Workers of BGC condo on hunger strike

MANILA, Philippines – Their plea: for their coworkers to be regularized as employees of the posh condominium in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) where they work.

But this plea seemed to fall on deaf ears, so they went on an indefinite hunger strike starting October 5.

The problem began last July 6, when 17 employees of contractor Polystar General Services were told it was their last day at Pacific Plaza Towers in BGC, Taguig City.

They were plumbers, electricians, and technicians attending to the daily needs of homeowners.

Pacific Plaza had terminated its contract with Polystar General Services.

A month after the contract was terminated, in-house regular employees – who were as shocked as the 17 – staged a strike across the condo with the outsourced employees.

"Mismong nung araw na 'yon pagtapos ng trabaho, mineeting silang lahat. Basta-basta na lang silang pinull-out nang walang dahilan. Tapos para silang mga magnanakaw na binuksan lahat ng bag para i-check at saka pinalabas," said Cris Rafales, an in-house regular worker who has been with Pacific Plaza for 12 years.

(On that day after work, they met [with their agency]. They were suddenly pulled out from servicing the condo with no reason given. Then they were treated like thieves as their bags were checked before they were told to leave.)

Rafales, the union president, said they staged a strike in solidarity with the agency workers. Sixteen of the regular workers in the engineering unit joined, with only two left to continue working.

"Ang panawagan lang naman namin sa board members ng Pacific Plaza ay pabalikin kami, ngayon bilang regular sa condo. Eh parehas lang din naman ang trabaho namin sa mga regular," said agency worker Victor Vallega Jr, a plumber who serviced the condo for 3 years.

(We're only asking the board members of Pacific Plaza to reinstate us, now as regular workers of the condo. We perform the same duties as the regular workers.)

With the strike still ongoing, maintenance services in the condo have been affected. But the management is not budging.

Labor-only contractor?

Inside the condo, it didn't matter whether you were an in-house regular worker or hired by the agency.

The Polystar workers said they got orders direct from Pacific Plaza if a pipe or an electrical circuit needed fixing. The equipment they used came from Pacific Plaza as well, with only basic tools given for work, Vallega said.

Some of the agency workers with Polystar had serviced Pacific Plaza for 3 to 5 years, but without a signed service agreement.

Under Department Order (DO) No. 174, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) treats contractors that do not have substantial capital for tools or work premises as labor-only contractors.

DOLE prohibits direct supervision by the principal company over agency workers, as well as requiring agency workers to perform jobs being done by regular employees of the principal company.

HUNGER STRIKE. Workers hold a banner outside Pacific Plaza Towers where they are conducting a hunger strike. Photo from SUPER-BMP

HUNGER STRIKE. Workers hold a banner outside Pacific Plaza Towers where they are conducting a hunger strike.

Photo from SUPER-BMP

The first time a labor inspector went to Pacific Plaza, the workers said the inspector was ushered out of the building. DOLE was later able to inspect Pacific Plaza, but only after Polystar workers were removed from their jobs.

Sought for comment, Polystar denied that they terminated the employees. According to human resources head Lawrence Vida, it was their contract with Pacific Plaza that was abruptly ended.

"Our contract with Pacific Plaza was terminated, but it doesn't mean that the workers were removed because it was only a project. Since we are the employers, they have the opportunity to be relocated to another property," Vida told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.

He also said that some of the workers are regular employees under their agency. "After the probationary period, they are automatically regular employees," Vida explained.

Asked whether Polystar engages in illegal contracting schemes, Vida said there is no truth to this. (READ: Duterte orders inventory of companies engaged in labor-only contracting)

"What we are providing are technical services. We have a point person deployed and an account manager on site who supervises them. We have also provided the necessary equipment depending on the work specification like the 5 basic tools," he said.

Hostile work environment?

For the workers, it was a strike waiting to happen.

Both in-house and agency employees claimed the building management became stricter by the day. A "small" mistake would mean a written memorandum.

Rafales said they used to have a union 3 years ago, but it was dissolved after the management offered them a salary raise that never materialized. (READ: PH still among world's 'worst' countries to work in – report)

The termination of the 17 agency workers' contracts pushed them to formalize the union they have been organizing since March. On top of that, the management accused the in-house workers of sabotaging operations.

Rappler reached Pacific Plaza general manager Minda Barlis for comment, but she only confirmed that the agency workers were "to be redeployed by Polystar." 

She did not answer our questions regarding alleged union busting, even after multiple messages.

Violation of law

Labor group Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) has been providing assistance for the union members. BMP president Luke Espiritu said they are exhausting all legal means to find a middle ground.

"We have offered before the NCMB (National Conciliation and Mediation Board) that if they want a middle ground, maybe they should bring back the workers. We'll just leave it with the courts if they say they will be regular or contractual workers," he told Rappler.

But Espiritu said the Pacific Plaza management refuses to take in the Polystar workers, despite "outright" violation of DO No. 174. He said they wanted to make an appeal directly to the condo's board, but the management makes it appear "impossible."

"The solution is easy, but the management makes no concessions.... But we are in it for the long haul. You see, the workers are even willing to put their lives at stake by staging a hunger strike," Espiritu said.

As for DOLE, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said the department is on top of seeking an "amicable" resolution to the dispute.

"We recognize the rights of the workers, but DOLE shall also ensure maintenance of peace and order. Cases involving the 17 workers are filed with the NLRC (National Labor Relations Commission). This will be resolved judiciously," he said.

As they await resolution of the case, the workers said they will continue their hunger strike. Some supporters – labor activists and students – have also joined them.

"Napakasimple lang naman ng hinihingi namin. Ibalik nila kami sa trabaho. Parang pinatay na rin nila kami eh. Kaya ito, hindi kami titigil sa hunger strike hangga't hindi nila kami ginagawang regular," Vallega said.

(We're only asking for a simple thing. Give us back our jobs. It's like they're killing us. That's why we won't stop staging a hunger strike until they make us regular employees.) – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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