By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — Freddie Enriquez, 30, has been working in the construction sector for 13 years now. Until January 3 this year, he was “lead man” in their latest project where they had been at work for the last three years. He was part of a group building the Manhattan Parkway in Cubao, Quezon City. His work was in finishing and masonry of building interiors. “We have built the Eastwood Palazzo and other buildings in Eastwood,” he told us.
“In construction, your work constantly moves to where the next project is of your contractor. In their case, it was the RM Ciazon Corp., owned by Ronald Garcia and Mina Tuazon. As lead man, Enriquez was receiving P380 ($8.78) a day since 2009. His wage did not increase when the Regional Wage Board granted a small increase in 2010. Ronnie Galang, 28, also worked in masonry and finishing, but his starting wage in 2007 was P210 ($4.85). He was getting P265 ($6.12) since 2009.
A laborer working at the construction of Manhattan Parkway receives only P220 ($5.08) per day, an amount less than half of the minimum wages in Metro Manila. A mason, meanwhile, receives only P340 ($7.86). When the labor department in the National Capital Region inspected the construction sites of Lucio Tan’s Eton projects in January, it likewise found out that the salaries being paid are below minimum wages, prompting the department to order the Eton Group and all its subcontractors to start paying their workers the prescribed minimum and to pay up to P5million ($115 thousand) in previously underpaid minimum wages.
In December 28, Enriquez and other fellow construction workers in Manhattan Parkway filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) because their employer did not pay their 13th month pay. “We were also demanding an increase in pay,” said Enriquez.
But when they went back to work on January 3 after the New Year’s break, the guard at the construction site barred them from entering. “He took away our company ID’s. The company had dismissed us without talking to us, just like that,” said Enriquez.
Their complaint at the NLRC later included illegal dismissal. The summary dismissal may have sowed fear among other construction workers in the site, as some who had earlier signed the petition asking the management for their 13th month pay and a pay raise no longer joined their filing of complaint at the NLRC, Enriquez said.
Asked why workers bear with less-than minimum wages, Enriquez said that “given the difficulties in life, we have come to rely on having even this kind of job.” Enriquez himself is still single, but he is trying to send as much as P2,000 ($46.22) a month to his parents in Isabela. He said he sometimes fail to send even this little amount.
“After deducting from my wages my budget for rent, water, electricity, and after spending on food and fares, nothing is left to send,” Enriquez sighed.
There are 500 to 600 construction workers under RM Ciazon, the workers who filed a case at the NLRC with Enriquez estimated. There are less than a hundred of them currently working at the Manhattan Parkway in Cubao.
Unfortunately for Enriquez and his group, their hearing was reset because “for some reason, the NLRC’s summons to the RM Ciazon did not reach it,” said Enriquez. The unemployed construction workers who raised their fare allowance from various odd jobs said they would have to come back again. Hopefully they have money for transport fare when the next hearing comes around.
Hushed up Accidents
Even if they did not personally know who the victims were in the Eton tragedy, Enriquez and his co-workers stayed with the picketing members of Justice for Eton 11 in front of the NLRC when they saw the group last Wednesday.
“That is the way it is being done in the construction industry,” Enriquez said. “When a worker dies, his body is immediately taken away and brought home to his relatives.”
Despite the unreported cases of accidents, the prevalent accidents in the construction sector which the Eton tragedy highlighted last January caused labor secretary Baldoz to issue an advisory early this year directing labor inspectors to conduct more trainings for improved inspection.
As a rule, it appears that the Eton tragedy was a sort of a “break” from the industry trend of hushing up any such accident and not allowing the people outside the construction site to get wind of the accidents or its repercussions, least of all the media. Enriquez recalled how, when they were working at the Eastwood Palazzo in 2007, a part of a building being constructed near them had collapsed. It was under another construction company.
“It exerted a strong impact. Though we were at a nearby building and not directly under that, we felt our scaffolding shake and some objects flew under the impact of the collapsed part of the building,” Enriquez recalled. They knew there were workers where the collapsed part had fallen, so people must have died or gotten injured. For two weeks the construction of that building was stopped. No media was allowed inside.
While constructing the Eastwood Palazzo in 2005, under a construction company called BCWI, Enriquez and fellow construction workers recalled that a coworker also fell and died. The victim was immediately loaded onto a truck filled with construction debris; his body covered with tarpaulin, and brought to his family in the province. The company reportedly paid his family P100,000 ($2,311) in 2005, an amount not far from the P150,000 ($3,466) paid by Eton subcontractors to each of the 11 victims in 2011.
But part of the P100,000 given by the contractor of Eastwood Palazzo came from contributions of P50 ($1.16) exacted from each of the 1,200 workers at the time, Enriquez said.
A lot of accidents happened in Eastwood that did not get reported, said Enriquez, adding that even the accident that killed their fellow worker in Eastwood Palazzo did not become known outside of their construction site.
Construction workers surmised that the Eton tragedy only got reported perhaps because there were workers who managed to bring a cellphone to work. Cellphones are prohibited inside construction sites. “If the company is strict against allowing cellphones inside, nobody outside could get wind of tragic accidents before the company could spirit out the bodies.”