What is the opposite of irony? How about this: Just two days after the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released its annual Global Rights Index report—which placed the Philippines among the worst countries in the world in terms of protection of workers’ rights—a fire in an unlicensed warehouse in Pasay City tragically claimed the lives of eight young women employees, who died because they were locked in the building for the night.
The horrifying tragedy of the deaths of eight workers whose circumstances were barely better than slavery properly mocked the perfunctory, offended disagreements with the ITUC report expressed by the Department of Labor’s Rosalinda Baldoz and Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) president Edgardo Lacson.
Baldoz’ reaction to the report was little more than a woolly-headed contradiction of the results, although she did acknowledge that the ITUC report was accurate with respect to its criticism of extrajudicial killings of labor activists in the Philippines. ECOP’s Lacson, by contrast, offered a completely asinine critique, declaring the report “flawed” and “over-generalized” because it was “not based on empirical data.”
Again: Eight dead unregistered migrant workers, and eight more who were lucky enough to escape, but who undoubtedly suffered undeserved physical and emotional trauma in the process. Is that empirical enough for you, Mr. Lacson?
What makes ECOP’s official position (since the organization at large has yet to repudiate its president’s insensitive and ill-considered comments) particularly shameful is that the 97 “unempirical” indicators used in the Global Rights Index are drawn from the standards and principles set forth by the International Labor Organization (ILO), and those in turn were adopted as part of dozens of United Nations resolutions and conventions, to every one of which the Philippines is a signatory, regarding the rights and welfare of workers. In effect, ECOP is claiming that Philippine employers ought to be judged by different standards, or perhaps by no standards at all.
There’s no moral justification for that attitude whatsoever, but the reason for it is not difficult to understand. Roughly a fourth of the entire workforce has no work at all, and something between 15 and 20 percent of Filipino workers are obliged to seek employment beyond our shores. Under those conditions, a “job” becomes a commodity with an almost infinite demand and a value so over-inflated that any attempt to impose some order and social protection on the labor environment can be ignored with impunity.
The Pasay tragedy perfectly illustrated the overall assessment of the Philippines by the ITUC report, which characterized the country as having a reasonably complete set of laws to protect workers, but that monitoring, enforcement, and accessibility to legal remedies for workers hover somewhere between ‘woefully inadequate’ and ‘non-existent’. In the Pasay case, the owner of the warehouse, a certain Juanito Go, was swiftly arrested and charged with human trafficking, negligence resulting in multiple homicides, and operating an unlicensed business. If the laws were really effective, however, neither Mr. Go nor the unfortunate workers for whose deaths and injuries he is responsible would have ever come to their particularly sad ends.
The ineffectiveness of the law is one big clue that the government is not likely to be the source of the solutions to the Philippines’ dire labor environment. Another clue is the lack of impact foreign employers have had on the overall welfare of Filipino workers. It is considered axiomatic that an increase in foreign investment (and as consequence, jobs for Filipino workers) will raise job standards throughout the labor sector, but actual experience has not shown that to be the case. Foreign-managed employers, particularly the large BPO industry in general, do offer substantially better wages and working conditions, but there has been virtually no discernible spill-over effect; the labor supply-and-demand gap is simply too great and the largest part of the workforce, which is in agriculture, is barely even exposed to foreign investment.
The government cannot be expected to make much of a dent in workers’ welfare, either through direct intervention or attracting greater outside investment. That does not mean that government should not continue to strive to have a positive role to play, but rather that it should do so in such a way as to shift the primary responsibility for creating and maintaining a productive labor environment to its source: The employers.
Since that is largely the intent of the existing legal and regulatory framework, which doesn’t work, some new approaches will have to be taken. The government and other institutions with a regulatory role (such as the Philippine Stock Exchange) can take some simple steps, such as removing tax incentives or imposing penalties for employers who persistently hire 5-month “contractual” workers, or making employer initiatives to improve wages, working conditions, or opportunities for workers a mandatory part of annual corporate social responsibility reporting. The fundamental solution and consequently the bigger challenge is changing the mindset of employers represented by viewpoints like those of ECOP president Lacson, and to some extent, the mindset of the workforce and the public at large who are far too tolerant of exploitation. Tolerance is a virtue, but not when it is for circumstances that take lives and ruin others.