If there was one realization forced on me by a friend’s illegal detention on trumped-up charges of vandalism by the Daang Matuwid MRT management, it’s that where we are, if anything at all happens to a cultural worker – which is what Angelo Suarez is — we would have no ready numbers to call, no organization to fall back on that would have a lawyer to protect its members from cases of harassment such as this one.
In the post-temporary-freedom assessment with a couple of friends, we realized that we needed to build our own protocol as cultural workers to make sure we are protected in times like these. A lawyer that will come no matter what time of day or night, a second call to those that might be able to help, a third call to employer or institution if the detention has to do with the work that we do — which it most probably does.
Who’s afraid of unions?
The tragedy is that were there artists’ unions in place — real ones, not those that use the word “unyon” for rhetoric and nothing else, i.e., Unyon ng Manunulat ng Pilipinas (UMPIL) — we would be better protected from instances like this one, as the union would be forced to protect its members, full stop.
In fact, were unions in place, the cultural crises we face would be better dealt with, because cultural workers would be able to collectively fight for what they deserve and want. Healthcare and social services, protection from abusive employers or contractors, protection from the powertrip of the cultural establishment, the right to negotiate and renegotiate for payments, the construction of a royalty system, ensuring intellectual property rights.
A union would also ensure that cultural workers are professional, are continuously developing their skills, as this will affect the kind of place and rank they hold within the union as far as their skills sets are concerned. A union would professionalize our industries, as it forces us to admit the limits of what we can do, no matter how long we have been in this business, no matter age and seniority. It allows for the domain of cultural work to be an equal playing field for union members, where you are measured by your skill set, your professionalism, your ethics, your body of work, which ensures that jobs are not monopolized by one set of people just because they are better connected, or are more famous.
Artist unions would have a very clear stance about the role that cultural work plays in a nation, and would be part of any and all discussions about issues that affect arts and culture — which is pretty much everything.
Cultural work as work
The fact is that the cultural worker faces the same risks, difficulties, struggles that any other regular worker faces. But government and institutions are built to only acknowledge certain kinds of workers, i.e., the contractual compared to the regular, the factory worker and the peasant, the white collar worker, etc. Cultural work demands of our institutions to stretch its definitions of what workers do, and how they might be employed.
For example, right now the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) considers freelance writers as self-employed professionals. But we are not that. We are not “self-employed” in the sense that a doctor or dentist will build their own practice, or in the way an engineer might do freelance contractor work. We are not “self-employed” in the sense that we “build businesses” for ourselves: there is nothing regular about the work that we get, no way at all to peg our earnings to a number. Some months are good, and others are without work.
For example, when you go the National Library to get your new book an ISBN number, you will be required to submit the BIR papers of the publisher. But what if you’re the publisher of your own book, and you’re really only going to come out with 10 copies at a time — because you don’t have the cash to even publish 500 right away? To get papers would require more expenses, which means more cash to spend — cash that many freelance writers, creators, cultural workers don’t have.
For example, you’ve been working years as a cultural worker in the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) or the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP). But without a plantilla, these institutions cannot even allow for a system that would regularize deserving employees. Who do you go to for assistance so that you might be treated better within these institutions? And how do you even speak out as a cultural worker about this injustice, when it just might mean losing your job — contractual as you are?
This is what I find absurd about President Duterte’s movements in culture. He’s appointing people based on their support for him, i.e., Liza Diño, and yet you wonder why Diño herself did not know to tell the President: I don’t want the FDCP, I want to build artist unions.
I don’t understand why this other group that’s building an arts and culture agenda is not talking to a bigger group of cultural workers, and using as rallying cry the creation of unions, when that would solve so many problems that we have as cultural workers, and should be number one on any agenda for any kind of cultural work — especially given a President who has spoken time and again about the need to protect workers.
Given his appointments to cultural positions so far (Diño, Lizaso), and the importance being given to an arts and culture summit and agenda that does not represent a majority of our cultural workers (not even a fourth of our cultural workers at this point), one wonders where exactly President Duterte stands with regards our cultural crises.
One hopes he realizes sooner than later, that the one thing we need his help on is for these workers’ unions. Not unilateral, baseless appointments to positions of cultural leadership; not shifting the current institutions towards a department of culture which will just mean having a politico dictating what culture should be about.
A politico, or Diño, or Lizaso, or … Freddie Aguilar. That’s a whole basket of lemons.
And no, we have no time to make lemonade. Cultural workers’ lives are at stake.