Former Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) leader and migrant rights advocate Manuel Sarmiento died in Vienna, Austria last Friday, December 11. He was 72 years old.
“Ka Manny” to the Philippine labor movement and the Filipino migrant community in Europe, Sarmiento was reported to have died “suddenly but peacefully.”
He served as KMU’s third secretary general and led the country’s premiere labor federation alongside iconic labor leaders Rolandia Olalia and Crispin Beltran from the federation’s founding in the 1980s.
Sarmiento worked as an accountant of the multinational corporation Nestle but resigned to work full time as labor organizer when he co-founded FILIPRO-Nestle Philippines, the union of the company’s sales force.
He was also president of the Drug, Food, and Allied Workers’ Federation, one of KMU’s founding organizations on May 1, 1980.
“Ka Manny was known as a silent worker, industrious and disciplined with time, especially at work and during meetings,” the KMU said in a statement paying tribute to one of its co-founders.
KMU said Sarmiento was kind and patient with the workers he came into contact with. He was also creative and frugal with resources.
KMU recalled that in response to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ General Order No. 5 prohibiting mass gatherings, Sarmiento organized the showing of the iconic film “Lion of the Desert” to militate workers against the draconian edict.
“It was actually an indoor rally by workers against Marcos’ order,” KMU said.
Sarmiento, along with current KMU chairperson Elmer Labog and fellow veteran labor leader Leto Villar, led the negotiations when all Nestle unions affiliated with DFA-KMU held a company-wide strike in the 1980s.
As a labor leader, Sarmiento was neat and efficient, writer Ina Silverio recalled.
“[He was] always so neat and organized…ensuring that the central federation’s position and analysis are presented in meetings and press conferences,” Silverio wrote in her tribute to her former boss of six years.
“[He was] never late to meetings, and when [he] led them, everything ran like clockwork,” she said, adding that while Sarmiento was kind and considerate with others, he was “strict when it came to ensuring that the agenda of meetings were followed and completed.”
Silverio recalled that while Sarmiento sacrificed a well-paying white collar job, he totally embraced the activists’ mantra of “simple life, arduous struggle,” thinking nothing of eating giveaways from grateful workers even on a daily basis.
“[N]o matter how simple the food was, we enjoyed it together, always laughing and telling stories. Suman. Pansit. Pan de sal,” Silverio wrote.
“There should be more Manny Sarmientos—a shining example of proletarian leaders!” Silverio said.
In 2004, however, Sarmiento could no longer put off his promise to his family to follow them to Austria.
“I know how sad [he was] when [he] had to leave for Austria. [He] already put off leaving for years, and it was time to bring [his] small family together. He was a great loss to the local labor movement then,” Silverio added.
But the labor movement’s loss in Sarmiento was the then budding migrant rights struggle’s gain, KMU said.
“He was key in the formation of PINAS FIRST, the Pinoy First in Austrian Society for Integrity and Social Transformation), an organization of Filipino migrants in Austria,” KMU said.
Sarmiento was also Migrante International’s Austria representative, and was elected president when Migrante Austria was formally founded in 2014.
“Up until his death, Ka Manny worked with a company offering mailing and printing services while organizing, mobilizing and issuing statements of concern regarding the issues of migrants and refugees, recently within the framework of the April 28 Coalition, of which he was a founding member,” Migrante Austria said in its tribute to Sarmiento.
“Ka Manny was a fervent advocate of democracy and human rights. We at Migrante Austria would like to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the years of comradeship we have shared. It has been a privilege and an honor to work with Ka Manny,” the group added.
KMU said that Sarmiento exemplified genuine activists who find a thousand and one ways to advocate for just wages, jobs, rights and freedoms of the working class wherever they find themselves. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)