Father Joe shook hell in ‘job heaven’
Fr. Joe Dizon, 65, passed away on Nov. 4 because of complications due to diabetes. He will be missed by his fellow social activists, street parliamentarians, brother priests and, most of all, countless workers whom he helped through the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) that he founded and ran for almost 20 years.
A celebration-fundraising (for his hospital bills) is being organized for next week by “Ganito Tayo Noon 1980-1986” activists. See Facebook.
Father Joe was a familiar figure in activist groups for decades. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man who walked among firebrands. The last time I spoke with him was some months ago at an ecumenical forum where he was a reactor. After the forum, he asked me to autograph a copy of my book. Oh, but before the forum, while we were waiting for the main speaker, I needled him about the excesses of his friends in the radical Left, the armed communists especially, and I cited the killing of unarmed army recruits on training and reports about land mines.
“Ano ba yan, pakisabi naman,” I said, then added a few more mouthfuls. He listened and nodded.
Years ago, I wrote a two-part special report on the working conditions at the Cavite export processing zone (CEPZ) and on the deplorable lives of the workers. The article was for Holy Week, and so it was quite fitting that a priest, Father Joe, and his staff would help me get inside the CEPZ. Father Joe showed me around and introduced me to the striking workers broiling in the summer heat and the women workers in their cramped living quarters outside the zone.
I just dug up that special report. Here is the first paragraph:
“Pawning ATM cards at usurious ‘5-6’ interest rates in order to survive. Delayed and below-minimum wages. A perennial diet of instant noodles. Sleeping in hot, crowded quarters. Forced overtime or ‘OTTY’ (overtime, thank you). ‘Finish contract’ every five months. Perpetual contractuals. Union-busting, summary dismissals. Runaway shops. No union, no strike policy.” You can imagine the rest.
The WAC has been doing organizing work and espousing the cause of workers since 1995. It started as part of the sociopastoral program of the Santo Rosario Parish in Cavite and later became an independent nongovernment organization.
Father Joe said the WAC drew from the Church’s teachings on labor and justice spelled out in papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Laborem Exercens, etc.). One of its important achievements was organizing the Solidarity of Cavite Workers (SCW), a province-wide alliance of groups that upheld genuine and militant unionism.
At the time of my visit, the WAC maintained a center called Bahay Manggagawa built from funds from the German Catholic bishops’ Misereor. The center was a haven for workers and responded to their needs, be these legal, organizational, or simply personal.
The WAC also provides training in rights and welfare, especially those of women, trade union management and organizational development. It publishes the quarterly “Manggagawa Manlilikha” for CEPZ workers.
“When we started there was not a single union here,” Father Joe recalled then. Putting up unions was a slow and hazardous process indeed. Certification elections were a major hurdle, with employers blocking the way through divide-and-rule or instant holidays on election time. Most workers would rather accept unjust labor practices than lose their jobs.
The CEPZ had been vaunted as a “job paradise” or “job heaven” but as WAC documentation had shown, it was not so for many. The special report that I wrote years ago showed why the CEPZ was not heaven at all. Father Joe and the WAC were there to shake the hell out of the “heaven.” I hope things have changed for the better.
Some years ago I was assigned to write a Valentine’s Day Page 1 story on Father Joe and his adopted son John-John, then a toddler. The article was about how the child came into the priest’s life, how he nursed the dying boy back to life, the boy’s biological family, the adoption process, etc. After the article came out, Father Joe told me he was going to keep it for John-John to read when he’s grown up. At our last meeting some months ago, he told me that his copy of the article was now with John-John.
How Father Joe landed in Cavite’s Diocese of Imus is a story in itself. He was among the activists thrown out of the seminary by Manila Archbishop Rufino Cardinal Santos. Really keen on pursuing the priesthood, he went to Imus Bishop Felix Perez who then took him in. (The late bishop was known for his critical stance against martial law and the Marcos dictatorship.) Other seminarians with activist streaks were also welcomed in other dioceses.
While it was in the Cavite workers’ milieu that Father Joe chose to live out his priestly vocation, he was a familiar figure in Metro Manila rallies and solidarity work. Cavite, his home base, while becoming a highly urbanized industrial zone, has not lived down its old reputation for highly charged politics and being a haven for criminal syndicates. He knew too well that priests had no protective shields.
I saw Father Joe sobbing and shedding copious tears at the funeral of his brother priest, Fr. Jesus Palileo, who was slain and left bloodied on a grassy field in Cavite. Father Joe told me that despite warnings, the young priest went out at night to seek the lost sheep. (I wrote about the killing, which might have been the handiwork of drug lords.)
Father Joe did not die a martyr’s death. He had not been well for some time but, with cane in hand, he continued to reach out. He harkened to the distant drums and was in step with the marching masses crying out for redemption.
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