Middleby kitchen equipment maker refuses to regularize contractual workers on strike

Middleby strike
A day after a negotiation with Middleby management, the police conducted an operation to drive the workers out of their picketline inside the fabrication plant, injuring the strikers, and dragging some of the union leaders to the police station. (Contributed photo)

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

“Middleby, a US-owned corporation, should be ashamed to call itself a world leader if it could not even respect the rights of its workers here and abroad.”

MANILA – The workers serving you behind the counter of famous fast-foods are low-wage earning contractual workers. But did you know that the workers who manufacture the entire kitchen behind them, make sure the oven and the fryers and the soft-ice cream maker and coffee maker would churn out evenly cooked burgers, fries, pizzas, coffee and cold desserts, among others, are also contractuals?

What this company claims as brand behind the brand, as the manufacturer of kitchen equipment, tables, and countertops for use and installation of whole kitchen packages not just of the likes of Jollibee but also of McDonald’s, and other global restaurant chains and hotels, has a fabrication plant in the Philippines since the 1990s. But even though these Filipino workers regularly contribute to the American company’s growing profits, two out of every three workers in its Laguna plant are contractuals. They have remained contractuals even after years of working there, even after the workers dared to organize to resolve it.

They prodded the Labor Department to inspect the plant in Laguna Technopark and correct the illegal contractualization happening there for years now. They succeeded in that last April, the Labor Department ordered the Middleby plant to regularize the workers.

But the workers were not regularized. Instead, they were forced to launch a sit-down strike since May 10 to oppose the company’s plans to terminate them especially the leaders of the workers’ association.

Last July 3, a combination of armed policemen and security guards swooped down into the plant to forcibly drive away the workers on sit-down strike there. The operation injured some of the workers. It came as a surprise to the strikers, even after weeks of threats of violent dispersal and food blockade, because just a day before, the company faced their union in a negotiation facilitated by the Labor Department in Region 4.

Based on workers’ accounts of what transpired in July 3, the dispersal started before the actual entry of the armed police into the sit-down strike area in the plant. The management reportedly took in around 50 new “workers.” They were gathered by the Canadian vice-president for a general assembly that morning. After the assembly, the new “workers” assaulted en masse the contractuals on sit-down strike to seize the machines which the strikers have been guarding.

The “workers,” and soon, the police, noticeably targeted two of the most vocal strikers inside the plant. Pamantik-KMU chairperson Christopher Oliquino said the police collared and dragged Armel Gulaver away from the strikers. During the melee, the striking workers sought to defend both the targeted fellow strikers and the machines. Gulaver is a member of the board of the contractuals’ association. He has worked five years as contractual in Middleby. He has previously told Bulatlat about their forced overtime that often lasted the whole night.

The workers said some police officers in civilian clothing, without identification, were there with uniformed policemen assaulting the workers. In the end, the police arrested seven of the strikers, including Gulaver, and brought them to a waiting police van. The arrested are mostly union officers. Gulaver’s shirt was torn. He sustained wounds from the dragging. His foot, which was caught at one point in a conveyor belt, was also injured. The workers held a picket in front of the municipal hall until the arrested strikers were freed late at night July 3.

“We see this police attack as a new low for the Middleby ownership, the police and security forces, and the regular workers, which has since disregarded the workers’ right to regular employment,” said Oliquino.

The mandated conduct on labor disputes instructs the police and company security forces to be fifty meters away from the strike area and not to intervene in any labor dispute, except for cases of “actual violence or crime.” It did not say if “actual” violence included the management and the police readying an initial assault team comprised of “workers” primed to do that in a General Assembly led by a Middleby Canadian executive.

“Judging from the events, the police intervention was only a pretext to disperse the workers’ strike inside the factory,” Oliquino said. He added that Middleby, a US-owned corporation, “should be ashamed to call itself a world leader if it could not even respect the rights of its workers here and abroad.”

Before the assault of the sit-down strike, the workers suffered brief spells of lack of food and supplies as Middleby refused to allow workers’ allies to bring their food inside the plant. The workers have had to request the help of Biñan Mayor Arman Dimaguila and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to let the friendly neighboring workers bring food to the strikers.

Despite the persistence of strikers, a big question mark hangs over regularization of contractuals
The next negotiation between Middleby management and contractual workers on strike is set on July 12, in the office of the Labor Secretary himself, Silvestre Bello III.

As of this writing, the strikers are struggling to rebuild their picket line in front of the Middleby plant in the Laguna Technopark in Biñan. They are currently sharing picket line with Monde Nissin workers. They held an indignation rally on July 4 from Monde Nissin to Laguna Bel-Air near the Laguna Technopark.

Since their strike began May 10, work in the Middleby plant has been continued after a few days but with just a third of the usual 300-plus workers on a 12-hour or more working day (i.e. only the 80 regular workers in 300-plus workforce continued production). As such, by Middleby plant’s standard, its production has not been normal, Oliquino told Bulatlat.

A crucial issue in the success of a workers’ strike is its ability to cripple production and prompt the capitalists to grant some concessions to the workers so production would continue as before. Through their sit-down strike that prevented the company from deploying other workers into their workstations, the workers partially succeeded in hobbling production. It came at a cost, though, of the strikers going hungry as Middleby, a global company for efficient food preparation, barred the delivery of food to the strikers by neighboring workers.

As of now, the pattern of response of Middleby, aided by the Laguna police, does not offer reassurance to the workers’ demands for regularization on the job.

Middleby has opposed the Department of Labor and Employment- Region 4 ruling ordering them to regularize the long-time contractuals. Before it finally attended a DOLE-initiated negotiation of striking workers and management, Middleby has sent word that it will await the decision of the Office of the Labor Secretary on their appeal bucking the regularization order issued by the DOLE Region 4.

The sit-down strike lasted nearly two months inside Middleby. It has yet to replace or order all the strikers to return to work, pending the resolution of their dispute.

The Middleby Corporation is a leading worldwide manufacturer of equipment for the commercial foodservice, food processing, and residential kitchen industries. Headquartered in Elgin, Illinois, it has just released its sales, income and profit reports for the first quarter of 2018 the day before the workers in its Philippine manufacturing plant began a strike. It reported a 10.3 percent increase in sales worldwide. Gross profit in the first quarter increased to $21 1.6 million from $209.5 million in the same period last year. Armed with its yearly profits, Middleby has also been gobbling up companies using the latest technology and producing the latest kitchen equipment.

In announcing their first quarter finances, the company CEO, Selim Bassoul, announced that they anticipate improving sales trends throughout 2018. This, amid increasing “product innovations with a heavy focus on automation and labor savings innovations.” ()

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