Monday, February 05, 2007

35 Is Too Old!

So wryly said the eight women gathered around a table, eyes intent, mouths grim. No, this had nothing to do with romance. Rather, this was the age limit, set by multinationals and contractors, for job hiring and job retention, in the burgeoning paradise for globalization that is the Philippines. These women had worked for decades, starting as child workers, sewing, cutting and ironing garments which litter the markets of the world. They had fudged their birthdates, starting jobs at age 15, because the family needed money. Now, they had aged out of the job market. They were members of Magkaisa (Unite), an organization of women workers, and we were meeting at the Gabriela Silang Displaced Women Workers Center in Alabang, Philippines.

Magkaisa battles globalization and its contract/sub-contract system which, through a systematic ladder of exploitation, ensure that those who work the hardest get the least reward, the least pay. These women sew high-end and bargain bras, panties, pajamas, nightgowns, bathing suits, few of which they themselves had had the means or the occasion to wear. Certainly, they do not cavort on the beaches of Boracay or in tourist-exclusive Mactan, Cebu where the ASEAN Summit was held. Perhaps some ministers or their wives at the Summit had on underwear or swimsuits sewn by women disposable at age 35.

“You get fired on your birthday. Early retirement without pension, without benefits.” So what does one do? “Starve to death. Find a way to leave the country; be a servant. Or mag-puta.” The reply crackled like gunfire. Their voices were both sardonic and sad. We spoke in Tagalog, the country’s lingua franca.

In the factories, they were “specialized.” One sewed bra straps. Just bra straps over and over again, at 50-75 centavos per bra strap. So how many bra straps to make a decent wage? “A thousand,” she said. “1000 bra straps per day.” To earn $15.00 max. I can see it: the woman sitting, spine curved over the sewing machine, arms practically hugging it, nose almost to the needle, foot on the pedal and sewing one bra strap after another. As fast as she can, one after another.

Now she was jobless. To find another job, however, meant spending money. “Before the interview by management, you have to have a medical exam. You pay for the exam. Or what we call hubad, tuwad, buka (strip, bend over, spread ‘em). I got through all the steps to the interview and then they saw how old I was. Patay na! (I was a goner.)” She was in her 40s. “Check out the classified ads; the age limit is there. Eighteen to thirty-five.”

Was this general for both men and women? Not really. Men, they said, couldn’t get a first job, because skills and experience were required. But women, no matter how young, were deemed “intrinsically skilled” – they could sew, embroider or had fingers tiny enough for the delicate work of assembling electronics.

There was nothing here to cushion capital’s drive to transform women into wage laborers for the sake of profits. The poor was an inexhaustible supply, drawn from the feudal, basically agrarian countryside, saddled with kinship obligations alien to the concept of “free labor,” body itself often assaulted by capital in that crude and rude form of capital accumulation called prostitution. And because the intricate system of profit extraction was highly developed, imposed from advanced capitalist countries, not organic to the local society, neither the labor movement nor the women’s movement had had time enough to fend off even the harshest manner of exploitation.

In this interface of class and gender, one finds the grim face of a hybrid society like the Philippines. The irony lies in how little we understand the pivotal nature of that interface to social transformation, and how readily we accept the view that women’s issues are “soft” rather than key to the resolution of contradictions within a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. -- ###