Friday, April 30, 2021

Labor Day celebrations?


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FOR the workers, what is there to celebrate on Labor Day?

Admittedly, workers’ struggles for over a century now have resulted in much better lives for them. But even as we are in a new millennium, workers still suffer grave exploitation and abuse.

Definitely, as workers celebrate their successes on Labor Day, they should not lose sight that much remains to be done.

Trade unionists are indoctrinated that labor rights and better working conditions are achieved only through workers’ direct actions. Unionists believe that the vast majority of employers and even government will not improve workers’ conditions out of the goodness of their hearts.

The eight-hour workday was achieved only at the cost of workers’ lives in the United States and many other countries. Better wages and other working conditions can be won only through workers’ organizations and the use of demonstrations, strikes and other protest actions directed against the government or the employers.

The Haymarket, Chicago massacre of workers seeking an eight-hour workday is considered by labor historians as the precursor of what in many countries is now known as Labor Day. For the workers, this day is for remembering the struggles and successes of workers in seeking for better terms and conditions of work.


In the Philippines, it was on May 1, 1903 when a hundred thousand workers first showed the power of their unity as they marched to Malacañang to demand for better working conditions from the American colonial government. Five years later, on April 8, 1908, the Philippine National Assembly passed a law mandating May 1 as a national holiday.

Labor Day is a holiday and should be an occasion to celebrate. But I surmise that only the officials and employees of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) have reason to celebrate on this day. They are secure in their employment as their collective responsibility is to reconcile and balance conflicting interests of labor and capital. Since the labor and capital relationship is often characterized by disputes, if not resolved justly, it will result in a serious disaster for the economy. Indeed, the need to regulate the relations between employers and workers to enforce work, health and safety standards and to resolve workers’ grievances are the most important reasons for the department’s creation and continued relevance.

The department is also tasked by law to promote employment, particularly through the facilitation of the Filipino workers’ desire to work overseas. DoLE has veritable achievements in the overseas employment program so that the overseas Filipino workers are considered “Bagong Bayani.”

The employees of the department enjoy a relatively secure employment even during this pandemic. Their wages are above the minimum wage, except perhaps the department’s contractual workers. Yes, DoLE, like all other branches and agencies of government, has short-term contract workers, or what are called “555” workers.

With an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, the more than 4 million Filipinos with no jobs have even less reason to celebrate Labor Day. The pandemic has caused the unemployment rate to go up and if the economy will not be able to normalize this year, we can expect the number of the unemployed to grow even bigger. And we are not even talking of the more than 16 million workers who are underemployed.

For most of the workers in our country, Labor Day is just a holiday. For monthly paid workers, it is a no-work day but with pay. For daily wage workers, May 1 is a lost income for a day. On Labor Day, the unions usually organize demonstrations and rallies to ask for a higher minimum wage and for other benefits that the government has the power to give.

The rallies and demonstrations on Labor Day to air grievances against the government may be more subdued this year because of Covid. It is only because of the pandemic that the workers moderate their protest. But workers’ protests and direct actions must continue, for conditions of work can stand considerable improvement and violations of worker’s rights are still prevalent. Militant union leaders are still victims of harassment, disappearances and incarcerations. Now, labor unionists are the objects of red tagging being done by the military and police.

While there were petitions for the increase of minimum wages in some regions last year, the National Wages and Productivity Regional Boards have yet to issue the wage orders. Since the last increase in 2019, minimum wages in the Philippines remain unchanged. While workers are generally not happy about this, they are not pressing hard for wage increases. They have accepted the pandemic as a valid reason for why wages cannot be increased as of now. But, I suppose, not for long.

Workers’ protest actions may not be as aggressive and as numerous as in those years prior to the pandemic. This should not lead us to believe that the workers are happy and satisfied with their conditions or that the trade unions have become soft and docile. There is an example in our history that needs to be revisited. During the years of martial law in the Philippines, there were very few strikes and even fewer demonstrations and rallies. After democracy was restored, in 1987 there were more than 700 strikes throughout the country. The incidence of work stoppages eventually tapered towards the end of President Corazon Aquino’s government.

Labor Day this year is, indeed, not a happy day for workers. Hopefully, next year will be a better year for labor. Then Labor Day will be a day of celebration.

For after all, labor matters!

Ruben Torres was labor secretary in the Corazon Aquino administration and executive secretary to President Fidel Ramos. At present, he is the general secretary of the Asean Trade Union Council. His email address is



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