Substantial wage hike, a question of survival for workers

Sylvia Lescano, union president and long-time worker, hopes that with their union and alliances with other workers’ groups, the country’s workers could get an increase in wages through CBA and/or legislated minimum wage hike. (Bulatlat FILE Photo by M. Salamat)

“There is no way we could scrimp so there’ll be enough for our needs.”


MANILA – Whenever the Filipino labor sector drums up their calls for a wage hike, the employers’ groups almost always immediately respond with several points against it, with the same “tired, old lines,” the workers’ groups would say. The employers’ groups also frequently resort to “scare” tactic, complained the unionists. The leaders of employers’ groups, and President Duterte, when he reneged on his campaign promise to end contractualization and implement a nationalized and increased wage, oozed sympathy for the poor employers when they said they can’t “force” them to do it.

But in reality, the workers’ groups in the country have learned first-hand that their employers could, in fact, grant substantial wage increases. That is, if only the employers would allow their profits to go down by a bit. It’s not just the ‘contractual kings’ such as the likes of Henry Sy of SM mall chain, the Ayalas, MVP, Gokongwei, Lucio Tan, Lucio Co and other Filipino magnates in Forbes’ list of richest men and women but also the big bosses of transnational (TNC) plantations, among others, and the locators in economic enclaves subcontracting for other TNCs. To this narrow group of people much of the bounties of the country’s economic growth annually go, at the expense of the working poor.

Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia recently announced the 6.8 percent Philippine economic growth for the first quarter of 2018 to be among the fastest in Asia, second only to Vietnam’s 7.4 percent and at par with that of China. To Pernia it indicates that infrastructure development is accelerating and “Build, Build, Build” is gaining ground. The NEDA (National Economic Development Authority) even boasted that OFWs could come home to more jobs.

But this growth is “exclusionary,” and did not translate to better jobs, said the research group IBON. The “Build, Build, Build” is in fact violently seizing the homes and sources of livelihood of the urban poor, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, and farmers across the country, according to groups of environmentalists, peasant, and fisherfolk. But this is another story of working people being pushed to greater poverty by government’s “development” programs.

For Sylvia Lescano, union president at the Japanese-owned electronics firm SMT operating in an economic zone in Calamba, Laguna, two decades of continuously working has not translated to better wages. When she looked at her fellow workers, she reports the same pained expression on their faces when they scan their paycheck and proceed to tighten the family budget some more.

Earning the minimum wage of P435 per day in Region 4, she can’t help but grit her teeth while enumerating the basic goods that have increased in prices due to the tax reforms under the TRAIN law. The three-year-high fi¬rst quarter inflation in the country is widely perceived to be caused by the government’s Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) among other neoliberal laws such as EPIRA, oil deregulation law, and privatization of public utilities such as the railways, water, and tollways.

Starting May this year, Lescano has worked a total of 21 years in SMT. But she continues to live and work chronically in debt. “There is no way we could scrimp so there’ll be enough for our needs,” she sighed.

Why continue working like that if you always end up in debt? She thought about it and blurted out, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, “Of course you’d need to work; you cannot get a loan without work.”

Two children depend on her to continue working and be credit-worthy for their subsistence. Poorer-quality work awaits her if she stopped having even such a job.

Elsewhere in the country during this year’s first quarter of “fast growth,” the number of underemployed or persons looking for additional work grew from 6.4 to 7.5 million, IBON said. The number of part-time workers or those who worked below 40 hours a week increased by 1.2 million from 13.5 to 14.7 million. Those in informal work, meanwhile, or in jobs that are uncertain or irregular with poor pay and benefits, increased by 1.4 million from 14.6 to 16 million. If the job in the formal sector is harsh, those outside of it appears harsher.

Lescano was 19 years old when she started working in the Calamba economic zone. Twenty-one years later, she can’t show anything substantial for her two decades’ contribution to the profits of the Japanese-owned company.

“Nothing has changed,” she lamented. Here she remains, except this time her strength has somewhat diminished. Despite working continuously, she has no savings. Her family lives in Quezon province; she is just renting a tiny space in a boarding house in Calamba.

The thought that TRAIN has increased and will continue to increase her monthly expenses – the prices of food, the gas for her husband’s motorcycle, her own transportation costs, it’s enough to make you scream, she shared.

Yet, they live simply. Her diet consists of eggs, noodles, some vegetables. “You can’t frequently eat meat. It’s expensive.” She sees her kids on weekends, at least. The treat is apparently in just being together. They rarely can afford to go out.

Asked about the other workers she knows from the ecozone, if they have saved up or bought a house-and-lot out of their wages, Lescano laughed without mirth. While it’s true, she said, that some workers live in houses owned by their family, they got it either by inheritance or through the help of family members working abroad, or because they have been a bit more affluent, to begin with.

Low wages prompted Lescano and fellow workers to struggle to form a union. In 2013 they succeeded at last. As any worker in the Philippines knows, unionizing is difficult and dangerous even if it’s one of their democratic rights as provided for in the Constitution and the Labor Code.

Even if you remove the usual threat of being laid off as a reprisal for unionizing, and the suspicions and harassment of immediate bosses, company guards, enclave police, municipality police, and in some cases, of the military, too, workers forming unions have to plod through legal documents and processes required by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to register their unions, and qualify to bargain with management for the workers. In every step of the way, they face risks to their jobs or even to their life, as cases documented by the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights show.

A constant battle for wages and job security

In Lescano’s factory, the union was able to ink with the management a Collective Bargaining Agreement covering 2015 to 2016. Did they get a substantial wage hike here? we asked.

The union got just P10 and P20 wage hikes for 2015 and 2016. In this CBA, the union sacrificed its demand for a P100 wage hike to focus their push into regularizing hundreds of long-time contractuals. They succeeded there — 214 contractual workers became regular workers.

This year their union is bigger as they prepare for bargaining upon the expiry of their 2015-2016 CBA.

But before the negotiations begin, the management has circulated news that it will retrench up to 400 regular workers and retain just over 100. The unionists were told the foreign subcontractor doesn’t like unions. This, of course, puts a strain on the union.

Like other formally employed workers, this union is told to fight for a substantial wage hike through the CBA instead, as they persistently decry the meager wage hikes being granted by the regional wage boards. But in the cases of unions in economic zones in Southern Tagalog, getting a substantial wage hike via CBA is as easy as squeezing water from stones. Aside from the union where Lescano belongs, other unions are in battles for their survival alongside their demands for a wage hike.

In Mindanao, unions are also being crushed, their wage demands being frustrated, and the government troops’ justification is that the unionists are allegedly members or sympathizers of the New People’s Army.

“Kikilos kami. Lalaban kami.” (We will take action. We will fight) is how Lescano said they will proceed. She hopes that they will be supported by other workers not just in their ecozone but in the region and the country, too.

Fighting for a wage hike means fighting contractualization, too. Contractualization has become a way for employers to further cut down wages and benefits and neutralize the unions to scuttle wage hike demands.

The experience of Lescano’s union is similar to the situation in other profitable companies, the group LIGA and Pamantik-KMU have said. They fight to regularize the workers so they get the mandated benefits for regular workers. But they don’t get to enjoy the benefits for long, or not at all.

Workers in Southern Tagalog have succeeded in getting regularization orders through the DoLE. They had worked to push the DOLE to inspect their companies and correct its illegal practices against the workers. But the DOLE decisions are not being enforced.

In a study by the Liga ng Manggagawa para sa Regular na Hanapbuhay, or just LIGA, about 30,000 workers in Southern Tagalog are documented as “in limbo.” They are contractuals who should have been regulars as per DOLE decisions. Their companies have been found guilty of illegal labor-only contracting. But the business owners refused to regularize the workers and the DoLE rulings so far have no teeth.

Instead, LIGA spokesperson Antonette Amorado said the toothlessness is compounded by the recent DoLE statement on labor-only contracting. She is referring to the DOLE announcement that the government is resolved to make only labor-only contracting illegal – and not all forms of contractualization which affects millions of workers in the country.

With such a statement, the workers are back to square one (or back to negative one), compared to when Duterte uttered his “marching orders” to end contractualization.

Wage hike urgently needed

With workers seeking wage hikes through unions, and joining nationwide alliances to call for a nationwide, legislated wage hike, the DOLE recently responded with announcements of wage hikes soon.

In a statement, research group IBON welcomed the government’s plan to respond to labor’s call for a wage hike, saying it is urgent amid rising prices. But IBON emphasized that the wage hike, in order to matter, should be meaningful enough to keep up with accelerating inflation and worsening poverty. If not, IBON said, the recent inflation rate will only continue to erode a paltry increase.

According to IBON, it is urgent for government to ensure the legislation of a national minimum wage that is sufficient for the working people to cope with the rising cost of goods and services. The research group blames the recent price spikes on the government’s market-oriented policies such as the oil deregulation and tax reform laws.

Despite the last increase of Php21 in October 2017, which raised the National Capital Region (NCR) minimum wage to Php512 from Php491 per day, the real value has eroded by Php16.25 from Php464.19 in October 2017 to Php447.94 as of April 2018, IBON said.

IBON also noted that the TRAIN has inflicted a heavy blow on the workers’ purchasing power as the real value of the minimum wage in the capital lost a significant Php18.79 since the Duterte administration took office in July 2016.

According to IBON, initially increasing the minimum wage nationwide to at least Php750 as recently proposed by progressive lawmakers is a practical measure. It will allow wage earners to cope with inflation and increase their purchasing capacity. It will also help bridge the gap between the nominal minimum wage and the family living wage (FLW) of Php1,173.14 as of April 2018 computed by IBON,
While the amount still falls short of the FLW, a Php750 minimum wage can be an initial important step towards increased economic activity and more vibrant economic growth that shall ensure a more stable price situation, said IBON.

With such an amount, Lescano’s family may afford to vary their diet. Budgeting will hopefully be less an exercise for teeth-gnashing. Meanwhile, their union, like the other workers’ unions under attack elsewhere, prepares to defend what they have struggled to achieve in the past three years. (

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