MANILA, Philippines – Over 300 striking workers from Compostela Valley are celebrating the season away from home.
In late November, workers under Sumifru Corporation, a Japanese fresh-fruits exporting company, traveled to Manila by boat and bus to bring their protests closer to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). (READ: AFP sends soldiers to 'prevent chaos' at Japanese-owned banana plantation)
Their camps are set up at Liwasang Bonifacio, a city square and transport hub in front of the Manila Central Post Office.
Keeping in mind the families’ anticipation of Christmas, union leaders built their very own Christmas tree out of red plastic sheets, charcoal-hued cardboards and metal wires. The tree, according to the protesters, depicts their struggle.
“The red stars encircling the all-black tree symbolize the blood and sweat workers put in their jobs,” Francis Ruba of the labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) explained the concept of their Christmas tree on Saturday, December 22.
Their struggle started in early October, when more than 900 Sumifru workers launched a strike under the consolidated Nagkahiusang Mamumo sa Suyapa Farm-National Federation of Labor Unions-KMU (Namasufa-Naflu-KMU) union, with the aim of adding pressure on Sumifru Corporation to recognize all workers in a collective bargaining agreement.
The striking workers were met with violent police dispersals, arson attacks, and the murder of Dany “Boy” Bautista, a 31-year-old banana plantation worker.
Sumifru Corporation filed a petition with the Supreme Court to drive out the striking workers, claiming a loss of P38 million per day from the labor protest but ultimately failed to do so. The court dismissed the petition in October.
Saying that the strike had affected public interest, the labor department stepped in a day prior to the court's decision and assumed jurisdiction over the dispute.
The protesters are waiting for a resolution at a DOLE conference scheduled for Thursday, December 27. Representatives from the Sumifru Corporation are expected to face the protesters to discuss the latter's demand for fair pay and labor rights.
No giving up
“The lighting ceremony isn’t Christmas for us but what we call ‘Crisis-mas.’That’s because the crisis hasn’t ended and our freedom is long overdue,” Ruba added.
In the days leading up to Christmas, union leaders like Ruba have arranged activities that interweave protests and parties to prove to Sumifru and the government that they’re “braving the difficulties while clutching onto hope.”
One of the Sumifru workers who will be spending Christmas at the camp is Gloria Delantes, also known as "Blondie." The oldest worker at the camp, Delantes left tens of her children and grandchildren back in Compostela Valley for the first time during Christmas. Despite her homesickness, the 60-year-old packing plant worker is unrelenting in her solidarity with fellow strikers.
“I’m making a huge sacrifice because I know I can’t abandon the fight. Besides, we can never have a truly merry Christmas until our demands for fair labor practices are heard,” Delantes said.
Bernie de los Santos, a local chapter officer of packing plant 260 and member of the Namasufa executive board also left his home in Compostela town with his wife and toddler to join the strike.
“Despite the hardships, I’m satisfied that I’m here because my comrades and I are together in the struggle for justice,” Santos said, smiling at Bea, his 3-year-old daughter in his arms.
“She’s my only child. It’s my wish to see her happy and in good health but it won’t be possible if her parents are unjustly treated and work in precarious conditions," Santos added in Filipino.
When night fell on Saturday, packing plant representatives wrote their Christmas wishes on cardboard cutouts of stars, bananas, and clenched fists as part of the lighting ceremony. Later, the laborers hung each wish on the tree wires.
Paul Dizon, president of Namasufa-Naflu-KMU gave a short speech to inaugurate the ceremony reminding workers about the unique pride they ought to take in the red-and-black Christmas tree.
“The star tree topper represents our unified anger, strength, and blood to fight on, as the lights are like our guide back home,” Dizon said.
Dizon and the crowd of workers repeatedly clamored, “Sama-sama sa pagkilos! (Together in our struggle!)” to mark the end of their tributes and slogans.
“None of us asked to spend Christmas in 2018 in camps and yet here we are, making the most out of the cultural tradition with the little tools that we have," Ruba said. – Rappler.com
Fatima Qureshi is a Rappler intern and a full-time student pursuing a Master's in Journalism degree at the University of Hong Kong.