BAGUIO, Philippines – On May 3, 2021, World Press Freedom Day, the management of Sunstar Baguio informed the employees of the imminent closure of the company. A year after, workers of what used to be the only daily local paper in Northern Luzon are still waiting for their rightful compensation and benefits.
Their waiting has led them to file payment claims before the National Labor Relations Commission in Baguio City on Wednesday, May 4.
Thirteen former regular employees of the media outfit are seeking to get their separation pay, 13th-month pay for 2020, and remittance of the company’s share for the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth), Social Security System (SSS), and Home Development Mutual Fund (popularly known as Pag-IBIG) for the first half of 2021.
“Ang gusto lang naman namin ay mabayaran ang trabaho namin (we only want to get paid for our work),” said Roderick Osis, the editor-in-chief of the paper before its closure.
Former reporter Malen Catajan recalled that the local partners in Baguio informed them of the planned closure on December 21, 2020. After the announcement, the management ceased the operation of the printing press and administration office.
However, the editorial staff decided to continue. They went on to write news, publishing the stories on their online platform.
“Inisip naming since walang sure na decision, best to maintain news until may sigurado na. Sayang kapag itinuloy at di naman nasustain,” explained Catajan.
(We thought that since there was no clear decision yet, it was best to maintain news until there was a definite decision. It would be a pity if they decide to continue and we did not sustain.)
She said that during this period, “we sustained the operation out of our own pocket.” She told Rappler that members of the editorial staff are hopeful that they will also receive their salary for the months they fulfilled their jobs.
In a memorandum dated May 3, 2021, Sunstar Baguio president Jennifer Bautista-Biagtan informed the employees of the company’s permanent closure effective June 15, 2021. She cited “serious and irreversible losses incurred by the company for the past two years and with the pandemic” as the cause for the decision.
“In view of such closure, employment of all employees of the company shall cease effective June 15, 2021… The company will ensure that all employees will be paid of their unpaid salaries and 13th month; government dues deducted from all employees will be remitted to the respective agencies,” the memo stated.
However, Bautista-Biagtan said the workers’ separation pay depends on the availability of funds after the company collects its receivables, sale of its assets, and payment of liabilities.
The complainants said that before its closure, the Bautistas of Baguio owned 20% of the total shares for Sunstar Baguio; another 20% was owned by the late Levy Laus of Pampanga; and 60% was owned by the Garcias of Cebu, who controls Sunstar Publishing Incorporated.
In a statement, the Baguio Correspondents and Broadcasters Club, Inc. (BCBC) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) Baguio-Benguet chapter supported the former Sunstar Baguio workers.
“(We) stand with the former workers of Sunstar Baguio in their demand to be rightly compensated. We support their decision to file formal complaints against the Sunstar management before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC),” the statement said.
“The situation of the former Sunstar Baguio employees mirrors the reality journalists and media workers face. Aside from the dangers of speaking truth to power, journalists and media workers continue to suffer from being underpaid and uncompensated,” the groups added.
BCBC and NUJP Baguio-Benguet also called on the NLRC to immediately act on the complaint. They also urged the Department of Labor and Employment to ensure the rights and welfare of media workers.
“No press is truly free if the people who deliver the news suffer from unfair labor practices and languish in poverty,” the statement said.
In February 2020, former employees of Sunstar Cagayan de Oro and Super Balita Cagayan de Oro sued their employer for labor laws violations. Sunstar Publishing Incorporated, based in Cebu, owned both news organizations. In April 2021, the NLRC ruled in favor of the workers and ordered the company to pay 11 of its former employees. – Rappler.com
Sherwin De Vera is a Luzon-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.