Sleepless in sweatshop

Published by reposted only Date posted on July 3, 2003

Garment workers drugged to keep them awake for days

IN THE UNCERTAIN world of subcontracted companies, work is normally seasonal and even then comes in fits and starts, wages below par, and working conditions hardly improved from those of a century ago.

For Anvil Ensembles, a garments factory in Taytay, Rizal, that makes baby clothes for First World companies, business usually blows in by September. A few weeks before then, the company sends notice to workers who have been idled for a month or two to report to work because job orders are coming in and there are quotas to be met.

For these high-speed sewers and machine operators, mostly women, that means occasionally putting in 48- or 72-hour work shifts whenever management orders the factory gates shut and locked until Saturday or Sunday morning. Everyone understands that there will be no going home.

From then on, there is no stopping the whirr of high-speed sewing machines that drowns out the chatter and the banter managed during slower days. But when workers are on their second, or third, consecutive all-nighter, being unable to talk to one another is the least of their worries.

Keeping awake is.

Rouel Quitoriano was one of those whose job it was to prevent any delay in production schedules and shipment deadlines, lest the company end up paying fines to principal contractors.

As supervisor of the workers at the annex, Quitoriano had to make sure that no one fell asleep on the job.

These were the owner’s specific instructions on how the diminutive supervisor (he stands barely five feet tall) could keep workers from drifting to la-la land: “The owner would tell me to get a piece of wood. So I’d bring with me a piece of wood, and I’d slam it on a table to wake everyone up. They’d all be mad at me.”

It proved quite effective in making workers jump out of their skins and hunch back on their sewing machines.

When that failed to work, Quitoriano had another trick up his sleeve: a box full of Duromine capsules. Again on orders from the owner, he would make the rounds of the annex, spot the most tired workers, and offer them the drug.

Duromine, actually an appetite suppressant meant for obese people, has the interesting side effect, among others, of inducing insomnia. But Quitoriano didn’t know that then. He was told that it was ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C.

Since 2001

Anvil Ensembles has been giving workers the drug since 2001, albeit not the whole year round. Duromine usually makes its way to the assembly lines in September, when orders usually start pouring in, and is shelved by December once production begins to drop.

But workers were not forced to take the drug. “Whenever you’re so sleepy that you are unable to work or even keep your footing, you’re offered that. It’s up to you whether you take it or not,” Quitoriano said.

But for many, there was hardly a choice. “You want to stay awake because they tell you that if you cannot finish your quota, you can walk out the door anytime [and never come back],” a female worker said.

Quitoriano, who worked for Anvil for five years, took Duromine himself.

“I took two capsules. Those two kept me wide awake for more than 24 hours, eating nothing but water,” he told the Inquirer.

He filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) on Oct. 9, 2002, for non-payment of overtime pay. He was dismissed from work soon after.

Working overtime under certain conditions-for example, to meet rush orders-is allowed under Philippine labor laws. But the overtime must not be forced upon the workers, a labor official said.

Forced overtime also violates the core labor standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention.

No reply The Inquirer tried several times but failed to get Anvil to respond to the workers’ allegations, the use of Duromine being only one of their complaints against the company owners.

The Inquirer visited the factory in Rizal but was told that none of the owners was there. This paper also called the company repeatedly last week, and each time, the staff would say that the owners hadn’t arrived yet.

As of press time, the company has not returned calls or answered a letter detailing the allegations against it.

Anvil Ensembles was registered as a garments maker with the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 1998. It has a paid-up capital of P31,250.

Its incorporators include Marisa M. Carlos, Margie M. Lazo, Leslie Ann Carlos, Myrna Pangan and Augusto Lazo, who serves as treasurer.

The company is a Filipino subcontractor of the US-based clothing lines Little Betty, JC Penney and Sears & Roebuck. The dresses are exported to Canada and the United States.

The firm employs 420 workers, “330 of them women,” whose salaries range from P100 to P190 a day, depending on the workers’ position. The daily minimum wage in the region is P237.

According to the SEC, Anvil has not filed its annual financial statement since 1998.

‘Ecstasy’ When Anvil workers were first given Duromine, they were told the capsules were vitamins, or ascorbic acid. They soon experienced the side effects of the medication, and have since dubbed it
“Ecstasy,” in reference to the popular antidepressant drug being sold to the party crowd in high-end clubs around the country.

“You can’t sleep even if you want to. You lose your appetite. You’re awake, but you don’t have energy,” a 40-year-old female worker said.

The workers, who asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs, said only the older ones and those who had elevated blood pressure were not offered the drug.

Recalled another female worker: “My body shook the first time I took Duromine. I felt cold and nauseated. The next time they distributed it, I did not take it.

“We worked for three days that week straight, starting Thursday. We snatched two hours of sleep a day. By Sunday, we were already zombies.”

It is not clear how the company was able to procure the drug. According to workers interviewed by the Inquirer, the company started handing out Duromine capsules still individually sealed in their original wrappers. Last year, however, supervisors began carrying bottles of the drug.

Encouraging its workers to take a regulated drug for purposes other than those prescribed by the medication is only one lament among many.

Workers tell of pregnant women being laid off, forced overtime, no Social Security System contributions, no overtime pay or night differentials, unhygienic toilets, and even verbal abuse.

“They called us idiots,” one worker said. “They would tell us, ‘And where will you go? You can’t go abroad because you don’t know how to speak English. And you are all so ugly that no one will get you in Japan, no one will get you at the Junction.”

“Junction” is a crossroads in Taytay where nightclubs and videoke bars now proliferate.

Other complaints The complaints from workers are numerous.

For two years now, Anvil has been deducting SSS contributions from the salaries of supervisors and line leaders. But when these employees checked with the SSS, they were informed that the Anvil management had only remitted contributions for less than a year, Quitoriano said.

Quitoriano started working for Anvil in March 2000, and was fired in October 2002.

But latest SSS figures retrieved from the Net showed intermittent remittances by the company. So far, Anvil still owes Quitoriano eight months of SSS contributions.

Also, water would be turned off at 11 p.m. on the dot even when workers had to work until 4 a.m. the following day, forcing them to make do with a smelly and messy latrine.

Workers in the annex said they were allowed to use the toilet only once every four hours and had to log in their names each time they did. The guard would knock on the door if they stayed inside for more than two or three minutes.

They were also not given morning and afternoon breaks.

As for safety equipment, like masks, the workers said Anvil supplied none of these. “When there is an inspection, we are asked to bring masks ourselves,” a worker said.

During an inspection by a Sears & Roebuck representative on Oct. 28, 2002, the management reportedly told the workers how to answer interviewers.

But despite all these, the workers said they did not have the courage to formally charge the company before the NLRC.

Instead, on Jan. 30 some of them filed with the Department of Labor and Employment in Southern Tagalog an anonymous “request” letter detailing their grievances against Anvil. There was no mention of Duromine being distributed to workers at the factory.

But because the complaint was not made under oath, as required by DOLE standard procedure, it was not tagged for immediate action although the company was included among those that would be part of the routine inspection.

Labor violations

Two months after getting the anonymous letter, Nestor P. Metal, the DOLE senior labor inspector who was then assigned in the area, dropped in on Anvil and found that the company had indeed violated general labor standards on wages, and SSS and Pag-Ibig contributions.

“We are now working on the resolution of the case. We will require Anvil to correct the wages,” he said.

But another DOLE official said it was not always advisable to force companies like Anvil to pay the standard minimum wage in the region because they may just simply close down. “As long as there is some form of increase, some movement [in the daily wages], that will do for now,” the official said.

When asked about Anvil, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) said that while the factory’s case was unique, other labor violations ranging from paying below-minimum wages to unsafe labor practices was the norm in the industrial zones-Laguna, Cavite, Metro Manila, Bataan, Subic and Clark.

The TUCP, one of the biggest labor organizations in the country, is consolidating the research it conducted on companies as part of its antisweatshop campaign, a program funded by the USAID and coursed through the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.

“We conducted the study because we don’t know the real situation,” campaign director Cedric Bagtas told the Inquirer. “We know labor violations are rampant, but we don’t know the real figures. Now at least, we have an idea of the extent of the problem.”

From September 2000 to August 2001, the TUCP’s anti-sweatshop unit surveyed 202 factories, 104 of them at length.

“All of them have violations,” Bagtas said.

In its report, the TUCP wrote: “In Bataan, workers producing for a famous clothing company were dismissed when the company found out they were organizing a union. When the stubborn union won recognition after a strike, the company closed without notice.

“Women workers producing a popular shoe brand still receive wages below the statutory minimum, even after four or eight years of sewing.

“In Cavite, a company producing for an electronic giant routinely does not readmit women workers who have given birth; it also does not advance or reimburse maternity benefits.

“Garment companies routinely lock fire exits allegedly to prevent pilferage, risking mass deaths or injury in case of fire or stampede.”

Codes of conduct

Bagtas said his team only surveyed those companies that had corporate codes of conduct, which are unilateral declarations to respect core labor standards on issues such as compensation, environment, safety and health, workers’ rights, and working conditions in their own or their subcontractors’ operations.

He said there were more companies out there that had neither express commitments to labor standards nor that much money to address workers’ issues, unlike most of the firms included in the survey.

Next to the National Capital Region, Southern Tagalog has the most number of manufacturing establishments in the country: 1,662 companies that employ 20 or more people and contribute some P678 billion to the economy, according to the 2000 Census of Philippine Business and Industry Manufacturing.

The region is also home to over 146,000 establishments, based on a report by the National Statistical Coordination Board three years
ago. And the DOLE has 11 labor inspectors to cover them all.

No lofty demands

The workers of Anvil interviewed by the Inquirer have no lofty demands.

They simply want management to meet the minimum wage and to go easy on them when they have to do two or three straight days without sleep. Well, they also want to wear a better-looking ID.

Even Quitoriano only wants to get his overtime pay and his SSS contributions remitted in full. He’s not even interested in getting his old job back.

Nor do they bear ill will toward Anvil because, from how they recounted their experience with Duromine, it appeared that everything was a practical joke played at their expense.

Others, facing the possibility of a bleaker future without a job, are even thankful for the work.

“It’s better than nothing,” a 25-year-old worker said. “We don’t want the factory to close down. We complain because we want the factory to change the way it treats us. We complain because we don’t want new workers to experience what we have experienced.”

And everyone agreed. –Luige del Puerto and Romel Lalata, Philippine Daily Inquirer

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