Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Among the glassy skyscrapers, luxurious stores, and well-paved roads of Bonifacio Global City in Taguig is a makeshift tent of layered tarpaulins and red-inked streamers.
Former employees of the Pacific Plaza Towers — 34 of them — went on a hunger strike after 17 contracted workers were terminated without prior notice on July 6. The management of the condominium, one of the high-end residences in the city, says their contract with the agency Polystar General Services, Inc. has ended; the workers believe they have a right to be absorbed as mainstays in the condominium workforce.
However, employment status is just one part of the problem. They also complain of security officers increasing surveillance on them, to the point of escorting them during service hours, and gaining duplicate keys to their lockers. Accusations of laziness are also hurled at them, though the workers say jobs within the scope of their designations have been outsourced.
Topping these problems are empty promises from the Pacific Plaza management.
Three years ago, the regular employees formed a union called “Nagkakaisang Manggagawa ng Pacific Plaza Towers” in an effort to safeguard themselves from unfair working conditions, including lack of follow-through on the part of the management on their benefits. A member of the Solidarity of Unions of the Philippines for Employment Reforms, this union made sure that its plight would be heard by the big bosses.
The management was quick to respond when they learned about the union’s existence, saying they would give the employees higher pay, security of tenure, and other benefits mandated by the government. All these things, the management said, would be given only if the workers dissolve their union.
That same year, the “Nagkakaisang Manggagawa” was no more and so was the glittering future that the management claimed they would provide. A few regular employees had a change in position, though, from subordinate to supervisor. But the job description remained the same.
This led to the birth of what is now known as Pacific Plaza United Action of Labor (PUNYAL), which also includes the 17 contractual workers laid off by the company.
PUNYAL went on hunger strike from Oct. 5 and was indefinitely suspended from Oct. 20, hoping that the management will listen to their plea.
CNN Philippines Life talked to some of these workers at the height of the hunger strike. Here are their stories.
“Seven floors pa lang itong building na ito ay nandito na ako,” says Abdulatip Tambungalan, who is 58. His voice is authoritative, but his eyes gentle. He had just finished his coffee and now appears to be steady and firm — but he has actually survived two weeks with only water.
The Muslim plumber witnessed the development of the condominium since its construction in 1998, making him the oldest employee at the Pacific Plaza Towers. A veteran in the job, Ka Abdul worked in Saudi Arabia for 15 years as a plumber and a foreman before returning to his hometown Mamasapano in Maguindanao to rest for about a month. Then it was back to Manila to earn a living.
His humble profession went a long way in supporting his wife and six children. “‘Yung kinukuha [ko] sa pinagtatrabahuhan ko rito, ‘yung pinapaaral ko sa mga anak ko,” Ka Abdul explains. His eldest, Hamad, is now on his last year of electrical engineering studies at the Technological University of the Philippines-Taguig.
But with the strike in progress, it’s a rough road between Hamad and his graduation. The future is uncertain for Ka Abdul’s other kids too, two of whom are supposed to finish senior high school by the end of the school year. “Nanganganib lang talaga ‘yung dalawang Grade 12 ko. Nanganganib din silang mahinto dahil wala na akong sahod,” he says.
If Ka Abdul did not join the strike, he could have stayed a regular employee, and, in two years, retired with security. However, the unfair treatment he and his co-workers experienced since the management changed in 2014 led him to risk his benefits and his job, altogether. “Mapapaiyak ka rin siguro kung nakita mo ‘yung ginawa sa mga kontraktuwal,” Ka Abdul says.
He was issued a notice of dismissal on Sept. 28, effectively firing him from the condominium he once helped develop.
Ka Abdul was the first to volunteer in their hunger strike that began on Oct. 5. After 14 days, he shed 12 pounds, but he says he won’t back down until he and his co-workers get what they deserve — even if it takes another hunger strike.
“Walang taong gustong mamatay pero ‘yung sa akin, bahala na,” says Ka Abdul. “Total, halos pinapatay din niya ‘yung pamilya ko, e ‘di bahala na ang Diyos maningil sa kanila kung saka-sakaling ako’y madisgrasya.”
“Ako ‘yung pasaway,” Allan Cabiguna admits. Back in their public school in Iloilo, he and his friends would climb a hollow block wall, and jump over the barbed wires out of the school premises. He did not end up with high grades, either.
Despite his stubbornness, Allan confidently says that he is the one whom his family is most proud of. “Kahit ako’y barumbado sa eskwelahan, kung sa matulungin lang, ako lahat e,” he says.
Allan set foot on the busy streets of the city when his cousin brought him there to find his luck. First, he was a construction worker, then he spent three years in Pangasinan as a skilled painter and a foreman. He returned to Manila and served two hotels as an all-around technician. Then, in 2010, he found himself in the halls of Pacific Plaza Towers.
The civil technician covers carpentry, painting, welding, and masonry, among others. His earnings from work were what he used to provide assistance to his parents, his siblings, and their families. “Ngayon, nag-asawa na rin ako. Kahit papaano, nakakatulong pa rin ako,” says Allan.
However, not everything in Allan’s life was to be taken lightly. The job meant late hours and exhaustion. He goes back to 2014, when the drivers’ lounge of the Pacific Plaza Towers had to be renovated; he logged in at 12 hours regularly, and sometimes worked from 2:00 in the afternoon to 6:00 in the morning.
“Pinatrabaho sa akin ‘yon,” Allan recalls. “Dalawa lang kami. Overtime ‘yon.”
Even with the strike in progress, Allan is still on his toes — or motorcycle — as a runner for the group. He also helps bring the message of their battle to the youth through room-to-room information campaigns in universities.
Aside from eating and drinking a lot during break time to regain energy, Allan draws strength from his loved ones. He says, “Natuwa ako dahil kahit anong hirap, nandiyan pa rin sila para sa akin.” In turn, Allan uses it to liven up the spirits of his colleagues. “‘Pag nakita nila akong mahina, mas lalo silang hihina,” he adds.
Allan may be a cheerful jokester, but when it comes to his principles and his values, he takes no nonsense. “Hangga’t matapos, tapusin namin.”
Laing, monggo, adobo — name it, he will cook it. Jovany Nalua is a plumber at the Pacific Plaza Towers, but during his free time, he exchanges his toolbox for kitchenware.
He moonlights as a food vendor: a meat dish costs ₱30; a vegetable dish, ₱20; and a single pack of rice, ₱10. Jovany’s offerings are more affordable compared with the usual prices of meals within the vicinity of Pacific Plaza. His customers were employees, tenants, and even big bosses. “Ultimo ‘yung mga pinagsisigawan namin na managers na ‘yan, bumibili ‘yan sa akin before,” says Jovany.
Like the wide variety of meals he prepares, Jovany holds a diverse set of job experiences under his belt.
Jovany enumerates his former occupations: a magician, sticker contractor, pool attendant, plumber, foreman, even a mami vendor. “May restaurant ako before. Nagkaroon lang talaga ng mga problema kasi noong gumaganda na 'yung business ko,” he recalls. “Biglang napuputol dahil ‘yung aking pwesto, gigibain, kaya hindi tuloy-tuloy ang aking swerte.”
When Jovany found work inside Pacific Plaza, he asked permission from his superiors to start a small business that would help him make ends meet. From there, his humble food enterprise augmented his income. Jovany explains, “[Ang] sinusuweldo ko tuwing kinsenas [at] katapusan ay bitin na talaga sa pamilya ko dahil nga sa dami ko nang loan diyan sa loob — SSS, PAGIBIG, coop, business loan.”
Work life became more uptight for him and his fellow plumbers and technicians with the hiring of a new security manager, who he says increased surveillance on the workers.
“Ako lang binabantayan nila. Bakit ‘yung ibang vendor? Driver, asawa ng driver, nagluluto, diyan din kumukuha ng kuryente,” says Jovany. “‘Yung electric stove, ginagamit nila diyan [upang] makapagluto ng ulam, lantaran pa; samantala, ‘yung sa akin nga, galing pa sa labas ‘yung niluluto ko.”
It has been a while since Jovany last touched his kitchen tools. He wonders when he will cook again. Until the workers and management strike a deal, Jovany’s kaldereta, mami, and Bicol express will have to wait.
Victor Vallega Jr.
Victor Vallega Jr. recalls how, in high school, he and other classmates forgot to wear their IDs. All the others got to enter the classroom — except him.
“‘Bakit pinapasok mo, tapos ako, hindi? Dahil ba ako’ng pinakamaliit, kakayan-kayanin mo lang ako?’” Victor recalls asking the guard. His question went unanswered and he was sent home. “Pagbalik ko, hindi na ako pumasok,” he says.
Many years later, as a member of the Pacific Plaza Towers workers’ union, Victor still sees himself as the quiet one. During meetings, he would sit in his place and try to focus on the matter at hand without saying a word. “Nakikinig lang ako,” he says. “Magbibigay din naman ako ng suggestion 'pag kailangan.”
But eventually, Victor realized he needed to channel his inner high school student to forward their cause. “Napilitan na akong magsalita dahil siyempre, gusto ko ring ilabas ‘yung saloobin ko, kung bakit kami tinanggal,” he says. In their first program in front of the National Conciliation and Mediation Board of the Labor Department, Victor was among those who delivered a speech. He recalls, “Putol-putol pa ‘yung [pananalita] ko.”
That paved the way for Victor to develop a knack for public speaking. Today, he brings the story of their lives, the union, and the strike to the youth through room-to-room information campaigns in universities. “Naa-amaze ako sa kanila kasi kapag ikinuwento na namin ‘yung pinagdaanan namin, naka-focus sila, nakatingin talaga sa’yo,” says Victor.
He is still a man of few words, he admits, but now, he is not one to back down and remain silent. He is no longer the teenager who did not go back to school out of fear and frustration. “Kami ang unang nagwelga rito,” he says. “Paglaki ng mga anak ko, sasabihin nila, ‘Si Papa! Nandiyan si Papa. Nagwelga sila diyan.’”
Romy Villaries stands outside the makeshift tent in front of the condominium, on the lookout for possible guests and members of the media who decide to cover their strike. He gives guests a biscuit box for a chair and tarpaulins for shade against the raging sunlight of midday. At first glance, his actions seem normal for a “welcoming committee” of the picket, but his story reveals something more profound.
The 41-year-old pool attendant from Parang, Maguindanao backed out of college after one week because of a list of requirements and fees that were too expensive to accomplish. “Nakita ko sa magulang ko na parang hindi nila kayang bilhin iyon para sa akin,” he says. “Kaya, nag-decide na lang ako na huminto na lang ako kaysa makita ko silang nahihirapan.”
Romy never expected he would venture far from home, but because of a neighbor who needed a delivery boy for a water business in Quezon City, he left Maguindanao in 1999 and traveled roughly over a thousand kilometers to Manila.
In the months that followed, Romy faced the harsh side of the Metro, receiving low pay for long hours of work, eating unsanitary food, and living alone, missing the company of his family back in Mindanao. He wanted to give up, but with the help of fellow Mindanawons in the city, he plowed through. Eventually, he became a licensed security guard, then a messenger, and finally, a pool attendant. He also met his wife, with whom he now has three daughters.
The hostility of city life never went away. His pool attendant job at the Pacific Plaza Towers included not only water and filter cleaning, but also lifeguarding. It was tiring, he says, but for his daughters, he is not stopping. “Nagpupursigi kami [mag-asawa] para mapaaral sila nang maayos kasi ayaw kong mangyari ‘yung nadaanan ko sa kanila.”
“Naubos na ‘yung takot ko sa Mindanao,” says Romy. “Isa na lang ‘yung talagang [gusto] ko e — maka-survive, makatapos ‘yung mga anak ko. Wala na, wala na akong hinihiling pang iba.”
As of writing, the management and the contractual workers are in negotiations for the lifting of the strike. PUNYAL President Cris Rafales says the management is still upholding its hard-line stance against the demands of the picket. Rafales adds the hunger strike may resume if talks remain fruitless.
If both parties reach an agreement, then the hopes of becoming regulars and their union getting legalized might see the light of day. In the meantime, their tents and placards will remain in place, as their voices continue to break through the polished interiors of BGC.
CNN Philippines tried to reach out to Pacific Plaza Towers Condominium Corporation General Manager Minda Barlis and Human Resources Manager Faye Ramos. Both Barlis and Ramos have yet to comment on the issue.