Thursday, November 23, 2006

Workers’ rights and garment labels

“Sr. Stella L.”, a 1984 multi-awarded Mike de Leon-Pete Lacaba film, was on cable TV a few nights ago. While watching it I recalled the hot afternoon we spent at a location where several strike scenes in that movie were shot. A bunch of us women journalists were there as extras shouting “Welga! Welga!” We did it for free. The shooting was in an old bodega-like place that was made to look like a cooking oil factory.

It was quite an outing, what with an award-winning bunch there—Vilma Santos playing Sr. Stella L., the late Tony Santos as Dencio, Laurice Guillen as the other Sr. Stella or the “tokayo”, Anita Linda and several “nuns” linking arms with the workers in the picket line. There was Sr. Stella L. emerging from her baptism of fire and delivering an impassioned plea on behalf of the strikers. And there we were, taking it all in under the scorching sun. It was like the real thing. We each had an orange drink after that.

What timing, I thought while I was watching it again after 22 years and waiting for the credits to roll so I could catch our names. For I had received an urgent call from the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) in Cavite. This was concerning the on-going strike at the Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZ). Unlike the “Sr. Stella L.” strike that was in a small local factory, the strikes at the CEPZ are in foreign-owned companies.

I went around CEPZ some years ago to do a labor-day series on the strikes there and to interview CEZ workers, particularly young women and how they lived. I visited some of them at their congested lodging houses where the lodgers took turns in using double-deck beds because, they reasoned, anyway they worked and slept in shifts. They didn’t have beds to call their own. One of the companies on strike was producing sacred images that were exported to Europe.

The ones on strike now since Sept. 25 are workers of two Korean-owned companies—Chong Won Fashion, Inc. and Phils. Jeon Garments Inc.—suppliers of garments of big and known companies abroad. The former supplies products to Gap, Wal-Mart, Target, American Eagle Outfitters, Mervyn’s and White Stag while the latter produces for DKNY, Hanes, Al-alseel, O/X, Dream Station, etc. Name it. You might be wearing some of the labels that came from the CEPZ.

Last week the Inquirer ran an editorial (“Condemned”) on the strike but the strike remains unresolved. In Chong Won Fashion, the strikers are raising the issue of unfair labor practices such as refusal to bargain, illegal suspension of union officers and members and discrimination of union officers and members on overtime affecting 210 union members and more than 700 contractual workers.

In Phils. Jeon Garments the issues are refusal to bargain, union busting, illegal dismissal of the union’s president Emmanuel Bautista. One hundred eighty five of the 400 regular rank-and-file employees are union members.

One of the interesting developments in these two strikes is the intervention of the big foreign firms for which the Korean companies at the CEPZ supply garments. By writing to Pres. Arroyo, these corporate entities are weighing in with the strikers. They are stressing their awareness of the importance of labor rights in their global operations.

Here are some familiar brand names and labels that you usually see on garments and product ads but which went (brand logo and all) to their representatives’ letter of appeal to the President. American Eagle Outfitters, Gap Inc., Jones Apparel Group, Liz Claiborne Inc., PVH, Polo Ralph Lauren and Wal Mart.

And here are excerpts from their common letter that say something about their corporate conscience.

“As companies buying apparel products from the Philippines, we write to bring your attention to a matter of urgent concern. As you know, there have been recent reports of alleged violent attacks on striking workers and the assaults and killings of labor rights promoters. Our industry is alarmed by such reports and urges your immediate attention to the situation. We are particularly disturbed about allegations that Municipal and Export Processing Zone police may have been involved in some of these attacks and assaults. In addition we are concerned about the reports that Export Processing Zone authorities have banned some striking workers from entering the CEZ.

“We urge your government to take proactive measures for ensuring the physical safety and for protecting the rights of workers and labor rights promoters.”

But the pleasant giveaway of their corporate values is this:

“As companies that seek to source in countries and from suppliers that share our commitment to ensuring respect for workers’ rights, we believe that local and human and labor rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play an important role by partnering with manufacturers and governmental entities as well as suppliers and companies to help improve labor pratices and working conditions in the apparel industry. These NGOs should be able to express their views and carry out their legitimate role freely and without fear of violence.

“Additionally, we strongly believe that individuals working in factories that produce our goods must have the right to associate freely, join organizations of their choice and bargain collectively without unlawful interference. Workers should have the opportunity to work and live in an environment free from the threat of physical violence or harm.”

When you look at your garments’ brand labels, think of the labor rights of those who made them.