WE hear this tale twice told.
Workers, mostly children, are locked inside a factory. They are forced to wake up as early as 3 a.m. Their bare hands are used to fill tin cans with sardines. They are not allowed to go out. The gate is perpetually locked. There are no Sundays or holidays. Not even rest days. They are not allowed to write to parents or relatives. They are allowed to sleep only close to midnight.
The workers are virtual prisoners and forced to work for long hours. The pay is little or none at all. Lodging, which is literally a dirt floor shared with other workers, is charged against the paltry pay. Food, which is also paid, is at times expired canned goods. Those who fall sick are threatened.
In 1993, a group of child workers were rescued from a sardine factory in metropolitan Manila. In 2010, almost a hundred persons were rescued from one factory in Zamboanga City. According to official reports, workers were recruited to fill sardine cans with fish parts. Unprotected, their fingers and hands were often lacerated and slashed by the sharp edges of the cans. Despite infection and worsening conditions of the wounds, the workers were forced to continue canning the sardines. Due to prolonged exposure to the water, chemicals and brine, the wounds never heal.
Recruiters scour through the poorest provincial areas in search for these workers. Through promises of well-paying jobs and education, they coax and entice parents to let their children leave them for work. The recruiters are sometimes neighbors, officials, or acquaintances. This manner of recruitment is systematic and evident. This is a form of human trafficking.
In a recent university screening of “Tumbang Preso” (“In the Can”), independent film director Kip Oebanda depicted the horrors and apparent hopelessness of workers trapped in a sardine factory. The lacerated and bloodied fingers. The lingering wounds. The scar-disfigured hands. Viewers, mostly students, were appalled at these scenes and swore never to consume sardines anymore.
The practice of employing forced labor is common and continues to be perpetuated. It is revolting yet not surprising. A simple cross check revealed that at least one sardine brand that has been apprehended for the practice is still enjoying popularity in the market.
As one strategy to reduce costs, most sardine brands outsource production and subcontract processing of low-priced canned sardines. This shields the company from possible liability and responsibility. A quick survey of some popular local brands shows that most of them are manufactured “for” the companies who own the brands.
In 2011, the Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles were intended to implement the “Protect, Respect and Remedy (PRR) Framework” adopted in 2008. It is supposed to hold the state and the business responsible. It sought to minimize, if not eliminate, human trafficking incidence. Despite the good intentions, the guiding principles are non-binding. There are no consequences for non-adoption.
Some of our sardines could be tainted with blood. This we have to live with.
Real Carpio So lectures on strategic management, organizational behavior and strategic human resources management at the Management and Organization Department of Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He coaches selected clients on strategic planning and marketing. He welcomes comments at email@example.com. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.