By DOMINIC GUTOMAN
MANILA — Workers in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry welcomed House Committee on Labor and Employment’s decision to seek the the suspension of resolutions requiring COVID-19 vaccination among on-site call center agents who are among the country’s economic frontliners.
The house committee will write a letter to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, requesting to suspend until further notice the resolutions 148B and 149 due to the “confusing” guidelines.
The IATF resolutions 148B and 149 were initially issued on November 11, which mandate on-site workers to be fully vaccinated. On-site workers who remain to be unvaccinated because of the inadequate supply should not be terminated but must take reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR tests “regularly at their own expense.”
President Rodrigo Duterte has also supported these resolutions of IATF saying, “Government can issue measures that would protect public health, public safety, public order. It’s in the police state. Under the police power of the state, I can compel you.”
“The IATF should consider the impacts of its resolution to those workers who are caught in the need to earn a living and to secure their jobs in a safe workplace,” said Mylene Cabalona, president of BIEN Pilipinas, the largest group of BPO workers.
However, Cabalona said they are still receiving reports that the resolutions are being implemented by BPO companies.
“IATF does not have the power to mandate and the labor committee should intervene to stop the implementation,” she said in an interview with Bulatlat. “The absence of simple vaccination cards has already burdened the workers, obstructing their entrance to the company. These resolutions are only meant to hold the employees to get vaccinated, which is very anti-worker.”
IATF resolutions state that the frequency of COVID-19 tests shall be determined by the employer. But the minimum number of RT-PCR tests should be at least “once every two weeks.”
The average price of RT-PCR tests varies. Humanitarian group Red Cross is offering the RT-PCR tests for P2,000 ($40) to P2,800 ($55). In private clinics, prices can go as high as P5,000 ($100). This, Cabalona said, will make significant cuts in their salaries as newbie workers only get about P15,000 ($297) to P16,000 ($317) a month.
“We are not against the vaccination, what we are against is the coercive vaccination – no vax no work. They should shoulder the expenses for testing so at least, we can compromise. Vaccinated or not, all of us can be carriers so we need the testing subsidized,” said Cabalona.
Cabalona has also highlighted that the protocols are discriminatory for the workers due to the rampant “floating status” of BPO workers since the COVID-19 pandemic, which could lead to termination or non-regularization.
The floating status or temporary lay-off is a management action subject to compliance with Article 301 of the Labor Code, indicating that the employment status of the employee is suspended for a period of time not exceeding six months.
Their performance metrics, too, could be affected if employees are not able to go to work because of the absence of vaccination documents or RT-PCR test results.
“This could be utilized by companies, where they can use this as a tool to try to terminate other agents who are tenured. The attrition is systematic, if you have not met the goals and metrics in just three months, you’ll be subjected to sanctions,” Cabalona said.
Not the workers’ fault
The total workforce of the country, according to BIEN Pilipinas, is 35.5 million workers. However, the fully-vaccinated individuals in the A4, or essential workers’ sector, are only at 13.5 million, according to the most recent data of the Department of Health (DOH)’s National COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard.
“Based on the data presented, the government is unable to inoculate the target population in its target period, so why blame and burden the workers and penalize them for being unvaccinated?” BIEN Pilipinas said.
Cabalona also underscored that for workers to return to the on-site arrangement, both government and the companies should be responsible for safeguarding the workers’ rights.
“Their efforts are not enough. What is happening now is exactly the opposite. The burden to ensure the workplace is safe is mainly on the employees. If they want to protect the workers, they should shoulder the RT-PCR expenses,” Cabalona said.
BPO workers are also pushing for the creation of occupational safety and health (OSH) committees in every company to ensure the safety of the workplace.
“We have laws about the OSH but this is not being implemented properly. We don’t have any OSH officers that police the standards within the company, ensuring the workers’ representation and safety compliance on-site,” Cabalona added.
BIEN Pilipinas is also among the 20 workers’ unions and labor rights advocates that issued a united statement against the 148-B. ‘
“It is a violation of our rights, dignity, and freedom that is guaranteed by our Constitution, particularly in the protection of workers’ rights and security in the Labor Code,” stated in their statement, highlighting that the resolution is a violation of the Covid-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021 (RA 11525) that prohibits the mandatory vaccination for the citizens.
They also added that instead of penalizing the people, the government should maximize its efforts to procure vaccines, propagate appropriate information to address vaccine hesitancy, and protect the workers’ informed consent.
The impending decision
The IATF resolutions 18B and 19 require mandatory vaccination for the workers, while regular testing for those who do not have adequate access to vaccines. The supposed first day of implementation of the resolution was December 1, which has been suspended as per the decision of the House on the same day.
During the deliberation, Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said that the above-mentioned resolutions of the IATF are a violation of the basic rights of the workers.
“We have nothing against vaccination and testing. However, the problem is that there is no sufficient supply of vaccines up until now. The required testing for areas without adequate supply will be too heavy for workers to shoulder.” said Gaite.
Lawmaker Eric Pineda, who is the chairperson of the House Committee on Labor and Employment, summoned the IATF to further clarify the resolutions but only the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) through Assistant Secretary Tes Cucueco attended the deliberations. Here, Cucueco reiterated that the testing will be shouldered by workers.
The committee said that if minimum wage earners will shoulder the tests, this will significantly reduce their earnings. As such, they called for the suspension of the IATF resolutions until further notice. They sought to invite, once again, the IATF for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the next committee hearing, December 7.
On the other hand, BIEN Philippines along with other workers’ unions will continuously call for the scrapping of the implementation of resolutions 148B and 149. They also call on the government to maximize efforts in maintaining safe workplaces as employees return on-site and the accessibility of vaccines with appropriate communication plans to address hesitancy and interfaith restrictions.
“Of course, we want to keep ourselves healthy but the responsibility should also come from the government and the companies. We are both to benefit in keeping a healthy environment and the economy afloat,” Cabalona said. (JJE, RVO)