Fired after asking for a raise, minimum-wage workers at a Jollibee in Jersey City fought for back pay and reinstatement. After a nearly yearlong campaign against the fast-food chain, the workers won.

A person walks past the newly opened Jollibee in Times Square during Labor Day Weekend on September 4, 2022 in New York City. (Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

In a certain corner of New Jersey, the “hot labor summer” that recently swept the country began early. In January 2023, minimum-wage workers at a Jersey City location of Jollibee, the beloved Philippines-based fast-food chain, circulated a petition for better working conditions and higher pay. Their demands included a three-dollar wage increase over the state minimum (then $14.13 an hour), double-time pay on holidays, and other basic improvements. Within a few weeks, over 90 percent of their coworkers had signed the petition.

The store’s management caught on quickly; petitioners say they think it was tracking their activities online. In late February, management laid off nine workers, explaining that the store had been bleeding money since the pandemic. Weeks later, thirteen new hires were brought in to replace them.

Suspecting retaliation, the fired workers appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They also launched the Justice for Jollibee Workers (J4JW) campaign, calling on Jollibee to reinstate them, give them back pay, issue a public apology, and post parts of the National Labor Relations Act concerning employees’ rights and unfair labor practices in all its kitchens.

The J4JW campaign kicked off in July with a demonstration at the Jollibee store in Journal Square, the location where the nine workers were terminated. The action coincided with National Fried Chicken Day — one of the busiest days of the year for the chain, where “Chickenjoy” is the best-selling item on the menu.

“We do our jobs right, and we received this — getting laid off because we want a better workplace, holiday pay, and a three-dollar wage increase,” said Keyser Garganera, a fired worker.

Campaigners also handed management a letter. “You may have illegally terminated us, but you will not silence our voices and the voices of Jollibee workers,” it reads. “We know our rights.”

The demonstrators were removed from the store by police.

A Sense of Betrayal

Founded in 1978, Jollibee enjoys an “iconic” status among Filipinos, who are its main clientele and make up a significant portion of its workforce. Especially within the Filipino diaspora, Jollibee represents a taste of home and a point of pride. For many, the company’s poor treatment of its workers feels like a betrayal.

Many Jollibee workers are among the ten million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who hold jobs primarily in manual, service, care, and domestic work across Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America — all places where Jollibee seeks to expand its presence. Last year, OFWs sent home more than $36 billion in cash remittances, or 9 percent of the Philippines’ GDP.

A J4JW demonstration held in October at a Jollibee in Edison, New Jersey, was attended by Filipino community organizers, student groups, and union members — including striking nurses from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. One nurse related her experience as an OFW, having moved from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia before settling in New Jersey. The nurse said that Jollibee was complicit not only in exploiting Filipinos’ loyalty and nostalgia but their labor. “Those workers are my aunties and uncles, my titas and titos,” she said, referring to the fired Jollibee workers.

Exporting Exploitation

In large part, OFWs are motivated by the prospect of higher pay and better living and working conditions. Yet when Jollibee fired the nine workers from its Journal Square store, some wondered whether the company hadn’t brought its habit of violating workers’ rights abroad along with all the Chickenjoy.

Jollibee isn’t just the Philippines’ biggest fast-food chain, outselling even McDonald’s in its country of origin — it boasts more than 1,500 stores worldwide and over seventy in the United States. Still, this represents a fraction of its total footprint. Jollibee Foods Corporation (JFC), the chain’s parent company, owns seventeen other brands besides Jollibee, notably Smashburger and the Philippine franchises of Burger King and Panda Express.

In total, JFC operates 6,500 restaurants around the globe, about as many as Wendy’s. The company has designs on opening another five hundred stores in North America by 2030.

Despite management’s claims that its Journal Square location is in dire straits, Jollibee’s parent company is doing record business. JFC reported nearly $5 billion in sales in 2022, roughly $1 billion more than in 2019, before public-health measures in response to COVID-19 dealt a heavy blow (borne in large part by workers) to restaurants. In 2022, JFC took in almost $150 million in profits, about $30 million more than in the last prepandemic year.

The family of Tony Tan Caktiong, JFC’s billionaire founder and chairman, is currently the fifth richest in the Philippines, with a net worth of $3.2 billion. Employees at the restaurants his company owns routinely decry labor violations relating to wages, misclassification, understaffing, and worse.

“What we are faced with is unbridled corporate greed,” said Yves Nibungco, one of the fired workers. Jollibee is “creating working conditions that really squeeze the life out of workers.”

Repressing Philippine Labor

Before it was taken down without explanation, the J4JW campaign’s Facebook page was flooded with messages of solidarity from Jollibee workers overseas. The campaigners also make a point of advocating on behalf of their counterparts in the Philippines, where labor faces especially fierce opposition.

“Their fight is also our fight,” said Garganera, one of the fired workers, speaking about Jollibee employees in the Philippines.

Many low-wage workers in the Philippines are employed on an “endo,” or end-of-contract basis, meaning they are hired for fewer than six months at a time. This lets companies off the hook for the kinds of pay, benefits, and job security that regularized workers are entitled to.

With nearly fifteen thousand “affected” workers in its employ, Jollibee earned the top spot on the Philippines’ Department of Labor and Employment’s list of employers taking advantage of endo arrangements. After the department directed JFC to regularize seven thousand endo workers in 2018, the company responded by laying off four hundred, sparking calls for a boycott.

Jollibee also appealed against the department’s directive, insisting it wasn’t responsible for deciding the status of its workers. Instead, it pointed the finger at “service contractors,” recruiting agencies that act as middlemen between employers and employees. Fees collected by service contractors often amount to as much as a quarter of a worker’s paycheck, adding a further degree of exploitation to low-wage work.

The natural bulwark against predatory recruiting agencies and employers would seem to be a robust labor movement. But unionists have long faced deadly repression at the hands of the Philippine government, which routinely brands organizers, activists, journalists, and left-wing political actors as supporters of the New People’s Army — the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines which, since the 1970s, has been waging “the world’s longest ongoing communist insurgency.” The practice of purposefully mislabeling civilians as communist militants is known as “red-tagging.”

Elmer “Ka Bong” Labog is the chairperson of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), an influential anti-imperialist labor center. Labog likens red-tagging to a deadly strain of McCarthyism. “When you’re red-tagged, this is an assurance of you being attacked or arrested without due process,” he said. “Worse, it would mean you’re dead.” KMU reports that seventy-two workers and organizers have been killed with impunity since 2016.

Red-tagging hearkens back to the state violence carried out by colonial occupiers (Spain, the United States, and Japan), as well as by the US-backed Ferdinand Marcos government. This legacy was rekindled in 2018, when then president Rodrigo Duterte created a militarized task force to quash “communist” dissent — a category broad enough to include pandemic-era community pantries. (Marcos’s son Bongbong, who assumed the presidency last year, seems set on upholding his predecessors’ morbid record on labor and human rights.)

Yet Nibungco said he still holds out hope that, having weathered three foreign occupations and a decade and a half of dictatorship, workers “will continue to play not only a historic but a decisive role in winning social change in the Philippines.

Reinstatement Today, Higher Wages Tomorrow

J4JW’s struggle against Jollibee in New Jersey has so far been a success. Tapping into labor-movement momentum as well as existing channels of Filipino solidarity like the left-wing alliance Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, also known as Bayan, the campaign has held demonstrations at Jollibee locations across New York and New Jersey and in Seattle.

In August of last year, the NLRB filed a complaint against the company, deeming the workers’ terminations illegal. Then, in October, after the campaign announced it would protest a networking event for Filipino business leaders in New York City, Jollibee North America president Maribeth Dela Cruz canceled her speaking engagement. Jollibee eventually pulled out of the event and withdrew its sponsorship.

In late November, after months of campaign pressure, Jollibee agreed to a settlement: back pay and damages amounting to $84,600, reinstatement, and a public apology. But the matter of wages remains unresolved, and the reinstated workers will go back to earning minimum wage (now $15.13 an hour in New Jersey). Workers say this is hardly tenable in a city where the cost of living is markedly high and median rent is $2,700 a month, 35 percent higher than the national median.

“The struggle doesn’t end here,” said Nibungco. “We are even more committed to fight for higher wages and better working conditions, not just in our store but across the United States.”

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