Commentary: Aquino failed organized labor

Carmel V. Abao
Labor unions lament that jobs are getting more precarious, and the President has not made their concerns a priority

MANILA, Philippines – In anticipation of President Benigno Aquino III’s third State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 23, some 400 trade union leaders of the newly formed labor alliance NAGKAISA (United) gathered in Quezon City last Friday, July 20, to discuss the “working people’s assessment of the state of labor and workers under President Aquino.” 

Their verdict: Bigo. Failed. President Aquino failed to meet the expectations of this section of Philippine society.

Ominously enough, the NAGKAISA assembly ended with the “passing-of-the-hat” for Ka Andy, a veteran trade union organizer of who had died a few days earlier in a public hospital where no charity ward was available.  

Because he had to stay in a private room, his family has had to deal with huge debts alongside the loss of a loved one. Ka Andy died at around the same time that Dolphy died, but unlike in the case of the Comedy King, there was no Manny Pangilinan around to help him out. No President Aquino either.

Organized labor’s collective judgment on the Aquino presidency was reached not without basis.  

NAGKAISA leaders recalled that during Labor Day 2011, the President proposed quarterly meetings. But no such regular meetings have taken place since then.  

Each of the participating leaders had to fill up a “grading sheet” around 5 “issues that matter to workers:” employment, wages, electricity rate, housing, and labor rights in the private/public sector. NAGKAISA leaders provided presentations on these 5 issues and these formed part of the basis for grading the President.

The grading system was quite straightforward: failure (51-58), needs improvement (59-68), poor (69-77), good (78-85), very good (86-93), and excellent (94-100).   

Criteria for grading included level of accomplishment (60%), number of beneficiaries (20%), and openness (of Aquino) to dialogue and listen to inputs (20%).

Precarious work

According to the April 2012 labor force survey of the National Statistics Office, the employment level expanded by 3.0%, from 36.293 million to 37.394 million in the past years. This meant an increase of 1.101 million workers.     

When put in proper context, these numbers don’t mean much, according to Josua Mata, secretary-general of the Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL)-SENTRO. Mata argued that while the employment rate went up, the number of underemployed — those who have work but are still seeking work — has increased from 7.6 million in April 2011 to 7.8 million in April 2012.    

According to Mata, “precarious work” has increased over the years and the government’s response has only been to issue a Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Department Order No. 18 (DO-18)  to “regulate contractualization.” DO-18, Mata claimed, is a rehash of DO-10 issued by the DOLE a decade ago. Precarious work, according to the ILO,  “can have many faces” but it usually involves “insecure, uncertain, and unpredictable working conditions.”  

In the Philippines, the outsourcing of Philippine Airline (PAL) employees that caused the displacement of more than 2,000 workers last year is perhaps the most visible face of precarious work. Mata said the President did not lift a finger for the PAL workers, and, in fact, appeared to have favored the side of PAL management. Moreover,  Mr Aquino has not certified the Security of Tenure Bill as urgent.  This bill aims to strengthen the definition of regular and casual workers and simplify the classification of workers.  

The President himself is promoting precarious work,  according to Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK) General Secretary Annie Geron. One third or 400,000 of 1.4 million current jobs in the public sector, Geron said, are precarious jobs couched in various employment arrangements such as “contract of service,”  “memorandum-of-agreement,” “job order” and “volunteer work.”  These indicate that the government itself tolerates the violation of a basic right – the right to decent work, Geron added.

Pressures on wages

Wage increase has never been on President Aquino’s agenda.

According to Eva Arcos of the Associated Labor Unions- Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP), this issue has never been mentioned in President Aquino’s speeches. Not in speeches in his first 100 days in office nor in his past SONA in 2010 and 2011.   

Despite this, the National Wages Productivity Commission (NWPC) claimed that in the past year alone, 12 out of 17 regional tripartite wage and productivity boards granted wage increases ranging from P2-P30 in the form of cost-of-living-allowance (COLA), basic pay increments or both.   

Arcos argued, however,  that the current wage rates do not even meet poverty threshold lines. 

In the NCR, for example, total minimum wage in 30 days is only P13,680.00 – merely 58% of the NCR’s monthly poverty threshold of P23,404.00  Arcos added that  wage increases granted by the wage boards fall far below real wages. For instance, the P426.00 minimum wage in December 2011 is eroded by 42%, using 2000 as base year or by 19% using 2006 as base year.

According to Sonny Matula of the Federation of Free Workers (FFW),  trade unions prefer increasing wages through collective bargaining. Because of the high level of opposition of companies to bargaining, however, Matula claimed that unions have resorted to advocating for minimum wage-setting. NAGKAISA is pushing for a legislated minimum wage and the abolition of the regional wage boards.  

The traditional union slogan “sahod itaas, presyo ibaba” (increase wages,  reduce prices) is still very relevant today, according to Danny Edralin of APL.  This is why NAGKAISA has included seemingly non-traditional issues such as power rates and housing for the poor in their assessment of the President’s performance as chief executive.

The impending power rate increase is the “coming storm” that workers should all prepare for,  said Louie Corral of ALU-TUCP. The proposed Renewable Energy program with its Feed-in Tariff,  according to Corral, would entail an additional P0.1256/kWh. As it is, the Philippines, with a rate of US$0.31/kWh, already ranks 3rd in the list of countries with the most expensive power rates,  next to Denmark at $ 0.3563/kWh and Germany at $0.3248. 

The EPIRA law,  passed more than a decade ago,  was supposed to facilitate competition that would reduce power costs but the opposite has happened, according to Corral. Instead of competition,  a cartel has emerged in the power sector composed of a few powerful businesses and family corporations such as the Pangilinan group,  the San Miguel Group (Ramon Ang), the Aboitizes, Henry Sy, Ayalas, the Lopezes, and others. The Aquino government, Corral said, has strengthened rather than weakened this cartel, Corral added.

Another major pressure on the wages is housing. 

According to Fatima Cabanag of KAMAO, at least 1.5 million people live in danger zones, 5 million do not have secure homes, and 3 million have no housing.  National government has allotted P50-B for housing but unrest in urban poor communities continues.

Cabanag said that housing projects of NHA for the displaced are hardly livable: “bahay ng kalapati” (house of doves) is how she called these houses. Government is simply “managing” the housing problem,  Cabanag said, and until a proper and effective housing program is in place, there should be a moratorium on demolitions.

According to Pete Pinlac of MAKABAYAN, out of the 38.5 million employed Filipinos, only 1.6 million have joined trade unions. This is not surprising, he said, given the predominance of unclear employee-employer relations and patronage relations in the country.  

Esperanza Ocampo, president of  the Philippine Government Employees Association (PGEA) added that to this day public sector employees, by virtue of E.O 180, are still not allowed bargain collectively and stage strikes. There is a Public Sector Labor Management Consultative Council (PSLMCC) that hears out the concerns of labor,  but ironically, the labor sector only has an “observer” status in this body.  

Thus, Aquino’s rhetoric of “inclusive growth” remains just that: rhetoric.  It is not true that no one has been left behind.  

Too many sacrifices. Not enough solutions. This is the state of the nation in 2012. –


Click on the links below for more: