By VENMAR CECILLE
MANILA — For 25-year-old Gabriel Humilde Villegas, becoming a journalist has always been his dream. But recently, he became the subject of news following his successful fight in compelling his former newsroom to provide him the benefits due him.
In its decision, the National Labor Relations Commission granted his plea to compel the Daily Tribune, a national daily in the Philippines, to pay his government premium contributions, “which were deducted from his salary but never remitted.”
“Well enshrined is the rule that the burden rests on the employer to prove payment. This stems from the fact that all pertinent personnel files, payrolls, records, remittances, and other similar documents – which show the money claims of workers have been paid – are not in the possession of the worker but are in the custody and control of the employer” the NLRC said in its four-page decision dated March 27, 2023.
The NLRC added that Villegas’s demand for his pro-rata 13th-month pay in 2022 was not provided even after he resigned from work.
“I tried to follow up several times about my situation but to no avail. They keep telling me to wait but they cannot fully justify the delay nor provide me a specific timeframe,” Villegas told Bulatlat.
A life’s dream
Villegas began his career as a journalist when he became part of The Catalyst, the official student publication of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP).
“It was then that I first immersed myself with the masses and wrote about their situation. I remember covering the striking Sumifru workers back in 2019, asserting their right to livable wages and proper benefits,” he said.
After graduation, he continued to pursue his passion for journalism, joining a subsidiary of ABS-CBN, a leading broadcast network in the country. But living out that dream was short-lived when the Philippine Congress did not renew the network’s franchise.
“Suddenly, when there were threats that the franchise would not be renewed, I was filled with uncertainties. We were paralyzed,” Villegas said.
After his stint at ABS-CBN, he worked for a communication company for eight months, while continuing to search for other jobs, even those that would fit his political science degree.
In July 2021, he was accepted as a reporter for the Daily Tribune.
“I was happy. They saw potential in me to be a part of their reporters and they assigned me to the beat I was confident to cover. But questions started to arise in the workplace,” Villegas said.
In the span of 15 months, Villegas covered the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and the Catholic Church.
Villegas, however, was not asked to sign any contract between him and the national daily, his employer. “They just told me that they are not providing any contract and it is the same for everyone there.”
His basic monthly salary of P18,000 ($330) was not subject to an annual increase, and he was not provided overtime pay.
“There was also no holiday pay, and it was even worse for those assigned to the graveyard shift because there was no night differential pay,” he said.
During the election coverage, he spent about P7,000 ($127) for the transportation alone. This is a far cry from the P1,000 ($18) allowance he received from the newsroom.
“I would sometimes ask for a means of transportation to ease my expenses since it already exceeded the allowances that I received. But they also refused,” Villegas said, adding that his requests for additional transportation allowance were also not provided to them.
With these work-related expenses, work started to become a challenge especially with the increasing prices of basic necessities.
On Dec. 21, 2022, Villegas filed a Single Entry Approach (SENA) before the NLRC for a speedy and accessible intervention in his case. The NLRC issued a notice to the Daily Tribune on Dec. 23.
On Dec. 28, Villegas received a call from the accounting office.
“They were agitated,” he said, adding that he was told that he should be indebted to them.
He received several more similar calls from January to February, saying that he would face the company lawyer during the mandatory conciliation conferences. The national daily, however, did not appear at the scheduled conferences.
The journalist also received threats that he would be sued for emotional damages over the complaint he filed before the NLRC.
Solidarity and more victories
Despite his experience, Villegas said it is important to remain in solidarity and to keep fighting for journalists’ rights and welfare. He also continues to work as a journalist for a broadcast company.
“I received a lot of support from the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), former colleagues from the Daily Tribune and ABS-CBN, my current workmates, and my lawyer Atty. Noel Neri,” he said.
Villegas said that this victory highlights the need for media workers to join or establish unions to collectively assert their rights.
“My case is not isolated,” he said.
Most newsrooms do not have unions because media workers fear that they might be fired from work, he added.
“We are all workers who have to offer our lives in the line of fire, eight hours a day. It is a basic right to all of us to have our rights fulfilled,” he said.
In a statement, the NUJP-National Capital Region welcomed the decision of NLRC and reminded media owners to respect the rights of their media workers, including due benefits stipulated by the law.
They also called on their fellow media workers to be more assertive of their labor rights.
“Fight back and don’t let the companies trample on your rights,” the union said in the statement.
“Our fight for press freedom extends to the fulfillment of our labor rights so we can effectively make and deliver the news to the people, anchored to their interest,” Villegas said. (JJE, RTS, RVO)