Philippines’ workplaces a virus hotbed as economy rushes to reopen

Mandy* made it clear to her employers: she could only work from home.

She lived with her husband and their two-year-old. Mandy had a heart condition, her daughter had bronchitis, while her husband worked as a delivery man for Grab. They shared a room for rent in Manila, making it impossible to isolate if at least one of them turned out positive for the novel coronavirus.

Mandy was a call center agent. She knew she worked well. From the lockdown in March 2020 up to the renewed lockdown in April 2021, she has managed to stay afloat in the industry where companies have been pulling out left and right, leaving thousands of agents jobless.

Mandy has worked for four clients, working from home in all transfers except the last one, located in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig City.

She started in December 2020 and trained in January 2021. She said the recruits – her included – were led to believe that only the training would be onsite, until they were told to report for work when their regular shifts began.

In protest, Mandy used up all her leave credits, effectively going on a break on her first month in March 2021. She took care of her daughter. 

While at home, messages poured into her inbox.

One by one, her colleagues reported testing positive for COVID-19. Still, the company only locked down parts of its office. A positive case in the first floor meant that only the first floor was shut down. The rest had to continue. 

When Mandy had to finally go earn money, she had to report to their office.  She returned on March 19. By the second week of April, she started coughing. The virus had reached her.

Most difficult to handle

The outbreak in Mandy’s office mirrored the spike in cases happening in the National Capital Region, the epicenter of the pandemic in the Philippines.

In March 2021, NCR cities saw the infections spread doubly fast, and the Philippines saw a record-breaking rise in cases for days. 

By the last week of March, the government decided to place the capital region and surrounding provinces on enhanced community quarantine, the strictest level of lockdown.

From January to April 2021 alone, the Philippines recorded over 500,000 cases, making up half of its first million cases since the pandemic started.

Experts attributed the rapid rise to the reopening of the economy and the arrival of more infectious variants of COVID-19.

The country's economic managers argued for the reopening of businesses as employers and employees could not go on without their income. The distribution of aid has also left the money reserves of local governments dry. The national government could only give a maximum of P4,000 per poor household – certainly not enough for any family to survive on for weeks.

In this trade-off, the virus spread among the country's economic frontliners, the workers.

According to contact tracers Rappler spoke with, transmission inside homes is the most common way COVID-19 spreads, but the spread of the virus in workplaces has become the most difficult to handle.

Spread of the virus in the workplace is attributed to the following:

  1. Employers want to maximize operations by making their employees work onsite.
  2. Employees with no option to work from home risk getting infected instead of losing their jobs.
  3. The national government is undermanned to ensure the proper enforcement of health protocols in the workplace.
No work, no pay, no health insurance

Quezon City, the Philippines’ most populous city and the city with the most infections, has its own office monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.

According to Rolando Cruz, chief of the Quezon City Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance Unit (CESU), the office was needed because of how difficult it was to track and contain the virus once it penetrates work spaces.

“For community transmission, it’s easy: We find a cluster and we lock them down. That’s it. For the workplace, it is different. Everyone lives in different barangays. If you’re 10 infected in your workplace, those are 10 different barangays affected,” Cruz said.

The result: Workplaces have become a hotspot for bringing COVID-19 to communities. Then, once the virus takes root in the communities, it spreads faster, especially in the congested areas.

These workplaces involve not just private companies, but even government offices. From Malacañang, to the Congress, to the Supreme Court, offices have been closed off at one point or another. (READ: 'Betrayal': Gov't staff decry COVID-19 violations at work as cases rise)

In Quezon City, they have found that call centers make up most of the cases in workplaces. 

The city has a concentration of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in Araneta City and in Eastwood City, where agents flock to high-rise buildings with enclosed spaces.

Quezon City’s tally of BPO workers who tested positive from January 1 to April 20, 2021, showed that most of those who tested positive are not only living in different barangays in QC, they also reside in other cities or provinces, making it harder for contact tracers to isolate them.

Of the 511 confirmed cases in that period, 406 (79.45%) were found to reside outside, while only 105 (20.55%) lived in Quezon City.

Hanzel Tolentino, a contact tracer in Quezon City, said both the companies and the employees shared the liability for the spread of the virus in their offices.

He explained that, while companies insist on following health protocols, workers can only distance themselves from each other so much within their enclosed and shared spaces.

A lot of workers also have little to no choice. Tolentino recalled an employee for a BPO company concealing symptoms out of fear of losing work.

“It’s because of [the] no-work-no-pay policy, and their health cards do not cover testing,” Tolentino said.

Hazel Campos, a nurse and contact tracer in Pasig City, said she saw malpractices in workplaces in the barangays she handled. This is especially true in private companies where employees work contractually.

“There are reports coming to our office about companies who belatedly inform close contacts. There are also employees who hide their symptoms,” Campos said.

She added: “We are a third-world country. The people need money. That is a factor why they hide their symptoms. If they declare they have symptoms, they are banned from work without compensation.”

In an interview with Rappler, Labor Undersecretary Benjo Benavidez said employees could avail of sickness benefit from the Social Security System. He lamented, however, that not all employees are aware of this, or that they may not be covered in the first place to avail themselves of this.

BPO workers not ‘better off’

BPO companies employ thousands of Filipinos in the capital region and surrounding provinces. They rake in billions of dollars for the Philippine economy every year. Under the pandemic, their employees have been classified by government as essential. (READ: A history of the BPO industry in numbers)

Mandy is one of those essential workers, and she says they have been taken for granted.

She recalled that, during the early part of the pandemic, many BPO firms offered work-from-home arrangements, but, as the economy slowly reopened, more started pushing their employees to work onsite. 

Mylene Cabalona, president of the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) Pilipinas, stresses that the problems they face in their industry reflect what workers in other sectors face – employees live dangerously as employers push them to go to work.

“We’re only asking for what we deserve. This is the state of our industry now: precarious. This is also what our brothers and sisters in other industries experience,” said Cabalona.

Cabalona says call center agents find themselves in oppressive situations because there are no unions to represent them. She dispels the “misconception” that call center agents are “better off” compared to other workers.

“We’re not represented, people don’t listen to us because they think we have it good,” Cabalona added.

Cabalona’s group specifically flagged Department Order No. 215 of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which allowed companies to float employees from 6 months to 12 months.

This means that employees can still be under one company and not earn for as long as 12 months. 

In an interview with Rappler, Labor Undersecretary Benavidez said the order was intended to protect employees because the order would allow companies to extend the employment of workers instead of firing them after six months.

“Would you rather extend or outright lose your job? That’s the rationale behind that,” Benavidez said.

The government's responsibility

Where does the government intervene in all of this?

The DOLE crafts labor policies and enforces them. Under the pandemic, this has included policies to curb the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.

Benavidez admitted that they were severely undermanned to fulfill this role.

Ideally, the DOLE visits workplaces to monitor whether employers are following quarantine rules. But their backlog appears to be insurmountable: The DOLE only has over 150 inspectors to monitor around 74,000 businesses in Metro Manila alone.

These 150 inspectors also have no service vehicle and would have to plan their trips on their own and use the restricted public transportation.

The DOLE also does not have a database of infections in workplaces to monitor trends and respond to them accordingly. At best, local governments keep track of them on their own, like in the case of Quezon City and Pasig City. Benavidez says data collection is the responsibility of the Department of Health.

The DOLE managed to get a snapshot of the situation based on its visits. The department managed to visit 21,161 businesses from January 1 to April 22, 2021 – less than a third of the total number of establishments.

It reported that 81.35% of the businesses complied with health protocols. Among those who failed to comply, the following make up the most common violations:

  1. Failure to submit the monthly COVID-19 reports to DOLE
  2. Failure to formulate and implement an Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) program
  3. Failure to follow the minimum health protocols

An OSH program consists of the company drafting a plan for handling COVID-19 within the workplace and setting up a team of point persons in case the virus reaches their office. This means that thousands of workplaces do not have these contingencies in place.

As for the enforcement of health protocols, the department confirmed the suspicions of health experts and the workers – that the spread of the virus in their workplace has a lot to do with ventilation.

The DOLE issued Department Order No. 224, which mandates “stricter measures for adequate ventilation” in workplaces. The guidance was issued on March 3, 2021 – a year after the pandemic was declared.

As the Philippines continues to be a laggard in pandemic recovery and immunization, workers still don't see an end in sight in having to risk themselves and their families in order to earn money.

Mandy recovered from COVID-19 on April 24. She counts herself lucky as she was finally allowed to work with relative safety.

She told Rappler in a text message, “I am now again working from home.” – Rappler.com

*The interviewee's name has been changed to protect their identity.

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.

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