“As lawmakers, we should not be served. We, as public servants, must serve the people.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Long time workers’ rights advocate Ferdinand Gaite is the product of the parliament of the streets. He is bound to continue that long tradition as a lawmaker – 20 long years since Bayan Muna’s founding in 1999.
Still, Gaite has yet to fathom the big tasks ahead of him, most especially with the obvious change in environment. From the parliament of the streets, he is now a neophyte lawmaker who will walk and talk in the halls of the House of Representatives. This, he finds, both an honor and a cause of anxiety.
Bayan Muna, along with fellow progressive partylists under the Makabayan bloc, emerged with a generally resounding victory during the midterm elections, despite what Gaite referred to as a systematic use of government resources and influence to bring zero votes for them.
“This is a unique opportunity that was given to us as a result of the strong and vibrant mass movement. I am anxious as this is a new arena for me. But it quickly disappears because I know that we are taking this journey along with the Filipino people,” he told Bulatlat in an interview.
A government worker
Gaite began as a casual employee at the Overseas Workers Welfare Agency in 1987. He then rose from the ranks and eventually became officer-in-charge of a division.
In all those years, he became very active in union organizing and in pushing for meaningful reforms not just with OWWA employees but also with other government employees unions they were working hand-in-hand with under the then newly-established Confederation of Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage).
“I was a student leader during my college days in Lyceum,” he said, referring to the Lyceum of the Philippines University, “so when I entered government service, I was already conscienticized. I joined the union right away.”
However, Gaite said he had difficulties balancing his work load and the tasks of heading Courage. In 2003, after 16 years of public service, he eventually availed of early retirement to work full-time as a union organizer and head of Courage.
“Who would have thought that I will be returning to public service? I worked for OWWA for 16 years. And now, 16 years later, I am back as a lawmaker,” he said, adding that he prefers to be referred to as a “public servant.”
He said, “as lawmakers, we should not be served. We, as public servants, must serve the people.”
Workers rights as his legislative agenda
Given his long experience in union organizing, it is not surprising that he will take on the tasks of ensuring bills and other relevant measures on workers’ rights and welfare are pushed in the Lower House.
Specifically, Gaite said, he will push for legislative measures that will focus on ending contractualization and in pushing for a national minimum wage for workers both in the private and public sectors.
His stint at OWWA from 1987 to 2003 has also made him an advocate for migrant rights.
In an interview with Gaite during the 20th year commemoration of the execution of Flor Contemplacion, the lawmaker criticized the Migrant Workers Act of 1995, saying that it has failed to provide due legal assistance, repatriation for distressed Filipino migrant workers, among other forms of assistance.
Instead, he said, the government continues to burden overseas Filipino workers with state exactions to keep the country’s economy afloat, adding that a Filipino needs to cough up fees ranging from P30,000 to P130,000 to placement agencies in order to secure a job abroad.
The measures that they will push for this 18th Congress, Gaite said, will aim to ensure that Filipinos are no longer driven to work abroad because they have no more choice left in the country. This will include their calls for national industrialization.
Victim of harassment
Gaite has repeatedly decried harassment against him.
In 2006, a libel suit was filed against Gaite after Courage played a crucial role in exposing not just the poor conditions of its workers but also the corruption scandal involving the then management of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) under Winston Garcia. This was eventually dropped by the fiscal for lack of merit.
Gaite, too, was subjected to surveillance last year, with a suspected state agent frequenting his house to ask his whereabouts from their house help and neighbors.
This has been described by his colleagues in the public sector union as “desperate measures,” when the present administration should instead be working on fulfilling its promises to finally put an end to contractualization and improve the lives of workers.
Staunch fighter for rights
In one of the People’s SONA protest under former President Benigno Aquino III, Gaite gamely sang a rap song instead of delivering his usual fiery speech. The lyrics and the rhythm livened up the spirits of the protesters.
While he may no longer be able to rap these days, Gaite vowed to remain resolute in the fight for people’s rights and welfare, and live up to the long tradition of progressive lawmakers as fiscalizers of the powerful.