by Maria Diosa Labiste

Kadamay members on the eve of the May 1 Labor Day march.

There’s an unexplored gender dimension in the occupation movement in Pandi, Bulacan that could partly explain why majority of the marchers who joined the recent May 1 rally are women. It must be the falling rate of their household incomes that made it difficult for them to buy food for their families and send their children to school.

Much as they wished to join the regular, salaried workforce, the women in urban poor communities have no opportunities to find regular jobs that require some qualifications they can never possess. Thus, accusations over social media that they are lazy and parasitic are a misguided view because many of these women engage in odd jobs to augment their meager family income, aside from doing the bulk of unpaid housework as part of the traditional social arrangements within their families.

Far from being freeloaders and degenerate characters portrayed in mainstream media, the women, who joined the occupation of the government-built houses, are resilient and resourceful.

For the sake of fairness, reporters may visit the women and observe firsthand how they transformed the once desolate rows of houses into a vibrant organized community. Maybe it is in the cheerful curtains on the windows, perhaps the plants that have started growing in the front yard at the height of summer, or the self-built additions to the one-room houses, or the small food stalls they set up that one can find signs of hope and can-do attitude of the women, shaped by their realization of the difference that collective agency could make.

Housing, as we all know, is a basic need and yet it has become an instrument of profit making. High-rise residences are sprouting all over Metro Manila, adding to the glut of condominium units that are beyond the reach of the poor or the average family.  Slums, also termed informal settlements, show evidence of deepening poverty in unjust cities that deny people the dignity to own a decent place to live.

Using government data, the 2017 country report of the independent Center for Women’s Resources (CWR) noted that 90 percent of the projected housing needs from 2012 to 2030 should be priced for “lower-end” market, to mean that the it should be affordable, socialized or subsidized. Of the 6.2 million houses that needed to be built, 1.4 million units have to be subsidized to cover families who cannot afford an average PhP400,000 house sold by real estate companies.

Poverty persists in urban centers but it is slowly rendered invisible because many informal settlements were leveled to give way to malls, high-rise residences and commercial areas. According to CWR, there were 21,500 families who lost their homes to commercial developers in the six years under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, while some 4,000 families were ejected since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office on June 30, 2016.

The race to make fixed income earners and overseas Filipino workers part with their money, in order to boost consumption and real estate investment, involves big four companies namely Megaworld, SM Development Corporation, DMCI Homes and Ayala Land that build on areas, many of which were once communities of the poor that were, of course, not considered the market of condominiums.

Displacement and obliteration of poor communities have affected women and men alike but to accentuate the women’s situation means teasing out the exclusionary conditions that delimit their potentials. Employment is available for low-skilled workers in low-paying service sectors.  This means jobs that are short-lived, with poor working conditions, and paid lower than the daily minimum wage of PhP491.

However there is such a thing as “gender wage gap,” or the practice of giving women less than what men receive, just because they are women. Again, using government data, CWR observed that gender disparity ranges across all occupations but it is particularly high among women wageworkers, women laborers and unskilled workers with wages 36 percent lesser than that of their male counterparts.

Kadamay members on the eve of the May 1 Labor Day march

The more than 1.7 million female service workers, those you can find tending fast food chains and working in the malls, receive wages that are 44 percent lower than those earned by male workers. The disparity could be explained by differences in age, education and employment skills but discrimination is not ruled out when looking at why men earn more than women for doing the same job.

Poverty among urban poor women is a complex issue that is inextricable with other factors that manifest as high prices of food and basic commodities, falling wages, lack of jobs, and gender discrimination.

However when social media users call the women occupying Pandi as “batugan” (lazy) and “palamunin” (parasite/leech), and news stories have suggested the same, the name-calling may occasion a moment of critical reflection among these women. Althusser calls the process “interpellation” as when someone turns around (“Here I am!”) and reflexively recognizes the term by which one is called (“Hey you.”).

The name-calling seeks to introduce a reality but this power is by no means absolute because it could generate a retort, resistance and a reworking of that imposed reality. In other words, the injurious name does not diminish the defiance of urban poor women in Pandi to enact their rights.

It is through their organizations, like Kadamay, that they can build alternative communities nourished by better visions of a society, which does not pander to unjust structures that permit exclusion, exploitation and violence. So instead of condemning them, the women should earn our praise because, by occupying the empty homes in Pandi, they showed us a form of radical solution not only to end homelessness but also the hold of power and money.