Jurgette Honculada (Philippines)


Jurgette Honculada was born in northern Mindanao to a big middle-class family, her father a lawyer who worked his way through school and her mother a secondary school teacher. She has a son who works in information technology, a daughter pursuing her doctorate in systems biology, and a three-year old grandson. Jurgette graduated summa cum laude in 1968 from Silliman University with a journalism degree and immediately worked in feature writing and editing in Manila. In 1970 she edited a progressive youth publication Breakthrough that ran critical articles on creeping militarization in the country.  The declaration of martial law in 1971 shuttered media big and small including Breakthrough.


In early 1972, Jurgette followed husband Ibarra Malonzo to Zamboanga City in Mindanao who was taken under house arrest for past student activism and lawyering for a radical labor group in Manila.  With the press silenced and limit ed options for work in mass media, Jurgette decided to join her husband in trade union work with the National Federation of Labor (NFL), specifically in labor education and training, among stevedores and plywood workers in Zamboanga City, and among logging employees and rubber plantation workers in Basilan and the Zamboanga peninsula.


Martial law curtailed basic freedoms such as free speech and free assembly, as well as workers rights such as the right to strike. But it was possible to organize workers and undertake labor education, and the NFL slowly pushed the limits of organizing and workers advocacy. Two incidents may be cited to illustrate the violence simmering under the surface, whether emanating from harsh working conditions or from an inchoate ‘Muslim-Christian’ conflict precipitated by martial rule.


Several years into martial law, an NFL local union of rubber tappers in Basilan was deadlocked in collective bargaining negotiations with multinational B.F. Goodrich Company over several issues including what workers considered onerous task sizes (work quotas). The union could not break the deadlock with strike action which was banned under martial law. Providentially an issue—a security guard’s inflicting a “butt stroke” on a lone tapper one early morning—galvanized the workforce to call for a 72-hour work stoppage unless the guard was penalized. Not only was the guard transferred, management served notice that bargaining negotiations would soon resume. The risk of being arrested for striking was real (“work stoppage” was but a euphemism for strike) but the union leaders decided to push the limits of the law to call a halt to workplace abuse and violence.


The second incident occurred in 2005 shortly after the siege on Zamboanga City by a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) identified with Nur Misuari.  One early morning scores of Muslim NFL members in Basilan marched around the capital Isabela in support of the MNLF. An hour later their Christian co-workers, and NFL members as well, went on a similar march to demonstrate support for the government.  Among others, this was proof that the union was a ‘peace zone’ where workers, Christian and Muslim, united on labor issues while holding different political views.


The ‘Christian-Muslim conflict’ and its repercussions impinged on labor organizing work in the 70s and 80s. For instance the first (early morning) and last (mid or late afternoon) bus trips out of Zamboanga City to then Zamboanga del Sur were prone to ambuscades by Muslim rebels. NLF organizers who routinely traveled out of town on union work avoided these trips as a matter of course—and survival. Jurgette recalls visiting a logging area in the mid-70s to familiarize herself with the working conditions of employees who would participate in a labor seminar the next day.  At break of dawn the whole camp was awakened by a siren announcing the arrival of two dead security guards (whom she had interviewed the day before), victims, apparently, of rebel snipers. The seminar had to be called off.


The desire for peace pushed Jurgette to be one of five core group members of an interfaith group in Mindanao organized in the 80s for justice, development and peace and chaired by the late Roman Catholic bishop Federico Claver. Its activities included workshops and conferences that brought together Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Muslims, and indigenous peoples (lumad) in an effort to build bridges of understanding in a situation of conflict and violence.


But even as the NFL was trying to keep out of harm’s way vis a vis the conflict that was raging in parts of Mindanao, including the Zamboanga peninsula and Basilan province where NFL local unions were located, another conflict was brewing with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) along politico-ideological lines.


To start with the NFL joined other forces in the broad left to fight the Marcos dictatorship. It also entered into an arrangement through which elements of the CPP would provide a political dimension to its trade union education. For this it was branded “red” by the martial law government. At the same time the CPP elements were increasingly pushing the Leninist view of unions as “conveyor belts” of the (communist) party. The three decade-old NFL resisted and rejected this, standing fast on the principle of autonomy of the labor movement. Subsequently it was vilified as “yellow” by the CPP-NPA.


The NFL leadership and its local unions were coming under growing pressure to toe the CPP-NPA line, for instance, to stage a local union strike, or to join calls for a general (nationwide) strike without putting the matter to a vote by the general membership. This went against ingrained trade union practice and policy and, in 1986, the NFL promulgated a “Statement of Principles” (SOP) affirming that 1) the NFL was a self-organization of workers engaged in collective bargaining and collective action to pursue its goals, 2) it chose peaceful and non-violent means to advance its interests, 3) it affirmed the necessity of a strike under certain conditions, and 4) it would work with other groups for meaningful social change in a relationship of equality and mutual respect.


The SOP sent a clear signal: to civilian and military authorities that the NFL was not “Red”, i.e. an instrumentality of the Communist Party; and to the CPP-NPA that it was not “yellow” or a sweetheart union beholden to capital and/or government. Of course there was a price to pay, organizational and personal: raids by the military of the union office and the family home in Zamboanga City, a jail term for her husband, and a travel ban for her. Standing up to the CPP cost just as dearly: sabotage of organizing efforts, anonymous smear campaigns, being blackballed in international circles, and, in the 80s, the NFL’s paying off an P18-million award in damages for an illegal strike instigated years earlier by CPP elements in a local union in Davao. The Supreme Court order on the award virtually drained NFL of its financial resources.


It is instructive for Jurgette to recall this period because it helped shape her understanding of left and right politics and ideology. It also informs her concept of peace which may take the form of industrial peace (between labor and management), peace between minority-majority groups (differentiated on the basis of religion and/or ethnolinguicity), and peace between the sexes.  For her a just and lasting peace between adversaries, whether armed or not, must be principled, done in good faith and not take short-cuts.


Jurgette’s other passion was and is the women’s movement, starting with her joining Pilipina, the first Filipino feminist organization, in 1981. Pilipina’s first decade were halcyon years of consciousness-raising and women’s organizing but it would take another decade and herculean efforts of broad-based women’s coalitions to successfully push for passage of two landmark gender bills: Republic Act 7192 (1992) integrating women as full and equal partners of men in development and nation building; and RA 7877 (1995) penalizing sexual harassment in the workplace and in training institutions. And it would take another decade for passage of RA 9262 in 2004 penalizing acts of violence against women and their children.


The growing range of activities of women’s groups–from awareness building to legislative advocacy–revealed to Pilipina that all these efforts were for naught if women were excluded from the table of decision-making. Hence Pilipina’s second decade (and continuing) was devoted to the theme “women and public power”, focusing on the need to groom women as electorate and as candidate.


In 1983 Jurgette and her family moved to Manila from Zamboanga City, and shortly after, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino sparked a chain of events that upended the political order, dismantling the dictatorship and installing his widow, Cory Aquino, as President in 1985. The promise of deep change likewise touched the national women’s machinery, the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women or NCRFW (now the Philippine Commission on Women), whose new board chair was a feminist activist with solid credentials in accounting, cooperative building and people’s theater. Members of the new Board of Commssioners represented a cross-section of and Jurgette was chosen to represent labor.  At around this time Jurgette embarked on a modest project in the Cavite ecozone (also called export processing zone) to organize women ecozone workers through non-traditional approaches such as, for instance, providing child care services to working mothers.


Even as the new NCRFW leadership sought to develop gender mainstreaming in the bureaucracy as the new strategy for building gender equality, Jurgette pressed on with her advocacy on women workers. First she targeted the women workers who constitute the overwhelming majority of workers in ecozones. Ecozones have been criticized as overly-favoring investors with incentives such as tax holidays and exemption from labor laws, including the right to unionize.  Given that ecozone women workers were among the fastest growing sector of women workers, Jurgette proposed a tripartite conference to look into their working and living conditions and to identify priority points for advocacy. (Tripartite refers to with labor/unions, employers and government.) These advocacy points were summed up as the Four Ss: security of tenure, shelter, safety and social insurance. One recommendation that came out of the conference was a survey on living conditions of women workers at the Cavite Ecozone which the National Statistics Office later undertook on the behest of NCRFW.


A second area of concern that Jurgette urged the NCRFW to take up was that of micro-finance (of which micro-credit is a vital part) as a driver of informal sector growth. In a developing country such as the Philippines where employment in the formal sector is limited, people create their own jobs and micro-finance in the Philippines has ballooned in the past few decades. As with ecozone workers, up to 90% of micro-finance clients are women. Although fast-growing, both the informal sector and ecozones are not part of the formal labor force and therefore lie outside the pale of many legal rights and benefits.


With support from colleagues in academe and women NGOs, Jurgette proposed a comprehensive study on the practice and benefits of micro-finance: on whether, and how, microfinance benefited women, what the deficits were, how to sustain the gains, and how to make microfinance an effective poverty exit strategy. In a word, the study focused a spotlight on the gender dimension in microfinance.


At the turn of the millennium, Jurgette became executive committee chair of a Bangkok-based regional organization for women workers, the Committee for Asian Women (CAW). CAW undertook research and training in behalf of women workers and tackled such issues as contractualization and occupational health and safety through publications and protest action. At the same time CAW reached beyond standard workplace issues to broader realities in Asia that impinged on the lives of women workers, namely, political repression and armed conflict.  CAW sponsored forums and consultations, and commissioned research studies, on the subject.


Noteworthy is the fact that Jurgette has authored three books on gender mainstreaming including Gender Mainstreaming in the Philippine Bureaucracy (1975-2000) published in 2000, as well as a monograph entitled “The Effects of the Armed Conflict on Women Workers in Mindanao”.  She has also written statements, speeches, position papers and letters to the editor on labor and gender issues.


In sum, therefore, Jurgette has spent the better part of three and a half decades in the trade union and women’s movements: training, theorizing, teaching, advocacy.  In both her trade union work and gender-based campaigns, she has espoused peaceful methods that seek to illustrate, explain and convince; she has joined broad coalitions, of both unions and women groups, based on equality and mutual respect, to raise labor and gender demands. She has also helped develop basic trade union education modules for leadership and democratic governance. As well, the lessons of gender mainstreaming as pioneered by the NCRFW and as piloted in various local government units in the country, are documented in three books she has written which serve as ready references for both government and non-government organizations (NGOs). Also invaluable reference material are the two ecozone studies (organizing in four Philippine ecozones and living conditions of Cavite ecozone women workers); and the comprehensive study on women and microfinance in the Philippines completed in 2005.


In a way, her immersion in the labor and women’s movements has helped prepare her for the third leitmotif in her life: the peace movement. In late 2010 she was invited to join the government (GPH) peace panel in anticipation of renewed talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF) after an eight-year impasse.  The new GPH panel sought a balance in terms of geography and gender: two out of five members were female; and three out of five came from the south (Visayas and Mindanao). All five had been involved in social movements and/or grassroots activities: two lawyers had been active in human rights during martial law, one woman had had two decades of peace and environmental advocacy behind her, and the fourth panel member had served as a barangay captain.


Both GPH and NDF panels met in informal talks in December 2010 in Oslo to lay the ground for the first formal talks, also in Oslo, in February 2011.  While the February talks were marked by some contention, there seemed to be sufficient common ground to drive the talks forward on a faster timetable (the talks had been proceeding off-and-on since 1986).  Technical working groups were to draft comprehensive agreements, on socio-economic reforms, to begin with, as subject of the next formal talks. But the NDF called off the second round of formal talks purportedly on non-government compliance with NDF demands for prisoner release.


An informal GPH-NDF meeting was called in Norway in mid-2012 to try to find a way out of the impasse but the effort did not seem to prosper. Sometime in the year, a  “special track” between GPH and NDF that was not weighed down by conditionalities invoked in relation to formal talks was gaining ground.  A common statement was being hammered out and hopes were high that early 2013 would bring a modest agreement between GPH and NDF. But the latter reneged on its word in midstream and the track went kaput.


Soon after the GPH panel focused its attention on drawing up what it calls the “right approach”—conditions under which peace talks have a chance of reaching fruition. These include: talking with the right people or party, and being time-bound (and not have indeterminate timetables) and agenda-bound (aiming for doable projects rather than the full transformation of Philippine society), among others.


Apart from participating in formal and informal talks, Jurgette’s tasks as a member of the GPH panel include speaking at forums, consultations and other peace-related activities sponsored by LGUs and peace organizations, radio interviews on peace issues, and writing statements and articles. In a 2012 peace road trip in Caraga soon after the first formal GPH-NDF talks, Jurgette spoke before groups in three provinces within a 24-hour period.


She is also involved in writing for Kababaihan at Kapayapaan (Women and Peace), the twice-yearly publication on gender and peace of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP). Topics she has written on include psycho-social (trauma) healing for victims of armed conflict, and healing and rehabilitation programs for former rebels in Davao.


One under-the-radar initiative she can now speak of more freely concerns the abduction of six mattress producers from Initao, Misamis Oriental in 2011 by the New People’s Army (NPA) in a mountain village in Davao on charges of spying. In fact, the Initao men had been plying their trade for over a decade in upland and lowland villages in Mindanao. As GPH panel member, Jurgette’s help was sought to secure their release of the hapless. Knowing that military operations wouldn’t work and neither would an outright government demand for their release, Jurgette knew that the church and media would be key. The victims’ kin and friends took care of the church (particularly Roman Catholic) angle. She focused on media: a press conference for local, and also national, print and broadcast media coordinated by a local media person; and coverage by a topnotch journalist. She helped raise funds for food and transportation expenses related to the press conference. She also prepared thick reference material for a multi-awarded journalist who, in less than a fortnight, produced a moving and pithy column on the mattress makers, helping spark national interest on the kidnapping. After nearly two months in detention, the mattress peddlers were released. Peaceful means, patience and power of the printed word helped save the day for the Initao six.


For now, with formal talks in limbo, Jurgette focuses on the written and printed and spoken word to convey the message of peace.