Candidates urged: Support P125 wage hike

In his twenties, Ronilo, who requested that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal, is one of the approximately 17,600 long-time contractual employees of Dole Philippines in Cotabato, southern Philippines. Dolefil is a subsidiary of the profitable global giant Dole Food company, but Ronilo only gets the minimum wage amounting to P245 ($5.526 at the current exchange rate of $1=P44.33) a day if he makes the company quota.

He should be able to plant more than 33,200 pineapples per working day. He gets lower than the minimum wage if he failed to meet his quota. To meet it, Ronilo and others like him had to work for more than eight hours a day without overtime pay. At the Dolefil's integrated cannery and packaging plant in Polomolok, Cotabato, other long-time contractual employees like Ronilo work to cut, clean and package so much fresh fruits during their eight-hour working day, for the same minimum wage.

Ronilo is an example of the 'kapit sa patalim' (latch on to a knife) kind of worker: workers who in their desperation to get any job have been forced to take on back-breaking, low-paying work, said Jose Teruel, president of the 5,000-strong union of the rank-and -file employees in Dole Philippines, the Asosasyon sa mga Mamumuo sa Dolfil Alang sa Kalingkawasan sa Nasud, or Amado Kadena.

In some garments companies in economic enclaves in Southern Tagalog, contractual employees like Ronilo and the workers inside the cannery also have to meet a certain quota before they can be paid the minimum wage prescribed in their region.

Ibon estimated these non-regular wage and salary Filipino workers or those with casual, contractual, probationary, apprentice or seasonal status to number 4.67 million in 2009, by extrapolating to 2009 the finding of the 2007/2008 BLES Integrated Survey (BITS) that one in four workers in non-agricultural establishments with 20 or more workers had non-regular status. Ibon cited "another estimate of another 11.71 million wage and salary workers employed but with only verbal contracts or none at all," again by extrapolating to 2009 the April 2008 Informal Sector Survey of the National statistics Office (NSO) that less than four out of ten (37.3percent) wage and salary workers were covered by written contracts.

Non-regular or non-contract employees, Ibon said in their yearend 2009 briefing, "are increasingly preferred by employers to cut costs where they want to legally avoid paying minimum wages, deny workers benefits and be able to dismiss workers at will."

Examples of these employers also include the giant mall chains such as the profitable SM malls. Henry Sy, the owner of SM, has been ranked in Forbes magazine's list of richest tycoons. SM is known for employing more contractual than regular employees. These contractual employees get only the minimum wages prescribed in the National Capital region, give or take deductions by their employing 'agencies.' They get little benefits while under a five-month contract.

The same condition prevails among the contractual stevedores and porters of Harbor Center in the port area in Manila, which is owned by Michael Romero who in turn is the majority owner of the private consortium that recently took over the operations of the bigger public utility, the Manila North Harbor. Romero at least pays for the overtime work of his minimum-wage earning workers, but that may be attributed to the fact that there are unionized port workers in the vicinity.

The other partner of Romero in Manila North Harbor (MNH) is First Pacific led by Manny Pangilinan, whose thousands of employees contracted by its approved agencies in the profitable PLDT Group of companies are also getting only the minimum wages. Sometimes, its contractual workers like those in sales or in piece-rated phone installations and repair say they only get the minimum wage rate if they achieve a certain quota for the day.

The current rival of First Pacific for control of Meralco, San Miguel Corporation, is also known among workers of the conglomerate for increasingly subcontracting jobs to thousands of minimum-wage earning contractual and 'tempo' workers.

In manufacturing firms inside special economic zones that are mostly located outside of the National Capital Region (NCR), workers had to fight just to be paid the minimum wage in the region, which is lower than in NCR.

Church-based organizations helping workers in special economic zones such as the Workers' Action Center (WAC) in Cavite and the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) working in Cebu have often documented cases where workers are not being paid the minimum wages, despite their working for subsidiaries or contractors of big, profitable companies abroad.

Even the government, according to Courage, employs minimum wage-earning contractual workers who have been with it for years.

While the remaining regular workers in companies like those cited here are struggling to maintain their union and enclose the contractual or non-regular in their campaigns for better work contracts, if they still have one, they also look at the legislated wage hike as an immediate subsistence relief for the increasing number of non-regular workers who are receiving the minimum wage or something close to it.

But every time workers call for a legislated, nationwide increase in the minimum wage, employers and the government consistently quibble and stonewall.

Pitting jobs against wage increases, conjuring disastrous retrenchments and closures (which have been happening sans wage hikes), the government and employers' organizations such as the ECOP or Employers' Confederation of the Philippines would often reason out that small Filipino companies would experience difficulties if an increase in the minimum wage was granted. They recently did it again in answer to the intensified demand for a wage hike. They conveniently hide the fact that small enterprises in the Philippines are often exempted from paying the minimum wage.

The biggest employers and contractors of minimum wage earners in the Philippines are actually composed of profitable companies who often make it to the list of top Philippine corporations, who have partners, parent companies, financiers or strong links with bigger multinational companies and who could likely afford an increase in the minimum wages, if the law finally orders them to do so.

Wage Freeze for Greater Profits

Since 1998, or almost a decade after the inception of regional wage-fixing, the KMU (May First Movement), with the support later by the Anakpawis party-list group as well as by other progressive party-list groups such as Bayan Muna and Gabriela, have been proposing a legislated, nationwide P125 ($2.819) wage hike.

The group described their legislated wage hike demand as not only "a fight for immediate economic relief, but a fight as well to be recognized as humans beings."

KMU added, "It is a fight to have a fair share of the fruits of our labor which our employers have been enjoying for themselves while our families suffer unbearable poverty and hunger."

But the legislated wage hike demand has been ignored by Arroyo from 2001 up to now. It repeatedly uses the regional wage boards to counter the wage hike demand by granting paltry increases and by "maneouvring her minions in Congress to block proposed bills," said the Anakpawis Party-list.

Now, after more than two decades of falling real wages, it is evident from statistics and from workers' complaints that they are being denied the Constitutionally-guaranteed living wages.

"These business groups consistently justify the status quo on wage rates to supposedly make room for recovery for companies. (But) What about the recovery of workers? How do you expect us to recover with measly wages and continuing retrenchments?" asked Elmer Labog, chairman of KMU.

In early 2008, when the GNP growth was supposedly averaging 7 percent per year and the last of the paltry increases in the minimum wage was ordered by the government, Mahar Mangahas of Social Weather Station (SWS), in his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, wondered why the Arroyo government was boasting about the GNP with focus only on the production side.

The GNP, Mangahas explained, could be equally measured by surveying factor earnings such as the growth of earnings of people like workers, capitalists, landlords, and renters. Unfortunately, he said, the Arroyo government is not monitoring the trends here.

"The government is not generating regular statistics for wages and profits, etc. because, I think, it will show the inconvenient truth of real wages falling and real profits, etc. rising," wrote Mangahas.

Regional Wage Boards as Instruments for Frustrating Wage Hike Campaigns

One of the ways in which the government has consistently frustrated the Filipino workers' demand for wage hikes - even if the wage hike would merely result in recovering what their wages have lost to inflation - is through the regional wage boards, said KMU.

Now on its 21st year, the regional wage boards "have spawned very measly and sparse wage hikes," said the KMU in a statement. Since 1989, wage hikes in different regions have amounted to an average of only P172 ($3.879), an amount which the KMU described as "an insulting pittance for the hard work of Filipino workers."

In fact, since 1989, the real wage of Filipinos has noticeably taken a plunge.

An average of 14 wage orders were issued per region since 1989, most of which were single-digit increases in basic pay. The lowest wage hike, if it can be called as such, said Elmer Labog, is recorded in Region VII at P5 ($0.11), under Wage Order 06 issued in April 1998.

Two decades after the Aquino government enacted the law that practically dissolved the national minimum wage - "workers still suffer from economic disempowerment in terms of very depressed wages, which are being kept low through the years by the regional wage boards in collaboration with big businesses," said Elmer "Bong" Labog.

He added that now it is starkly plain for all to see that the creation of regional wage boards under the Aquino government "was really meant to keep wage increases at the slightest and company profit at its highest."

Solidifying the Labor Vote

As the May 10 election nears, progressive labor groups have been challenging the candidates for president, senator, and representatives to turn their anti-poverty promises into "concrete measures," such as finally enacting the decade-old P125 across the board wage hike proposal. In an interview with the Philippine Star, six senatorial candidates of the Nacionalista Party have responded positively to the proposed wage hike.

Noting that during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's nine years as president, the organized labor was regarded as "terrorists," their human rights violated and their Constitutionally-guaranteed rights to living wages, freedom of association and holding strikes were denied, the Filipino progressive labor led by KMU is urging all workers to unite against Arroyo's attempts to secure immunity beyond her disputed presidency.

In the same vein, the Anakpawis Party-list is also urging voters to "be more discerning" in choosing who to vote for. Most candidates claim to be pro-poor while on the campaign trail. "But how exactly will they serve the poor?" asked Anakpawis. "They should elaborate on their proposed measures," said Anakpawis, who also expressed hopes that voters, particularly those from the labor front, would pressure the candidates to concretize their pro-poor stance.

"The Arroyo government has paved the way to unprecedented and drastic increases in the prices of basic commodities and utilities, starting from its expanded Value Added Tax to deregulated pricing of oil products and electricity, even as it has frustrated the workers' demand for a substantial wage hike," Anakpawis Rep. Joel Maglunsod said. "The May 10 elections should punish the architects and implementers of past anti-poor measures and regressive taxes."

For its part, the KMU has also cautioned the public against the "charade" being played out now by the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), the employers and the Arroyo administration. They are referring to the government's announcement that it is not ruling out a wage hike before Arroyo steps down from power. This, according to KMU, is likely a last-ditch attempt of Mrs Arroyo to "deodorize" her image, along with that of the TUCP.

Arroyo has been smarting from an all-time-low popularity rating, while the TUCP has previously suffered defeats in its attempt to get a seat in Congress via its own party-list group.

The TUCP, said KMU, is a government-backed labor group; its leader, former Senator Ernesto Herrera, has been blamed by workers for having crafted the so-called Herrera Law, or RA 6715. Enacted in 1989 almost at the same period as the RA 6727, the law that created the regional wage boards, the Herrera Law revised the Labor Code in many anti-worker and anti-union ways, said Remigio Saladero, the author of labor law book Husgahan Natin (Let's Judge it.)

Among the revisions brought about by the Herrera Law are the broader powers granted to the Labor secretary in issuing assumption of jurisdiction (AJ) orders, slapping strikers with sanctions, and crafting orders that pave the way for more retrenchments so regular workers can be replaced with contractual or non-regular employees.

Today more than ever, the KMU said, a legislated, nationwide wage hike is what the Filipino workers still need, "not measly hikes in highly select regions." Even in the face of pending wage hike petitions before several regional wage boards, the group did not file similar petitions "because we see these regional wage boards as the government's instrument to avoid a substantial wage hike." (