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Philippine workers seek living wage

5/23/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NEW YORK (UMNS) - Workers in the Philippines are dealing with the same issues - the need for a living wage, the effects of globalization and the privatization of companies - that U.S. workers face, according to a United Methodist organizer there.

The Rev. Israel Alvaran, assigned by the church as a person-in-mission to focus specifically on labor issues, discussed the situation in the Philippines while visiting United Methodist Board of Global Ministries offices in New York.

He also is a member of the denomination's Concern for Workers Task Force, which was established in 1996 to educate the church about workplace justice in the context of the Christian faith and to advocate for workers' rights on both a local and international basis.

A key concern in the Philippines as well as many other countries is that workers be paid a realistic salary with which they can support themselves and their families, or a living wage, rather than a minimum wage. In Manila, for example, the cost of living for a family of five is roughly $10 a day, but the minimum daily wage is $5.40.

Low pay is one reason why more than 5 million of the nation's 75 million people work in other countries. Filipino doctors and teachers can earn more as domestic workers in Hong Kong than in their true professions at home, Alvaran pointed out.

Within the United Methodist Church, Filipino pastors earn as little as $40 a month or up to $400 a month, depending on where they live. Filipino bishops, on par with their American counterparts, earn thousands more a month, he added. "The disparity exists not only in society, but also inside our church."

The legislative body of the Philippines currently is considering a living wage bill that would give every worker the right to fair pay, either by a wage increase or tax relief. "I'm not really sure if it's going to pass," Alvaran said.

Part of the problem is that the labor movement in the Philippines is not unified. "We have lots of workers' groups that have varying or different ideological views," he explained. "We can't get these people to come together."

Alvaran is hoping that the Labor Empowerment and Advocacy Center, a recently established joint project of Union Theological Seminary and the United Methodist Manila Episcopal District, will help draw the factions together. One way this might be accomplished, he said, is through the organization of church labor councils.

Plans for the center also include training and education for church workers, seminars on labor organizing and management skills, preparation and translation of resources for local congregations, and continuation of the seminar's labor summer exposures, where seminarians work in nonunion factories and scout out potential labor organizers.

Other labor concerns in the Philippines include the right of the secretary of labor to assume jurisdiction during certain labor disputes, which, according to Alvaran, "effectively takes away the right to strike and even the right to bargaining."

The increasing number of workers on short-term contracts, rather than regular employment, is an issue because such workers receive no benefits and are not allowed to join unions. Regulations for specified "industrial zones" also make union organization difficult.

United Methodist institutions are not immune to labor problems, he said. A union formed by faculty and staff at Wesleyan University five years ago has taken the school to court for back wages and other compensation, and Alvaran said he is in consultation with the union at Mary Johnson Hospital concerning valid complaints that must be addressed.

The increased presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines, as part of the U.S. war on terrorism, has become a concern of both church members and union leaders, according to Alvaran. He estimated that 3,800 U.S. military personnel are currently in the country, most of whom are said to be there for joint training exercises.

A particular concern, he said, is that the campaign against terrorism will be used to undermine democratic rights.


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