Garment workers drugged to stay awake for 3 days

By Luige del Puerto and Romel Lalata, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 3 July 2003, 2:37 AM (Manila Time)

72-hour shifts

IN THE UNCERTAIN world of subcontracted companies, work is normally seasonal and even then comes in fits and starts, wages below par, and working conditions hardly improved from those of a century ago.

For Anvil Ensembles, a garments factory in the town of Taytay, near Manila, which makes baby clothes for North American companies, business usually blows in by September. A few weeks before then, the company sends notice to workers who have been idled for a month or two to report to work because job orders are coming in and there are quotas to be met.

For these high-speed sewers and machine operators, mostly women, that means occasionally putting in 48- or 72-hour work shifts whenever management orders the factory gates shut and locked until Saturday or Sunday morning. Everyone understands that there will be no going home.

From then on, there is no stopping the whirr of high-speed sewing machines that drowns out the chatter and the banter managed during slower days. But when workers are on their second, or third, consecutive all-nighter, being unable to talk to one another is the least of their worries. Keeping awake is.

Rouel Quitoriano was one of those whose job it was to prevent missing production schedules and shipment deadlines, lest the company end up paying fines to principal contractors.

As supervisor of the workers at the annex, Quitoriano had to make sure that no one fell asleep on the job.

These were the owner's specific instructions on how the diminutive supervisor (he stands barely five feet tall) could keep workers from drifting to la-la land: The owner would tell me to get a piece of wood. So I'd bring with me a piece of wood, and I'd slam it on a table to wake everyone up. They'd all be mad at me.

It proved quite effective in making workers jump out of their skins and hunch back on their sewing machines.

When that failed to work, Quitoriano had another trick up his sleeve: a box full of Duromine capsules. Again on orders from the owner, he would make the rounds of the annex, spot the most tired workers, and offer them the drug.

Duromine, actually an appetite suppressant meant for obese people, has the interesting side effect, among others, of inducing insomnia. But Quitoriano didn't know that then. He was told that it was ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C.

Anvil Ensembles has been giving workers the drug since 2001, albeit not the whole year round. Duromine usually makes its way to the assembly lines in September, when orders usually start pouring in, and is shelved by December once production begins to drop.

But workers were not forced to take the drug. Whenever you're so sleepy that you are unable to work or even keep your footing, you're offered that. It's up to you whether you take it or not, Quitoriano said.

But for many, there was hardly a choice. You want to stay awake because they tell you that if you cannot finish your quota, you can walk out the door any time and never come back, a female worker said.

Quitoriano, who worked for Anvil for five years, took Duromine himself.

I took two capsules. Those two kept me wide awake for more than 24 hours, eating nothing but water, he told the Inquirer.