Dignity of labor versus the capitalist ethos: equality or hierarchy?

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Carmel V. Abao


In recent weeks, the internet has been bursting with viral stories on disgruntled labor: a Virra Mall security guard taking hostages and demanding that “his voice be heard,” a young girl enslaved as a POGO worker, Honda workers demanding a “dignified ending” and fair severance pay, and, workers of ABS-CBN protesting the non-renewal of the TV network’s franchise. In this piece, I argue that these recent events reveal that there is a clear conflict between the value for equality (i.e which informs the belief that there is dignity in labor) and hierarchy (or management prerogative as the foundation of the capitalist ethos).

If Karl Marx were alive today, he would have described these recent displays of worker protest as indicative of “estranged labor.” In his theory of the alienation of labor, Marx claims that in capitalism, the laborer is “alienated” from the products that he or she produces, from his or her labor activity, from his or her essence as a human being, and, from other human beings. In other words, labor is objectified and the laborer is compelled to separate their labor from their “person.”

To quote Marx (1884): “It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things — but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces — but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty — but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence — but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.”

This kind of framing can help us understand how a security guard, sworn “to protect” by virtue of his job, ended up being “destructive.” Or, at the very least, it should lead us to ask: Why do workers have to go through such (violent) lengths just to validate one’s self and insist on one’s dignity as a worker?

Ano’ng trabaho mo? Security guard lang. Kasambahay lang. Construction worker lang. Waiter lang. Titser lang. (What is your job? Just a secutiry guard. Just a house helper. Just a construction worker. Just a waiter. Just a teacher.) These declarations are commonplace and they all signify that some types of work — and thereby, some types of workers — are more important than others.

Even government data is heirarchical. In the latest (2012) Philippine standard occupational classification (PSOC) of the Philippine Statistics Authority, occupations are listed and ranked as follows: 1.) managers, 2.) professionals, 3.) technicians and associate professionals, 4.) clerical support workers, 5.) service and sales workers 6.) skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery workers, 7.) craft and related trades workers, 8.) plant and machine operators and assemblers, 9.) elementary occupations, and 10.) armed forces occupations, nongainful activities and special occupations.

Employment in the country is highest in “elementary occupations” (around 26% of all workers) and “service and sales workers” (around 15%). Elementary occupations are at the bottom of the classification list because they “involve the performance of simple and routine task which may require the use of hand-held tools and considerable physical effort.”

Service and sale workers are deemed higher in the classification as they “provide personal and protective services related to travel, housekeeping, catering, personal care…” but in terms of societal status, they are perceived to be of low status equal to those in elementary occupations (e.g. that security guard in Virra Mall).

Needless to say, those on top of the classification list receive higher wages than those at the bottom of the list. According to the Occupational Wages Survey of 2016, the top 10 highly paid occupations are: 1.) aircraft pilots, navigators and flight engineers, 2.) securities and finance dealers and brokers, 3.) civil engineers, 4.) actuaries, 5.) computer programmers 6.) system analysts and designers, 7.) computer engineers, 8.) accountants and auditors, 9.) production supervisors and general foremen, and, 10.) statisticians. The average monthly wage rate of the top occupation (pilots) is P116,714 while the rate of the top 10th (statisticians) is P41,480.

Those in elementary occupations receive a lot less. As of 2016, the average monthly wage rate of “unskilled workers” is P10,162.

Even the deployment of Filipino workers abroad is classified based on occupational groups. The trend is the same. As of 2018, of the 2,299,000 OFWs deployed, 37.1% were deployed to elementary occupations while 18% were deployed to service and sales.

The abovementioned classification of workers by occupational groups is based on international standards, specifically the United Nations’ international standard classification of occupations (ISOC). These standards are based on an assessment of the following: nature of work performed, formal and informal education and training requirements. In a nut shell, these standards are based on the level and extent of human capital development needed for particular economic activities.

In the global labor market, it is not only human capital that matters, but also gender. In the “race to the bottom,” human capital is not even the determinant anymore, rather, the worker must be low-skill and low-education (thus, often originating from developing countries), of a particular race (e.g Asian/Filipino), and of a particular gender (female). It is therefore not surprising that of the 1,284,000 Filipino women deployed overseas in 2018, 58.7% were in elementary occupations and 18.6% were service and sale workers. The men, meanwhile, were mostly plant and machine operators and assemblers (27.8% of 1,016,000 men deployed overseas).

Here at home, labor force participation is roughly 50% for women and 77% for men (2015 figures). Working women are found mostly in the services sector (71%).

Less than 40% of women in the labor force are said to be in paid employment while the rest are in unpaid jobs. As for the gender wage gap, there are studies that show that Filipino male workers earn, on average, P5,000 more than Filipino female workers.

Inequality in workplaces, thus, is not only based on class but also on gender.

A worker who is dissatisfied with his or her job has two options: exit or voice. The worker can opt to leave his/her job or raise their voice and demand for better working conditions. This option is said to be similar to eating in a restaurant: a dissatisfied customer can leave and eat in another restaurant or he or she could stay and negotiate with the chef so that the meal is adjusted to meet his/her satisfaction.

In the 1980s, American economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff theorized about the “two faces of unionism” (monopoly face and voice face) based on the exit versus voice choices of workers. According to these economists, the first choice was the “classic market mechanism of exit and entry, individual mobility” while the second choice was the more “political mechanism” as it entailed raising “voice” (i.e political participation and bargaining). The latter mechanism suggests that unionism is important for workers to negotiate with their employers either to determine wages (monopoly face or economic unionism) or to negotiate for the well-being of workers (voice face or political unionism). In both types of unionism, collective action, rather than individual action, is necessary. Recent episodes such as the hostage taking in Virra Mall should remind us that “voice” can come in many forms and that raising voice on an individual basis, no matter how radical or violent, is not likely to be very productive or effective. It is only collective action that will push employers — and governments — to narrow the inequality gap between capital and labor.

Perhaps, if the security guard in Virra Mall was a member of a strong labor union, he would not have needed to go to the extreme of hostage taking just to keep his dignity as a worker and to demand better working conditions. The collective voice, however, is necessarily composed of individual voices. In this sense, the voice of that security guard is hugely important. An individual voice may be needed to spark public interest but it is collective action that will uphold the dignity of labor — in all workplaces, and for all workers.


Carmel V. Abao is a faculty member of the Political Science Dept of the Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches political theory and international political economy.