[This was written on Sept. 29, 2001 as my way of showing how the retrenched NSC workers were doing. This came out as a feature story in Mindanews.]
Iligan City – With all the patient waiting and sacrifice, this band of hard-working former steel employees have grown to realize that nothing is more important to them now than to continue giving support to each other just to keep their hopes alive.
They were building a country over here once, but everything is quiet now. People must be wondering where they all went after their factory closed shop. Well, let me tell you the sad news: they are still very much around, except for the few who were lucky enough to have expertise in other fields and who were happily accepted by companies outside the country, but that is another one for those brain-drain stories.
Now, for the rest of the National Steel Corporation (NSC) employees here, the past two years have been hell. But they’re still here, sticking around like barnacles on the posts of the now empty NSC wharf, waiting for the steel plant to open its doors again and resume operations.
So, blessed is the one who took in a good and virtuous woman for a wife. Luckier yet if she has a college degree and is capable of finding employment herself so she can support the hubby and the kids during times like this.
Sure, this was supposed to be just for a while, as these “steel men” stubbornly cling to their belief of getting their jobs back “one day.” For the laid-off steel workers, that day is bound to come along. “It’s just a question of time,” says one of them.
Yet with hope taking on more and more an evanescent quality as the months roll by, these men are in for a major battle of holding on to their dreams.
Forty-one year-old Systems Engineer Pat Capuno knows this by heart and takes care to preserve what he calls the “culture of sharing” he and his co-workers had back at the steel plant.
“We were all like brothers at the factory,” he says, “everyone considered everybody his close friend.”
And like the best of buddies, who knew how to enjoy each other’s company, Pat, as well as the other retrenched employees of NSC still get together at times over a good, albeit, simpler meal to affirm the bond they shared which is, needless to say, the strength of the steel they used to make.
But it is clear that these post-retrenchment gatherings have taken on another and more noble purpose: to boost each other’s morale and keep their spirits up.
The gatherings also give those who seem to be luckier than the rest to have found another job or, were already well-off to start with, a chance to share with their less fortunate brothers a hot and sumptuous meal.
Afterall, many have, either by sheer weakness or by a further unlucky turn of events, fallen into despair and destitution. Even top rated engineers now have difficulty getting employment. What more if you are already over forty and your ability to contribute questioned?.
When NSC’s Malaysian owner Hottick Investments Ltd. – Renong Bhd shut down its Iligan factory in November 1999 due to its failure to pay P16 billion in obligations, around 1,200 employees lost their jobs. The closure also created a domino effect on the other industrial companies in Iligan causing some to fold shop and others to have serious survival problems.
Several of these companies like the Mabuhay Vinyl Corporation, Refractories Corporation of the Philippines, Maria Cristina Chemical Industries and Worth Industries existed mainly to supply NSC with some of the raw materials it needed such as bricks, work rolls, bearings, grease and chemicals like hydrochloric acid and iron pyrite.The Iligan City government was also hit hard by the closure losing its biggest employer in NSC as well as millions of pesos in revenues that used to come in every month.
Sad stuff like children made to stop schooling and families losing their homes suddenly became so real. The City Social Welfare and Development Office was faced with a crisis with families breaking up and people going hungry.
Thirty-eight year-old Jun Clementino used to operate a four-stand tandem mill at the steel plant. He now lives alone because his wife and family left him after he lost his job. “Sometimes I just go around to my friends from NSC for food so I can survive,” he once said. That was a year ago and no one knows where he is now.
Pat, who had given 16 years of loyal service to NSC and the others like him, are aware of these sad events and are very concerned for their family and their co-worker’s fates.
“That is why we want a new investor to be found for NSC so we can begin operations again and have the retrenched workers earning money once more,” he said.
The Iligan City government likewise, is also very concerned about the crisis situation created by the NSC shut down . It is doing everything it can to find a buyer or even just a short term investor for the moment, just so the steel plant can start operating again.
This will also keep the steel plant in running condition and prevent it from just sitting there rusting and gathering dust. It will also help fetch it a higher price in the event of a sell-out, as some joke.
The steel plant, in the meantime, is being maintained by a rotating crew of retrenched workers accepting an average daily wage of P380. The maintainance operations are designed to prevent NSC facilities here from breaking down altogether.
The scheme which sees around 200 former employees working in a 13-day month for an average of three months provides some of the retrenched workers a means of livelihood during this difficult period.
After one period ends, another set of 200 workers are called in to replace the maintainance workers until all of the remaining retrenched workers have been given a chance to work even for a while. Then the cycle begins again.
With the recent developments in the search for an interim investor for NSC, there might be reason for the retrenched employees to see light at the end of the tunnel. The Department of Trade and Industry has announced that Malaysia’s debt rehabilitation agency, Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Bhd. has committed its support to opening NSC’s factory here soon.
DTI Secretary Mar Roxas said that the DTI-led evaluation committee would resume its search for an investor to take over NSC next month. Roxas is optimistic that the steel giant’s plant in Iligan would be able to begin operations again early next year.
This thought too was in the minds of the 600 or so retrenched NSC employees who gathered inside the steel plant’s premises last Wednesday for a sort of major get-together party they dubbed “fiesta sa NSC” to re-affirm friendships and cheer each other up.
“We decided to throw this party so we can show unity and cohesiveness as well as tell each other not to lose hope,” Pat explained.
The party was the brainchild of a generous former Plant Manager named Ruben A. Pinaroc who according to Pat, thought that sharing a nice hot meal with his fellow workers and enjoying their company would be a nice change from living a premature retired life, a retirement one cannot enjoy anyway, considering the fact that their separation pay seems to be, just talk.
For these men who call themselves brothers, what is real for now is the fight to keep their hopes alive. And for that, they need to depend on each other. (Rex Godinez Ortega)
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Rex Godinez Ortega
Feature Story MindaNews