The hidden struggle of the Pacific Plaza Workers

During the height of Typhoon Ompong in Manila, a maintenance man fell to his death in One McKinley Place. Although the details of the incident are unclear, no statement was released, no news was published. By the next week, he was forgotten. From the safety of my condominium the typhoon rain tapped violently on my window, my thoughts had gone to the workers on strike sleeping on the sidewalk outside one of the most prestigious addresses in the metro.

There by the entrance of the Pacific Plaza Towers stands a tarpaulin shelter surrounded by signs in red paint, an ugly reminder to homeowners that their full maintenance force has taken to the streets in protest. Inside, among a mess of cardboard and backpacks are the 15 workers who have began a hunger strike almost two weeks ago.

Abdul, 58, was a plumber for Pacific Plaza for 20 years. Now he has no job, and has, as of writing this (October 16), been drinking only water for 13 days straight.

Although the events leading up to the strike span three years, it officially began with the sudden termination of 17 contractual employees without prior notice or pay in June. The remaining 17 permanent employees filed a legal strike in solidarity. On August 6, 50 protestors were unlawfully arrested by Global City police. They locked arms as the police approached and carried them away.

In addition to the workers, an association of unions called the SUPER Federation (Solidarity of Unions in the Philippines for Empowerment and Reforms) represents and assists them throughout the strike. President of SUPER Atty. Luke Espiritu had to appeal to Department of Labor and Employment undersecretary Joel Maglunsod to write to the Global City police to prevent a second unlawful arrest.

How could such a significant event happen one block away without my knowledge? And what caused permanent workers to risk their family’s livelihood?

The workers say the dispute began three years ago when management, under the newly appointed general manager Minda Barlis, asked them to dissolve their union in favor of an honorable agreement to treat each other fairly. The workers were to receive additional pay and benefits.

 

Contractualization has always been a controversial issue.

 

Former electrician Richard says “Noong dumating si Barlis, unti-unti kaming kinausap para i-withdraw na lang ang union. Nangako siya na ibigay ang magandang benepisyo. Sabi ni ma’am Minda ‘Sige, mag-hire tayo ng tao dahil kaunti lang kayo. Idaan natin sa agency kase ‘di natin alam kung magaling ang makuha. Kapag maganda ang performance nila kukunin natin bilang regular in three to six months.’ Eh up to three years na walang nangyari e, contractual pa rin.”

Contractualization has always been a controversial issue. Workers who have a contractual relationship with their employer do not enjoy benefits and mostly receive minimum wage. Even worse, SUPER Federation member Chadli Sadorra tells me that most agencies operate illegally and not to code, keeping workers in minimum wage limbo for years.

Espiritu emphasizes Workers need to eat, they have families, they have problems. Minimum wage cannot sustain that, but without a union they have little bargaining power to ask beyond this minimum. An honorable agreement to promise benefits and better pay is not legally binding and is common union-busting procedure.”

But in the Philippines, hiring in the informal sector is standard operating procedure, just as turning a blind eye is considered conventional wisdom. For a moment I feel guilty at my apathy towards the maintenance men in my condo. Do they have a union? No. Don’t they deserve one?

The workers tell me that since security manager Roland Rojo was employed a year ago, things started to become somewhat totalitarian. While the maintenance remained understaffed (35 workers for 394 units) a large number of guards were hired. The workers were reportedly ordered to not speak to guards unless spoken to. Former aircon technician Chris says that three years ago things were both jovial and efficient. After Rojo they were prohibited from entering units and equipment rooms without security escorts, which cost extra time and manpower.


To ameliorate the understaffing, several maintenance jobs were outsourced allegedly to a group related to Rojo’s circle.

 

To ameliorate the understaffing, several maintenance jobs were outsourced allegedly to a group related to Rojo’s circle. The workers claim that they had to finish the incomplete but overpriced work done by the agencies. The PPTCC (the condominium corporation) claims the purported misuse of funds is libel.

The PPTCC, while not open to press statements “until matters were resolved by DOLE.”, says in letters to homeowners that the union’s claims are spurious and manipulative. The same letters state that a momentary lack of water supply was caused by the workers and is considered sabotage.

Then the story starts to get absurd.

The workers recount their experiences with security manager Rojo’s temper. Romy, a terminated contractual employee, says that Rojo removed his shirt and challenged the detachment commander to a fistfight in a dispute over where guards could sleep. Rojo was also reported to have broken a computer monitor in a rage. The security of Pacific Plaza declined to comment on these incidents.

 

Now the strike has been ongoing for over two months, and there is little sign of change from inside.

 

Now the strike has been ongoing for over two months, and there is little sign of change from inside. A large picture of PPTCC board president Gemma Gemayel is displayed above the shelter. I am told that while she holds the power to resolve the issue, she is the least sympathetic to the workers’ cause.

When we think of laborers on strike we imagine a man working long grueling hours in a factory, breaking his back for minimum wage. Too often forgotten is the man who keeps your water running, fixes your aircon, or cleans your windows. Too often forgotten is the man who greets you good evening as you return from work to a warm and tidy lobby.

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