WORKERS FAIL TO ESCAPE CRISIS
BY Alecks P. Pabico, PCIJ
April 26, 2002
SHE WAS used to a hard life, especially so after her husband was laid off at a state agency and took on odd jobs. They had three children to feed, clothe and send to school, after all, and Leonida Antonio did not have to be told to look for means to augment the family income. It helped that she was a genius at handicrafts, and soon, she even managed to organize the women in her neighborhood into a lace-making production unit.
By early 1997, Ka Nida and her neighbors in Balingasa, Balintawak had also begun developing new markets. Life, says Ka Nida, looked like it was about to get better at last.
But that was before the onset of the Asian financial crisis. Today, more than a year and a half following the nasty tumbles of currencies across the region, women like Ka Nida are seeing their hopes take a furious beating.
"Our orders have gone down, (while) our materials are now more expensive," says Ka Nida, who is the NCR coordinator of the Pambansang Tagapag-ugnay ng mga Manggagawa sa Bahay (PATAMABA), an organization of some 8,000 women homeworkers. She also rues the effects of globalization on homebased work: "We now have to compete with (faster) machines from Japan."
Indications are the situation is not about to improve anytime soon. Jeanne Frances Illo, research associate of the Institute of Philippine Culture at the Ateneo de Manila University, says almost all households are now poorer than before. Most likely, she adds, the end of 1998 saw even more families slide under the poverty line. According to the National Statistical Coordination Board, there were already 4.55 million poor families in 1997, or a poverty rate of 32.1 percent.
But such impoverishing effects do not just cut across classes. They also have a stark gender dimension, which find women bearing much of the hurt in this season of pain.
The implications of this trend are serious and far-reaching, considering that more households than ever seem to be headed by women. This means more families have become largely dependent on the income generated by their female members. A 1997 report by the United Nations Development Program says between 1988 to 1991 alone, the number of women-headed households in the Philippines rose by 18 percent to 169,709, compared to the 13 percent increase in the male-headed households total (1.03 million).
Based on focus group discussions she has conducted in recent months, Illo suspects that there are now more women-headed households than ever largely because of the crisis. In most cases, she says, the men have lost their jobs, forcing their wives to find work - or create the jobs themselves. But she comments, "In surveys, it's automatic that men are the household heads even if they are jobless or drunkards."
In truth, even the earnings of women who belong to male-headed households are not miniscule in terms of their share of the total family income. According to a 1997 Asian Development Bank (ADB) paper on women in the Philippines, women's earnings in the informal sector during the early 1990s actually comprised between 25 to 35 percent of a typical family's coffers. For many families, it has also become imperative to have at least two wage earners in the family, especially now that the daily cost of living for a family of six has been pegged at P410.
In the last two years, however, the unemployment rates of the female labor force have been on the rise. By last April, the number of jobless women had gone up to 1.8 million - the highest yet since 1995. Says Illo: "It is likely that the crisis has resulted in the increased slippage of women into more vulnerable jobs - i.e. in the informal sector."
To be sure, even before the crisis struck, employment opportunities for women were already scant compared to those open to men. More often than not, women workers were found mainly in economic zones, export-oriented manufacturing, in contractual, part-time and casual work, and jobs overseas mainly as domestic helpers and entertainers.
But a lot more were like Ka Nida, and toiling away in the unprotected informal sector that includes homebased work. Some had been unable to get employment in the formal sector because of their limited education and skills. Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo, associate professor at the University of the Philippines, however, points out that many of these women end up in the informal sector "because they have children and a household to take care of."
Ka Nida, for example, is a B.S. Commerce graduate (major in Banking and Finance). Hired by a food manufacturing firm as a bottle labeler, she was later promoted to checker. But when she had her first child, Ka Nida decided to stay home while her husband worked full time. Yet because her husband's salary could not cover all their expenses, Ka Nida tried peddling vegetables before she stumbled upon the art of making paper flowers. That trade, she says, paid for her children's private school education for years.
Ka Nida obviously takes pride in being able to contribute to her family's income. But that contribution comes at a heavy price. Researchers say work hazards are a regular fare among those in the informal sector. A 1994 study by the International Labor Organisation (ILO), for example, says home-based women workers are afflicted by work-related health problems such as muscle pain, allergic reactions and stress. These are often due to poor lighting and ventilation, and the presence of chemical hazards.
There are more than six million homeworkers today - six times the 1981 figure - of whom 69 percent or some 4.5 million are women. Ofreneo adds that in 1995, there were already five million women in the informal sector, making up 55.9 percent of all employed women. Of this, 2.96 million (33 percent) were own-account or self-employed operating sari-sari or small variety stores and other micro-enterprises.
Another 2.05 million (22.9 percent) were unpaid family workers-those in agriculture, wholesale/retail trade and community, social and personal services-who are not covered by any protective labor legislation.
Observes Ofreneo, "Because they are women, their earnings are just considered supplementary to those of the male breadwinner. They can be consigned to repetitive, monotonous and detailed work requiring manual dexterity."
In these hard times, women workers - whether on a wage job or in their own enterprise - are finding themselves facing the additional hazard of extended workweeks. In the El Niño-ravaged countryside, Illo reports, "women are struggling to earn wages, grow food crops for home-consumption and undertake time- and labor-intensive housework."
That women - and men - in the informal labor sector seem to have remained largely "invisible" to the government is not really due to the lack of data about them. According to a labor expert who refuses to be identified, these workers have fallen through the bureaucratic cracks because whatever research there is by agencies like the National Statistics Office or the labor department itself does not reflect the real situation.
"They are handicapped by the lack of any standard definition of the informal sector," says the expert. "There is no categorical grouping of formal and informal work. So how can you capture the universe? What researchers tend to do is tailor-fit their definitions to the available data, which is risky, since you cannot just generalize the micro and simply apply it to the whole."
Illo, for her part, thinks the problem lies more in implementation of policies that she says exist. For example, she notes, there are laws protecting workers in subcontracting arrangements. "But at the same time, you have a government agency (the Department of Trade and Industry) promoting subcontracting. It's the case of government's left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing."
It was probably because they realized they had to do something themselves that some enterprising women began PATAMABA eight years ago. Says PATAMABA's current chair Antonina 'Ka Esther' Tinia: "We want to increase the knowledge of our members not only with regards to livelihood, but also with regards to what they contribute to the economy. We want to show that our work is not a secondary source of the family's income, but the primary one."
The group has experienced considerable success. Aside from conducting seminar-workshops in which new and current members are taught all sorts of skills as well as their rights as homeworkers, PATAMABA also extends financial assistance in the form of loans and assists the women in acquiring raw materials at low costs.
Without PATAMABA, it probably would have taken Ka Nida and her neighbors in Balingasa, Balintawak more time and effort to get their lace-making enterprise off the ground. Helped by the organization, it took only a year before the women became so good at it so as to transform lace-making into their primary source of income. Every other day, the Balingasa group of 42 women would make deliveries to Divisoria, which meant a cool P900 in profit for each of them.
Today, however, there are fewer orders while thread, cloth and ribbon now cost twice as much as before. Ka Nida says they consider themselves lucky if they are able to get P450 each per delivery, which is no longer done as frequently as two years ago.
Still, the Balingasa women are fortunate they have work. PATAMABA's own bag-making enterprise in Malolos, Bulacan has been at a standstill since June last year, unable to generate new, long-term projects.
All eight women sewers under its regular employ had relied on the income they got from making bags, especially since farming-wherein they principally render unpaid family work-had not been productive during the recent onslaught of the El Niño. Sans the usual agricultural work, their husbands had moved on to low-paying, seasonal jobs as carpenters or construction workers while waiting for the planting season.
But with orders hard to come by these days, Prisca Paraiso, 40, mother of six, along with Francisca Cruz, 46, mother of three, have shifted to planting vegetables, which they sell at the poblacion in the early hours of the morning.
Marissa Garcia, at 19 the youngest of the PATAMABA sewers, now spends her nights at home doing sewing jobs. Without her bag-making earnings, her family is cash-strapped to pay for the medication of her tuberculosis-stricken father. During daytime, she also sells all sorts of kakanin (native delicacies) at the PATAMABA Damayan Center, a sort of tiangge built as a social protection mechanism for members.
Ka Esther says PATAMABA's micro-lending service has also dried up as a result of the crisis. "Actually, we'd roll over our funds for our members to draw from," she says. "But we had to help out members who had been affected by El Niño, and they have been hard pressed to come up with the payments."
The PATAMABA chairperson says prior to the drought, members had seldom defaulted on their loan payments.
Yet even as the economic turmoil tears through PATAMABA's accomplishments and plans, Ka Esther singles out globalization as having dealt the severest blows to their membership's sources of livelihood.
Intense trade liberalization and tariff reduction thrusts adopted by countries like the Philippines under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) and similar trade accords have brought about stiff competition in the world export market.
Today, despite the devaluation of the peso, the country has become even less a major player in the export market. Among the biggest export losers is the garments industry, which is the biggest employer of women workers. As a result, garments and textile firms have been forced to either shut down or engage in subcontracting and other-lower cost-production arrangements.
Lucila Cabarles, a PATAMABA hi-speed sewer from Pandi, Bulacan, says as days pass, she has less and less dresses and other clothing apparel to sew. Heavy with her sixth child, Lucila says what she gets now are mere patterns or pre-cut material of a dress part-say a kimona sleeve-that she adorns with intricate threadwork using her own sewing machine. In the age of globalization, dressmaking has become akin to the manufacture of a Japanese car, its several parts assigned to different workers and then later assembled.
Globalization has also meant the coming computer-controlled technology in many sectors. Ka Esther, who estimates that the computerization of labor has left half of PATAMABA's membership without jobs, says embroidery and lace workers are among those who now have to compete with machines.
Meanwhile, Illo notes that with smaller firms thriving under the subcontracting process, more women have been drawn to the lower levels of the setup-that is, subcontracted work being subcontracted many times over. Worse, the crisis somehow promotes this low-cost production system, in turn increasing the likelihood that more women, as well as children, are being exploited especially in terms of remuneration of piece-rate work.
Despite all these, the women in the informal labor sector know only too well that they cannot afford not to work. Remarks Tess Vargas, who for years now has been sewing dresses and making doormats to support her family: "Gutom kung aaasa lang sa kita ng aming mga asawa (We will starve if we rely only on our husbands)."
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