i was henry sy's slave

A dilapidated Shoe Mart
Danilova Molintas

An account of a woman witnessing the dehumanization Filipino retail workers experience in the Philippines.

Submitted by kasama_libsoc on February 6, 2020


Henry Sy died January 19, 2019. He was the richest man in the Philippines with an estimated net worth of 19 billion USD and was known as the “father of modern Philippine retail.” His death saw obituaries celebrate him as a ‘rags-to-riches’ kind of billionaire entrepreneur. However like all billionaires, Sy stole his wealth from the thousands of employees that he would exploit. His company, SM, would hire workers on a precarious basis in a system called endo, or End-of-Contract. (Note: SM was formally known as ShoeMart, as it is referred to in the article.)

Philippine law required that employees regularize employees after 6 months. “Regularize” here would mean the employer is legally mandated provide full benefits such as sick leave, health insurance, maternity leave, etcetera. To get around this, employers would simply fire workers before the 6-month probation ends, which they may do without penalty in a practice called endo. The Philippine labor movement has so far been unable to defeat this tactic. As Molintas mentions, retail employees are shuffled around different retailers in order to prevent their regularization.

Another practice Henry Sy was infamous for the hiring of people who belong the sect Inglesia ni Cristo (called INC in the Philippines, referenced to as INK in the article). The sect explicitly bans its members from joining unions. They have been a thorn in the side of the Philippine labor movement since the American colonial period.

This article is an account of a woman witnessing the dehumanization Filipino retail workers experience in the Philippines. While written in 1995, many of the issues Molintas mentions in her account remain relevant: endo, the army of the unemployed, the routine dehumanization that is searching for work, pitting workers against each other, everyday sexual assault, and the extreme boringness of retail work.

This article has gained renewed interest in the Philippines following Sy’s death and is a powerful counternarrative to capitalist ideology, regardless of the author’s political leanings.

This article is reproduced from ‘Her Stories: investigative reports on Filipino women in the 1990s’ published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. It was written in Philippine English and as such, no translation or mediation was needed. Where Filipino is used casually, the text already provided a translation.

i was henry sy's slave

First published in i, The Investigative Reporting Magazine, Jan-Mar 1995.
A UP undergrad tries to see if she has what it takes to be an SM salesgirl.

I DROPPED out of college in the second semester of 1989 to joint Manila’s hordes of jobseekers. I had a government grant in a good university, but I was tired of trying to make ends meet with the measly P5001 a month I received from the State.

I was 19 and felt deeply alienated from the rest of my middle-class classmates at the School of Economics. And the grumbling of my belly forced me to leave school to join the nameless, faceless swarm of Filipinos looking for a job.

Like many job-seekers with neither skills nor business contacts, I scouted the Classified Ads of the ‘Manila Bulletin.’ Then I beat the pavements on my way to an interview or a typing exam.

I passed several exams and was able to bluff my way through countless interviews only to find out that my biggest disadvantage was my height. I am fourth of an inch short of five feet. This meant I was disqualified from relatively higher-paying jobs as a hotel receptionist or even as a secretary in a Makati firm.

I was desperate. By December that year, I finally came across the ShoeMart ad looking for “200 young girls from 18 to 24 years old, good looking, at least 5’2”, with pleasing personality. Guaranteed minimum wage.”
“What the heck,” I told myself. So I gave it a shot.

* * *

APPLYING at ShoeMart began with an encounter with an arrogant security guard. He first asked us—around 15 young women between 18 and 20 years old, in pretty dresses, heels and make-up, all looking and smelling like flowers wilting in the noonday heat—to line up in front of SM City’s rear entrance.

We were told to arrange ourselves according to height, while the guard went around checking if each applicant had a complete set of requirements: a bio-data and four colored 1 x1 photos. Those of use who did were then marched into the store.

I was amazed to find the premises dingy, in stark contrast to the rest of ShoeMart—or at least the part revealed to customers. While waiting to be interviewed, I chatted with the other applicants. One of them asked us whether we were Catholic. I failed to understand the relevance of her question, until I noticed that the others eyed her with envy when she said she was a member of the Inglesia ni Kristo (INK).

Later, I was told that SM preferred INK members because the sect explicitly bans its members from joining unions. Many of the few temporary employees who were eventually “regularized” belonged to that favored religion, and not a few desperate men and women were said to have converted to that faith to ease their entry into the job market.

As in every exam or screening, there were leaks. One applicant whispered to me that there were only two questions to contend with: “Why do you want to work?” and “Why do you want to work with ShoeMart?”

I thought that was easy. But when it was my turn, Madam Supervisor jolted me with a new question, “O, taga-UP ka pala, bakit hindi mo na lang tapusin yung pag-aaral mo (You’re from UP, so why don’t you just finish your studies)?”

I told her my father had died when I was in high school, forcing me to support myself through college. I said I was so impressed by ShoeMart’s success that when I finished my studies I wanted to continue working with the company in a better position. Fat chance! But I told her that in one nervous breath and was rewarded with a sympathetic smile.

Madam Supervisor warned me she wasn’t sure I would make it since the store was only hiring 200 or so temporary employees for the expected stampede of Christmas shoppers, and that there were at least 120 applicants in a single day. But she asked me to return the next day at nine sharp for another screening.

* * *

THE following morning, I was herded with 50 other applicants into a classroom-of-sorts. We were asked to write two essays on “Why do you want to work?” and “Why do you want to work with ShoeMart?” Argghh! Again? I thought, but obediently scribbled away.

Then the sales supervisor began a lecture. He started with the tale of how the young Henry Sy had risen with the simple conviction that if he sold a pair of shoes at one peso to at least a million Filipinos, then he was on his way to becoming a millionaire. That, and determination, were supposed to be the secrets of the Sy empire.

After the lecture, composed of company trivia and the location of the various departments within the store, we were given another exam.

When we were through, the supervisor arranged the test papers from the highest to the lowest score. Each applicant was asked to come to the front of the room and retriever his or her test paper. Those who had failed were asked to stand on the right side of the room, dejection in their faces as they clutched their papers.

I saw no need for such a humiliating procedure. But it was not the last act of petty cruelty I witnessed as an SM girl.

* * *

“WALANG pangit sa ShoeMart (There are no ugly people at ShoeMart),” were the first words of the personnel manager, a cheerful, chubby woman who was assigned to orient new employees.

“And when you use that SM uniform everyday on your way to work, you can be proud of the fact, na, walang pangit sa ShoeMart.” She then revealed to us the secrets of being a beautiful SM girl, starting with what she called “personal hygiene.”

We were told to keep our uniforms clean and well pressed; the boys were told to keep clean-shaven and to have their hair always cut above their ears; the girls were supposed to keep their hair always neat. We were also expected to wear make-up.

“And don’t forget to change your underwear everyday, girls and boys,” she said good-naturedly.

ShoeMart did not provide us with uniforms since most temporary employees were sacked after six months, so we had to have our own uniforms sewn. Only a handful—the most good-looking and obedient—were eventually retained as regular employees. I learned that because of this policy, many SM girls became LandMark girls, then Robinson’s girls, hopping from one department store to another every six months.

While ShoeMart paid us minimum wages, it cut costs by keeping only a few permanent employees who received maternity, sick and vacation leave benefits.

* * *

THE SM girl is not only pretty, she is also quite sexy. Employee uniforms are cut a little above the knee. Permanent employees wear body-hugging navy blue dresses that button up at the front. For temporary SM girls, the attire is a navy blue pencil-cut skirt and white cotton blouse. All female employees are required to wear two-inch high, open-toed open-heeled sandals. The effect of the entire get-up can be quite fetching.

But more than to charm, the SM uniform was developed for a less benign purpose: to deter employees from stealing. Our uniforms were not supposed to have pockets. The open-toed shoes were meant to make it inconvenient for us to conceal money or goods in them. We were not allowed to wear jewelry or carry handkerchiefs. No slips or chemises were to be worn at work.

If an SM girl stole some merchandise or cash, she has no place to hide it, except maybe in her underwear. But even that was difficult because every time we entered or left the “selling area,” we were thoroughly frisked.

The management took other precautions. An entire department—the Customer Relations Service—was tasked not only to catch shoplifters but to spy on other SM employees.

Even when we needed to go to the toiled, we had to guard against theft. First, we had to make sure another employee took our place—a very trying affair since there were just enough employees to fill each station. Then, we had to ask for a “pass” from the supervisors, whose main job, I soon began to think, was to remain unavailable. The process was so exasperating, most of us chose not to relieve ourselves.

As counter-checker, my job was really nothing more than that of a bagger. While standing beside the cashier, I was to find the right-sized bag for the goods sold to a customer. But I was supposed to check that the number of items the cashier punched into the cash register corresponded to those that I would pack into the bag. I was also supposed to ensure that the cashier would not steal money, although how I was to do so, I had no inkling.

All these procedures were guaranteed to create an atmosphere of distrust among employees, and I worried about how I could make friends in such an atmosphere.

The last step on the way to becoming a full-fledged ShoeMart girl was the medical and dental exam.

The dental exam was to ensure that toothaches would never be given as a reason for sudden absences from work, said the dentist who examined me.

The medical exam was rushed in a cubicle with only a curtain to shield me from a long line of girls awaiting their turn. I was examined by an aging male doctor who felt for lumps not only around my breasts, bu on my nipple too! He was assisted by a woman, but she was either too jaded or too ignorant to stop him from what I felt was a sexual assault. I knew there was nothing I could do at that point, except resolve never to get sick and put myself at that doctor’s mercy.

* * *

MY first day as an SM girl began with a struggle to put on all the regulation “war paint.” Even when I had won the skirmish with make-up brushes, rouge and mascara, I still worried that all that paint would melt on my way—by bus—to work.

I was an “opener” on the first week on the job, and that meant I had to be at my station by 9 a.m., 30 minutes before the first shoppers invaded the store.

At about 9:15, a husky, female voice announced the singing of the national anthem, and all SM employees stood at attention. This was followed by the recitation of some credo, the exact words I have since forgotten, but with was a vow to serve each customer with a cheerful smile. This entire morning rite, we were told, was part of a Japanese method of management.

After that, it was check, check, stamp, dump, staple, smile… check, check, stamp, dump, staple, smile… check, check, check, check, dump, staple, smile…

Any other time of the year, the job would have allowed me time to daydream, but it was Christmas, the season of nightmares for SM girls. By noon, the store was mobbed by shoppers. I speeded up to work, spurred on by the sighs, leg-shaking and and other impatient gestures of customers waiting in line.

After a few hours, I had abandoned any attempt to smile, or even look at any customer. I was stressed, and my feet—unused to standing for so long on two-inch heels—began to hurt.

There are at least 100 SM employees in a shift, and they all break for lunch at the same time, causing long lines to be formed behind the bundy clock, the lunch counter, the water fountain.

And the toilets! Every lunch break, a hundred girls would be competing for six cubicles and the same number of faucets. This stampede would happen every time a shift took a break, so while the janitress never seemed to stop mopping the toilet floor, it remained constantly muddy. I thought the sign “Comfort Room”2 should be taken off the door.

Each time I went for lunch, I had to have myself frisked before leaving the selling area, locate my time card, punch out at the bundy clock, line up at the employees’ canteen, eat, brush my teeth and retouch my make-up. By the time I was done, it was time to return to my station.

When I had gotten used to the lunch routine—or when I brought a sandwich to eat—i managed to get a few minutes to rest at the cramped locker room (where only regular employees had lockers). Some lucky girls were able to lie down on the few benches there for a catnap. Others just slumped on a bench from fatigue and dozed off, uncaring about whether their skirts were in place.

* * *

THERE are ways that the powerless get back at those who exploit them. Stealing was the first way. When a customer chose not to buy a chocolate bar and left it at the counter, some cashiers and counter-checkers would conspire, not only to eat it, but to eat it on the job.

Small items like hair clips and bracelets could be artfully concealed in our underwear. These little things were stolen, I felt, to break the monotony of a mindless job more than anything else.

What really went on in the minds of the other workers, I never found out. We were forbidden to “gossip” with each other during work hours. After work, our thoughts were of soaking our tired feet in warm water, so most of us chose to go straight home.

I left ShoeMart after a month and a half, with little regret. While I earned the minimum wage, much more than I would have received as a semi-skilled worker at a smaller establishment, I felt bled for every single centavo I was paid.

At the start of 1990, a strike broke out at the SM North Edsa department store, with workers demanding higher wages and better benefits. There was even a rumor that one of the managers would be confronted for the “lie down or lay-off” policy he imposed on many temporary SM girls.

That I had not been part of that strike is the only regret I have today about having deserted my post as an SM girl. ★

  • 1500 Philippine pesos. Probably around 39 USD in today’s money, accounting for inflation and historical exchange rate.
  • 2Euphemism for toilet bathrooms specific to Philippine English.