By Harald Eraker
In 1980, the watch giant Timex' subsidiary TMX Philippines in the free trade zone Mactan Export Processing Zone started its production. Timex, which was originally an American company, is controlled by the Norwegian Fred. Olsen family. Through the Lichtenstein-based trust Ptarmigan Trust, the brothers Fred. and Petter Olsen and other members of their family own the giant corporation, which is the largest seller of wristwatches in the USA.
When NorWatch visited Cebu City this summer, it was "practically" impossible to have a guided tour of the factory, according to TMX Philippines. The request to interview someone from the local management was also turned down by the managing director's secretary with the following statement:
- It is not the company's policy to entertain the press.
Based on several interviews with present and former employees, both workers and people at the junior manager level, the NorWatch report draws a picture of a company which strictly controls and exploits its working staff. Most of the interviewees wanted to be anonymous, in fear of losing their jobs. Even former employees were afraid to speak out.
- I am afraid to be black-listed, and not be able to get a job in other companies in the Mactan-zone, says a 33-year-old woman, who worked at Timex for 14 years before she lost her job in 1997.
The report "The Olsen family in the Philippines - exploitation of young women in the Timex watch factory" is now available. The workers' main complaints against the Timex company, are the following:
• TMX Philippines has hired workers on contracts from 8 to 18 months. Then they have either been permanently employed, or lost their jobs. This is a violation of the Philippine Labour Law, by which the employer is required to give a worker a permanent job after 6 months.
• TMX Philippines only employs young, unmarried women between 18 and 22 years to work at the assembly lines. Older, permanently employed women are pressured to leave their jobs voluntarily when it is necessary to reduce the working staff. They are told that they should become housewives and take care of their children.
• TMX Philippines has, through the years, had between 10 and 15% of the working staff on temporary contracts. The contract workers have experienced arbitrary dismissals, and promises of longer appointments have been broken. The permanently employed workers complain that the improper use of contract workers threaten their jobs.
• TMX Philippines systematically forces the workers to work a lot of overtime, which is also a violation of the Labour Law in the Philippines. For example, the women at the assembly lines have worked for up to 16 hours a day for a whole month.
• TMX Philippines gives the contract workers the minimum salary of the Philippine law, and the wages of the permanently employed workers is above the average in the Mactan zone. With a view to the authorities' calculations of what a family of 6 needs to survive, however, the wages are low and insufficient for many, especially for single parents.
• TMX Philippines uses a control regime and regulations which constitute an intolerable work environment for the workers. The food situation is particularly bad. The workers get only a half an hour lunch break, and a 15 minutes coffee break when they work for 14 to 16 hours a day. It is illegal to bring food into the production hall. This can be punished with several days suspension without payment.
• TMX Philippines has, in practise, a trade union ban. The workers' small efforts to organise themselves have ended in lay-offs. The management's alternative, welfare committees with representatives appointed by the supervisors, do not adress questions of wages and working conditions.
• TMX Philippines proudly says that the company has excellent relations with its employees. According to the company, the workers return this with loyalty. Many workers and former employees, however, are resentful about the treatment they have experienced, in spite of their self-sacrifice for the company.
• TMX Philippines also boasts of having a good relationship with the local community. People in the neighbourhood, however, complain that they do not benefit from the company's profits, and they associate prostitution, environmental problems and forced relocation of two villages with the company.
- Worse than slavery
Many of the workers described their relationship with TMX Philippines with strong words, such as "exploitation", "imprisonment", and "worse than slavery". In spite of this, some of the former employees wanted to come back to the factory, especially if the working conditions were improved. The reason is not hard to imagine in a country with high unemployment and high poverty rates.
Two factors were pointed out as important obstacles to improved working conditions. The first one is the trade union ban at TMX Philippines, which prevents the workers from having any real influence. Secondly, the company's use of young women, who are not known for complaining and protesting, ensures that TMX Philippines has a submissive working staff.
Fred. Olsen's view of these factors, and other conditions which are mentioned in the report, was given to NorWatch in an interview on September the 2nd. He confirmed the trade union prohibition, and explained this by saying that "the Philippinos are not mature enough for trade unions". Olsen also confirmed that TMX Philippines wants young women at the assembly lines, because they have better eye-sight, a necessity for working efficiently with the small watch parts which are to be assembled.
- Chatter away
Fred. Olsen's other comments to the criticism against TMX Philippines, which was raised in the NorWatch report, are quoted below:
• A coach would never have a football player with a broken leg on the team. It is just as unnatural to hire pregnant women.
• Employees who become pregnant are not dismissed. The company's statistics show that 45% of the women at the assembly lines are married, and in all likelihood have children.
• The extensive use of contract workers in earlier years can be explained by the fact that the Philippino management was not able to handle fluctuating demands and production. The new foreign management, on the other hand, has managed to switch over to a more even production throughout the year. As a result, the need for contract workers is reduced.
• The claim that the women at the factory have worked up to 16 hours per day for a month, is "nonsense" from the TMX Philippines management. The workers now work maximum 12 hours shifts. However, in reality "if you are asked to work overtime, you do it".
• The workers are not permitted to bring food, drinks or other personal items into the production halls, because there is a risk that the products may be damaged or deteriorated.
• The workers at the assembly lines are not allowed to talk to each other, because "Philippine women chatter away". This affects their concentration and productivity.
• The management does not have time to arrange meetings between prostitutes and visitors, but the company cracks down on employees who engage in prostitution. Some years ago, an American in the management was dismissed because he had too much contact with prostitutes.
Fred. Olsen had an immediate, negative reaction when he heard that the coffee break is only 15 minutes when the workers work overtime. When he checked this with the managing director of TMX Philippines, it turned out that he was also unaware of this. Olsen immediately told the management to extend the break to 30 minutes, in order to "make it possible for the workers to get a decent meal".
Apart from this, Olsen pointed out that he is very proud of the conditions at TMX Philippines. He referred to the company having its own doctor and nurse, a pension fund, a sports field, a family planning programme, and better salaries than other companies in the Mactan zone.
The NorWatch report "The Olsen family in the Philippines - exploitation of young women in the Timex watch factory", is available from the Future in our Hands' information centre in Oslo, or from NorWatch's Internet home page.
"When we work 14 to 16 hours a day, we feel the hunger badly. But we are not allowed to bring food or drinks into the production halls, or to go out to get something to eat. Even cookies and candy are prohibited. To alleviate the hunger, I sometimes smuggled candies with me. I "dropped" a piece of a watch on the floor under the working bench on purpose in order to eat a candy without being discovered when I bent down to pick up the part. The work at the assembly line is strenuous. Because we sit still for hours and assemble microscopic parts, we get problems with our eyes and our backs."
22-year-old Timex woman
"The Philippinos are not mature enough for trade unions."
Fred. Olsen, owner of Timex.
Norwatch Newsletter 15/99