Philippines: Beverage workers strike to end contract labour

BMP chair and former senatorial candidate Leody de Guzman visits the Zagu strikers. Photo: BMP

PASIG CITY — Workers at Filipino beverage giant Zagu went on strike on June 6, in response to management’s attempts to bust their union and President Rodrigo Duterte’s failure to end contract labour.

According to the Organisation of Zagu Workers (Organiza), an affiliate of the socialist labour centre, Solidarity of Filipino Workers (BMP), employees unionised in response to numerous company malpractices, including the rampant use of contract labour.

The union alleges that Zagu illegally engaged more than 600 workers under shady sub-contractors on short-term, precarious contract work. Only 46 Zagu workers enjoy permanent jobs.

This practice is known as “endo” in the Philippines. Duterte promised to end the practice when he ran for president in 2016.

His campaign promise was a major factor in his election victory, attracting votes from contract workers who have long been hoping for regularisation of their precarious jobs.

“Duterte failed the workers,” said Shirley Fulgencio, president of Organiza. “Despite his promise to end contractual labour, companies, such as Zagu continue to place their workers under third-party contractors to evade their obligations to their workers and to disable them to form unions.”

Fulgencio explained that Zagu stopped an attempt to form a union in 2007. She added that the company could violate labour standards with ease. Some of her colleagues had lost their fingers in faulty machines and these amputees were not properly compensated in accordance with labour laws.

To add insult to injury, whenever a machine encounters a glitch, instead of management fixing the machine, the last worker to have operated it is penalised with salary deductions.

When Zagu workers unionised again in 2018, the officers were issued with numerous disciplinary memos. Contract workers were explicitly told in writing that they were prohibited from joining the union because they were purportedly not employees of Zagu, but of the job contractor. These union-busting schemes compelled the union to strike.

“For as long as companies remain unchecked, workers remain contractual, and [as long as] job contracting is permitted, our very lives are at risk,” Fulgencio said.

“The fire in Kentex factory north of Manila in 2015, where 74 rubber workers died, happened and might happen again because the Philippine government does not discipline capitalists in complying with labour standards.”

To make matters worse, the Congress recently passed a bill legalising third-party job contractors. Duterte is yet to sign that bill into law.

While Zagu workers have been on strike for more than a month, they have won small victories along the way. They successfully repelled management’s attempt on July 8 to violently break the strike. A few days earlier, scabs violently attacked striking workers at the Pepmaco and NutriAsia factories in Laguna province.

They have support from other sectors. Various youth organisations formed the Boycott Zagu Movement, calling for the boycott of the company’s products. The strikers also drew support from the LGBTI community when they joined the Pride March on June 26.

Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto has also publicly supported the union and denounced the stubbornness of Zagu management’s refusal to regularise the workers.

Sotto wrote: “To the owner and management of Zagu: The strike would not have happened if you did not have workers who are still contractuals despite working for more than a decade. This would not have happened if you had properly negotiated with the union … Follow the law. Respect the rights of your workers.”

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