Kontra-Diskurso: Testimonial Narratives of Filipino Workers (1986-2012)

Posted in Dissertations @ Tricollege Ph.D. Philippine Studies Program

Traditionally, workers live on the fringes of society.  But workers also experience marginality in the field of discourse and knowledge production, their “voices” considered insignificant, illegitimate, dangerous, and/or subversive.  Like other marginalized groups, workers’ experiences of subalternity and otherness are largely ignored in the linear/positivist/developmentalist conceptualization of history.   

Originally from Latin America, testimonios or testimonial narratives constitute a discursive strategy through which workers narrativize their experiences of injustice and articulate spaces of resistance.  Such narratives, which also circumvent Western, canonical conventions of literary aesthetics, serve as a collective, praxis-oriented mode of consciousness to reveal the workings of oppression and how they are—or can be—resisted. 

 My study analyzes the testimonial narratives written by Filipino workers, mostly in the form of letters and incident reports, and gathered from the files of:  four (4) non-government organizations or NGOs—Kilusan para sa Pambansang Demokrasya (KPD), Kanlungan Foundation, Inc. (Kanlungan), Archdiocese of Manila Labor Center (AMLC), and one unidentified NGO; and the government’s Department of Labor and Employment-NCR (DOLE-NCR) Office. Covering the years 1986 to 2012, the study problematized how these testimonios interrogate the triumphalist narrative of democracy and progress, especially in the wake of Marcos’s ouster through the so-called People Power Revolt and the restoration of civil institutions.  

Borrowing critical concepts from Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Postcolonialism, Subaltern Studies, and Critical Pedagogies, the analysis appropriates a notion of resistance that fuses the language of critique with the language of possibility.  Specifically, my study revolves around the following questions: What concerns of the Filipino workers are foregrounded in the narratives?  As counternarratives and counterdiscourse, in what ways do these narratives challenge hegemonic and established notions about history and society?  How do these “little stories” illustrate opposition, resistance, and solidarity?  How is resistance—one that integrates the discourse of critique with the discourse of possibility—foregrounded in the letters as counter/narratives?  How do these counter/narratives  instantiate Henry Giroux’ idea of “public time” which draws connections between the need to interrogate dominant institutions and the discursive formations they legitimate on the one hand; and the demand for social justice and transformation on the other?

The narratives show how workers’ salaries and benefits were compromised in the name of efficiency, profit, and even favoritism.  Worse, the workers as “disposable bodies” were subjected to disciplinary mechanisms that made them susceptible to forms of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, with the work place becoming a laboratory for panoptical cruelty. But apart from rememorating experiences of marginality and despair, the letters also posit forms of resistance that are anchored on a kind of politics that is performative and emancipatory.  The letters also embody discourses of solidarity that conflate private stories with social memories.  Moreover, testimonial narratives enact “affective struggles” that denounce oppression in its many forms while implicating transformative and liberatory possibilities.  

Future projects may focus on other determinations like geographic areas, ethnicities, and religions to reveal other narratives from the margins, problematized through other critical lenses, to democratize further the politics of representation.