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Before May 1998, the co-owners who now form the core of Kaakbay Entre-Workers Cooperative were themselves workers from a traditional corporation. Collectively, they had decades-long expertise in manufacturing and selling filing systems.
But with "sacrifice" being the middle name of workers in this country, their investments of time, skill and production did not spur any real change. Mostly breadwinners, they worked long hours to complete the mechanics of putting dinner on the kitchen table and sending the kids to school.
Their individual financial status was always at the brink of red. Personal growth was a middle class and academic concept. They were getting by everyday but going nowhere.
Sixteen workers decided to strike it out on their own as a cooperative. It was not easy.
Her hair as red as her feisty self, Cielo Bueno, Founder and Managing Director, recalls the difficult transition and Kaakbay's early days with her trademark candor, as if they still haven't had their plates full of hard labor, "there was more work required to make this (co-op) work."
The founding worker-members initially received wages that were below the minimum rate. There were instances when their pay was delayed due to cash flow constraints. There were no benefits other than a free meal a day. The available funds were reserved for the weekly payroll of the 12 probationary workers, acquisition of raw materials, office rental and other operating expenses.
Those 16 workers formed what is now known as the first genuine industrial entre-worker cooperative in the country. The effort was so pioneering, in fact, that to this day, there is still no category in the Philippines for a group like Kaakbay (even in the proposed amendments to the Cooperative Code), a bureaucratic inefficiency rued by Cielo. Though inspired by the famous Mondragon workers' cooperatives in Spain, the details of Kaakbay were adapted to the Filipino workers' specific needs, skills and vision, with careful consideration of the prevailing manufacturing environment.
Kaakbay started its operations in a small, rented 50-square meter space in Quezon City. The co-op was registered with the Cooperative Development Authority (CDA) on June 2, 1998 with an initial paid-up share capital of PhP137,000.00
Cielo Bueno likes to say that since the start, they lived up to their cooperative's name, "marami kaming kaakbay. Office facilities were borrowed or donated by friends and relatives, except for the semi-automatic cutter which was a loan from San Dionisio Credit Cooperative." Vital machinery was sold to the co-op with minimal downpayment and easy terms without interest. The landlord rented out the co-op's workplace in consideration of Kaakbay's capacity to pay.
In the early days, most of the suppliers from the company they left, extended a maximum credit term of 90 days for raw materials. Their few loyal customers, who also followed their risky departure from their previous employer, regularly placed orders, and promptly paid in cash within seven days after delivery.
The woman as manager
Notwithstanding the expertise of the founders, a recent study by FSSI (DATA GAP: SPELL OUT) pointed to Cielo as heart and anchor of Kaakbay. It was she and the quality of her work whom the old customers followed with their much needed business; it was she and her cutting edge pitches who earned the trust of suppliers and clients; it was she and her insatiable curiosity that begun the endless research about workers' co-ops that convinced the other 15 to venture into the then alien world of cooperativism; and it was her and her strength to which those other founders pinned what made and break economies - belief in the workers' collective strength.
Articulate and ambitious, though she was already high up in the corporate ladder, and like the 15 others who invested in the vision of being their own bosses, she still had a lot to lose. A solo parent to only son, Red, then ten years old, Cielo Bueno could have easily ridden the corporate highs and lows in exchange for stability.
The intrepid sales person, she attempts to explain the leap of faith in yet another pitch, "We do not sell files, or filing, we sell a whole system" -- inferring that Kaakbay does not only create jobs, it also ensures permanent employment. Kaakbay does not only promise economic sustainability, it also commits to total human development. A whole system.
From 28 fulltime workers in December 1998, the co-op is now 55-strong, 29 of them, permanent. Only four or five though have graduated from college. More than half of the workers who are paid on a per-piece basis are from Apollo Street in Quezon City, where their office and factory are now based. These workers -- technically not members as clarified in the by-laws of workers' co-ops -- are unskilled out-of-school youth, and those whom Cielo describes as, "mga nanay na dating nagbi-binggo-binggo lang."
"Of our objectives, we have consistently hit three - we create jobs, we ensure permanent employment, and we help the community," Cielo enthuses. "These mothers on Apollo Street are marginalized by the formal working set-up. We are not a true workers' co-op if we are based here yet we don't tap the locals."
The woman as member and worker
Making up sixty percent of Kaakbay's workforce are women. The co-op's demography shows profiles that are getting younger; many are in their reproductive ages and in the thick of raising families. Requests for leaves because "I need to go to my child's school," or "my baby is sick," or "I have dysmenorrhea" - are regular fare, but unlike traditional working environments where these are trivial and unaccepted, in Kaakbay, they are honored and recognized.
"Unlike a savings co-op where you don't see the members everyday except when they pay or borrow," Cielo says, "the women work here and live with this reality every single day, and the co-op is directly affected and involved. This is one of the difficulties of a workers' co-op."
As manager, she has had to facilitate the Board's decision on cases such as that where one of the five college graduates in the co-op became pregnant again with her first baby hardly in his ninth month. Exhausted, the woman requested for a six-month leave which the Board granted. Cielo remembers, "I told her that she can come back and we will still accept her. It was important for her to know that we value her and her work. She came back."
This regard for the "many lives that women lead" as a cable TV channel puts it, did not escape Nelia Corpuz from the Lamination Unit. "Everything I learned here I share with my husband. Now we talk and understand each other more. If I need to stay here for an activity or for overtime work, we talk about who will mind the children. It was not like that before."
Like most co-ops in the country where women dominate as member or worker, Kaakbay does not have written guidelines yet on issues considered as gender-specific, particularly domestic violence and sexual harassment. Because the personal is political, and in the co-op's case, economic, Kaakbay finds itself again "directly affected and involved" if one of its women workers fail to appear for work because of the battering and abuse she gets from her husband. Or when a mother advances weeks' worth of wages so Meralco can reconnect their electricity, only to be absent the next day because she does not have fare money to go to work.
"Often, they come in hungry," Cielo recounts, so part of the worker-members' benefits included free lunch and dinner for those who go on overtime. Several months ago, Kaakbay started giving P25 in cash for lunch instead of a set meal, and P15 for food allowance for those working overtime.
"But they still come in hungry," Cielo says, because the mothers use the money so they can buy better food for those left at home never mind if they sacrifice their own bellies. "While understandable, that defeats the co-op's purpose of caring for our workers," she relates, so the Board may revert to the old practice of giving actual lunch instead of cash.
Kaakbay is looking at tapping the co-op's savings to fill the gap, just as they do during "tuition fee season" and "typhoon season" when many children fall sick and "holiday season." Worker members contribute P50 per week to keep their savings coffers enough to tide over a colleague's dire need for tuition money, fare money, food money, and the gazillion other expenses that cut into a mother's overcooked budget pie. The "borrowers" would have to pay the "loan" in two to three months to keep the petty cash account active for other desperate mothers who may be tempted to turn to usurers and worsen an already bad situation.
"We are not a capitalist co-op. We're a humane organization. But for us to continue, we have to make money. And since we perennially lack capital, there has to be supplementary financing," she says. The Federation of Peoples Sustainable Development Cooperatives (FPSDC) has provided P2.5 million as additional working capital to boost Kaakbay's current P1.6 million equity. The Development Bank of the Philippines provided loans for delivery and production equipment. Several other groups such as Sypho and FSSI have committed to providing opportunities for expansion.
Ironically, the government agencies mandated to provide assistance to cooperatives are the ones not being "kaakbay." "The internal dynamics are difficult but controllable, napapagod ako sa labas, hindi sa amin," Cielo reveals.
In 2004, Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr. committed P1 million from his Countryside Development Fund to Kaakbay. Cielo proceeded to the LandBank of the Philippines to facilitate the release of the money and follow up on the co-op's loan application of P1 million filed in July 2005. One office pointed her to another and yet another until she was back to where she started and pissed, she pushed for an audience with the bank's legal panel.
Kaakbay has problems with its papers, thus the difficulty of releasing the P1 million from Sen. Magsaysay's CDF, she was told, since there was no category for "workers' co-op" -- to which she quipped to herself, "ano kami, putok sa buho?" Then who is it whom the very same bank was transacting with, she almost laughed out loud. LandBank was among their top clients having had P980 thousand worth of purchase orders in the past year and therefore, very familiar with Kaakbay and its business.
To facilitate their loan, the legal panel asked for a bank certificate that states that the co-op has 10% of the contract price (P1 million) at that point in time when they very well knew that no commercial bank would issue any such document to a co-op, particularly one that is "uncategorized." To this, Cielo gave a guarantee statement from FPSDC that they will cover the loan should Kaakbay fail it.
While Kaakbay won that round with the legal panel issuing a landmark decision to accept FPSDC's word over a bank certificate, the LandBank still has to release the P1 million CDF. The government's bureaucracy alone discourages those with weaker hearts but Cielo is one determined woman.
Being the heart and anchor of Kaakbay has brought Cielo both fulfillment and criticism. The latter because co-ops are not supposed to be about personalities nor should they revolve around one person. But just as her hair is conspicuously red, being in the thick of things is typical of Cielo, "it is not me running the show." Kaakbay's check and balance systems are in place, the Board of Directors is active (where she does not sit anymore having had her term expired), and the Social Committee hears grievances and acts on them promptly - Cielo's management style included.
Kaakbay, the "putok sa buho," has multinational companies as regular clients. It survived its founders' former company as well as another direct competitor which have both recently closed shop. There are now 4 Kaakbay replications in Bicol, Calabarzon. Davao and Cagayan de Oro.
At the end of the day, the co-op is still about people, particularly the family. Take it from the women.
Lucy Ulip, Quality Controller, says, "It used to be that I would work overtime, even Sundays in that corporation and would be so tired to even relate with my family. Everything is dependent on helpers at home, for those who can afford extra help. But for those who do not? Kaakbay gave me a chance to value work yet focus on my family more."