We are in the throes of delivering a “new normal.” This could be a twin or a more evil brother of the inhumane old world, or another world which we have never experienced, and yet long for.
We feel restless in our confinement, distrustful of the powers that be, uncertain of the times. But the working sector is among those hardest hit by the situation. Even before the pandemic, in the neoliberal set-up, majority of workers are already mired in exploitative labor, forced to work long hours under harsh conditions for meager pay. Women workers are also trapped by patriarchy, bearing the multiple burdens of caring and providing for their families. In the factories, offices, or any work spaces, women are vulnerable to gender-based violence.
The pandemic and the militarized solutions of the government have worsened the working class’s already precarious economic situations. In Sta. Rosa, Laguna, workers of Century Pacific Food Inc. are made vulnerable to the coronavirus disease as the food manufacturer refuses to implement safety measures and provide protective equipment such as masks. Workers affected by the government’s haphazard implementation of the lockdown suffer in dark, squalid quarters with poor sanitation, using cardboard boxes as makeshift beds.
In the midst of the pandemic, the Duterte government’s crackdown against unionists continues. Members of Liga na Pinalakas ng Manggagawa at a Coca-Cola plantation also in Sta. Rosa experienced harassment and intimidation in their homes from state forces. On April 23, workers who just finished their 12-hour shifts were brought to Camp Macario Sakay in Los Baños, Laguna.
Meanwhile, the government fails to deliver effective and humane social protection measures. Millions of workers affected by mass lay-offs and reduced working hours are yet to receive the Department of Labor and Employment’s measly, one-time aid of Php 5,000.
Women workers are among those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of March, almost 700,000 workers and informal sector workers have lost their jobs due to the crisis. These include waitresses, clerks, salesladies, call center agents, service crew. These include an elderly woman in Navotas who was fined Php 5,000 for continuing to operate her small sari-sari store, until she was forced to close it down due to bankruptcy. With policies on quarantining and “social distancing,” Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong are asked to work on their day-off, the only day they are able to enjoy their own time. More than ever, migrant workers are prevented by the lockdown to escape sexual and physical abuse by their employers.
As women are oppressed, so they struggle.
Seventy percent of the health and medical frontliners and social workers, including barangay health workers, are women. Women have spearheaded relief operations and fundraising drives to support frontliners, as well as forgotten communities like peasants, the urban poor, and Indigenous peoples. Women initiate efforts online and offline to help other women in need, especially regarding sexual and reproductive health as well as psychosocial support.
While the world is wrapped in seemingly unpredictable events, the ruling system prepares a new world order for us. The Philippine government slowly promotes the concept of the “new normal.” Their proposed house bill paints a dire picture — of a country where women and men’s frustrations are hidden behind masks; where (cashless) transactions and identities are monitored via a National ID system. With everyone forced to stay indoors and rely on the Internet for social connection and for information, citizens are made more vulnerable against surveillance mechanisms and fake news. Dissent on social media is censored, threatened with deportation and imprisonment.
Disasters change the course of history: the women’s strike calling for “bread and peace” in 1917 sparked the Russian Revolution. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed more men than women and led to a shortage of workers that paved the way for more women to take on jobs previously inaccessible to them. Despite the flu, suffragists (aside from caring for the sick) “burned up the telephone lines and sent letters and took out ads in newspapers” in their fight for American women’s right to vote, which they finally won in 1920. With the men fighting in the battlefields during the world wars, women also got involved in manufacturing as well as in the different scientific fields. These involvements are part of the larger movement of history where women are thrust into a world that is suddenly not only by and for men.
While still in the path of darkness, where the end that meets the new beginning remains unforeseeable, the “new normal” challenges us to fearlessly imagine and determinedly build what majority of us yearn for — a humane and just world. That new normal will give sustenance to women and men according to the work they have done for the collective. It is a future where violence and oppression shall remain ghosts of the past.
And now, on Labor Day 2020, we are all mothers and midwives birthing. Let us unite, free ourselves and others from the chains of a dying world, and welcome in earnest anticipation that first cry.