Work and life
“Labor is life,” the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle said. That is a beautiful — and one could even say romantic — perspective on work: the underlying assumption being that one’s work would provide, not only the material necessities for one’s survival, including the sustenance of one’s family, but also, more importantly, certain opportunities to develop, utilize, and get the best out of one’s own talents and capacities, and thereby create for oneself a life of dignity, freedom, flourishing and joy—that is, a life worth living.
Now, I am not sure if Carlyle’s “edifying” take on work and life will apply to Filipinos who belong to the working poor. According to the “Decent Work Country Diagnostics: Philippines 2017” published by the International Labor Organization and the Department of Labor and Employment, out of the 17.319 million wage and salary workers in the private sector, only “4.537 million or 26.2 percent were receiving above the minimum wage.” What about the other and larger 73.8 percent, or approximately 12.78 million workers? They are the ones who are receiving the minimum wages or below. Much, much below.
What is the worth of minimum wages now in the midst of the escalating prices of basic goods and services? And what about those who are earning even less than the minimum wages?
They are the working poor: who are lowly paid; who are mostly not receiving health, housing and social security benefits and other company incentives; who are usually in poor and hazardous environments; who were the victims of the Kentex fire in Valenzuela City and the HTI fire inside the Export Processing Zone in Rosario, Cavite; and who reside in impoverished and crime-infested communities.
They are among the voiceless, powerless and defenseless segments of our society. Their jobs offer no hope and no future. They have enriched and continue to enrich a few companies, families and individuals by working harder and longer while continuing to live in poverty and misery. They are being deprived of even the basic things required to live a decent life.
They are the working poor who, despite being employed, are struggling day to day just to survive: Isang kahig, isang tuka. As the prices of food, water, electricity, medicines, housing, education and transportation constantly increase, their meager wages fall short of meeting even their basic needs and of their families. They cannot afford to eat good and nutritious food, much less spend for preventive healthcare, like regular checkups, vaccinations, vitamins or supplements. Every day, they are exposed to pollution and other safety and health hazards due to their long and stressful commute using — as they do not have better options — our poor public transport systems.
They do not have savings for emergencies and are mostly indebted. They are vulnerable to shocks and uncertainties like sickness, sudden unemployment, or natural disasters. When they or their family members get sick, they have to borrow money from anyone who can afford and is willing to help them. Sickness is a curse to them and to their family members who have no extra money for medical payments. They are vulnerable to loan sharks and usurers in times of dire need. Most of them have no security of tenure in their workplace, which prevents them from exercising their rights to organize and collectively bargain for higher pay, better benefits and good working conditions. They are being prevented to engage in productivity sharing and to have a decent life.
“Labor is life”? What kind of life do our working poor really have? What they have is oppression, exploitation and modern slavery. And that is not life. It is death.
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Vicente C. Camilon Jr. is assistant general secretary and spokesperson of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines.
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