I have had mixed feelings about the sweeping labor reforms being implemented by Mayor Vico Sotto for the contractual workers of the Pasig City local government.

On one hand, I am sincerely happy for the 262 personnel that he regularized last year. Considering they’ve been in service for at least two decades (one, in fact, had been a casual for 43 years—long before the Mayor and I were even born), the appointments were quite overdue, to say the least.

On the other hand, I cannot help but feel envious and sad, having been reminded of my growing frustration as a contractual employee myself nine years into public service. Worse, there are still many of us out there.

As a project-based contractor in my first three years in the government, I could totally relate to their plight in more ways than one.

I had to make ends meet with a meager entry-level monthly salary on a “no work, no pay” basis. As we had no leave credits then, even a bout of flu was never a reason for me to be absent. I never came late either, as that would mean a salary deduction, something I couldn’t afford as the breadwinner of my family. If we wanted social benefits (i.e., SSS, PhilHealth, and Pag-Ibig), we had to shoulder the corresponding premium cost and pay for them as voluntary members.

During Christmas, whenever our regular colleagues received their 13th-month pay and other bonuses, we were left sulking and moping, probably murmuring something along the lines of “sana all.

To top it all, whenever people who knew me would ask about my work, my answer would usually elicit from them, as if on cue, either “Government employee ka pala?” or “Regular ka na?” or both. What “employee”? Correction: contractor or worker—there is no employer-employee relationship to begin with. But so as not to belabor myself, I would simply condense this technicality into a two-word reply. “Contractual lang,” I would say, much to their disbelief, thereby prompting me to scramble and change the topic to save myself from further self-degradation and to preserve whatever pride was left in me.

Because to be a contractual is to feel like a second-class worker, to occupy the low rungs of the totem pole that are often looked down upon.

I know how it feels to give your best—blood, sweat, and tears—but remain unrewarded and shortchanged. Sometimes, it’s tempting to settle for mediocrity. Why go the extra mile if your workload is just the same and as much as, if not more than, your regular counterparts? Yet, I choose to stick to my youthful idealism because the public deserves no less.

I know how it feels to top the list of applicants for a permanent position but still not be chosen, because you do not have connections. It’s disappointing to be proven, time and again, that if entering the bureaucracy is hard, then getting regularized or promoted is much harder.

It’s scary to not have an assurance, to be uncertain if our contracts will still be renewed upon expiry, to be at the mercy of power-tripping bosses who may fire us at their pleasure. Just like that.

Luckily, I eventually became a casual, which meant that work was now credited as government service. But while it’s true that our work conditions have improved, one thing is still lacking: security of tenure.

It may be insensitive to whine about my employment status given the current pandemic, when many people have lost their jobs and many industries are struggling. And here I am, still getting paid while working from home most of the time. But isn’t it timely to address this issue now, to ensure that others won’t experience the same?

Yes, I am grateful that I now get to enjoy various statutory benefits and allowances, but isn’t it unfortunate that many others still don’t, especially now when they need it the most?

If the government is indeed serious in honoring the sacrifices of contractual workers, it should uphold their fundamental right to a stable employment as enshrined in and guaranteed by our Constitution — starting, first and foremost, in its own backyard. After all, it is hypocritical to demand that private firms comply with labor laws when the government itself violates its own rules.

I agree that regularizing all eligible workers is easier said than done. But if Sotto (whose team is now processing the regularization requirements of about 646 contractuals, this time with at least 15 years of service) has proven that it can be done one step at a time, how can others not do the same?

Which is precisely why his leadership evokes mixed feelings in me.

On one hand, it inspires me and makes me proud that a young leader like him walks his talk and recognizes the importance of promoting the dignity and safeguarding the security of the rank and file under his wing.

Yet, in stark contrast, it also painfully reminds me of the man I voted for in 2016 who promised to end contractualization both in the public and private sectors the moment he assumed the presidency, a promise I had credulously banked on—only to betray my trust by vetoing the “anti-endo” bill that he himself had certified as urgent.

Still, I hope for the day I will no longer cringe at the question “Regular ka na?”, because there will be no more “Contractual lang” with which to reply and be ashamed about.

Or maybe, that is because by then I am already elsewhere, flourishing and savoring the validation and sense of permanence that I have long been denied.

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