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Jerson Ballena loses his job. You get a cheap laptop. Welcome to globalization, Philippines style.

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When I met him last summer, Jerson Ballena was thirty years old, a father of two, and worked on an assembly line in the Philippines for the Korean-owned company Daeduck Electronics. He was making Printed Circuit Boards for cars and other electronics. Jerson was also the treasurer of the Daeduck Employees Independent Union.  This got him in some trouble.

He told me that Daeduck management had recently written a memo, first suspending him for three days, then reinstating him, only to put him in an isolation room to spend the length of his working days. No one gave Jerson an explanation for the punishment, but, either way, he couldn’t afford to quit.

“They’re making me paranoid because for more than eight hours, every day, I sit in one chair, looking at the fluorescent lamp, counting insects… Sometimes I talk to myself.” He wondered what he had done wrong to the company for which he had worked for more than seven years and why management had refused to respond to his requests asking for a formal job description of his new “position”. I later learned that Jerson had been dismissed after two months in the isolation room, along with nine other union officers.

I met Jerson at the Workers Assistance Centre (WAC). WAC has helped create workers’ organizations in the Cavite Export Processing Zone (EPZ) – where Daeduck operates – since 1995, training organizers, providing labour education, and advocating on behalf of workers’ rights.

The Cavite EPZ is located in Rosario, just 30 kilometres south of the capital, Manila. It was established in 1986, near the end of dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s reign, to promote economic development and bring in foreign direct investment and jobs. Now, four or five hundred such zones exist throughout the Philippines, playing host to nearly 2,000 companies.

Though many of the Philippine EPZ-based companies – from electronics and textiles to call centres and processed foods – are Western (with garment factories producing brands like Gap, Ralph Lauren, Mossimo, American Eagle, and Ann Taylor), they are frequently subcontracted by factory managers from South Korea, Japan, and China. Subcontracting allows big brands to keep a low profile.  In Cavite, there are no logos on the factory walls. Workers don’t work directly for, say, Gap. Instead, they make Gap clothes for the Chinese company subcontracted by Gap.

Subcontractors and multi-national corporations take advantage of several incentives offered by the economic zoning laws in the Philippines; for the first five years of operation, companies are exempt from corporate, export, and import taxes. Their payoff is so high that some simply opt to shut down production after five years and reopen under a new name.

Yet perhaps the chief motivation for foreign investors remains the availability of large, cheap, and exploitable pools of labour. According to the CIA World Factbook, nearly 33 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line in the Philippines. The International Labour Organization reports that more than 15 million, or 42 per cent, of the employed are susceptible to vulnerable employment. Though 11 per cent of the total population has sought work abroad, there are still plenty of people desperate for steady work. So they flood in to places like Cavite. Of the more than 80,000 factory workers in Cavite, roughly 80 per cent are migrants, many of whom come from rural areas in the countries’ poorest provinces.

Jerson is one of these migrants. He comes from Marinduque, a heart-shaped island. The son of farmers, he left in 1999 to look for a better job to support his family and send money back home. Arriving first in Manila, he and his wife eventually found work in the zone and settled with their children in Cavite. While both now earn an income, it is still difficult to make ends meet. Sometimes Jerson cannot buy food for his family because his wife needs to buy milk for their baby first.

Although the zone is subject to Philippine labour law, the constant influx of job seekers allows managers to dispose of workers with impunity. Most workers in the EPZ earn a minimum wage of 315 pesos (7.30 CAD) per day. This isn’t enough to cover the cost of living for a family of five, which WAC estimates to be 900 pesos (20.85 CAD) per day. What’s more, as workers are also commonly hired by recruitment and temp agencies as contractual employees, some are paid below minimum wage, with and given few or no benefits.

Furthermore, workers are overworked and chronically fatigued by an average 12-hour workday, and the number of work-related accidents and deaths in the zone is on the rise. In July 2011, 26-year-old Mark Anthony Doctolero died after working for more than 24 consecutive hours in a Taiwanese-owned steel factory in the Cavite EPZ, according to a WAC report.

The disregard of safety rules and labour regulations places an extra burden on female factory workers, who make up over 60 per cent of the workforce, especially if they are sick or have children to care for.  Pregnant women, for example, often work night shifts and are, at times, exposed to toxins that are potentially harmful to both mother and child.

Most workers live in squalor. The boarding houses in and around the zones are cramped, lack privacy, have poor sanitation, and have inadequate lighting and water systems. One neighbourhood where many of the zone workers live is affectionately named Dreamland. It is located on a garbage dump. People live there because of high rent in boarding houses elsewhere, and forced demolitions of residential areas as the Cavite zone expands.

Edwina Fabricante, 34, has six children and lives in St. Rose Village, colloquially known as Exodus. Like many in Exodus, her husband lost his job at the EPZ. He was later hired as a construction worker to build the zone expansion that would eventually demolish their home and force their family to relocate.

Often, employment is just as tenuous in the EPZ. To quell any potential resistance, companies harass, police, and threaten workers, preventing them from joining unions or protesting through an unwritten “no union, no strike” policy. Managers at EPZ companies often employ union-busting techniques like firing union members, as in Jerson’s case. They have also been known to intimidate workers by posting heavily armed security at picket lines. The threat of violence is real: three union leaders have been killed in Cavite, one as recently as March of last year, and the chairman of WAC, 69 year-old Bishop Alberto Ramento, was found stabbed to death in his church in 2006. Prior to the killing, his name had appeared on a military “Order of Battle” hit list.

Despite this reality and the knowledge of increased surveillance and monitoring of union activity, Jerson and his union continue to organize. They’re planning to launch a strike any day now. They are demanding both the reinstatement of the nine union officers the company fired, as well as one month’s pay for each officer laid off. More fundamentally, they will be striking for the right to form an independent union.

As employees’ jobs are at stake, striking can be dangerous, especially with the knowledge that others are waiting to take their jobs, making employees hesitant to support or join the union.

Although in existence since 2003, the union at Daeduck only became independent last year. Until then, it had been part of the toothless federation of trade unions established and supported by Daeduck company management. Formally disaffiliating from the federation has brought on a host of legal battles against the union officers. The federation argues that independent registration constitutes the formation of a “new” union, conflicts with their Collective Bargaining Agreement as former federation unionists, and  is therefore grounds for dismissal. Yet as Romeo Elcano, president of the Daeduck Employees Union, explains, Article 234-A of the Philippine Labor Code gives affiliate unions the right to disaffiliate from the mother union.

Unfortunately, siding with the federation and management, the local labour board is reluctant to bring the unionists’ case to a higher court or address their grievances. The union has already held a few actions and picketed, but guards still refuse them access to the zone and other Daeduck employees.

Since his unlawful termination in October, Jerson hasn’t been able to work or receive pay. Finding another job within the zone is tough given his history as a union officer. His lack of income makes it difficult to pay rent, electric bills, or seek treatment for  his child’s health problems.

The cost of living continues to rise. The salaries, benefits, and treatment of Daeduck and other factory workers remains the same. When we spoke, Jerson asked, “If we don’t unite the workers, if we don’t have a union, what will happen to us? Who else will protect us?”