Hazards in labor contracting: What about the PH tuna industry?
GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – When 35-year-old Susan Nocus signs her papers for social insurance, she ticks self-employed.
In rural areas, this often means she is a farmer, fisherfolk, or part of the informal sector. Susan, however, is not self-employed by any definition of the word.
Susan works as a fish loiner at a local factory in the country’s tuna capital, General Santos City (GenSan), where she has assumed the same job at the same workplace for 5 years.
Like her, many workers at factories and fish processing firms in this highly urbanized city of more than half a million are contract workers.
The informality of their jobs belies the wealth generated by the tuna export industry here, which benefits from zero tariff in exports to Europe under the GSP+ scheme.
President Rodrigo Duterte need not look far in his promise of strict inspections to phase out unfair labor practices – he simply has to zoom in on one of the top revenue-earning industries in Mindanao, where he hails from.
GenSan is home to some 200,000 workers in the tuna industry, based on estimates of national labor center Sentro. Many years back when fish catch was plentiful, some fishermen were able to take home about P12,000 ($255)* after a month of being out at sea – but no longer these days because of dwindling catch. On bad days, a month's absence could yield even zero income with no Class A or sashimi-grade catch.
The main road of Tambler village, about an hour away from the GenSan airport, is lined with tuna canning factories and fish processing firms whose products are often Class A. (READ: Filipino wives appeal for fishermen-husbands detained in Indonesia)
Residents of the surrounding cities and region migrate to GenSan to try their luck either as a handline fisherman – one who uses a vertical rod with a bait and endures days- to months-long expeditions – or as a tuna canning or processing factory worker.
Whether you’re part of the crew that catches the fish or the crew that processes the fish. Either way, one faces many difficulties that workers are supposedly protected from.
Handline fishing in the deep sea is among the fishing methods to catch sashimi-grade tuna for export, marketed as among the best catch in the world.
A Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) probe in 2015 found that handliners in General Santos are often subjected to hazardous working conditions, lodged in cramped quarters with no clean and adequate water. (READ: Decent jobs? The case of Filipino handline fishermen)
Handliners often "start at a tender age" and work "months away from home" with "long hours" and "obscure" rest periods, the DOLE probe found.
The state investigation provides DOLE with baseline data on the offenses committed against many of the workers in the tuna industry, particularly handliners.
It also led to the creation of a department order (DO) that lays down accountability on the part of both a tuna company and a boat operator, the same way DOLE’s controversial DO 18-A makes both principal and subcontractor liable for labor violations against outsourced workers.
In General Santos City, a number of boat operators act as dummies or labor-only contractors for tuna exporting giants, with the latter often denying any employer-employee relationship with fishermen.
Labor-only contracting involves the outsourcing of workers from a party that is not independently capitalized, despite these workers’ performance being directly controlled by the principal company.
The DOLE order covering handline fishing sought to address this, among others.
Without fanfare, the order was issued right before Labor Chief Rosalinda Baldoz left her post. It is a result of year-long heated exchanges between industry players and labor representatives, many on-site visits to fishing areas, and consultations with experts.
Its implementation is now in the hands of the current leadership.
Ban on 'endo'
On July 25, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III issued a labor advisory that reiterates the existing prohibition on labor-only contracting, which differs from what is colloquially known as “endo” or the hiring of workers for less than 6 months to do away with regularization requirements.
The advisory, which many falsely relate to the “end of contract” practice, is not a new directive. The ban has been in place for as long as the half-a-century-old Labor Code, yet these fishermen work with no contracts, no insurance and safety gear and equipment, under a sharing scheme and no fixed salaries with boat operators.
Out in the deep sea, handline fishermen brave rough waters to do their share in an industry that multiplies income sources for many others
This means a month-long work out at sea could yield zero income, no payment at all for the labor rendered. It happens, as depleting fish stocks due to changes in climate and the high cost of fuel have become major problems.
Labor-only contracting is the same violation found against the Valenzuela slipper factory Kentex, whose 7 dozen workers were killed in a tragic fire in May 2015.
Ironically, Kentex was fined heavily by the DOLE not for its occupational safety and health standards violations – as this is only lightly penalized by the Labor Code – but mostly for its labor-only contracting practice.
But this existing prohibition and the DOLE order covering handline fishing are without teeth absent sweeping inspections across the tuna industry to determine the genuine financial capacity of boat operators – often locals who are simply tapped as leadmen.
These operators need to be genuinely and independently selling fish catch to companies to be considered legitimate contractors, instead of merely acting as agents whose operations are funded by – and whose catch are exclusively provided to – one company.
Boat owner Feliza Ave, for example, had told Rappler she was merely provided a P14-million loan by a big-time tuna company to finance a ship named as her property.
The tuna company lawyer, however, argued that such “joint ventures” with locals is “customary practice” – a type of arrangement in the tuna industry that predates the Labor Code.
Canning factory workers
In tuna canning factories, work is sometimes nonstop, with workers on a 12-hour shift to maintain the company’s 24-hour operations.
The division of labor is meant to boost productivity, measured under production terms by the tons of tuna processed each day.
As a loiner, Susan Nocos is tasked with deboning freshly caught tuna. Red meat is cut from the tuna’s loin before it heads to separate areas in the factory where it is packed in tin cans, cooked via steaming machines, cooled down, labeled, and shipped to buyers.
From the receiving area, the fish is pre-cooked, then skinned, before it is transferred to loiners like Susan.
Melania Languido, 52, was a former loiner in another tuna company but now works at the company’s records division.
Despite the movement, she is still a contract worker like Susan. She is paid the bare minimum of P270 a day, even after 15 years of working at the same company.
“‘Pag na-belong kayo sa agency, walang regular. Pero kung belong ka sa company, become a regular, company na gid. Pero kung agency lang ka, contractual lang,” explained Melania.
(If you belong to an agency, no one is a regular. But if you belong to the company, [you] become a regular, you’re part of the company. But if you’re only part of an agency, you’re only a contractual.)
Melania and Susan explained, however, that it is mostly the supervisors and leadmen, not the rank-and-file employees, who are directly hired by the company and have a shot at regularization.
Despite the regularity of their jobs and the work they render as well as their necessity to the day-to-day operations of the company, they remain victims of the labor menace Duterte seeks to eradicate.
The tuna export industry
Whether involved in catching or processing, these tuna workers deserve to get a fair share of the wealth their backbreaking labor had helped generate.
There is no denying the importance of the tuna export industry in GenSan, boosting domestic revenues and producing jobs for the region. The city is a center for commerce in Southern Mindanao.
GenSan is said to produce 65% of the country's total tuna catch, with 6 of the country's 7 tuna canning firms located here. Government data also show Philippine tuna exports mostly sourced from the city reached $147.199 million in the first quarter of 2014 alone, according to a Business World report.
The city is a center for commerce in Southern Mindanao.
Support industries such as the seasonal ship-making and factory machine repair help others who don’t have daily jobs in factories or in boats to stay afloat. These workers, naturally, are contracted on a project basis.
As provided by law, this makes contractualization a necessity in certain instances, but it shouldn’t be the norm.
Instead, majority of workers in a plant who are needed daily aren’t directly hired by companies but are outsourced from manpower services.
These are workers like Susan and Melania, who have spent years in the same line of work, in the same company without the benefit of regular employment. Susan still has to tick self-employed when paying her social insurance premiums out of pocket and not through her company.
Out in the deep sea, handline fishermen brave rough waters to do their share in an industry that multiplies income sources for many others. Yet some of these workers are outsourced from dubious boat owners, locals merely tapped to supervise boat operations. This is blatant labor-only contracting, avoiding direct hiring and the so-called “costs” that come with it.
These costs include the fixed salaries aligned with the region's mandated minimum wage that fishermen must now receive per day of work rendered, as part of the new department order. The sharing scheme – where pay depends on the volume of catch alone – was seen as largely unfair for these workers.
While under existing mechanisms, all these workers may sue employers for their host of grievances, it is a long and arduous process favorable to the moneyed. Many workers would rather earn a living in peace, even if that means conditions aren’t always fair.
Like the DENR on the mining industry, the DOLE has in its hands both baseline data to support claims on violations and existing regulation needed for a similar compliance enforcement in the tuna industry.
A targeted audit should be underway. (READ: Help needed for tuna industry workers) – Rappler.com
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