An unfortunate reality (1)
I used to wake up at 6 a.m. at the latest, rushing through a shower and a power-walk to make it to work by 6:30 a.m. I then worked through the rest of the day. I had lunch when I was able, often in the late afternoon. On non-duty days, we ended with a hand-off at 10 p.m., or even later; sometimes we went home at 2 a.m. the next day. Then the next day, on my duty day proper, I would still go to work in the morning, but wouldn’t go home at night, and by the end I would have been awake, working and on duty for 40 hours or more. Then the three-day cycle would repeat. In other programs, some trainees didn’t go home at all but practically lived in the hospital.
With time, my hours adjusted. Still, there are those who maintain insane working hours for years. Nurses and ancillary staff go on 12-18 hour shifts or more. The fact that they are paid too little for such work has been a topic of this column for years. Then there are those non-trainee physicians who man wards and emergency rooms, sometimes taking on shifts several days long because there are no relievers. They are able to take brief breaks, but they are at work and are responsible for the lives under their watch.
These are things I know from my limited perspective as a health worker. I cannot speak for those in other professions, but thanks to the #AkoSiLenLen hashtag I can imagine what long working days in other jobs can look like.
If you’ve been on social media at all the last few days, you’d know that a thinly veiled excuse for “non-political content,” a skit featuring Imee Marcos, touched a nerve among Filipinos due to its associated statement that anyone working 18 hours a day is either lying or stupid. I do not concern myself much with the senator, who has never had the credibility anyway to be able to speak on the working experiences of average Filipinos. Neither am I deeply concerned about the skit’s director, who regularly courts controversy and does not welcome legitimate criticism, or the article from which the statement originated, as its contents are not generalizable to our workers.
I need not contribute to the circle jerk of people on either camp who are either congratulating themselves on being in touch with the common worker, or who are making fun of Leni Robredo supporters for supposedly painting themselves as victims. What I am concerned with is that, with the coming elections, we are made fully aware that such working conditions exist, and that after the elections, there ought to be a reasonable possibility that they will not.
Neither camp has a monopoly on long working hours. Whatever your political colors, the most important take-home message from this affair is this: that many people do in fact work 18 hours a day, putting their physical and mental health at stake, because they have to — but they shouldn’t have to. For some, it is a financial necessity to work that long. For some it’s because they are in vulnerable positions in their careers, unable to complain or to ask for more humane treatment and adequately compensated overtime.
To expose this reality isn’t to glorify or justify it. Extreme working hours are obviously unhealthy and, in certain settings, exploitative. Productivity lessens. The rule of diminishing returns comes into play. The poorly-rested are more prone to mistakes and injuries. Because of working hours precluding other interests or hobbies, one’s identity and concept of self become anchored on one’s work. Health is neglected. Some are forced to neglect their own nutrition and hygiene. Long-term consequences of perennial stress and little sleep include chronic disease, obesity, and even adverse reproductive outcomes.
Putting aside the circus that is personality politics and social media, can we pinpoint any candidates who may be poised to make working conditions, hours, and compensation better for us? Unlike Imee Marcos and her ilk, do they recognize that for many the 18-hour workday is a product not of laziness, stupidity, or “hustle” culture, but of poverty, food insecurity, unemployment, understaffing, or undercompensation?
The elections are in May. It’s reasonable to expect that our candidates should already have a strategic economic platform covering several policy areas, both to show that there is an effort toward expert consultation, and that they appreciate the scale of the problem. All candidates appear to support creating more jobs and reducing poverty.
(To be continued)
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