Honouring Pinays Leading the Fight for Workers' Rights

Honouring Pinays Leading the Fight for Workers' Rights

This labour month and labour movement day, we see it imperative to highlight Pinay labour activists that defended and stood up for their rights in the workplace and advocated for broader workers’ justice.

Throughout history, women have faced and continue to face various forms of oppression, and Filipino women are no exception, given that they live in a patriarchal society. Amongst these are the struggles that Filipino women experience in the workplace, like unfair pay and unsafe working conditions. A 2020 report from the IBON Foundation shows that in the Philippines, on average, women working in agriculture made 12% less than men in 2016. In manufacturing, on average, women made 7.4% less than men in 2016. These statistics paint a troubling picture, but Filipino women’s struggles go beyond wages. Another report by the IBON Foundation in 2020 highlights the lack of improvement in working conditions for Filipino women. Alarmingly, about 15.6% of women worked in perilous conditions in 2016, with the numbers staying stagnant at 15.4% in 2018.

Furthermore, Filipino women experience a prevalence of harassment and violence in the workplace. A 2021 World Risk Poll reports that “at least 60% of workers in the Philippines have experienced violence and harassment at work.” With women more likely to be victims, “13% encountered sexual harassment; 9% encountered psychological and physical harassment; and 12% have experienced all three forms of harassment.” 

These issues not only create hostile environments for women to work on, but also hinder women’s economic empowerment and overall welfare. There is an urgent need for stronger enforcement of existing laws against workplace violence, such as the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention (C190) which “protects workers and other persons in the world of work, including employees as defined by national law and practice, as well as persons working irrespective of their contractual status, persons in training, including interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers and job applicants, and individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer.” Similarly, there is a need for a significant living wage hike that will ensure that all workers, regardless of gender, can afford their basic necessities and will live comfortably. 

Through countless efforts, these women worker groups and activists fought for issues including the lack of decent jobs, unsafe working conditions, severely low wages, contractualization, discrimination and gender-based violence in the workplace. Their struggles led to landmark achievements such as safer workplaces, the right to have unions, and the protection of the workers, especially migrant workers who are especially more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Here are some inspiring examples of the women worker activists and groups that fight for the rights of women in the workplace: 

Photo courtesy of: Mayday Multimedia

Jacquiline Ruiz is the National Spokesperson of The Kilusan ng Manggagawang Kababaihan or KMK (translates to  Movement of Women Workers).  She is an active women and children’s rights activist, and was the executive director of Children’s Rehabilitation Center. KMK is a national alliance of women workers organizations from manufacturing, services and agriculture located in factories, enclaves, plantations, agro-business centers and communities in cities and provinces. 

Photo courtesy of: Kilusang Mayo Uno  

Joanne Cesario is the Vice Chairperson of Kilusang Mayo Uno (translates to May First Movement). Joanne studied film at the University of the Philippines, and has produced films in which she has been awarded multiple awards like the 2023 SGIFF Southeast Asian Documentary Grant, the 2022 Prince Claus Seed Awards, and the 2021 NoExit Grant for Unpaid Artistic Labor. Her short films have screened at international film festivals such as the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Hong Kong Film Festival, and Locarno. She has been a part of KMU since 2020, where she actively campaigns for labor rights and organizes Filipino workers.

Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) is an independent labor center promoting genuine, militant and patriotic trade unionism. It aims to protect and promote the workers’ right to employment, a decent wage, humane working conditions, including their right to form unions, bargain collectively and to participate in strike. They defend the workers movement from yellow unionism and its reformist, economist and collaborationist tendencies; and heighten the political awareness and class consciousness of the workers through massive education, organizing and mobilizations in and out of the workplace.  

Photo courtesy of Kelly Botengan

Kelly Botengan, Settlement Worker. Kelly is a community organizer and settlement worker based in Toronto, Ontario. She arrived in Canada in 2006 through the Live-in Caregiver Program and organized with the Philippine Women Centre and SIKLAB Ontario. Having experienced and understood the struggles of being a migrant worker and caregiver, Kelly began working as a settlement worker in 2011, supporting Filipino caregivers and their families with immigration applications, employment rights, work permit extensions, and more. For the past 13 years, Kelly has personally assisted thousands of caregivers and Filipino families. Before her migration, Kelly was a student organizer in the Philippines, advocating for affordable education.

Photo courtesy of: PSLINK 

Dr. Annie Geron, Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) President. Dr. Geron has been serving the public for most of her life, having been in the National Manpower and Youth Council (NMYC) and TESDA for three decades, and is the Director of the Research and Extension Services Department of Quezon City Polytechnic University (QCPU). She has been organizing and educating government employees across the Philippines since 1987. Annie has received international recognition for her various efforts to fight against corruption and promote good governance, such as the Cultural Award for Anti-Corruption Work from the Confederation of Civil Servants and Salaried Employees of Denmark (FTF) in Copenhagen, Denmark. Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) is a national confederation of government employees and their unions from different national government agencies, state universities and colleges, local government units, government-financial institutions, health, and special sectors.

Gabriela - National Alliance of Filipino Women. GABRIELA is a grassroots-based alliance of more than 200 organizations, institutions, desks and programs based in communities, workplaces and schools throughout all regions and major provinces and cities in the Philippines. It organizes Filipino women, primarily from marginalized sectors of society, and helps educate and empower them to fight for their rights and interests through collective action.

Photo Courtesy of: BIEN 

BIEN - The BPO Industry Employees’ Network. The BPO Industry Employees’ Network (BIEN) is an independent network of employees, by the employees, and for the employees of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines. It aims to promote BPO employees’ rights and welfare. It is estimated that 1.3 million Filipinos were employed in over 1000 BPO companies in 2019, and that figure is showing 8-10% growth every year. BIEN's work, and the need for labour support and organizing for BPO employees is more pertinent than ever.

These are just a few examples of the many women workers groups and activists. They have fought and still continue to fight for the rights and welfare of the Filipino women in the workplace. They have been at the forefront of this fight, and their efforts deserve continuous support. Let us draw inspiration from their stories and fight for a more just and equal work environment that actually benefits them. 

In May, let us not only celebrate the legacies of Filipina worker activists, but also recommit ourselves to amplifying their voices and dismantling the systems that perpetuate inequality. We must continue to fight for wage increase, end gender-based violence in the workplace, and resist Charter Change that will only benefit foreign capitalists and worsen the already severe conditions of workers in general.


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