ARAW ngayon ng mga manggagawa – saan man dako ng Pilipinas. Sila na kumukuha ng “order” ninyo sa mga restoran. Sila na nagpapadyak buong magdamag para maihatid kayo sa inyong nais puntahan. Sila na pahinante, mason, pintor, mekaniko, tubero, o basurero. Sakop din ng araw na ito ang inyong mga kapatid na nasa gobyerno, may mga suweldo na halos hindi maramdaman dahil sa laki ng buwis. Araw din ito ng inyong mga kasambahay, drayber ng pamilya, tsuper ng school bus ng inyong mga anak.
Today, it is the turn of President Rodrigo RoaDuterte to pay homage to millions of Filipino workers. One recalls the tepid Labor Day celebrations of the previous administration, where the entire day rested on a breakfast dialogue, and regional job fairs. News reports hint at a surprise gift for the workers, thus increasing the hype and expectations perhaps unnecessarily. For it is clear that we have a President who is pro-worker, but the challenge lies in what levers to pull, which mechanisms to use, to advance the cause of labor rights.
There was a time when workers were more organized, belonging to trade unions that were affiliated with labor federations linked to regional and international confederations. During the 1970s and 1980s, when my father was labor secretary, there were endless meetings and consultations focusing on new benefits to be unveiled on May 1. Endo, or contractualization, was not a central issue at the time. The barometer of political concern for labor rights and welfare was on the setting of the minimum wage, nationwide. During those years, tripartite consensus nurtured with care by the President and his labor secretary, yielded annual increases in the national minimum wage.
Today, the labor force is bigger but labor’s voice is less impactful. Most employers, of course, would prefer it that way. They prefer outsourcing arrangements than dealing with an in-house union or workers’ association.
This is a global trend, they would argue, and outsourcing enables them to stay competitive. And yet, in weakening the labor force, and keeping it from rising to its fullest potential, the private sector will never see its consumers growing in leaps and bounds. An economy that is heavily reliant on dollar remittances of overseas workers cannot accelerate, as it should, considering the number of external factors affecting such remittances.
In the absence of an impartial, credible, and in-depth study on the effects of contractual work arrangements on both Philippine industries and the Filipino workforce, our policymakers continue to react to this concern with emotion rather than rationality.
Government with all of its resources can invest in a baseline survey of various industries, including SMEs, to get its numbers right: how many workers are regular as against part-time, seasonal and contractual? This is important because we cannot be tweaking department order after department order, in some strange labor experiment. The more stable our labor force is, the more room for our domestic economy to grow. “Endo” as the norm means giving up our economic foundation to termites. The result: a perpetually jobless, hollow economic story.
Meanwhile, there has to be tripartite cooperation to raise productivity levels. With mechanization and automation emerging as twin threats to jobs, every effort must be taken to level up the skills and knowledge of our workers. This is what our trade unions can bargain for – a front-row seat in public-private partnerships that would yield the most jobs in the future.
The labor secretary can tap into these conversations and empower trade union leaders and their members. Alongside the “Build, Build, Build” program of the Duterte administration, why not tap organized labor groups to spearhead “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” – a complementary effort to create more jobs aligned with the principles enshrined in the Labor Code?
In fact, why not invite labor leaders to serve as advisers on how government can address the jobs mismatch that has led to hundreds of thousands of unfilled vacancies throughout the country? This advisory team can be placed under the jurisdiction of Neda, and can bank on technical assistance from various government agencies.
It is in knowing how capital works in this millennium that the present crop of labor leaders can find the rhetoric to be understood. I would encourage our trade unions to make full use of social media as a creative platform to reach out to younger, more independent-minded workers. It is also my dream to see the formation of a Labor Academy that would help various workers’ organizations learn from each other and from experts around the world.
It is a different world now, and we are all its students. Labor advocates and trade union leaders, worldwide, must adapt to the times and seek creative and meaningful ways to stay even more relevant. Government must help out, because its social conscience would always cry out for the voice of labor to be heard.