Unions must evolve for new workers

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Ernesto F. Herrera

Ernesto F. Herrera

According to figures from the IT and Business Process Association in the Philippines (IBPAP), revenues of the IT-BPO industry are expected to reach $16 billion by end-2013, while the number of employees is seen to hit 960,000. The industry is also likely to exceed its target of raking in $25 billion in revenues by 2016, due to the faster year-on-year growth of 19 percent that it has been experiencing.

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From a sunrise industry in the early part of the new millennium, IT-BPO is now proving to be an eternal sunshine industry, running alongside overseas employment as the Philippines’s perennial growth machine.

Oddly enough, there is virtually no union presence in the industry. Part of the reason is still the hostile environment towards union organization.

Industry executives have been saying that allowing unions would be like shooting themselves in the foot, and that there is no use for unions anyway because they give above-minimum wage salaries and plenty of perks.

That’s beside the point though. The right to join unions and the right to bargain collectively are universally accepted principles backed by the Philippine Constitution, the Labor Code of the Philippines and the International Labor Organization.

As dynamic as the industry is, even IT-BPO employers are not above the law. They should not stand in the way of their employees who would want to form unions.

This Congress, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago refiled her bill, the “Magna Carta for Call Center Workers,” to allow IT-BPO workers to organize unions and push for safe and healthy work conditions amid long hours spent at work.

“Several surveys and research in Europe showed that unions do matter in the call-center industry. It is in the very nature of call-center work, where the protection of trade unions is very much called for,” said Santiago in her bill’s explanatory note.

Indeed, I have mentioned the many problems faced by the IT-BPO workers in previous columns that need union intervention, particularly the lack of labor and welfare standards in the industry, which contributes to its relatively high attrition rate.

The industry is tough to penetrate for union organizing precisely because of this high attrition rate. If workers keep resigning or jumping from one company to another, it’s naturally hard to do organization work.

This, aside from the fact that because of our economic situation and rampant joblessness, many people who are working feel lucky just to have a job and would not want to jeopardize it by joining a union.

There might be another reason though why unions haven’t been particularly successful at penetrating IT-BPO companies other than employer interference and the high attrition rate.

It might be that our unions’ old-fashioned recruitment drives are no longer working.

Indeed, there has been a general decline of unionism in the country over the past three decades. The number of card-carrying union members would probably be just around 10 to 12 percent of the country’s workforce. The number of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) registered with the Labor department is not any more encouraging.

Ironically, labor unions are not as politically strong today as during the dictatorial regime of President Marcos, when Blas Ople was Labor minister. There are still some sectors where unionism is very strong, particularly in the banking and seafaring industries, but these are mere pockets of strength.

Unions must give workers a reason to organize and join them. They must go beyond the generic rhetoric they offer at worker education seminars and workshops, where labor organizers tell workers that joining unions is for their own benefit but, once they join them, often get contrary results.

Why would workers want to join unions if they can’t solve their real problems and make their lives better?

As Genny Marcial, external affairs executive director of the information technology-
Business Processing Association of the Philippines (IBPAP), said in a news article in this paper: “In our case, agents do not engage in unions because they would only pay their union fees and would never benefit from it.”

In the case of Filipino seafarers, who comprise 30-percent of the world’s 1.5 million merchant marines, joining unions is a must.

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines’ affiliate in the seafaring industry is the Philippine Seafarers’ Union (PSU), a growing federation of more than 30,000 overseas merchant seafarers on board ships trading worldwide.

The PSU bargains with the shipowners and their agents on behalf of its members.

PSU’s collective bargaining agreements conform to the standards established by the International Transport Workers’ federation (ITF) and the International Labor Organisation (ILO), and they are recognized by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). Due to the union’s proven capability to protect its members, more and more seafarers are reenlisting as PSU members every year.

Through its affiliation with the TUCP, the PSU is assured of a voice in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the confederation of 174 affiliates from 124 countries representing more than 120 million workers worldwide.

The banking sector also has a strong workers federation in the National Union of Bank Employees, whose CBAs serve as the benchmark in the industry. NUBE is also a TUCP affiliate.

More and more workers from the informal sector are also joining TUCP as well as other affiliate unions to avail of services and benefits like welfare fund, medical, dental and health insurance, legal services and skills training.

Put simply, these workers join unions because of their proven capability to protect members.

While today’s employers have not exactly made workplaces havens for unionizing efforts, the tide of de-unionization that is sweeping the country is partly the fault of many unions as well.

Unions must have new recruitment drives to reach out to new workers, especially in the IT-BPO sector. These recruitment drives must be tailored to meet the needs of key target groups and should involve a variety of ways including the use of new media like social networking and other online sites. Their old-fashioned recruitment strategies no longer work on younger workers.

But above all, in order to be successful, unions must prove to workers that there are real benefits to being organized and joining unions.

It is a chicken and egg situation when you think about it really. Unions need members to mobilize more power for workers, but workers also need to see the benefits joining a union first before actually joining.

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