Manila Harbour Centre, a test case of the ban on labor-only contracting?

Harbour Centre
Port workers from Manila Harbour Centre at the Labor Day rally in Liwasang Bonifacio May 1, 2017, Manila (Photo by Bulatlat)

“We want to be regularized (directly) under Harbour Centre and we have filed cases against (Grasials) agency, which has been defrauding us.”


MANILA – Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III may not know it, but just four kilometers away from his office in Intramuros, a fellow Bello rises up at 4 a.m. every day to prepare for 5:30 a.m. work call at Harbour Centre. Eldefonso Bello’s job status poses a challenge to Labor Secretary Bello’s Department Order No. 174, particularly to its claims to regularize on the job workers in Bello’s situation. Eldefonso Bello has worked for the last 10 years as contractual under a manpower agency supplying labor to the Manila Harbour Centre. He oversees a number of workers (from nine to 11 workers in any given working day) and operates a machine. Their job involves unloading imported steel from the ship and transporting it to the pier. Each piece of steel weighs up to two tons (over 1,800 kilograms); the bosses want each worker to unload 130 pieces per hour. Among others, Harbour Centre promises its customers a quick, low-cost handling time.

Harbour Centre Port Terminal, owned by businessman Reghis M. Romero II and operating in the 10-hectare multi-purpose port terminal in Manila, says on its website that it employs “over 1,000 strong skilled personnel in handling non-containerized cargoes.” It doesn’t say that much of these workers are in three manpower agencies, one of which is Grasials Corporation, which employs Bello and about 300 others more. Each of the other two agencies supplies more than 300 workers to Harbour Centre.

Harbour Centre
Feb 2017 photo of Manila Harbour Centre (Radial Road 10, Tondo, Manila) R-10 Bridge (Photo by Judge Florentino Floro)

Every day, Bello reports for work unsure if he will have a job that day – in Harbour Centre each worker answers to a number and prays that when the bosses estimate the number of workers needed that day, it would include or reach his number.

Overall, Bello usually gets work three to four days in a week, 12 hours per day. He receives P550 to P667 per workday. This means he is being paid P45.83 to P55.60 per hour, or P367 to P448 per eight hours, which is below the minimum wage rate of P491 in the National Capital Region.

On paper, Bello said he is supposed to have been paid over a thousand pesos per day of rendered work.

For years, Bello and his fellow port workers haven’t seen their pay slip, so they do not know exactly what the (Grasials) agency has been deducting from their pay. They learned the hard way, though, when they needed it the most. When they inquired at the Social Security System, they learned that the manpower agency that employs them has not been remitting their SSS payments since 2009.

On March 2, the port workers trooped to the main office of the Social Security System in Quezon City to hold a protest rally and file complaints against the Grasials agency of Harbour Centre.

Regularization and proper wage, benefits, at last?

Bello was one of the 35,000 people in Metro Manila who took part in the recent Labor Day activities, his first.

As president of Samahan ng Manggagawa sa Harbour Centre, he is a relatively new labor leader with labor cases and demands up for resolution in the Labor department.

“We want to be regularized (directly) under Harbour Centre and we have filed cases against (Grasials) agency, which has been defrauding us,” he told Bulatlat.

Some of their members joined the May 1 activities even if it meant losing a day’s work and pay. They turned up at the rally wearing their green T-shirt uniform.

On the matter of regularization, their demand is a test of the claims of DO 174, and they expect the resolution of the case on May 11. The DO 174 prohibits labor-only contracting; contracting out of job work through an in-house agency; in-house cooperatives classified by DOLE as merely supplying workers to offices and factories. It also prohibits contracting out-of-job work by reason of a strike or lock-out whether actual or imminent; when the principal farms out work to a “cabo” (work gang head).

Issued after months of restive anticipation by labor groups, DO 174 received flak from labor groups mainly because it did not totally ban contractualization as they demanded.

In what it seeks to ban, DO 174 included also the repeated hiring under an employment contract of short duration; requiring the employee to sign contract fixing period of employment to a term shorter than the term of service agreement, and other practices designed to circumvent the right of workers to security of tenure.

The port workers’ demand for regularization began a few months before DO 174 took effect, but they believe that they should have been regularized under their true employer, Harbour Centre, years ago. Now, they are demanding their requisite security of tenure, pay, and benefits. They have launched mass actions since last year and they believe that the findings regarding their agency being illegal give a clear legal basis for them to win regularization with Harbour Centre.

Bello said that so far, they’ve witnessed small improvements at work since they get organized – they have prompted the Labor Department to inspect their contractual job status (and they have learnt that Grasials has no license); they have pushed the said agency to pay the workers on the 15th and 30th instead of its practice of just once a month payment; and they have heard that the company has started remitting their SSS, although it still has to contribute a share.

Of Grasials’ 334 workers in Harbour Centre, 250 have been working there for nine years.

Job security, improved wage as immediate relief

Most of the port workers in Harbour Centre, whether they are with Grasials or with the other agencies, live in Tondo, Manila, the birthplace of Katipunan founder Andres Bonifacio.

“We are squatters at R-10,” Bello said, referring to their community along the Radial Road 10 in Tondo. They live in one of the most unsanitary squatters’ areas in the city, but they bear with it because as Bello said, they have no choice.

Harbour Centre
Eldefonso Bello, president, Samahan ng Manggagawa sa Harbour Centre: “Before we became organized, we’re not united yet, we’re just sighing about our plight, we can’t face up to our bosses, our agency doesn’t want to see us, some rotation officers would steal our day’s wage if we didn’t so much as react.”

The irregularity of their work (and pay) schedule often forces them to do other odd jobs such as picking through garbage or driving.

Life is hard and bitter in their squatters’ colony that kids as young as 12 years old get sucked into the drug trade, or get trapped into early marriages, said Bello.

Port workers also get compelled to cash in their future wages from lenders, in the process, further reducing its amount.

Bello himself lives under a small house in R-10. His “room” is barely four feet high. His humble belongings include a bed, a gas lamp, and a stove.

Yet, Bello works as “leadman” for a company that boasts of providing its client “the best service we can offer by having the top of the line equipment, continuity of modernization for technology, full compliance with international standards, commitment to efficiency and value for money since HCPTI cuts down docking and disembarking process by as much as 50%.”

Harbour Centre
Reghis Romero II’s Harbour Centre Port Terminal boasts of faster, low-cost handling of cargoes. It sources over 1,000 workers from three manpower agencies. (Photo grabbed from company website)

Harbour Centre’s Reghis Romero is expanding the 10-hectare port city in Manila, aside from reclaiming land to build more ports such as the P39-billion Mega Harbor project in Davao City signed by President Duterte when he was still the city mayor. The Samahan ng Manggagawa sa Harbour Centre hopes that on May 11, the date set to resolve their issues in the Labor Department, they would see the end of the manpower agency that’s been preying on them for years and that they’d be directly regularly employed by the ISO-certified Harbour Centre itself. (

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