Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. VI, No. 12      April 30 - May 6, 2006      Quezon City, Philippines











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Contractualization a Bane to Workers – KMU

“Contractual workers toil under subhuman conditions while the working conditions of the remaining regular workers worsen,” said Elmer Labog, chairman of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement).

By Marya G. Salamat

To get hired in a large company, some of its veteran unionists were once overheard jokingly telling one another at a rally that you have to be perfectly able-bodied–you must have a good set of teeth, a good pair of ears, a 20-20 vision, strong arms and legs, etc. But it doesn’t matter much if something’s wrong with your gray matter. Or, assuming you started out with a good brain, they said it’ll get worn out anyway to drone-like near insanity soon enough.

Gone now are the days when you’re considered to be stably employed and appreciated if you’re with a top 1,000-ranking company. A regular worker of a telecommunication company told Bulatlat, on condition of anonymity, (the management could look for ways to kick me out of my job,” he confided), “times have changed for the worse.” Despite their companies’ improving sales and profitability, they’re more overworked and underpaid now. The number of regular workers is decreasing even as contractual workers in their midst are increasing.

“Contractual workers toil under subhuman conditions while the working conditions of the remaining regular workers worsen,” said Elmer Labog, chairman of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement).

More work, less pay

According to Mr. Labog, most medium to large companies in the Philippines have run successive manpower reduction or early retirement programs in recent years to open doors to more contractual workers.  These companies tempted and/or coerced their regular employees to avail of “juicy” early retirement packages. “They don’t have to declare bankruptcy to justify retrenchments; they just cite the rigors of competition in a globalized world, even if they practically dominate the industry,” said Labog.

Some of the biggest examples are San Miguel Corporation, Magnolia/Nestle, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company, Meralco, Dole Phils., ShoeMart, Asahi Glass, and many export-oriented firms in special economic zones.  

After shaving thousands of regular employees off their payroll, large companies employ contractual workers, sometimes the same workers they retired.  The remaining regular workers are then forced to take on multiple tasks without a corresponding increase in wages or render overtime work without overtime pay. In the militant workers’ parlance, it means “exploiting the workers more intensely.”

“They want to have their cake and eat it too,” Labog said, referring to large companies’ practice of rehiring the workers whom they previously pushed to retire, at lower wage rates and scant benefits. “They take advantages of the workers’ experiences without paying benefits for its upkeep,” said Labog. Especially in jobs where more firm-specific skills are required, retired workers and previously hired contractuals are rehired repeatedly under new contracts.

Filipino workers are now also forced to confront the erosion of some of the labor movement’s hard-won gains such as the 8-hour working day. The labor department’s compressed workweek specifically damages the 8-hour labor law, said Labog.

For example, in a big telecommunications company there’s a “zero overtime policy” even if cable or phone repairs call for extended working hours.  Overtime work is technically erased through “offsetting.” For a certain working day, a worker who worked for 16 hours continuously will offset his overtime by not reporting for work the following day.  S/he will not be paid the additional 30 percent for overtime work nor the night differential provided by law.  In some garments factories, a regular working day is 10 hours long. 

For many regular workers, loss of overtime pay means a hefty drop in their wages. But while it would seem a boon to contractual workers who are often asked to work overtime, their take-home pay is still low since their basic pay are low to begin with.

Labog said, “the remaining workers are somewhat compelled to work harder and bear the torrent of multi-tasking, multi-skilling, productivity circles, and similar setups where they’re constrained to raise their productivity to avoid being sacked.” Sometimes, Labog added, when regular workers can’t take it anymore, they’re finally driven to retire early. Those who are younger and fit for further wear and tear continue to slug it out. They either become more passive, or “sipsip” (bootlicker), or meek, while others become militant.

Among the contractual workers, meanwhile, hard-working docility is a requirement. As Nere Guerrero of Samahan ng Malayang Kababaihang Nagkakaisa (SAMAKANA or Association of Free and United Women) has found out in her past four-month stint as a contractual garments worker, “My coworkers, mostly women, were resigned to the idea that nothing was worse than not having a job.”

Instead of protecting workers, the government is actually justifying contractualization, as the banana plantation workers in Davao found out a couple of years ago. Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas told them that contractualization is “necessary because of the current economic slowdown.”

“The real reason behind many firms’ intensified exploitation of their workers is to increase profits, said Labog. The medium to large companies who are resorting to contractualization and multitasking are in fact consistently listed in RP’s top 1,000 corporations. The Floreindo-owned Tagum Development Corporation or Tadeco, one of the country's biggest banana exporters with more than 9,000 workers, is reportedly producing 55 million boxes of bananas each year, and earning as much as P80.08 billion annually.  

Struggle for better working conditions

To blunt the increased exploitation of Filipino workers, militant workers include contractual workers in their struggle for better wages and working conditions. Labog said,” labor flexibilization brings down the status of all workers. As long as employers, especially the large profitable firms, have extensive privileges to employ contractual workers, they also render the remaining regular workers open to increased abuse and exploitation.”

At the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, agency-hired contractual janitors have successfully formed a union and launched strikes against mass termination each time their yearly contract expires. Now with members averaging seven or more years in the job, they are receiving above minimum wages, though they’re still considered as contractuals. They are still studying how to deal with relievers, or persons who go to PUP everyday hoping to substitute for an absent worker.

The National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU), a member federation of KMU, has experiences in successfully calling for regularization of contractual workers. It has resolved in its congress to work with contractual workers in improving labor conditions and to include in collective bargaining agreements the regularization of existing contractual workers.

“Our local unions launch mass actions to press for the regularization of contractuals,” said Antonio Pascual, general secretary of NAFLU. Last year, for instance, after years of painstaking negotiations and concerted actions, at least 1,500 former contractual workers of Dole Philippines, maker of fruit preserves and juices based in Mindanao, were finally regularized.

“While a lot remains to be done, we are happy to have urged the Dole management to regularize some of its long-standing contractual workers,” said Labog, “1,500 workers aren’t big compared to millions of Filipino workers who continue to toil under shaky employment terms. But so far it is the single biggest group of Filipino contractual workers who have become regular and permanent through concerted mass actions. With persistence and despite the Arroyo government’s drive for labor contractualization, we hope more workers will soon follow.” Bulatlat



© 2006 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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