The Philippine Labor Situation

But this seeming oasis of employment opportunity is now under scrutiny from trade unionists for being extremely exploitative, anti-union, and generally hazardous to workers’ health. On the average, local call center employees receive only one-fifth of the salaries of their counterparts in subcontracting countries such as the US and UK. Majority of these local workers also suffer from a host of work-related health problems, most of which are lethal in the short- or long-run.

Workers who do find jobs in the Philippines find that they face another big hurdle after being hired: contractualization. Big businesses, whether foreign or local, have long mastered the fine art of labor flexibilization in employment, assisted no end by a President and a government that is thoroughly sold out on the scheme. Based on the 2003 admission of Donald Dee, President of Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP), 7 out 10 firms in the country practice contractualization. Some of the worst “contractualizers” among companies are also among the biggest, such as Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco’s San Miguel Corporation (SMC) conglomerate (1,100 regulars out of its 26,000 total workforce); Henry Sy’s SM Shoemart (1,300 regulars out of 20,000); and Manny Pangilinan’s Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (4,100 out of 10,000). Such widespread destruction of tenurial security in labor has had a profound impact on Philippine workers’ freedom to exercise their trade union and other democratic rights. Most of all, massive contactualization has greatly reduced the variable capital for wages, with the monopoly capitalists seeking ever-increasing superprofits in the face of the current world capitalist crisis of overproduction.

Crippled unions, no unions

More than at any other period in its history, institutionalized trade unionism in the Philippines has become a sham. The Arroyo government’s all-out rush to attune the local labor market to the demands of the neoliberal agenda has run roughshod over core labor standards, seemingly leaving no option to workers but to adopt an independent and militant form of advocacy.

While local laws such as the Labor Code exist that formally guarantee the right of workers to unionize, the finer print and state actions themselves say otherwise. Laws that constrain or even prohibit the formation and actions of workers’ organizations abound, foremost of which are those that allow “qualified” contractualization like Articles 106-109 of the Labor Code, the Herrera Law and the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) D.O. 18-02; mandatory 30-day notice in the filing of strikes; the Marcos-era strike provision that allows ingress and egress of company goods and scabs; and the indiscriminate issuance of Assumption of Jurisdiction (AJ) orders by the DOLE that covers even non-strategic or non-vital industries.

Among the anti-union legislation and practices arrayed against Philippine labor, contractualization is especially destructive. Whereas there are no explicit provisions in any law against unionizing of contractuals, their concrete circumstances itself becomes the prohibition. No employer would consent to them being part of a union’s bargaining coverage, since they only have 5-month contracts at the most. For the same reason, no union composed mostly or exclusively of contractual workers in a firm would be able to obtain a CBA with management or even to uphold one in a practicable period of time. Under this situation, contractualization is turned into a benign-looking but immensely effective tool by big business to block nascent unionism or to bust existing unions.

Those that persist and succeed in forming unions immediately become targets of persecution by big capitalists and the state, who seem to find common ground in fostering a “no union, no strike” environment particularly in the country’s special economic zones. To cite a dramatic case, Gerardo Cristobal, President of the EMI-Yazaki Garments union in Imus, Cavite was fatally shot last March 10 after having survived a previous attempt last year. Also a leader of broad-based labor alliance Solidarity of Cavite Workers (SCW), Cristobal became the 80th in a list of trade unionists killed for political reasons under the Arroyo government. None of these killings have been satisfactorily prosecuted to date.

Given such hostile conditions, it comes as no surprise that the number of genuinely unionized workers in the Philippines has sharply declined. While in 1995 14.6 percent of the labor force was still unionized, 2007 data shows a much-reduced 5.6 percent or 16,861 unions with a total membership of 1,893,000 workers. But even this is not reflective of the real picture, since DOLE does not monitor the status of unions on a regular basis and includes even those in firms that have closed down over the past few years. A more accurate benchmark would be the number of existing CBAs and their workforce coverage, which now counts 1,573 agreements covering some 222,000 workers all over the country. These figures portray the true state of union-building in the country, and is a damning record of big capitalist-state collusion in the suppression of Philippine workers’ democratic rights under “globalization”.

Renewed bases for struggle and unity

There are two major reasons that make the big business ideal of “cheap and docile labor” in the Philippines a temporal victory at most. Firstly, the current global economic crisis is projected by analysts to last even longer than the previous ones; and secondly, the labor movement’s core of independent and militant labor are not known for taking such periodic crises lying down.

In the midst of the recent alarming slew of price hikes, militant and independent labor organizations quickly formed themselves into an alliance called the “Unity for P125”. It aims to build a broad mass movement among private sector workers that will leverage not only for an immediate and substantial wage increase but for the scrapping of regional wage boards (RWBs) that are being used by government to regulate wage fixing in favor of big capital.

Workers’ organizations are also in the thick of multisectoral networks and alliances that seek to bring down the prices of oil, electricity and rice. Among the concrete public measures urgently being sought are the scrapping of 12 percent value-added tax on petroleum products, repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law, lowering of systems-loss charges in power rates, and subsidized pricing in rice. More strategic calls, however, are also being floated to deal with price spikes in the long term and address their systemic roots, such as nationalization of the oil and power industry and genuine agrarian reform. Hit hard by crisis engendered locally and abroad, the Philippine labor sector gathers its strength to fight not only for its own welfare but for those of other marginalized sectors as well. EILER/Posted by (

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