IT is with sadness that one must look upon culture and this country. And I say that with a sense of how talented we are, and how creative, across all sectors of cultural production: television and film, music and literature, theater and concerts, advertising and design, theater and dance, and everything in between.
One realizes that the dream for culture is not one that is about finding talent, as it is about harnessing this talent towards a productivity that need not be bound to big business, that need not be dependent on patronage systems, that need not be about profit. Because in fact elsewhere in the world, cultural workers are protected as workers so that they earn equal to their talent, experience, and professionalism. Elsewhere in the world, cultural workers, musicians, dancers, actors, writers are respected, no matter that their contracts with employers might last a week, a month, or 10 years.
On this side of the world, meanwhile, the recent untimely deaths of directors for TV and film have triggered a conversation about workers’ rights. Yet no one wants to talk about the root cause of these problems, which is how deep you need to go in order to even begin finding a solution.
Of course we don’t like hearing the U word.
Unions are seen as a scary thing in this country, and while businesses are expected to abhor the term—after all it allows a collective to actually have the right to negotiate for better pay and better treatment—what surprises me is when artists themselves, cultural workers themselves, cringe at the word.
Yet in times of crisis such as this one, it is clear that it is collective action and cooperation that we need. It is clear that coming together and negotiating as an entity is the only way the treatment of cultural workers will change in this country.
In an interview with dzMM on March 11, Rez Cortez, Actor’s Guild of the Philippines president, dared mention the lack of a real artists’ union in the country, and how we are disallowed from forming one at all. The mere fact that we are being disallowed to form a union says a lot about how important it is, yes?
And yet we tend to imagine that this is not even a problem at all.
Divide and conquer
The lack of a union does not only absolve our employers from all responsibility for anything that happens to us cultural workers, it also allows them not to give us any benefits. It is the lack of a union that has made it possible for this government’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to decide that freelancers are self-employed professionals, even when the nature itself of our work is farthest from being likened to lawyers, or accountants, or doctors with private practices—the real self-employed professionals.
It is also the lack of a union that has given us all these guilds and organizations, one competing with the other, all asserting “representation” even when none can actually speak for the majority of its sector. In fact, this is why organizations like Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit (OPM) and Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Inc. (Filscap) are now being questioned by the sector it says it represents; it is also why they get away with not properly answering questions and ignoring the more important concerns of singers, musicians, songwriters.
This is also why the Artists’ Welfare Act (AWA) is the poorest excuse for a real law that seeks to protect artists. Because it was written by one organization called the Artist
Welfare Project Inc., that cannot claim to represent all artists across all sectors. Nothing makes that clearer than the horribly conceptualized, badly written AWA.
If no group or organization can actually represent all artists, how can any organization even dare speak for any of us?
These groups and organizations end up dividing instead of uniting cultural workers. And when a situation calls for it, we find that we cannot even come together and unite under one issue that we all agree is critical to our existence as cultural workers. How sad is that.
Beyond popular sentiment, action
The standard reaction to instances like the untimely deaths of directors is to come together and form a group. But now we know that this is the last thing we need.
What we do need are unions, and it is important to point out that there is no need to fear what will become artists’ coalitions—not even if you’re a prospective employer.
Where it might seem like a union will only benefit workers, in fact it also protects employers.
A real union will negotiate contracts between members and prospective employers. It will guarantee the employer the best, most professional service possible. If a union member messes up, misses a deadline, does not deliver, that member will be reprimanded and penalized. When an employer abuses a union member, he will be unable to hire a union member again.
That this will force all of us—employers and cultural workers—to level up our respect for cultural work, goes without saying.
When a union functions as a way of professionalizing the cultural sectors, the only reason an employer will refuse to hire union members is if it wants to pay very little for work to be done. And sure, there will always be younger, unprofessional writers and actors, directors and artists, who don’t mind getting a pittance. But there will also always be a more efficient, more professional, more experienced writer, director, artist who will be valued for years of experience and body of work. There is enough work to go around for all of us.
Of course you can decide not to be part of the union, and still be the most professional cultural worker on the block. A union will also still protect you and get on your side when an employer abuses you—because that’s what real cultural organizations do.
This is the thing: unless we can go beyond personality politics and the fear of losing jobs; unless we all agree that we don’t only seek protection of cultural workers but also demand the professionalization of cultural work; there is nowhere to go but down.
In fact, without a real concerted call for an artists’ union, we are doomed to stay where we are.
That is just tragic.