and their members.

Not a few have also noticed that for the first time in the country’s history, the President will not be around for the only day devoted to one of the economy’s prime drivers — its valuable human resources. This year, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will meet with US President Joe Biden at the White House on 1 May.

Have Filipino workers come a long way since the first official May Day celebration in the country took place on 1 May 1913, when 36 unions convened, after a congress, on the hot, dusty streets of Azcarraga — now known as Claro M. Recto Street in Manila?

The first acknowledgment of May 1 as a commemoration of Labor Day, however, happened on 1 May 1903, when 100,000 workers of the Union Obrera Democratica de Filipinas, the country’s first labor organization, took to the streets of Tondo and made their way to Malacañang as a protest not only against low wages and exploitative conditions but also to express their dissatisfaction with the new colonizers and their restrictive policies. The event was heralded as one of the first mass action protests in the Philippines.

Much earlier, socialists, trade unionists and communists established the tradition of marking 1 as International Workers’ Day in the late 19th century. The first 1 May celebration was held in Europe in 1890, a year after an international congress of socialists met in Paris and approved the date.

To calm down rising dissatisfaction with the slow gains made in favor of the labor sector, the government said it would not offer new wage increases but instead hand out a package of benefits.

Labor Undersecretary Benjo Benavidez said the Department of Labor and Employment would give P1.8 billion in financial aid, including emergency jobs and livelihood assistance to disadvantaged and displaced workers nationwide.

Job fairs were also set up from 30 April to 1 May 1 in 36 venues nationwide, with around 60,000 local and overseas jobs offered to qualified applicants by local and overseas employers.

Despite the come-ons, reality bites.

There has been upward pressure in the workplace amid the growing disparities in wealth, income and job incentives. Many Filipino workers still do not enjoy the benefits given to their counterparts elsewhere, more than a century after the first 1 May celebration which promised emancipation and a better future for the toiling laborers in fields, factories, households and sweatshops.

Basic rights supposedly assured by the law, like regular hours, tolerable workplaces, 13th-month pay, and equal opportunities, are denied to many. And Filipino workers remain among the lowest-paid in the world.

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