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Bye-bye, Mondostar!

Philippine women workers in Sibiu quit their jobs at Romanian textile factory and return to Manila

Article by Ana Cosel, 30th of October 2008

It was not an easy decision. The 95 Philippine textile workers had come to Romania in May 2008 to work as seamstresses for the company Mondostar . They tried in various ways to make their employer pay the full wage laid down in the work contract but to no avail. Their only remaining option is to terminate the work contract and return to Manila where a mountain of debt and an uncertain future await them.*

"We have lost the belief that anything will really change here", Joanne** said when she and 77 of her colleagues decided to sign the letter of resignation at the beginning of September. "It won't be easy for us to go back home. Many of us had high hopes for the chance to work in a European country." However, if they stay at Mondostar under the current conditions, they will not be able to pay back the loans (and the interest) with which they paid the high employment agency fees in Manila, as their wage is too small. It's not even enough to support their relatives at home. "We only lose time here", Joanne adds. She is disappointed.

Two different work contracts

We are sitting on Piata Mare Square in the center of Sibiu. In the dormitory eight women share one room, so the women can't stand spending any extra time there. They have to get out, walk around or go to the internet cafe. Since they started refusing to work overtime they had more time for that.

Miranda, one of Joanne's colleagues, has brought her two work contracts. We want to go through and compare them, paragraph by paragraph. We are looking for a quiet place where nobody can observe us. The women got more careful since the company management repeatedly tried to spy on them outside the factory. A few weeks ago an office employee from Mondostar sat down at a nearby table when Miranda talked to two tourists. "They want to keep us under control. They want to know who we meet after work and what we discuss. They are worried we might talk about the company and our working conditions."

The workers signed a first work contract with the Eastwind International agency in Manila. It is written in English and sets the basic wage at (US)$400 a month, and guarantees twice the hourly wage for overtime, plus free food and accommodation. It was with these conditions in mind and the expectation of a monthly income of $600 to 800 that the women decided to risk taking up a loan for the agency fee and the travel costs: $2500 for each worker.

When they arrived in Sibiu they were given another work contract. This one is in English and Romanian. Miranda's mother tongue is Tagalog, and until today she had not been able to understand all the clauses of the second contract. "We were urged to sign quickly. We were not allowed to ask questions." This contract was made directly with Mondostar and includes all the above mentioned wage arrangements. But it has several additional clauses which ultimately allowed the company management to lower the wage and to squeeze the maximum work performance out of the workers: according to this contract the 30-day trial period is not remunerated, even though all the Philippine workers are skilled seamstresses. $70 are deducted from the wage for food and accommodation each month. Furthermore, the employer has the right to set production quotas internal to the company. If no hourly wage is paid, with pay based on work performance instead, the wage should be no less than $250.

Miranda shows me another document. It is the letter of complaint some of the Philippine workers wrote in order to make their situation public. In the first two months they worked 80 hours in excess of regular working hours, but those overtime hours were not paid. Instead, their monthly income was around $235. The production quota the factory management had fixed was absurdly high. It was just to push the workers to work more. When one female worker fainted due to being overworked the company owner just said: "that does not concern me." Most workers lost a lot of weight and felt weak because the food was bad, had no taste and was undercooked. During conflicts with management the women did not get a chance to speak up. "We often get threatened, and we are treated like slaves and put down as 'stupid'. We are under permanent stress here, and our dignity is violated."

Unreachable work quota and even lower wages

With their complaint, the overtime boycott and the ultimatum they set the factory management for mid-August, the workers got something rolling. First the Philippine embassy in Bucharest declared a hiring freeze for Mondostar . This was a tough blow for the company, since it wanted to hire 180 more Philippine workers. Then the Inspectorat Teritorial de Munca (ITM), a Romanian state body monitoring of labour regulations, got involved. But according to its own statements it did not find any violations of the labour law during its inspections. At a Sibiu ITM press conference early in October the chief inspector Francisc Torok said he could not make out any serious reasons for the resignation of the Philippine workers. Mondostar had offered them good working conditions, he argued. "Altogether we have concluded four inspections. The only complaint the Philippine workers had was the non-payment of the overtime hours. But that was solved."

Up to this day the workers have not been paid for the overtime hours.

The factory management got even more impertinent. It laid off six women for "lacking discipline", among them four speakers the women workers had elected and who had been particularly active during the conflict with the company. The management justified the low wages by stating that the production quotas were not reached and the women had to "be kept at work". Even the union leader responsible for the Romanian workers at Mondostar sided with the company management: "the Philippine workers do not work as fast as us. They want to do overtime and get paid for it, but that is only possible if they perform well. As far as I know they do not meet the production quota within eight hours, that is why they have to work longer." It is impossible to reach Mondostar's daily production quota within eight hours. It was raised from the initial 400 to 500 pairs of suit trousers (for a group of 42 women) and from 200 to 300 suit jackets (for a group of 53 women). The workers talk about similar work in other textile factories where the quota was never above 250 to 300 pairs of suit trousers for a group of 50 workers. "We make 330 pairs of trousers here in eight hours, so we are highly productive! We would never manage to make 500 pairs. That way they want to force us to do unpaid overtime", Miranda states angrily.

In reaction to their refusal to work overtime Mondostar reduced the seamstresses' wages even more. The official reason was that they had not met the quota. Those who made trousers got $141 for August, those who made jackets got just $130.

Mondostar goes down

The collective resignation of the Philippine workers could ruin Mondostar . The company sits on a part of the land once used by the former state company "Steaua Rosie" (red star), one of the biggest textile mills in state-socialist Romania, which produced army clothes. Mondostar was fully privatized in 1993, and produces male suits for the brands Digel and Strellson . Ninety percent of the suits get exported to Western Europe.

Over the past few years Mondostar has been confronted with a huge loss of labour power. Of the 1200 local workers previously employed in the production department, only 350 are left today. Few Romanian workers are prepared to work in a textile factory under bad conditions and for extremely low wages, a problem that is currently causing a crisis for most light industry companies in Romania. Mondostar needs the Philippine workers, so it tried to prevent or delay the resignation of the women, without meeting their demands.

With the termination of their work contracts the women also lost the right to stay in Romania. They were brought to the Philippine embassy in Bucharest, where they had to wait for two weeks before they could fly back to Manila. The flight was paid for by the Philippine charity organisation OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration).

The collective resignation of the 78 Philippine workers at the end of September caused a stir in the Romanian media. With the help of the Philippine embassy the Mondostar case has been brought to court. The non-payment of overtime hours worked violates the Romanian labour law, despite the special clauses in the work contracts. The workers hope that in this way they might still get their full wages.

A life on the road

"Life is so hard." I often hear Joanne say this sentence, particularly when we talk about her uncertain future. Back in Manila she does not want to lose any time before applying for her next job abroad. That is her life.

She grew up with her grandparents in a village. When she was 17 years old she went to Manila to work as a seamstress in a textile factory. Some years later she went overseas for the first time. She had a three-year contract in Taiwan. "I could have married at the time and started a family. But I was not prepared for that. I wanted to earn myself a living, I wanted to be independent." Today Joanne is 34 years old and has worked in several world market textile factories in countries such as Brunei and Namibia. With her wage she was able to finance her little sister's university studies in computer science in Manila.

Joanne is one of eight million OFW (Overseas Filippino Workers), as the Philippine workers who work outside the country are called. That is ten percent of the population. More than half of them are women, working overseas as domestic helpers, factory workers or nurses. Philippine men living abroad are often employed as seamen. With a part of their income the OFWs support their relatives in the Philippines. Their money transfers make up more than ten percent of the country's gross domestic product and save many people from extreme poverty. The migration of the OFWs is regulated and controlled by the state. The workers themselves have to pay the high administrative and agency fees.

The case of the Philippine textile workers working at Mondostar in the Romanian town of Sibiu is under investigation in Manila, too. The Eastwind International agency faces charges for its failure to fulfil its contractual obligations. The women workers stand a good chance of winning the case, which would force the agency to return the high fees the workers had to pay.

"For the time being my life will continue this way", says Joanne. A friend works in a big textile factory in Swaziland, Southern Africa. "She has told me that they are looking for people in quality control, through direct hiring. I do not have to pay an agency."

For Miranda it is harder to find a new job. She is 48 years old, too old for many employers. She had worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper for six years, looking after a disabled boy, but the age limit for newly hired workers there is 38. "I will return and do men's work again on the Philippines. Pumping air into car tyres at a garage, for instance. I already had that job for ten years once."

Some of the Philippine workers who returned home have already applied for a new job as seamstresses in Estonia. The company offered them a net wage of $850. Joanne is sceptical. "I have not sent in my application yet. First I want to find out what kind of company that is. I do not want to run into the same problems as with Mondostar !"

Joanne likes to sit in internet cafes. She regularly chats with friends she met through her jobs and who are now living and working around the globe. She stays in contact even though she has not met most of them for years.

And who knows which corner of the world Joanne will get in touch from next.

* See Ana Cosel's article "We have to work like horses" (27. August 2008) on www.labournet.de (German and English) and www.prol-position.de (English)

** The workers' names were changed.

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