this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on April 30, 2015.

It was 2010. I was 20 years old, out of school and unemployed, and not really sure where I was going. I was supposed to graduate that April but failed to do so, and instead found my way to the statistics of young Filipinos without a degree and without work.

During those days I was unsure of many things, except one: I must earn enough money to finish college. Without a diploma, I could not knock on the gilded doors of corporate Philippines, but I knew I had to work. So, armed with a decent command of the English language and a thoroughly depleted sense of (misplaced) self-pride, I went to the only recourse of many of my generation when in search of work: the call center.

Wearing a long-sleeved shirt and toting a thick folder of patience, I entered a room packed with hopefuls. I really had no idea what to expect, and as we were ushered into interview rooms I became mildly aware of how out of my league and unprepared I was.

But I was determined to do my best, as my best was the only qualification I had. And as the day progressed, our group got smaller and smaller, the lobby grew more solemn and empty, until only about five of us remained. At that point, the sun having conclusively set, it dawned on me that I was among the lucky few who had been given the privilege to work.

I had yet to realize that workers in the country are not few, and that work should not be a privilege.

As a matter of fact, this is a country of workers—roughly half of our population is part of the labor force. Imagine: That’s one in every two Filipinos, and I suspect the majority of the other half are either too old or too young to be working—or, if neither, are simply unemployed.

Then there’s a small slice made up of about 21,000 Filipino families. They represent the richest of the rich, the owners of the conglomerates and the monopolies, and the ones whose skin is so smooth and soft that it is beyond the reach of the searing Filipino sun.

The sad thing, however, is that despite our majority, many of us fail to understand the stark reality that besets labor in this country—that somehow we are not of the same caliber. Surely, when you work in the glistening towers of Makati, you’re not “a” laborer, right?

In my case, when I got accepted at the call center, I was hired for the recruitment division. And I remember the feeling of power over the fate of the applicants as I weighed them and determined whether they could work with us or not.

Funny enough, working for a salary of only P11,000 but sitting in an air-conditioned office and making the decisions that I did, I almost felt like I was part of that top tier, that somehow, I was not part of the sweaty, overworked and vulnerable lot of workers to which the word “laborer” generally referred.

Sure, many of my coworkers who had been there longer continued to be without security of tenure, or didn’t have competitive pay. But the bosses were kind, and our office was sufficiently posh. Clearly, I was of a different caliber.

Eventually, I left without lasting a year. I got the chance to go back to school again, supported by a forgiving family. Since then, working part-time whenever I could, and now studying to be a lawyer, I have educated myself and have come to realize how much our own labor is really undervalued by us, and denied by us.

Consider Labor Day which, in many ways, should really be about the people who matter most to us. But do we celebrate it as such?

What I know is that Labor Day is about my hardworking parents—both government employees who sent their children to good schools on tightened belts and heavy loans.

It is also about my brother, who joins almost half a million other Filipino seafarers on storm-battered ships crisscrossing the world, or my sister, a nurse in Japan, who will never ever be entitled to equal treatment in that foreign land.

Labor Day is also about Carla, a young woman, who, having lost both parents, now relentlessly works for herself and her younger siblings, or Edsel, a salesman, who works for whatever pay is given him in order to afford the last few college units he needs to acquire a degree.

The day is about the countless, nameless, even faceless security guards, construction workers, contractual government employees, farmers and journalists who work harder than many of us but get paid way below the levels they need to be able to provide a good life for their families.

So as Labor Day comes and goes in our country, with its culture that is renowned for its fiestas, I wonder why we shy away from celebrating our real, everyday heroes on the day intended to remind us that we are the force that has made this country survive, the force that makes this country wealthy, and the only force that can move this country forward.

Maybe it’s time to give our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and ourselves, the young workers, the dignity our hard work deserves?

I know I am part of that work force, and I am part of the 40 million who work day in and day out in the hope that our perseverance will translate to meaningful lives. For now, it’s not when you work hard, you get paid better. It’s more like when you want to get paid better, you have to work somewhere else.

I hope then that someday, Labor Day will become about all of us human beings who work out a living but only barely manage an existence. I await the day when we realize that we are all but laborers, and that the cards are still stacked against us.

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