Saturday, May 1, 2010

Unveiling of Ka Bel’s relief marks opposition’s Labor Day

Unveiling of Ka Bel’s relief marks opposition’s Labor Day*
By Tarra Quismundo, Tina Santos
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Politicians from various shades of the opposition united with activists on Saturday under the workingman’s banner to memorialize Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran, an icon of the Philippine labor movement.

A bas-relief of Beltran, who died in 2008, was unveiled at Plaza Miranda in Manila, where he stood during Labor Day commemorations to speak of the plight of underpaid workers and fight for their welfare.

A gift from the Manila city government, the bas-relief by sculptor Julie Lluch was affixed to one of the massive pillars at Plaza Miranda, above a marker unveiled on Beltran’s first death anniversary last year.

The unveiling was held in the morning, before activists mobilized for the annual Labor Day march to Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila.

Members of militant, labor and urban poor organizations took part in the afternoon march, which was marked by the burning of a life-size effigy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in a detention cell.

The effigy, dubbed “Kulungan ni Gloria,” symbolized the workers’ desire to make Ms Arroyo accountable for their “sufferings” under her administration, according to Wendell Gumban, media liaison of the labor coalition Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).

Another highlight of the Labor Day commemoration was the workers’ assessment of Ms Arroyo’s nine-year term and the presentation of the labor agenda to candidates for the presidency.

The demonstrators said record-high unemployment, depressed wages and grave abuse of workers’ rights characterized the Arroyo administration.

“These conditions should be overturned by the next government,” they said.

At the center

The unveiling of the bas-relief brought together politicians from varying colors of the opposition—Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo and Gabriela Rep. Liza Maza, both guest senatorial candidates of the Nacionalista Party; the Liberal Party’s Alfredo Lim, the reelectionist mayor of Manila; and currently “partyless” Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero.

“Even when Ka Bel was alive, he was at the center of the people of any [political] color he was talking to. When it came to the interest of the labor sector, the urban poor, Ka Bel was able to relate to all people, whatever color they were,” said Beltran’s daughter Ofel Balleta.

“Especially with the elections coming, we took this opportunity to bring together everyone who respected Ka Bel,” she said.

Balleta said Mayor Lim offered to make a memorial for her father soon after he passed away, and later funded the separate installation of the marker and bas-relief.

“Now we will see him every day. We can’t say that Ka Bel has left us. Even if it’s just a sculpture, he is there and his family and the people will be able to see him,” Balleta told the Inquirer.

Beltran died of head injuries on May 20, 2008. Then 75, he was fixing a leak on the roof of the family home in Bulacan when he slipped and fell head first to the ground.

He was then on his third term as a party-list lawmaker.

A staunch critic of the administration, Beltran had survived incarceration following his involvement in massive protest actions at the height of calls for Ms Arroyo’s resignation in 2005 and 2006.

Bias for labor

At the unveiling, a wreath bearing red ribbons—the color representing the militant struggle—was offered along with smaller floral arrangements with yellow and orange ribbons.

“Ka Bel as a person was very likeable, especially on a personal basis. You have to respect his very strong bias for labor and know that he will not give up. But even when there were times that he hit hard, he remained humane,” said Ocampo, who had many times marched beside Beltran.

Renato Reyes, secretary general of the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), said this year’s presidential candidates should look up to Beltran who made no compromises and never wavered in his advocacy.

“He’s an icon of the labor movement; he’s recognized whatever your affiliation may be, whatever your labor union. That’s the spirit of Ka Bel—uncompromising, principled, steadfast, a simple man. That should be emulated even by the ‘presidentiables,’” Reyes said.

Beltran’s widow Rosario said the bas-relief would be not only a memorial to her husband but also a daily revival of that day in November 1956 when she met him, then a cabbie, in Plaza Miranda.

They married 10 days later and had 10 children together.

“A while ago, I had a flashback and thought I could not afford not to keep coming back here. He is here,” the widow said, smiling.

“On the 20th, his death anniversary, we will see each other again. My joke is that I’ll see Ka Bel again standing here,” she said.

No labor agenda

KMU chair Elmer Labog said that while all the presidential candidates were claiming to be pro-poor and promising to end poverty and corruption, no one had presented a concrete, long-term agenda for the labor sector.

“We want to hear [how they will] address low wages, joblessness, labor migration, poor working conditions and violation of labor rights and standards,” he said.

The demonstrators also called on the candidates to back legislation on a significant wage increase for workers, promote workers’ rights, and reverse laws promoting contractual and flexible labor, among others.

Bayan’s Reyes said that apart from making a firm commitment to raise workers’ wages and increase their benefits, the next president should also reverse Ms Arroyo’s economic policies, including what he described as “the oppressive value-added tax.”

“This is Ms Arroyo’s last Labor Day. She should have made it meaningful by giving the workers additional wages, not an additional day off,” Reyes said. “The next President should do better by addressing labor demands.”

Malacañang has declared May 3 a nonworking holiday as part of its “holiday economics” program.

“This move just shows the lack of respect the administration has for the significance of International Labor Day,” Labog said. He said the labor sector did not recognize the May 3 holiday.

Police said the commemoration of Labor Day was generally peaceful.

At around 10 a.m., various groups converged at Blumentritt corner Sta. Cruz, Quirino corner Taft Avenue, and Plaza Moriones in Tondo before proceeding to Liwasang Bonifacio for the main program at 2 p.m.

As of 3 p.m., Manila policemen estimated the crowd at 6,000 to 8,000. But protest organizers put the figure at 20,000.