Philippines: a microcosm of the class struggle world wide in MEPZA

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailWe are publishing below extracts of an account sent to us by the comrades of the Internasyonalismo group of workers' movements that have taken place over the last few years in the MEPZA[1] industrial zone. Although only a few hundred workers were involved in the events described here, they reveal in microcosm the problems confronting not only the 40,000 workers in MEPZA but by millions of workers world wide, from the maqiladora on the US-Mexican frontier to the factories in China's "special economic zones".

"Company A is a Japanese-owned manufacturing company operating inside MEPZA. At present, it has more than 1,000 workforce the majority of whom are women.

In 2004 the Company, which was then operating under a different name, informed its workers, at first through individual memo, that the Company was already under a new owner and consequently, it will change its name to ‘Company A'.

The workers were then told to submit their individual resignation letter effective immediately and that they would be paid off their last salaries and benefits. But the Company assured them that they would be automatically absorbed and continue their jobs as newly hired workers under ‘Company A' (which means that their length of service will start from zero).

A group of workers questioned the scheme implemented by the Company. On the one hand, the group contended that the scheme is just a mere changing of Company's name and should not automatically cut-off their length of service and to start again from zero because the Company, still under the same Management, was not able to show them any proof, written or otherwise, of buy-out and or changed ownership.

On the other hand, the group also reasoned out that granting there was really a buy-out and ‘Company A' was a new Company, the Labor Code of the Philippine State explicitly requires the old Company to pay the length of service of the affected workers (which is one month salary per year of service) upon termination of their services prior to their transfer or absorption by the new Company.

Some of the workers were in touch with the Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party), which advised them to organize a union in the company with a view to engaging negotiations with management on the basis of the Philippines Labor Code.

When a general meeting of employees was called by the Company, members of the group argued openly against the "buy-out-automatic absorption" scheme which prompted the Management of the Company, after the said meeting, to call individually those members of the group who have spoken for a closed door meeting and were separately asked if they have formed an organization or a union which was flatly denied by said members. Sensing potential opposition, the Company fast-tracked the implementation of the said scheme and it has succeeded. 

Generally the workers reacted to the scheme introduced by the Company but because of the "automatic absorption", they were reluctant to struggle because it was not yet the end of their jobs after all. Also generally the MEPZA workers have negative sentiments with regards to unions and unionism in general not only because attempts in the past by labor federations to organize unions inside MEPZA were unsuccessful, but because unionism in general was useless  in the defense of workers' jobs especially at present with the contractualization scheme introduced by the capitalists in order to survive its crisis.

Some of the workers from the original group resigned from the Company while others remain in their jobs to this day.

Early in 2007, rumors of a plan by the ‘Company A' management to change the Company's name again circulated among its workers. The remaining members of the group described a generalized feeling against this plan among their co-workers and a willingness to stage a strike.

‘Company A' Management denied that there was any plan to change the Company's name and claimed that this was only a rumor created by the Mass Media. With the Company's denial the combative sentiments of the workers have fizzled out for the time being.

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‘Company B' is a family corporation owned by Cebu-based capitalists engaged in food processing with Visayas and Mindanao Islands as its market. It has a present workforce of more or less 80 regular workers and more than 200 contractual workers.

In 2004 the Company reduced the working days of its regular workers particularly in the Canning Department (about 60 of them) from six days to three days a week. The reason according to the Company was that the volume of their import of beef from Australia was reduced by the Philippine State because the Company did not meet the manufacturing standard set by the State. The Company, though, assured the affected workers that the scheme was temporary as they were working out their deficiency to recover the normal volume of imported beef.

This assurance proved to be a hollow relief to the affected workers. It was already hard for them to make do with their six days salary and still more so with three days! To compensate for the three days that they were out of the production, the Company offered to reassign them in the construction of additional buildings within the Company premises. From three days working inside the air-conditioned Canning Department they spent the remaining three days laboring outside under the scorching heat of the sun! And worst, after three days in the department, and there were still available raw materials (beef), they still continued working outside and the contractual workers took over the remaining three days in the department. And this so-called temporary arrangement lasted for over a year.

Sensing that a return to their six days work in the Canning Department was nowhere in sight due to the continued hiring of contractual workers, eight of the affected workers decided, in this same year, to file a labor case in the NLRC[2] but after the time-consuming legal processes, and a year of waiting, they were informed not by the NLRC but by the Company that the case was dismissed.

In 2005 the regular workers who had filed the NLRC case decided to try to form a Union.

After hurdling the legal processes of organizing, the minority workers from the canning department, who formed the Union, was able to convince other regular workers and garnered a majority votes among the regular workforce of the Company during the Certification Election.

The Union then entered into a round of bargaining with the Company for an agreement with regards to wages and benefits that lasted for a year and finally concluded a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Company last May 2007.

With the CBA existing and initially implemented, the Company then revised its Company Rules and Regulations (CRR) and putting in place provisions for strict penalties for violations committed by the workers and simplified the Company's lay-off procedures.

At the first wave of the implementation of the CRR, some members and an elected Union officer were suspended and one delegate was sacked. When the officers complained, they were told by the Company to channel their complaint to the grievance hearings as part of the provisions of their CBA. Grudgingly, the Union officers submitted their complaint to the long-drawn grievance process while the affected workers, especially the sacked official, had to scavenging for any jobs they could get to feed themselves and their families."

Those workers who had joined the union expressed a good deal of skepticism that this would lead to anything, and especially not the reinstatement of the sacked worker. Feeling that if they did nothing but wait tamely for "due legal process" they would merely invite further lay-offs and repression, they began to put pressure on the union to call a strike. The union, however, was reluctant to act: "Firstly, the Union was bound to the CBA and to the Labor Code of the Philippine State and basing on the latter, the issue of the sacked officer was inadequate grounds for a strike and staging it would be illegal.

Secondly, even if the union will decide to go beyond the bounds of the CBA and the Law in staging the strike, still, it will contend with the numbers for it to be effective. Union membership was only 40 regular workers and being a in Union itself has an isolating effect from non-union workers. Non-unionized regular workers (about 40 of them) said that the issue at hand was only the concern of the unionized workers while the contractual workers (more than 200) contended that it was only for the unionized and regular workers. These divided sentiments have been maintained and reinforced by the Company in the formulation and implementation of its policies towards the workers".

Conclusion

What lessons can we draw from these events?

First of all we must say that the class instinct of the most militant workers was absolutely correct. Against intimidation and victimization of individual workers (especially those singled out as leaders and "trouble-makers") by the bosses, there is only one protection: a collective reaction of solidarity. This collective reaction does not happen by spontaneous combustion, it is a conscious effort, a real expression of class consciousness: this was understood by the ‘Company A' workers who organized several discussion meetings with their colleagues before confronting the management.

Why then was the formation of a union branch such a failure?

One thing comes through clearly from this account: no matter how honest and combative its individual militants (such as the laid off worker at ‘Company B'), it is the very purpose of the union that renders it not only useless but downright damaging to the workers' interests. The union orientation, as we can see from this account, is one of negotiation within the legal framework of the capitalist state by relying on the state's own labor laws. In other words, the workers are supposed to rely on the legal protection offered by the bosses' state... against the bosses. This comes down to fighting with one hand tied behind your back, since when they find the law inconvenient the bosses simply rewrite it - whether on a small scale in the ‘Company B' factory where new rules and regulations immediately reduced to nothing any advantages the workers thought they might have gained from the CBA; or on a larger scale, by changing the law as the Thatcher government did in Britain when it outlawed sympathy strikes.

As the Internasyonalismo comrades point out, not only were union legal tactics shown to be useless in defending workers' conditions, the union itself was worse than useless: far from uniting the workers it introduced a new division among them. At the ‘Company B' factory, not only were the workers now divided between contractual and regular workers, the regular workers themselves were now divided between unionized and non-unionized. At the back of this division lies a long-standing distrust for the unions among Filipino workers, a distrust grounded in the fact that the unions (generally tied to one or other of the leftist political parties) simply use their members as cannon-fodder in their own struggles for influence within the bourgeois political system. This situation dates back at the very least to the end of World War II, when rival unions were formed to dragoon workers into support for this or that imperialist camp (pro-Chinese, pro-USSR, or pro-US).

How are we to confront this situation? How can the workers build up their collective strength in order to defend themselves against the capitalist class?

We have to be clear that there is no such thing as a "Left Communist tactic" which works, against a "Trade Union tactic" which does not. The question is not one of tactics but of politics. Union politics means tying the workers to the legal framework of the bourgeois state, communist politics means encouraging everything that can develop the workers' confidence in themselves, their sense of solidarity as members of one class, with the same interests, and their ability to organize themselves in struggle.

The context of the events in MEPZA is not untypical. On the contrary, the tendency towards precarious working, towards dividing workers between regular and contractual, to splitting up large companies into smaller work teams or outsourcing work to a multitude of small contractors - all this is an integral part of capitalism today, and it serves capitalism both from the narrow economic and political perspective and from the broader political perspective of its struggle against the working class.

Consequently, the first struggle the workers have to wage is against atomization, against division, for the integration of as many workers as possible into the fight. This is above all a political struggle, since it means developing our understanding of the general political and economic context within which the fight takes place as well as the organizational methods with which it must be waged; it means learning the lesson from other workers' struggles around the world as to how to organize, how to judge the balance of class forces, how to avoid the bourgeoisie's provocations when these can only lead to defeat, how to extend the struggle as widely as possible when it is undertaken.

How are the workers to make this judgment for themselves? This can only be done if the workers are able to act collectively: if they can meet together, debate together, and determine their action together. It is necessary for all the workers together to hold general assemblies where decisions can be taken. The decision may not always be to start or to continue the struggle, it may be that the workers consider that the time is not ripe or that they do not have sufficient strength - but the very fact of making these decisions together as a collective body will strengthen their class consciousness and their confidence in themselves. Clearly, in conditions of repression like in the Philippines, organizing the assembly will not be an easy matter - but we can rely on the ingenuity of the workers to consider how it can be done.

The working class is the first in history to be both an exploited class and a revolutionary class. Because it owns nothing, its only strength in this society is its consciousness and its organization.

Revolutionaries cannot make the class struggle happen by sheer willpower: if the workers themselves are not ready to struggle, then they cannot be forced to do so. You cannot replace the workers' will to struggle with artificial campaigns, on the contrary these can only divide the revolutionaries from the workers and the workers among themselves. But if revolutionaries cannot "create" the class struggle, we can and must prepare for the massive struggles to come. We can and must help to prepare the conditions for the struggle to be as powerful and as self-aware as possible when it does break out.

It is to answer this necessity of the class struggle that the ICC has always encouraged, pushed for, and taken part in where possible, the formation of workers' discussion groups and struggle committees bringing together workers from different workplaces and different companies. Such groups are not permanent organizations - they come and go depending on the needs of the struggle. But they can provide a means for the most combative workers to overcome their isolation, develop their reflection, and their understanding of the situation confronting them. They are a means of preparing for the mass struggle to come.

ICC, 15/10/2007



[1] MEPZA - Mactan Export Processing Zone. Comprising of hundreds of companies mostly foreign-own and for export. MEPZA has an estimated total workforce of more than 40,000. Given the political conditions in the Philippines, we have not revealed the names of the companies at which the events described here took place.

[2] NLRC - National Labor Relations Commission

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