Labor Day in a pandemic
Since it was first observed in 1886, Labor Day, celebrated around the world on May 1, has been marked as a Day of Protest, of workers’ solidarity, and by clashes between the laboring class and the authorities.
But this year, for workers everywhere, Labor Day is being marked as an occasion of uncertainty, of fear, of loss, and of grief. In the Philippines and as with many other countries in the world including wealthier ones, workers are grieving the loss of jobs due to the wide lockdowns caused by the pandemic. If they still managed to hold on to their employment, workers have had to cope with reduced wages due to staggered workdays and shortened hours. For every “work-from-home” employee spending hours before a computer screen, there is a worker laid off from gainful employment and seeking any means of livelihood possible. For every displaced employee pivoting to entrepreneurship or home-based businesses, there are families that have had to resort to joining the long queues at the community pantries for free food. Or else borrowing from relatives, neighbors, and usurious lenders to bridge the gap between their earnings and needs.
No wonder the spirit of protest among the ranks of labor seems a tad subdued these days. It is hard to work up the requisite vim and dauntlessness when one is starving, haunted by worry and uncertain about the future. And when some workers do manage to express their ire, like some jeepney drivers angry at their loss of livelihood and the lack of social support who gathered in a small protest last year, they are immediately arrested, hauled off to jail, and kept there for longer than was just or legal.
Still, the working class labors on. For families, especially seniors and children forced to stay locked down in their homes, workers who brave health restrictions to carry on their livelihoods have become a literal lifeline. First, of course, are our health care workers, who for more than a year now have been putting their lives on the line by serving the gravely ill and dying. Many of them have in fact paid the ultimate sacrifice, in the face of the failures of government and hospital administrators to pay them just wages or allowances, on time, and with the necessary equipment and arrangements to ensure their health and safety.
Humbler workers also serve as a precious lifeline: Security guards, sanitation personnel, sales people, cooks and servers, delivery drivers, even volunteers at the numerous community pantries besieged by long lines of those in need.
There’s also a timely reminder from Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, who urged government in this time of crisis to “regularize” casual workers employed by the State, some of whom have served for decades without any form of job security. These folks, he said, continue to “languish in the bureaucracy’s version of purgatory.”
Sharing the hard straits experienced by “endo” workers in government are other “endo” workers who, as a report in this paper points out, found jobs through manpower agencies. These contractual workers now find themselves not just subject to seasonal uncertainties but also unqualified for emergency support from government. Largely unmentioned these days is the Duterte administration’s abandonment of its vow to end “endo” once and for all.
But while COVID-19 has been devastating to workers all over the world, “it has been even more calamitous for women,” according to a business report in this paper based on a global study by JP Morgan. “More women than men suffered dislocations and joblessness as a result of the pandemic,” and women have suffered the “disproportionate effects” of the economic crisis due in part to the nature of their jobs and “greater responsibility for child care.” Per the study, women are “overrepresented in those sectors worst affected by the pandemic, as well as in part-time/irregular work arrangements”; among these sectors are service industries, retail, tourism, and hospitality “that require face-to-face interactions.”
The gender gap also means a pay gap, as women reduced work hours to meet childcare demands. In addition, “women remain at a significant disadvantage to men in accessing capital, credit, financial services and property ownership.”
Indeed, there seems little reason to celebrate Labor Day these days. Instead, what workers need are more concrete forms of aid and incentives to see them through the dark days of the pandemic. Even if the country manages to attain herd immunity against COVID-19, a development seen by experts as a long way off, the economic shocks felt today are expected to continue long after the nation gets back to a “new normal.” This is on top of the institutional and systemic inequalities that have long bedeviled the labor class before the pandemic barreled in and made everything worse.
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