Salute to Filipino Workers on Labor Day

by Raymund Llanes Liongson, PhD

History has taught us that Filipino presence in Hawaii is rooted in labor. Filipino migration to Hawaii began in 1906 when the first 15 Filipinos were recruited to work in the sugarcane plantation fields. By the 1930s, Filipino plantation laborers began to outnumber other ethnic groups working in the fields and mills.

Fast forward to a century later and Filipinos have become the fastest-growing and largest ethnic group in Hawaii. Of the 1.46 million population of the islands, about one in four Hawaii residents (25%) have some Filipino ancestry. An estimated 79.6 percent of the Filipino population between ages 20-64 are in labor force, according to a Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism data.

Today’s Filipino Workers
“Filipino workers play an integral role to Hawaii’s economy, culture, and society,” says Director Jade Butay of the Hawaii State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR). “Without Filipino workers, the hotels, restaurants, health care, construction, and other industries wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Atty. Sergio Alcubilla III, Executive Director of Hawaii Workers Center, agrees. “With Filipinos comprising nearly 25% of the state’s population, it’s hard to miss a Filipino worker. From our hotel lobbies to our hospital floors, you’ll find Filipino workers everywhere with many working more than one job. In essence, our immigrant work ethic is without question and plays a critical role in fueling Hawaii’s economy.”

Filipino workers are known for their industry and commitment to their work, creating an almost stereotypical image of being hard workers. This did not escape the observant eyes of Eugene “Gino” Soqueña, Executive Director of Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council (HBCTC).

“In my 35 years working in the construction industry, I have witnessed firsthand how Filipino workers have excelled in whatever construction trade you find them in — from the hard-working Laborers and Masons Union members, to the Operating Engineers and Electrical Workers Union members, many of them becoming foremen or project superintendents. Even in jobs other than the construction industry, Filipino workers are always willing to work. They hardly complain, and they always find better and easier ways to do the job,” says the HBCTC Executive Director.

Bumps and Hurdles
These heartening impressions are not without challenges and disappointments, however.

“Filipinos are underrepresented in some occupations, especially in top managerial and professional positions, and in higher education settings,” Labor Director Butay notes. “The University of Hawaii’s Pamantasan Council has reported that only 14% of undergraduates at UH Manoa, our flagship university, are of Filipino descent. Also, the percentage of Filipino faculty in the UH System is relatively low; the Pamantasan Council reported that only 4.2% of instructional faculty in the UH System was of Filipino ancestry in 2021.” Filipinos fall behind their Japanese, White, and Chinese counterparts when it comes to education.

The hierarchy of the richest and poorest ethnic groups in Hawaii hasn’t changed much, according to Jonathan Okamura, professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. That ranking puts Japanese, Chinese, and Whites at the top, with Filipino and Native Hawaii nearer the bottom. Professor Okamura uses family income, educational attainment, and occupational status to gauge a group’s socio-economic status.

While a roughly quarter (25.5%) of the Filipino workforce between 16 years old and older are in management, business, science and the arts industries, the majority are into service occupations (30.5%) and sales and office employment (23.0%).

U.S. Census Data (2019) shows that Filipino and part-Filipino households have the second highest median family income, behind their Japanese and part-Japanese counterpart. That Filipinos have the largest average family size is a major factor in the high-family income ranking, explains Carlie Liddell, head statistician of the Hawaii State Data Center.

Per capita income, however, Filipinos in Hawaii fall behind the Japanese, Whites, Chinese, and the State average figures.

The apparent passivity of some Filipino workers toward unfair or oppressive work conditions alarms the HWC Executive Director.

“Whether it’s our colonial history or cultural upbringing, it seems that we too easily relinquish that power to our employers, to other ethnicities, and to the powers that be. I see it when our workers are afraid to speak up against the abuses of their bosses, when qualified Filipinos are passed over promotions, and when the boards of large corporations lack any diversity reflective of the population. Yes, we are a significant portion of the population in Hawaii but we have not fully exercised our strength. When we do, like we did on the sugar and pineapple fields not that long ago, all workers are benefited,” observes Alcubilla.

DLIR Director Butay sees Hawaii’s high cost of living and skyrocketing housing costs as significant challenge for Filipino workers in the State, much like anyone else. This is compounded by the increasing cost of higher education, home ownership, saving for retirement, and other aspects of what used to be more easily attainable for workers.

Butay explains that “Filipinos are disproportionately overrepresented in Hawai’i’s lowest paid and most vulnerable employment sectors and are among the top workers impacted by job loss” due to health or economic crises.

Another major challenge is “being torn between pursuing higher education and earning wages to support families here and in the Philippines,” Butay added. “The need to prepare workers for the economy of the future is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s all about long-term sacrifice instead of immediate gratification.

Both Alcubilla and Butay cite linguistic and cultural variances as common sources of discrimination against Filipino workers. “As an immigrant, I understand the barriers of culture and language that others may use to exploit us,” admitted the HWC executive.

“Due to poor language ability, some Filipino workers may not express themselves well during interviews and once employed, language barriers can slow their promotion and advancement,” explains the Labor Director. A 2016 Hawaii State report showed that speakers of a non-English language typically earn 10% to 34% less than English-only speakers for all proficiency levels.

Disturbing circumstances include reports of opportunism against and oppression of Filipino workers – even by their own kind. Alcubilla reveals cases of “Filipinos taking advantage of and exploiting other Filipinos — from wage theft to possible labor trafficking.”

Promising Resolutions
There is a general agreement that compassion, education and training are critical in uplifting the life condition of workers.

“As a community, I know we can be better,” says Allcubilla. “If we are business owners, we must pay our workers fairly. If we are supervisors, we must treat workers with the dignity and respect they deserve. And as workers, we must understand that we have a powerful voice and that we must use it to uplift each other and our community.” 

“Education and training are critical components to address the challenges Filipino workers face,” says Butay. A higher education opens the door to jobs in professions and opportunities for advancement to managerial and executive positions. But there are other promising routes. The majority of future jobs may not require a college degree.

Since coming on board as the DLIR Director, Butay says he had been signing a lot of apprenticeship certificates for electricians, carpenters, plumbers, ironworkers, HVAC technicians, and other nontraditional apprenticeship in health care, hospitality, and agriculture. “From my vantage point, these are good outcomes and a win/win – both for the workers and our community. We continue to strengthen and expand the program to build a pipeline to good, quality jobs, support underserved communities, and advance racial and gender equity.”

“At the Hawaii Workers Center, our mission is to help organize workers from marginalized communities so they are empowered to exercise their right to organize for their own social, economic, and political well-being,” explains Alcubilla. HWC trainings impress on workers’ rights and the articulation of the workers’ “collective voices to enable them to stand up to the money interests of big business.” The Center supports the work of labor unions such as UNITE HERE Local 5 and ILWU and work to “hold government leaders accountable when it comes to being on the side of the working-class community to ensure workers are protected through our policies and laws.”

Labor Day Observance
The first Labor Day holiday in the U.S. was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City when 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

By 1894, 23 more states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September of each year a national holiday. Since then, Labor Day became an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers.

Five years earlier in 1889, however, May 1 was designated May Day (or International Labour Day), a day in support of workers, by an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot, a violent confrontation that took place on May 4, 1886, in Chicago. The incident sprang from a labor strike demanding for an 8-hour workday.

As the socialist trade unions and workers were already marking May 1 as Labor Day, President Cleveland was uncomfortable with choosing the month of the Haymarket Riot as Labor Day so he chose the alternative day in September.

Except for the United States, Canada, Autralia, Japan, and New Zealand, over 60 other countries observe International Labor Day on May 1.

“Labor Day belongs to every man and woman who contributes to improve our lives, the economy and made this country what it is,” says Butay.

“Higher wages, holidays, vacation, medical coverage, retirement, overtime, sick leave, 8-hour work days, safe working conditions, etc. are all possible today because of the labor movement and those from organized labor,” concluded Soqueña.

Countless workers who fought for these rights and entitlements were Filipino. So, to all of you, Filipino workers, we thankfully salute you.

RAYMUND LLANES LIONGSON, PHD is a retired professor from the Arts and Humanites at the University of Hawaii-Leeward CC. He is current member of the Board of Directors of the Filipino Community Center and the State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He served as a member of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, President of the University of the Philippines Alumni Association, and Master of Hawaiian Lodge-Free and Accepted Masons, among many other community involvements.

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