Arrested laborers freed after Vico Sotto helped them post bail

JC Gotinga
(UPDATED) With a cut in pay for a 16-hour shift that barely gives them time to eat or pee, the striking workers tell Rappler how it is to live with dangerous packing machines

FREE AGAIN. Detained Regent Food Corporation workers walk out of the Pasig City Police headquarters with their supporters after Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto helped raise money to bail them out on November 18, 2019. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – If Ailene Bat-anon thought that working the relentless packing machine at least 12 hours a day over the last 23 years of her life was misery, then the last 9 days proved her wrong.

Trying to sleep hungry and humiliated on a torn mat on the cold floor of a crowded jail cell was worse, and to think she only ended up there because she and her colleagues panicked when they saw those unfeeling machines being hauled away from the factory where they had spent their best years stuffing junk food into plastic pouches.

Kaya lang namin nagawa ‘yon, dahil tinangka nila itakas yung mga machine (The only reason we did it was because they tried to sneak away the machines), Bat-anon told Rappler on Monday night, November 18, when she got out of detention at the Pasig City Police Headquarters along with 8 of her colleagues and 2 members of a labor rights group that was helping them lobby their case against their employer, Regent Food Corporation (RFC).

Vico Sotto, the mayor of the city where they lived and worked, fulfilled his promise to bail them out by Monday. Going on strike and trying to hold their picket line against dispersal did not make the 20 RFC workers or the two activists or even the onlooking tricycle driver criminals, Sotto had said.

“Kaya namin naisip mag-welga, gusto nila takasan ‘yung obligasyon nila sa amin (The reason we thought of going on strike was, they wanted to run away from their obligations to us),” Bat-anon said, explaining that taking away the packing machines meant the company could have been planning to sack them. To head it off, they decided to go on strike on October 16, hoping it would get their employers to heed their demand for just wages and benefits.

In a statement on Tuesday, RFC rejected the mayor’s earlier plea to drop the charges against the striking workers. “RFC believes there is nothing wrong in trusting the justice system. Otherwise, RFC would practically be encouraging civil disobedience, lawlessness, and illegal use of force,” the company said. (READ: Regent Foods: We won’t be cowed by Vico’s ‘threats’)

More work, less pay

For a long time since she started working at RFC in 1996, Bat-anon said repackers like herself were paid based on a “pakyawan” or wholesale system of computing their salary according to the number of bulk bags of snack pouches they were able to fill up in a 12-hour workday.

At the time, they took an hour off for lunch, and 15 minutes each in the morning and in the afternoon, during which the packing machines were turned off so they all could rest a little.

But in 2017, when a new supervisor took over, their pay was set to the minimum wage. Instead of earning up to P16,000 a month by pushing themselves to fill up as many pouches they could in a day, they were left with just over P10,000 even when they were forced to work 16-hour shifts.

Worse, the supervisor no longer turned off the machines during break time, which meant the workers could not stay away from the assembly line beyond a few minutes to inhale their lunch or to pee.

Dapat nga po, dahil tuloy-tuloy ‘yung machine, dapat tataas ‘yung sahod namin (Should be that since the machines were running nonstop, our pay should have gone up),” Bat-anon said. But instead, they all took a pay cut as they were forced to work even harder, she added.

LABORER. Ailene Bat-anon is 50 years old and has spent nearly half of her life working for Regent Food Corporation. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

The grueling work was exhausting – and dangerous.

Enough is enough

One false move by the worker and the packing machine could cut off her fingers, or even her hand. In such cases, the company shelled out money for the victim’s hospital bills only to charge it against her wages.

“Siyempre sa sobrang pagod, ilang oras din kami inaabot. Wala kaming pahinga (Of course we get very exhausted, we work long hours. We don’t get any rest),” Bat-anon lamented.

That same year, 2017, when the RFC workers felt they’d had just about enough, the union sued RFC for the money owed to them under the original pakyawan wage system they signed up for.

Three years later, 20 of them ended up in jail for physical injury, resistance and disobedience, and alarm and scandal, for fighting back when an outsourced security force tried to break up their picket on Saturday morning, November 9, as they tried to voice out the same demand.

Birthday behind bars

Christopher Ibañez Arañas, who said he has done about every job a man could do in his 19 years at RFC, couldn’t get himself to take a bath in front of a fellow detainee with whom he had to share a single pail of water.

He also could not figure out when to go to the toilet, which was in a barely concealed corner of the jail cell. If he did his business before dawn when most of the other detainees were still asleep, he would not have water to flush his excrement. If he waited until the water supply went on, it would be too late in the day and everyone in the cell would be able to watch him do number two.

And so it was with a slight crisis in personal hygiene that Arañas marked his 43rd birthday.

Like his colleague Ailene Bat-anon, Arañas also had difficulty sleeping. He could only lie sideways on the floor because the cell was so crowded, there was no room to lie flat on his back.

Which was unfortunate because his body still ached from the beating he received from the hired security force when he tried to hold the picket line.

Pinakita ko talaga sa mga ka-unyon ko, kasamahan ko sa trabaho, kahit anong mangyari, lalaban, (I really showed by colleagues in the union, my companions at work, whatever happens, we fight),” Arañas recalled.

SHAKEN. Christopher Ibanez Aranas could not make sense of their ordeal: they were only fighting for what's right and yet it landed them behind bars. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

They were not out to fight, he said, adding that the men of the hired force did not seem willing to fight them either. However, someone was goading the hired force on, and they had to do what they were being paid to do.

“Kaya ayun, puro bugbog katawan ko. Awa ng Diyos, sa mukha, nakaiwas naman ako (And so my body took a beating all over. Thank God, though, my face was spared),” he chuckled.

There’s a lot more Arañas wanted to say, but his mind was still all mixed up, trying to make sense of what happened in the 9 days from November 9 to 18, the misfortune that befell him when he should have been celebrating his birthday.

Almost 20 years working for RFC on the minimum wage as an agency hire with no permanent contract led him to jail because he thought he could expect some justice.

Malungkot na parang, ‘yung galit ba na parang naisip ko na yung pinaglalaban namin, biglang nawala (It’s sad that as if, the anger that sort of came as I think that what we were fighting for, it suddenly vanished),” Arañas said as he tried to put his thoughts into words, mollified that the fight for the job had cost him the job.

There was no going back to RFC after that.

No mirrors allowed

Antonio Regacho Jr felt all eyes on him as the police officer led him across the hospital floor.

Tingin nila sa amin siguro, mga kriminal po eh. Kasi nakatingin sila, nakaposas kami, sugatan pa (They must have thought we were criminals. Because they were staring, we were handcuffed and wounded),” the 35-year-old RFC warehouse-and-delivery man told Rappler while waiting for the other detainees to be released.

Regacho had tried to shield himself from the hired force’s blows with his arms, but when they hit his knuckles, he pulled them away so the next blow landed on his bare forehead, leaving a deep cut that bled through the inquest proceedings at the police station and the long wait for his turn to get stitches at the hospital.

Sa isip ko nga eh, tayo na ang nasaktan, nakaposas pa tayo. Parang mali po ‘yung tingin ko sa ginawa nila sa amin (I thought to myself, we were the ones hurt and yet we were also ones handcuffed. I think what they did to us seems wrong),” he said.

WOUNDS HEAL. Antonio Regacho Jr sustained a deep cut on his forehead from the scuffle when a hired security force tried to break up the RFC workers' picket line on November 9, 2019. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

In jail, he had to feel for the cut on his forehead to nurse it with cotton swabs dabbed with iodine solution because mirrors were not allowed in the cell.

The wound was quite dry when he was released on Monday.

Regacho said he was not sure whether he should let the placement agency hire him out to a new employer because it might imply he was giving up his claims from RFC, which was out of the question.

His family was counting on the 15 days’ wages that RFC withheld because of the strike, and on his 13th month pay.

Not even the mayor could

The RFC workers on strike had never been this down on their luck before – just out of jail and probably without jobs to return to – and with cases filed against them by their employers.

The 11 detainees released on Monday night were those unable to post bail on their own, and had to count on Sotto to deliver on the promise he made when he visited them on Saturday, November 16.

Except for the tricycle driver who only got pulled into the chaos, the detainees who were released on Friday, November 15, were able to raise the P11,500 bail without Sotto’s help.

On Monday, Sotto told Rappler that “several of us” helped raise the bail money for the 11 who were still detained then. He was able to bring the bail amount down to P8,500 each, because the penalty for alarm and scandal was already “time served.”

The 11 detainees released on Monday, November 18 were:

  1. Ailene Bat-anon
  2. Christopher Ibañez Arañas
  3. Antonio Regacho Jr
  4. Virulyn Vesuyan
  5. Enrico Ramos
  6. Arnel Ocampo
  7. Crisanta Lagrisola
  8. Basilio Cudiamat
  9. Melanie dela Cruz
  10. Gerardo Gaddi (activist from Defend Job Philippines)
  11. Carlo Levanta (activist from Defend Job Philippines)

The 12 detainees released on Friday, November 15, were: 

  1. Laarni Gabriel
  2. Christopher Distor
  3. Alex Batso
  4. Gemma Alvarez
  5. Aldo Sanchez
  6. Benjamin Israel
  7. Edmund Timbal
  8. Cyril Pumaren
  9. Generoso Soliven
  10. Romel Agcaoili
  11. Bonifacio Ramirez
  12. Ronald Montilla (tricycle driver)

The RFC workers said they would continue fighting their cause, believing their case was stronger than their employer’s.

Regacho, however, said he was aware that the road ahead of them was uphill, because if even Sotto, the mayor of Pasig City himself, could neither convince nor compel RFC to budge, then what could mere laborers like themselves expect? – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.