Guimaras’ miniature galleon-makers

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr.

BUENAVISTA, GUIMARAS, Philippines – In this village of intergenerational artisans, men of the household do the carving of “Duldol” (Kapok tree) wood while women stitch the canvass fabric for the miniature galleons exclusively made in the island since 1948 after World War II.


It was in this post-war era that people of Rizal village in Buenavista town started crafting miniature boats for either sale or barter with foreigners  – among them, American, Greek, Chinese, and Japanase traders  – passing through the port in Guimaras Island.


The carved boats started with the simplest of designs now among the variety of miniature boats sold today. Forefathers of present craftsmen began with a model of what locals call “paraw”, a boat with two projecting sails originating in the Visayas region.

Today, the village artisans could make multi-decked model vessels of much more complicated and detailed structures from the classic cruise boats or wooden yachts with multiple sails, galleons or the cargo ships of the 16th to 18th centuries, to old wooden frigates or warships complete with details of canons and barrels.


A 60-inch galleon takes as long as a month to make but can be sold in international trade fairs for as high as P14,000.

Men and women in this village across generations know the craft by heart that their talent and skill no longer shocks them. But a close inspection of each model galleon only further drives the point that these can only be done by an expert craftsman. (END)




Tobacco control: What about the supply side?

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Ezra Acayan

BALAOAN, LA UNION, Philippines – There are no more bills to pay, no more children to send to school, no more house to build, but Manong (Older Brother) Dominador ‘Domeng’ C. Clemente and his wife don’t even need an alarm clock to jolt them up from sleep at 5 in the morning to head to their 3-hectare tobacco farm.


The couple of 33 years no longer remembers a year in their life when their family and the generations of families before them did not harvest tobacco.

Tobacco is life, money, family, and community to them.


But it is also a fatal peril for many others.

Almost 48% of male adults and 9% of female adults in the Philippines are smokers as of 2009. That is some 17.3 million smokers who are susceptible to preventable causes of disease, disability, and premature deaths.

Smoking is a habit that dies hard.

In the town of Balaoan, the labor-intensive farming for this crop is also a means of living that is hard to shake off.


Mang Domeng’s eldest daughter is already a nurse in Taiwan. His two other children finished criminology and education courses respectively from their parents’ hard-earned tobacco money.

They tell their aging father who only understand them in the vernacular to stop growing tobacco. We no longer need it, they say. He doesn’t have to.


But Mang Domeng keeps renting a plot of land from an arendo (a local landowner) so he can be with his workers from morning till noon.

At the farm, they cut the tobacco leaves that prior to harvest serve as their canopy at noon when they eat together.


The leaf is both product and protection from sunlight for them.

The taller the plant, the better the yield. Class double A to A, as the big-time tobacco company classifiers would say. The types that can be sold at P80 per kilo.


The taller the plant, the higher also is their canopy.

At lunch, the women in their lives bring food for the tobacco farmers. Meat is served. They whisper to each other that it is cat meat, but eat and laugh like tomorrow’s never coming. Bottled soft drinks are passed on from a pail of crushed ice.

Finding refuge from the sun, the farmers squat on the narrow strip of soil in their field dividing the tobacco plants into rows. Their hands all greasy from the resin of the plants during harvest.


Mang Domeng leads about a dozen workers, tells them to gather the leaves early this time, assures everyone there will be no work in the field when the sun shines its brightest that day.

The farmer smiles with the smile of a man at his prime who sees only the good in life. All is well in his tobacco paradise.


Paradise it is for many of these tobacco farmers who prefer the simplicity of cultivating their land for their families, for others’ consumption, and for what they call the tatak (signature) of Balaoan.

In this side of the country, the mere mention of a smoking ban brings residents into reflection.

“A tobacco ban would make our hearts heavy. We paid for our children’s education through farming tobacco,” 49-year-old farmer Hilario O. Olidan said in Filipino.

“We hope they won’t ban tobacco because many will lose their jobs,” he added.


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, including inside public transport vehicles and other cars.

One of the premises of Executive Order No. 26 is the belief that “public health takes precedence over any commercial or business interest.”

Duterte recognized that cigarette smoking puts a strain not only on the financial resources of individual households but on public healthcare.

The order dated May 16 points to “scientific evidence [that] has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability, lead to devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences.”

“… an increasing number of Filipinos become afflicted with and die each year of tobacco-related diseases such as stroke, heart disease, emphysema, various cancers and nicotine addiction, and both the public and workers in facilities where smoking is allowed are most at risk from these and other tobacco-related diseases,” the order explains.


While tobacco farmers in Balaoan fear such policy directives, experts assure the public that these measures will not cripple the tobacco farming industry.

“There is no evidence that tobacco control measures will unduly affect our tobacco farmers, to the contrary, reports from the Department of Finance demonstrate that our tobacco exportation has increased,” explained  Dr. Lee P. Yarcia, health law and policy consultant.

Philippine tobacco exportation ensures a market for existing tobacco farmers.


There are 55,533 tobacco farmers in the Philippines, according to data in the years 2010 to 2011. This is 0.16% of the country’s total employment.

But tobacco growing is extremely labor-intensive. It yields relatively low income compared to input costs as well as foreseen negative externalities – i.e., costs to health and public interest that are hard to put a price on.

Houses in Balaoan have burned down because of nearby unattended multistoried fireplaces meant for cooking tobacco leaves. These structures need round-the-clock monitoring for a week after harvest.


“Both under the Sin Tax Law and the WHO (World Health Organization) Framework Convention on Tobacco, we recognize that tobacco farming is an unsustainable and unhealthy practice for our farmers, for our environment, and for the people,” the tobacco control expert added.


Tobacco cultivation is often related to cyclical poverty due to unfair loan conditions as well as diseases due to the poor handling of strong pesticides.

Still, farmers in Balaoan are wary of leaving tobacco farming.


One of the major obstacles for tobacco farmers to diversify their crops is the lack of technical knowledge when it comes to growing other crops, having been used to tobacco growing and trading in their farms.

“The Philippines has both domestic and international commitment to support tobacco farmers shift to alternative livelihood such as engaging in food crop production,” explained Yarcia.


He explained that the sin tax law “guarantees that tobacco-producing regions have earmarked funds from revenues collected from sin taxes.”

A percentage of sin taxes collected from cigarettes is meant to fund programs that would help tobacco farmers to diversify their crops.

The challenge, said Yarcia, is “to ensure implementation of the law so that our farmers will fully benefit from tobacco control measures.”


But it will take more than lip service to elevate the discussion on tobacco control among farmers on the ground.

Education and awareness on the need for effective regulation is scarce in areas like Balaoan.

In Balaoan, current alternative crops such as corn and watermelon provide lower income compared to tobacco due to the lack of a captured market the farmers can directly sell to.

Mutlinational tobacco companies enter into deals with tobacco farmers to gain exclusive purchase of their crops, providing a sure income for land lease holders like Mang Domeng and a guaranteed return for the months-long labor of his workers. These giant cigarette firms also extend pre-harvest loans meant for fertilizers and pesticides.

Statutory law also grants incentives for local governments in the form of tobacco excise taxes.

Other crops are simply not given the same attention as tobacco in both public policy and private investments.


Not only that. In a town reliant on tobacco farming, tobacco has an impact on the most important elements of human life.

Tobacco farming provides liquidity, has strong emotional resonance among families who survive and thrive through selling smoked and dried tobacco leaves to cigarette companies, and has become part of people’s daily routines.

The dignity in the work that they do is something Balaoan’s tobacco farmers take pride in.


“What else will we do? What else will we plant?” asked Mang Domeng’s wife, convinced that there is no other alternative.

But this is far from the truth, if only shifting perceptions on the ground is prioritized as part of the transition process and if only food crops are subsidized in national laws the way tobacco is.


Tobacco farming is indeed systematically entrenched.

Local governments earn from tobacco cultivation through their shares from national taxes. Most farmers also simply rent lands from landowners who are part of associations that have tobacco as their crop of choice.

“It is high time that we implement our policy commitment to pursue genuine and effective tobacco control measures, which includes supply side reduction measures,” said Yarcia. (END)


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“This story was produced under the ‘Mga Nagbababang Kuwento: Reporting on Tobacco and Sin Tax Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation with the support of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The grant-giving bodies have no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”



‘This land is ours’

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr.

SOFRONIO ESPAÑOLA, PALAWAN, Philippines – Tatang (Old father) Suede walks as if carrying a heavy weight on his back, a perfect slouch for an aging man with a rare lively smile.

He tells you his story somber at first then all at once releasing a laugh with his teeth protruding. A tribesman of his stature has known life at its fullest – not wanting, finding abundance in the land gifted by a divine creator he calls Ama (Father).

Ama,” he begins his prayer. “I thank you for the food before us, for our guests and the love shared among us,” he adds in the vernacular before a meal.


It is hard not to marvel at the beauty of the rough, beaten paths one crosses en route to Tatang Suede’s community, the daunting trees born of nature, scenes that beguile, amuse, provoke thoughts that occasionally drive action, anger, and, the universe forbid, cause desensitization out of intensity.

But when he calls on Ama to thank for their land, one understands the compulsion for gratitude.

Unlike many of the younger generation members of the Palaw’an Tribe in the village of Iraray in Southern Palawan, Tatang Suede knows what it means to not give in to the seemingly manufactured needs of this progressively consumerist society.


“There was a time one peso can last a family for a month,” Tatang Suede, tribal chief and folk healer, shares.

But nowadays, when a member of the tribe sees a dayo (non-native) with a purchased good that was not always a household staple, one feels a want to have. The need for possession comes only after comparing life to the other.


Suddenly, they could no longer prepare their own coffee and needed 3-in-1 pre-mixed coffee powders in sachets. Suddenly, the collective chanting was not enough for entertainment and they needed transistor radios to keep their minds off of their continuing struggle as indigenous peoples to overcome barriers to marginalization and social neglect in part due to their geographically isolated communities.


The daily burdens faced by indigenous peoples, who are among the most marginalized sectors in their localities, are no secret.


Some of the areas in Iraray village have yet to be distinguished as ancestral domains by law. Despite being the de facto sanctuary of indigenous peoples and their ancestors, the tribal families do no hold the title to these lands.


The titles are crucial, as projects both of government and non-profit groups identify IP beneficiaries based on lands that are ancestral domains under law. Their community, for example, have yet to be powered by electricity. At night, they rely on battery-operated light. It’s not always a problem for them. The elders know the terrain like the back of their hand. But for younger generations who wish to review their school lessons or do homework at night, it can be quite a challenge.

In the evening, the elders form a circle and exchange stories in open space. One story stands out. It was their first and thus far only time in the city. They had no idea what escalators were for and had to march hand in hand crossing a street, what with all the jeepneys (mini-buses) and cars. Here in the forest, they say, they can never get lost. They’re not terrified at the sight of a wild animal, even a snake. But vehicles in the streets? That’s a different story.


Tatang Suede’s slouch is an apt metaphor for the burden he carries as leader of a tribe seeking to fight what they call the unjust land-grabbing for political gains of a long-dead governor back in the 1970s.


Tatang Suede shares that the titles to the land where they and their ancestors’ have lived were named after members of a powerful local religious sect known for currying political favors.


Elders of the tribe swear by their ancestors that the individuals whose names appear on the land titles have never set foot on the land they proudly call their children’s inheritance.


“All my children have tried their luck in the city, living with their families there. My favorite son is the one who chose to stay here in our land to help me till it,” explains one elder in the vernacular.


To the tribesmen, their land is sacred and so are the blessings that emanate from this gift of nature.

Beyond issues of land-grabbing, the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples – a state agency with a comprehensive archive on tribes in the Philippines – is also beset with manpower and funding problems.

Items for the instruments needed for the prerequisite perimeter survey prior to the titling of these lands are often taken out of the proposed state budget that is enacted each fiscal year. With limited funding, this means the processing of pending applications for certificates of ancestral domain titles (CADTs) would usually be unduly delayed.


Tatang Suede lives with no regret, as he looks to his wife Nanay (mother) Etha for inspiration.

“No matter what the papers say, those [areas of land] are yours,” Tatang tells his fellow tribesmen, who have yet to see titles bearing their names. (END)




A marriage thwarted by a massacre

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photo By: Elaine Tiu

MANILA, Philippines – Erlyn Umpal was the fiance of slain UNTV cameraman McGilbert Arriola, among those slaughtered in the Maguindanao massacre of November 23, 2009.

That day, dozens of armed men fired upon 58 civilians including 34 journalists who they brought near a mass grave in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province, where the victims’ lifeless bodies were buried by a state-purchased backhoe like mere gravel.

It is one of the country’s bloodiest election-related incidents since the restoration of democracy and the single deadliest for members of the press, whose lives are put in peril day in and out for the work they do.

Erlyn and McGilbert were supposed to be married December that same year, a month after the unspeakable mass murder.

It was just fourteen days after Erlyn had given birth to their first baby when her fiance McGilbert was gunned down by men who somehow believed they could get away with a mass killing so gruesome that the on-site documentarists of its aftermath shed tears as their camera rolls.

Erlyn and McGilbert’s son would grow up not knowing his biological father.

In 2010, then Justice Secretary Alberto Agra cleared two members of the notorious Ampatuan clan of any wrongdoing in the treacherous slays – the first of many legal blows in the long, arduous battle for justice by victims and family members left behind like Erlyn.

Seven years after the massacre, the struggle continues.

(Below is an official update as of Nov. 23, 2016 from the Philippines’ Supreme Court on the cases in relation to the mass murder)

SC MEDIA BRIEFING – November 23 (Ampatuan Update) by Buena Bernal on Scribd


Empathy nurtured in workplaces with people with intellectual disabilities

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr. 

CARMONA, CAVITE, Philippines – To understand another takes some imagining.

Imagine what it would be like to be him and not you. Internalize another person’s lived experience. Consider that there is a reality different from yours.


Jomarie A. Espinosa‘s weekly routine is that of a typical government worker.

He arrives everyday at the Carmona Municipal Hall at 7:41 am, with or without a flag ceremony.


On Mondays when the flag is raised and they each fall in line at the town plaza, he counts – often accurately – who is and isn’t in line.

Wala sa flag ceremony. Late ka (Not in the flag ceremony. You’re late),” he would later tell the tardy state worker matter-of-factly.

Jomarie, 24, serves as an administrative aide at the town’s treasury office.

He arranges in neatly stacked piles stickers for registered vehicles, bundles them together using a rubber band, and places them inside a wooden box he opens and closes in a repetitive motion.

As he opens the box, his head slightly tilts towards it and he extends his neck to the box’s opening seemingly smelling the government stickers as if they are releasing a sweet aroma.

He does this for a time before he proceeds to explaining the rest of his work with the excitement of a man on the first day of his dream job.

In a rushed tone, he enumerates his tasks while pointing to the varied paraphernalia on his table.

“LTFRB,” he points to the car stickers. “Nagfa-filing kasi ako (I file documents),” he says, as he turns each page of the receipt bundle organized based on their series numbers. “Cedula (Community Tax Certificate),” he shows the paper that citizens need to fill out. “Gugupitin ko (I will cut this),” he adds. “Pag naubos, nagbibigay Kuya Ruel. Sasama ka sa bodega (When the paper runs out, Kuya Ruel gives me a new batch. Are you going with me to the warehouse)?” he says all these, almost without once breathing.


Jomarie actually enjoys these tasks and is proud of the work he does.

“Treasury Office. Administrative aide,” he says slowly as he traces with his fingers the letters to these words written below his name on a paper with his photo plastered to the wall above his table.

Ang boss ko si ‘Tres’ (My boss is ‘Tres’),” he says, referring to the municipal treasurer.

He shows a sample tax certificate he helps seal, and says he brings this first to Ate Norma and then to his boss “Tres” (shortened form of the word treasurer). “Papirma po (Please sign),” he tells the boss.

During mornings when the cashiers are not yet around but there are already clients arriving, he tells the applicant-clients with a toddler’s grin: “Ma’am, Sir, upo po kayo (Ma’am, Sir, please sit down)!”

He enters the treasury office noticing who is gone.

Si Kuya Dondi absent. Absent si Kuya Dondi (Kuya Dondi is absent. He is absent),” he makes the announcement to the office staff.

In truth, Dondi is not absent but is out on a state-sponsored training for government workers. Jomarie has been told this. He just hasn’t remembered.

“Leave?” he asks his supervisor, after he was lovingly corrected. “Ah,” he adds, like an attendance compliance officer.

People with autism like Jomarie are routinely employed in the town of Carmona.


This is Jomarie’s second try at the treasury office. He was first deployed to the revenue collection unit, but he experienced a bout after feeling too much pressure with too little workload. He prefers to be working 8 am to 5 pm nonstop except during scheduled breaks. He likes it when there are jokes passed around and smiles exchanged.

Jomarie walks to a nearby table. “Kuya RJ. Working!” he exclaims to the man in front of a desktop computer, as he gives RJ a high five.

He now works for the licensing unit, which releases business permits for investors in Carmona. He says he is looking forward to the month of January, when the one-stop shop is set up in town for business permit applications. He knows his work is important. He says he will make sure he will be in the January fair.

Under a government circular, these applications need to be processed within 30 minutes. Jomarie is up for the challenge.

On days the applications are scarce, his direct supervisor Teresa P. Laurora assigns him to assist in other units.


Gusto niya laging may trabaho, laging may ginagawa (He wants to be constantly working, constantly on the move),” says Teresa.

A few seconds later, Teresa sheds tears. “Masaya lang po (I’m just happy),” the 20-year government service worker says.

Jomarie remains oblivious of the scene, as if a crying supervisor is a normal occurrence in the workplace.

He walks around, passes documents to other staff members.


“Ballpens, rubber band, stapler,” he notes verbally the supplies he is tasked to get from the warehouse.

On the days he goes to the warehouse, Jomarie is sweat-soaked. But he doesn’t mind. All tasks are equal to him, the way his co-workers are all likeable in his eyes.

“… Kuya RJ, Kuya Aries, Kuya Raffy, Kuya Tutuy,” he makes a list of his favorite co-workers, actually mentioning everyone in the team.

Jomarie’s reality and way of perceiving the world differs from how the world is perceived by many.

What is noisy chatter that needs to be tuned out for many to continue with their tasks may be intolerable ringing to some people with intellectual disabilities. What is simple human touch that to many may signal connection may be an incomprehensible violation of personal space.

Speech pathologist Kenneth R. Dizon says disability exists in all shapes and sizes.

“Some of these ‘hidden’ disabilities include individuals on the Autism spectrum. Individuals on the spectrum experience the world with heightened sensitivity,” Dizon explains in an interview.

“This means that their sense of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling is amplified. High frequency sounds, flickering lights, pungent odors will be painful and hard for them to manage, which will therefore result to uncontrollable tantrums, spacing out or whining,” he explains further.


In workplaces with people with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs), there has to be a level of accommodation for the special needs of PWIDs. The employer first extends accommodation by hiring PWIDs, but co-workers definitely need to accommodate and attend to these needs to ensure continuity of such a pro-PWID program.

And it is a worthy accommodation.

After Jomarie’s first attempt as an aide at the treasury office, he underwent rehabilitation. There was too much noise, too much jokes, too little tasks at the revenue collection unit. There were also co-workers who took offense from Jomarie’s straightforward comments on attendance and tardiness.

Today, most of them understand him better.

Dizon says there are PWIDs who perceive their environment literally, a trait that PWIDs’ co-workers need to empathize with.

“While individuals with social difficulties may seem conversant at face value, these kids will have difficulties understanding ‘abstractions’ or words that doesn’t have a physical association. These includes understanding jokes, knowing what honesty mean and social rules such as personal space. Crocodile tears may be interpreted as a reptile crying in vain than describing someone who is insincere,” he explains.

There is no denying that people with intellectual disabilities who are willing to sweat for a living should be given a shot in the labor force.


Such a space was also given to PWIDs by Quezon City-based Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café, an establishment that hires people with autism and down syndrome who will work alongside trained kitchen staff.

In Carmona, there is also 20-year-old Raichan Mark O. Dearoz, a shy and quiet young man in the Information Technology department.


Raichan speaks in a hushed tone with his mouth barely opening, like there is a secret to be told.

He was first deployed at the Carmona human resources department, until his supervisor discovered his love for computers.


He not only tinkers with softwares but can actually assemble the computer’s processing unit.


Unlike Jomarie, however, Raichan speaks fluently. Raichan simply lacks the social skills Jomarie is known for.


Early detection of intellectual disabilities helps in tailor-fitting special needs programs in schools.


(Note: NBS cannot detect autism but other intellectual disabilities including down syndrome)

“The causes are varied,” says Dr. Melanie Santillan, head of PhilHealth’s Product Team for Special Benefits, for “limitations on intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior.”

But Dr. Melanie Alcausin, current director of the Newborn Screening Reference Center, explains that preventing intellectual disabilities is one of the main goals of newborn screenings.

“If timely screening is done and if diagnosis is confirmed and management is started early, babies with these metabolic conditions may lead normal and productive lives. Judicious long-term management and strict compliance to medication and treatment are important in achieving this goal,” says Dr. Alcausin.

Photo by Faye Sales
Photo by Faye Sales

“At present, there are two kinds of newborn screening being offered, the basic six-disorder screening and the expanded newborn screening, which screens for 28 disorders. The six disorders are Congenital Hypothyroidism (CH), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, Phenylketonuria (PKU), Maple syrup Urine disease (MSUD) Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, and Galactosemia. CH, PKU and MSUD may lead to intellectual disabilities if not detected and managed early,” she explains further.

Dr. Mary Antonette Y. Remonte, MDG Team Leader of PhilHealth, also explains that newborn screenings “can be availed of in rural areas… These facilities are located all over the country – rural or urban.”

Each PhilHealth-accredited birthing facility is required to have NBS services.

“As of December 2015 there are 2981 accredited birthing homes,” she says, based on PhilHealth statistics.

There are, however, some areas where birthing facilities are inaccessible to community members.

Not all local public schools have special education centers or programs, despite children from low-income families relying on government institutions for early learning and development.

People with intellectual disabilities battle social stigma, unemployment during working age, as well as exclusion resulting from misinformed biases.

But early detection and subsequent intervention as well as accessibility of special needs programs will hone their abilities and special talents at a much earlier age.

“One of the most important factors to determine success in therapy is early intervention. Once a kid is identified with difficulties in speech, parents need to take an active role in seeking necessary services for the child,” Dizon explains.

In geographically isolated areas, families can rarely afford therapy for their children with intellectual disabilities.

Photo by Faye Sales

In the village of Gais-Guipe in Northern Philippines, the family of 7-year-old Rolando ‘Andoy’ Mercado who was born with down syndrome relies solely on the special education program of the local government for his transition needs. His mother Edna says there are even days Andoy is unable to attend school due to the travel cost and allowance needed. His father Joselito’s earnings as a farmer do not always suffice for him and his siblings.

Dr. Melanie Santillan, head of PhilHealth’s Product Team for Special Benefits, says the state health insurance firm “recently approved the benefits for children with disabilities that shall cover assistive devices and sessions of rehabilitation for development disabilities.”

“The details of operationalization are still being drafted and shall undergo series of stakeholder consultations prior to publication of the circular,” she explains.

In many instances, a simple mention of the name of a person with disability or observations in their behaviour elicits laughter and ridicule.

Photo by Faye Sales

Among his peers, Andoy is called many derogatory names that shame him and relegate him as an anomaly. He is the first to laugh when he is called such things; no tinge of hurt seen in his eyes.

But a simple understanding of PWIDs’ needs can also change this.


Workplaces like that of Carmona and Puzzle have become perfect spaces to expand this understanding.

Napakalaki ang naitulong ng trabaho ko dito sa Puzzle. Dati nakikita ko lang sa publiko ‘yung mga taong may autism at may down syndrome pero hindi ko alam kung bakit at ano ang mga ugali nila (Working in Puzzle is such a big help for me. I only ever see people with intellectual disabilities in public before, but I did not know about their traits),” says 38-year-old kitchen worker Rhodora ‘Dhoray’ Bolina, who now knows better than to laugh at people with similar conditions.


Rhodora says she has learned to help pacify the fears of her PWID-co-workers.

Iyong may ibang pagkakataon kasi… ‘pag nagkamali sila kinakabahan din sila (There are times when they have bouts, like that, not that they are making a scene, it’s just that when they commit a mistake, they start getting scared),” she said.

Kailangan lang din na kausapin sila ng mahinahon na hindi mali ang ginagawa nila at okay lang magkamali (You just need to calmly talk to them that they are doing things right and that it is okay to make mistakes),” she added.


Another Puzzle worker, Edward Caesar C. Lagustan, says his PWID-co-workers are like younger siblings to him having worked at the store for two years.


Parang napalapit na rin po ‘yung loob ko sa kanila kasi hindi po sila iba… at matuturi ko po silang pamilya (I have become closer to them because to me they are not different… I treat them as family),” says Edward.


Kasi po dati, una, parang iba po sila. Pero ngayon noong nakasama ko sila sa mahabang panahon, mas lalo ko naintindian kung bakit sila ganoon (Before, I saw them as different. Now that I’ve interacted with them for a long period, I understand them better),” he explains.

Edward says there are times his PWID-co-workers suddenly stay silent or turn red and cry. He says some of them used to fear cooking oil but now can cook their own snacks, like potato fries and fried chicken.


Carmona revenue collection clerk Nael M. Doblada, Jomarie’s former supervisor, says her work with Jomarie has made her a better parent to her two teenagers whose needs now differ from when they were still pre-adolescents.

Parang siya naging baby namin rito. Para kasing meron kang dapat intindihin… Unawain mo ‘yung sarili niyang diskarte (Jomarie has become like our son here. It’s like there is someone you need to understand better… Empathize with his own strategies),” she explains in tears.

Photo by Buena Bernal

Wilfredo F. Concho, senior administrative assistant and Raychan’s co-worker at the Carmona IT unit, says he learned about “iyong bang sistema ng diplomasya (a system of diplomacy)” that needs to be utilized when dealing with PWIDs.

Jomarie, for his part, adores his office which to him is a space where play and income generation intertwines.

He said of his first salary: “Chicheck ng pera. Bawal mawala. Nilagay ko lang sa bag. Bigay lola ko, tita ko, magulang. Thank you. (I checked the money. It can’t be lost. I placed it in my bag. Gave some to my grandmother, my aunt, my parents. Thank you.)”

May ID yata dito (There is an identification card here)!” he exclaimed when asked why he loves the Carmona town hall’s treasury office.

Luma na ID ko. Pero wala pang bonus (My ID is already old. I have no bonus yet),” he adds immediately, like a balancing act.

Jomarie’s reasons for loving his workplace or at least what he can communicate as his reasons may differ from what binds many to their jobs, certainly not merely their work identification cards.

But co-workers of people with intellectual disabilities like Jomarie say the presence of PWIDs makes a lot of difference.

Photo by Buena Bernal

Iyong aura, panay laging masaya (The aura here is always joyful),” says revenue clerk Nael.

Lagi siyang pinaalalahanan kami (He always reminds us of the rules),” says licensing officer Teresa.

People with disabilities who are employed are transforming workplaces. Beyond that, they’re transforming people.

Understanding people with intellectual disabilities can only happen when they are included in the spaces we navigate on a daily basis, including and especially the workplace.

What they take home as co-workers of people with intellectual disabilities is the acknowledgement that each person has his or her own separate reality which needs some level of understanding, providing them an impetus to imagine what the world is from another person’s lens.

The world of work is a wonderful opportunity to bring out the tenderness in people. (END)


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“This story was produced under the ‘Media & PWID: Covering Stories on Capabilities and Contributions Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation and Unilab Foundation. The grant-giving bodies have no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”


Handline fishermen out on the deep sea

Text & Photos By: Buena Bernal

SOUTH COTABATO, Philippines – A quarter of a kilometer away from the fish port, less than a dozen handline fishermen engage in lively banter while sitting atop the vessel they’ve treated home for the past month.

As company-hired tuna classifiers and checkers at the port negotiate the trade of these fishermen’s catch, they act as onlookers from afar.

Some of them wondering how much they’ll earn from the volume of fishes caught, around 30 kilograms each, in their month-long deep sea expedition.

These men have no say on the price of their catch, a customary practice in the tuna industry here at the country’s known tuna capital General Santos City.


Noisy chatter during the pricing persists in the early mornings at the city’s fish port, but none of the noise come from the fishermen who remain powerless in the negotiations.

Tuna is classified, priced according to classification by hired men of big-time tuna exporting companies.


Tuna is classified by inserting a metal rod in random parts of the fish, extracting thin and cylindrical pieces of fish meat. Fish meat will then be inspected by the company-hired classifier’s bare eye.


Despite their non-intervention in the terms of the trade, handline fishermen who go out to the deep sea are treated, by customary practice, not as workers or regular employees but as independent entrepreneurs, supposedly independently selling their catch but in actuality benefiting only under a disadvantageous sharing scheme with boat operators and owners who at times act as dummies of tuna exporting firms.

The boat owners are usually ordinary folks in the village tapped by companies to act on paper as the employers. This way, firms deny employer responsibility when things go murky, such as when the fishermen are caught on foreign waters.

The fishermen lack the protection guaranteed under law in the presence of an employer-employee relationship including employer obligations for workplace safety, social insurance, retirement pay, state-mandated bonuses such as a 13th month pay, and other occupational benefits under law needed to ensure that they and their families have a chance at a better life.

Despite the regularity of the service they render, the informality of their work arrangement from their hiring to the conditions of their actual labor and the provision of pay prevails.


Some are fine with this, kept mum by sheer lack of awareness on their rights or the simple need to earn a living in peace.

Others are speaking out, attempting to break the cycle of destitution within their ranks. 


Outraged, they’re demanding changes, citing alleged corporate attempts at watering down regulatory mechanisms, both envisioned and in place.

A new government order in the works, still being lobbied against by industry power players, seeks to improve their working conditions.

They spend 10 days to 6 months at sea for each fishing expedition, after all.


Twenty-one of these fishermen slept in the cramped space shown in the photo above for a month while at sea.

They are expected to receive a share of around P3,000 to P7,000 each for the month’s work away from their loved ones on land.

Handline fishing in the deep sea uses a vertical rod and a bait to target a fish. Groups of fishermen board a commercial fishing vessel which carries small boats locally known as pakura.


When on the deep sea, each of the men hop on the pakura (seen in the photo below) carried by the mother vessel to start the targeted fishing.


Handline fishing is seen as a more sustainable and eco-friendly method of deep sea fishing compared to purse seine fishing or the use of nets. Purse seine fishing usually involves a needless by-catch of younger fishes, which are important to be kept alive to propagate the sea’s tuna population.

The resulting catch of these handline fishermen in General Santos City – sashimi-grade tuna marketed as one of the world’s best – end up in foreign markets, duly and steeply priced for export.


Where does your sashimi-grade tuna come from? Somewhere along the supply chain is the labor of men like them. (END)

Labor leader’s death dampens rural workers’ pursuit for land reform

Text & Photos By: Buena Bernal


NEGROS OCCIDENTAL, Philippines – Rolando Panggo was not a dancer but he loved to dance – when drunk, during parties organized by his labor group and special occasions at home.

He was a shy and quiet man. But when inebriated, the myth of Bacchus becomes perceived reality through his dancing.

There was less dancing when Rolando, nicknamed Lando, took upon himself the task of organizing a group of long-time sugar cane plantation workers to help them fight for better wages.

Lando is known as ‘Nong Lando to most of his comrades in the local labor sector, where he has been a labor organizer in Negros Occidental province for over 2 decades.

(‘Nong is a shortened form of the word Manong, a vernacular term of endearment for an older brother.)

Through the country’s agrarian reform program, the 46-year-old ‘Nong Lando was resolute in helping these rural workers who look up to him finally own their due share of the land that they and their fathers’ fathers have tilled for over half a century.

On November 29, 2014, ‘Nong Lando died.

He was on his way home riding a motorcycle with his cousin, when a car blocked their way and an unidentified man alighted to point a gun at them.

The man dragged Lando to the side of the National Highway, shot him in the head, and took off.

Lando’s body lay right beside the tall, blade-like, and forest green grasses of sugar cane his province is known for. He was proclaimed dead on arrival at the town’s infirmary.

Lando’s youngest daughter Lea Jane still believes her father is coming back home.

At night, as Lando’s grieving widow tucks in the 4-year-old kid to sleep, Leah Jane releases an innocent smile and tells her mom she is still waiting for Papa.

Demolition of houses

‘Nong Lando’s death has dampened organizing efforts at Hacienda Salud, where long-time tenant-workers are taking their chance to become land-owners.

’Yung iba, hindi maka-intindi. Parang natakot na (Others don’t understand. It’s like they were consumed with fear),” said Jose Julo Dablo, president of the Hacienda Salud Farm Workers Association (HASAFAWA).

Like many labor organizers, the late ‘Nong Lando was in charge of morale – keeping the workers’ spirits hopeful in the face of great tribulation.

The acts of intimidation by the arendo or the plantation’s lessee increased after Lando’s death, said 37-year-old Maria (alias), wife of one the rural workers.

Routinely, Maria would help out her husband in the daily tasks at the hacienda (estate) – planting the cut stalks of cane, ploughing the land, and pulling out weeds.

A group is then contracted to harvest the canes for mass sale at the local sugar refinery.

The hacienda, located at the village of Romirang in Negros Occidental’s town of Isabela, has been home to dozens of families whose ancestors lived and died as farm workers there.

These generations of families have built their homes in the hacienda, but all of them were at the beck and call of one arendo after another through the years.

HASAFAWA officer Mary Grace Narciso said the groups’ land dispute with the plantation’s owner – who is not in the Philippines but has leased out the land to a local businessman – angered the lessee.

The lessee had allegedly pressured them to withdraw the case through various forms of harassment, including firing farm workers and demolishing the houses in the hacienda passed on from generation to generation of farm workers.

Plantation road

Over 32 houses were demolished in 2015 – all erected by families who have applied as agrarian reform-beneficiaries with the help of Lando.

Since then, the farm workers who were driven out of the hacienda they were born into have tried their luck in industries unfamiliar to them – as drivers of local public transport vehicles, for example.

Some of them are still hunting for jobs, making no income in the meantime.

Maria herself is starting to doubt if their struggle for land ownership will bear fruit, casually and with reservation asking in the vernacular to what end are their efforts for.

But she immediately lets go of the thought, as she pulls her kid in between her thighs, as if the sight of the young child makes her forget.

Chilling effect

Freedom of association is one of the cornerstones of promoting decent work for all, crucial in ensuring that members of the working class have a shot at a better life.

Mary Grace questioned how a daily wage of less than P300 (around US$6), which was what each farm worker received at the hacienda, would suffice if one is already sending kids to school.

HASAFAWA members maintain that the birth of the group was driven by a desire to break the perverse cycle of intergenerational poverty among them.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 141, also known as the Rural Workers’ Organizations Convention of 1975, mandates that such groups “remain free from all interference, coercion or repression.”

A universally applicable standard on labor rights, the said international instrument was ratified by the Philippines in 1979. This means the country is bound to institute policies that ensure its application.

Despite this, Filipino labor leaders and organizers like Lando are threatened with trumped-up charges, actual violence, and in his case, even death.

This creates a culture of fear among those who desire to form or join workers’ groups, which can legally demand through the workers’ collective power for better labor conditions.

The alleged forms of harassment against labor organizing in rural areas are on top of what international labor standards consider as anti-labor policies, including the prescribed minimum number of members needed to establish rural workers’ trade unions.

Lando’s eldest son displays his emotions generously at the thought of his father’s dancing.

Lando was a jolly man, the son said, as his fair-skinned wife rested her palm on his shoulder.

Trying but failing to hold back his tears, the son would wipe each droplet with his pointer right at the edge of his eyes before the tears fall on his cheeks.

He didn’t really think much about it when his father was still alive, but he now volunteers to proclaim that he is proud of what his father did for a living. (END)


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A farmer and his daughter

Text & Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr.


MOUNTAIN PROVINCE, Philippines – “Planting crops is like raising your own children. You have to take care of them all the way through,” said 41-year-old farmer Efren Loogan.


Agriculture is the primary livelihood in their community at Sitio Paktil, Bauko in Mountain Province, explained Mang Efren.


But it’s no longer as profitable, Mang Efren laments.


Before even beginning to plant, farmers like him need to buy supplies such as fertilizer and pesticide, he explained.


Due to typhoons becoming more frequent than before, spoilage occurs more often, decreasing the volume of harvested crops. The resulting produce is likewise priced at cheaper rates.


But Mang Efren still plants despite these challenges, with the future of his children in mind.


Mang Efren and his wife Margarita desires that their 3 children study hard, envision their future, and dream big instead of forming bad habits. Margarita is a teacher by profession.


Efren and Margarita finds delight in their children’s perseverance in school and their eagerness to help in household chores. Erryl, their second child, dreams of becoming a doctor to help the community and has also shown talent in photography.


Ten-year-old Erryl took part as a student in the Juan Portrait program, where photographers travel to far-flung communities around the Philippines to teach the art of photography to youngsters like her. Erryl won fourth place in the program’s Most Proficient Photography category. She had two photos in the exhibit in their hometown, Bauko.


Mang Efren and Margarita are proud parents, happy to see their child excelling in a craft. They said this gives them the strength to work harder and inspires them to do whatever they can to help Erryl achieve her dreams. (END)

A low-wage earner’s hope for a better life

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Faye Sales

INTERVIEW. Factory worker Jessel Autida sits down with his colleagues for an interview with

CAVITE, Philippines – Jessel Autida, 41, has 6 children to feed and look after.

A minimum wage earner in a factory south of Manila, he spends 8 hours sewing in-fashion clothes sold by established American apparel brands at prices his daily pay couldn’t afford.

He is paid P315 ($6.9*) a day at the garments factory.

But Jessel couldn’t just rely on a single job given his family’s expenses.

Sa baon pa lang [ng mga bata], kulang na ‘yung P300 sa isang araw (Just for the allowance [of the kids], P300 will not suffice in a day),” he said in an interview.


After work hours when his co-workers already arrive in small rental spaces near the Cavite Economic Zone, Jessel proceeds to a community-based tailor shop.

In the evening, he sews for the local shop on a piece-rate basis. The income is sparse, dependent on the number of tailor-made clothes clients place.

Unionists believe workers like Jessel deserve better: a living wage enough to move out of poverty.

Jessel smiles when asked of any “libangan” or sources of entertainment in the workplace. He and other workers interviewed from the same garments factory said there are none, but they are striving for more decent work conditions by forming a union.


In the Philippines, labor union density is dwindling.

Latest state figures show newly registered unions are at their lowest since 1976, with only 126 new unions registered in 2013.

This, despite freedom of association which includes union formation being one of the cornerstones of promoting decent work.

Collective bargaining through genuine unions allows members of the working class to utilize their power as a united entity to receive their due share from the profit they had helped generate through their labor.

Fairer wages are strongly linked to higher levels of freedom of association, according to the International Labor Organization.

Filipino laborers live from one pay cut to the next.

They live lives where choices are few, dreams are limited, and the future – well, that’s too far ahead. Focus on how to pay for the next meal, they tell themselves repeatedly.

But Jesse says the union has given him and workers like him hope for a better life.

If not for them, for their children at least.



The 2016 labor agenda

By: Buena Bernal

Filipino workers fix the electrical line at Quiapo, Manila on January 08 2015. Photo by Lito Boras
Filipino workers fix the electrical line at Quiapo, Manila on January 08 2015. Photo by Lito Boras

As the 2016 Philippine elections draw near, various workers’ groups seek to influence political outcomes by choosing candidates who will push for pro-worker reforms.

Long-time trade unionists Louie Corral and Gerard Seno talk about the needs of the working class, which demand political will to be met.

Corral is the executive-director of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, and Seno is the Associated Labor Unions executive vice president.

What is the labor agenda for 2016? Here are the priority areas for key reforms they say will benefit the average Filipino worker:

  • Security of Tenure

Foremost of the concerns of the working class is the passage of a Security of Tenure (SOT) bill, said Seno.

Security of tenure is a constitutionally enshrined right that protects workers from termination without just cause and due process.

Alternative hiring set-ups, however, are exploited by some unscrupulous employers to misclassify workers and deny them regularization and law-mandated workers’ benefits.

At least 11 proposed laws are being heard by the House committee on labor and employment that deal mainly with workers’ job security. The measures require amending the 41-year-old Labor Code.

There are proposals to either limit or completely prohibit job contracting, a system where workers are outsourced from capitalized general contractors, as well as to limit fixed-term employment, which some employers use to hire and rehire workers for fixed periods without making them regular employees.

Seno said there must be clear criteria when contractual labor is permissible. Advocates have said contracted workers must be limited to non-core positions which are not necessary and desirable in the day-to-day operations of a company.

Permissible contracting must likewise be at a minimal level and not the norm, he added, citing factories with 80% contractuals among their assembly workers who are the core factory workers. A pending bill seeks to bring this down to 20%.

Labor Undersecretary and interim spokesperson Nicon Fameronag said the labor department has also drafted a “compromised version” of a legislation in relation to job security. The “alternative measure” takes into account the “highly contentious features and political underpinnings of the pending SOT bills.”

It shifts from registration to licensing of contractors and subcontractors, making them easier to regulate.

Multiple sources who sit at the technical working group crafting the bill said the debate has focused on the capitalization requirement for the contractors and subcontractors.

Workers’ groups want the current requirement of a P3-million paid-up capital for all contractors to increase to at least P5 million and add the same multi-million requirement in terms of the contractors’ investment to equipment.

Currently, job contracting and subcontracting is subject to regulations under Department of Labor and Employment Department Order 18-A series 2011.

It provides that both the principal and the subcontractor would be administratively liable for any labor law violations, creating shared responsibility and making a company on the lookout for labor law-compliant contractors.

Arturo Guerrero III of the Philippine Association of Legitimate Service Contractors had explained before a House panel that certain products and services are seasonal, creating the need for alternative hiring set-ups such as job contracting. 

Seno said a strong political contender who may be able to galvanize support from the labor sector is someone who wants to end widespread precarious employment in the country, which likewise forces many to instead find more stable jobs overseas.

  • Reliable, affordable power

Corral explained that power is a working class concern, suggesting that the country’s next leader must have a clear vision to bring down power rates and ensure its steady supply.

“Power is the principal driver of all industry roadmaps. Without power – and by that we mean reliable supply and affordable ASEAN competitive rates – there will be no new investments and there will be no new jobs,” he said.

Especially given the envisioned full integration of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economic community by the end of 2015, Corral said the Philippines would need to up its game in terms of lowering public utility rates in general including power.

Corral said the way to attract investors should be through lower utility costs and upgraded skills of workers instead of lax labor standards and low pay. Many industries in developing economies attract foreign investors partly through cheap labor.

He added that workers are often the ones negatively impacted by companies cutting down costs when power rates increase.

“Existing jobs will be at risk,” he explained, as investors may opt to transfer “to countries with cheaper power rates, specifically our main competitors Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia.”

Affordable and reliable power requires greater regulation and updated rules by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), he added. He said this demands the appointment of “genuinely independent, objective regulators” – an issue that now hounds the Aquino administration.

“The silver bullet to attract new players into the power sector – more supply – and to bring about lower rates – through genuine competition – will be to subject all supply contracts of all distribution utilities to international public bidding under ERC supervision,” he explained.

He urged the international public bidding of all power supply contracts of distribution utilities like the Manila Electric Company (Meralco), which passes on to consumers generation charges or the cost of producing the electricity. The generation charges are paid by power distributor Meralco to supply companies it has power supply agreements with.

“The current system leaves the choice of who its power supplier will be entirely to the private distribution sector. This is conducive to sweetheart deals and stage-managing fake power supply shortage,” Corral explained.

Earlier, Corral said power plant shutdowns should be physically inspected by a 3-party panel composed of representatives from government, civil society, and the power sector to prevent collusion attempts by power players. (READ: Tripartite inspection of power plant shutdowns sought)

Corral said the tripartite inspection will partly address power shortages and artificial inflation of rates caused by the deliberate withholding of power supply by generation companies, noting dubious simultaneous outages of power plants.

  • Progressive taxation 

Tax impositions must be based on ability to pay, said Seno.

He proposed that the Value Added Tax be “tweaked lower, so it doesnt impact the poor in the same way that it impacts the rich.”

Negotitated benefits through collective bargaining agreements must also be non-taxable, he said.

Unemployment insurance must likewise be provided to protect from destitution jobless workers who were laid off due to company restructuring, he added.

Laid off workers attempting to find new jobs amid the volatile labor market are made to wait for their back wages, often forced to take out loans to survive while without income. Too often, they are victimized by loan sharks in the process.

Seno said early retirement benefits must be exempt from tax as well. Currently, only mandatory retirement benefits are non-taxable.

He explained that optional retirement is often offered to workers when a company downsizes.

These same workers would likely struggle to find a new job due to widespread age discrimination in company hiring practices.

A trade unionist since 1978, Seno urged workers to approach the elections based on issues affecting them and not merely personalities.

The weight voters place on certain issues — employment, infrastructure, education, health, minority rights, etc. — can influence the weight candidates would place on these issues as they build a campaign that is focused on them. (END)