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Home The Sunday Times Magazine Cover Story Staunch champion of Philippine labor rights

RUBEN TORRES

Staunch champion of Philippine labor rights

 

RUBEN TORRES

The rate of employment is one of the best measures of any country’s economic and social growth. But beyond such figures, what is all the more important is the condition in which citizens are employed for it is only in fair and humane labor practices that optimal productivity can be achieved on all fronts — the individual, the employer and the nation as a whole.

 

Unfortunately, many companies still continue to prioritize profit over people, failing to understand that good labor practices are integral in an organization’s true success — monetary targets included.

As such there likewise continues to be the need for organizations to represents the collective interests of employees. These often take the form of trade unions and federations whose aim is not only to represent the collective interests of employees, but also the opportunity for employers, industry leaders and even government to explain policies, conditions and limitations if any in return.

This week, The Sunday Times Magazine goes deeper into this vital symbiosis in society with the help of the staunch and long-time labor advocate Rueben Torres.

The labor leader

To get to know why Torres has made it his life’s work to protect the working class, let us take a look at the former Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) Secretary’s history.

Torres was elected president at the 8th National Convention of TUCP, which was attended by some 1,000 delegates and guests. ADDITIONAL PHOTOS FROM NTUCPHL.ORG

Even in his youth, Torres — who finished his both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws from the University of the Philippines — was a prominent student activist as far back as the 1970s.

His principles led him to become a leftist leader during and after the Martial Law era.

In 1977, he decided to leave the Communist Party of the Philippines and chose a more specific advocacy by joining the Ministry of Labor and Employment (now known as DoLE) as Research and Publication Service Chief. Shortly after, he became Vice President of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines or TUCP.

[TUCP, which was founded on December 14, 1975 is the biggest confederation of labor federations in the Philippines both in membership and in number of Collective Bargaining Agreements].

Given his credentials, it was during his time at TUCP when in 1987, then President Corazón Aquino called him and brought him back anew to DoLE. This time, he was appointed as Undersecretary. Not long after, he was promoted to the top post as Secretary, serving from 1990 to 1992.

Under the next administration of President Fidel V. Ramos, he was appointed as Executive Secretary from 1995 to 1998.

At this time, one of his most notable accomplishments was brokering a peace accord with the Muslim rebels in Mindanao.

Following his cabinet stint, the call to run for government came upon Torres who easily won a seat as Representative of the 2nd District of Zambales from 2001 to 2004.

Deciding to lay low from government after his term, he gave in to invitations to head various private companies but never let go of his promise to protect the Filipino worker.

As such, in 2013, Torres, among others, founded the BPO Workers Association of the Philippines (BPOWAP), the first nationwide organization of business process outsourcing and IT employees that is registered with DoLE. The group voted him BPOWAP President and holds the position until today with Norberto Caparas, Jr. General Secretary.

In 2015, he also became concurrent TUCP president when the position was declared vacant due to the untimely demise of then union president and former senator Ernesto Herrera.

After some internal issues, however, Torres — together with other workers’ federation leaders — formed a new labor center, National Trade Union Center (NTUC Phl) which was founded in August 2018. This one, just like TUCP, works to unite labor federations and unions under them toward achieving a strong and dynamic labor center.

Since then, NTUC has evolved into a bigger and braver center with more and more federations joining them.

In this exclusive interview with The Suday Times Magazine, Torres — NTUC Phl’s current Vice President — shares his views and opinions on the current state of employment in the country, as well as his visions in further improving the condition of the Filipino laborer. Joining him this interview are fellow officials at NTUC, namely Cedric Bagtas (Deputy General Secretary), Milagros Ogalinda (Treasurer) and Rodolfo Caoiquian (President).

The Sunday Times Magazine: As a staunch advocate of labor rights since your college days, what was it like as then DoLE secretary?

Torres: You couldn’t find a worker that complained against me. Maliwanag naman sa aking patakaran yun na “justice is given to the one who deserves it’. I was always fair — whether you’re a unionist, worker or employee, you should have justice.

I came from a union, I was a unionist, Vice President of TUCP when Cory Aquino appointed me in DoLE. Alam niyang may bias ako for the workers. So wala naman akong ni-reject na labor groups. Even the leftist labor groups tinanggap naman nila ako. The Employers Confederation of the Philippines accepted me. Wala akong naging problema even if I was a union leader.

And sa lahat sa aming nag-retire sa cabinet, nasa management na sila pero ako nasa union pa rin.

How did you eventually start NTUC Phl?

NTUC Phl is the same dynamic organization which labored to take in new national unions and federations after then TUCP founder and president Democrito Mendoza resigned. He was constitutionally succeeded by then General Secretary Ernesto Herrera in 2012.

However, Mendoza’s group challenged Herrera’s succession in DoLE, Commission on Appointments and Supreme Court, accompanied by forceful takeovers of the TUCP Quezon City headquarters in January 2012 and then again in November 2015.

Because of the untimely demise of former Senator Ernesto Herrera, I was unanimously elected as president. We treated NTUC Phl as the TUCP in 2012 to 2018 and we carried forward the spirit of TUCP 2012 when Herrera was the President.

Consequently and very timely, just as my stint in TUCP as president ended, we formalized NTUC Phl and conducted its founding convention in Quezon City on August 18, 2018. The Department of Labor and Employment gave NTUC Phl its Registration No. 11933 (TUC)-LC in November 2018.

Current officers are Rodolfo Capoquian of Obrero Pilipino as President, David Diwa of National Labor Unions as Acting General Secretary, Milagros Ogalinda of National Alliance of Teachers and Office Workers as Treasurer, I am Vice President as well as former Agriculture Secretary/Minister Leonardo Montemayor of Federation of Free Farmers.

Today, NTCU Phl is an organization that has 18 national unions and federations, with more than 300,000 declared members including members from such industries as agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, automotive, retail trade, hotels and restaurants, BPO, education, hospital and wellness and informal economy, among others. [See sidebar for the list of members.]

We are growing. We plan to get more affliates. But we have a strong advocacy. We train our people on gender-based violence in the work place. Yun ang malaki naming concern.

We are also committed to increase women participation in our leadership by another five years. Our target now is to have 35 percent of women in the leadership. Right now they’re very few. Companies all over the world are still dominated by males.

The program is in accordance with International Trade Union Council or ITUC rule that by 2035, we should have at least 30 percent women in the leadership. From the smallest union locally, and then federation.

We also hope young people should come in and be active in leadership. Like me I started when I was a student. In UP College of Law I started organizing federations already.

Our current advocacy also includes ending endo; national living wages and inequality; farm prices and unli imports; compliance with labor laws, environmental regulations, social legislation; social dialogue and productivity gainsharing; compliance with International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions; formalizing the formal economy; and climate change.

Cedric Bagtas (NTUC Phl’s Deputy General Secretary): Also, kailangan ng free democratic and independent trade union. There should be decent work and respect for human. Marami kaming activities papunta doon like organize workers’ education and collective bargaining or agreement between the employer and union about wages, political issues within the company.

Have you already partnered with other international labor organizations?

In October 2019, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the global grouping of “free, independent and democratic trade unions” counting 200 million members in 332 national centers in 163 countries, gave NTUC the status of “associated organization” pending formal affiliation.

NTUC Phl has a long-running series (dating back to TUCP times) of national social dialogue conference-workshops with the Japan International Labour Foundation (JILAF).

NTUC Phl is the Secretariat of the Asean Trade Union Council (ATUC), the Asean group of national centers in nine Asean countries, plus Timor Leste. The President is Brother Abdul Halim Mansor from the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC); I am the General Secretary representing NTUC Phl.

ATUC is implementing two projects: the 2018-2021 ILO Triangle project on protecting migrant workers and working for national treatment, portable union membership and portable social protection for migrant workers; and the German-assisted ITUC AP and ATUC 2019-2021 project on strengthening women and youth participation in trade unions and society.

The NTUC and ATUC delegation in a dialogue at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia in December 2018.

How important is having a union at work?

Rodolfo Caoiquian (NTUC Phl’s President): Without a union, you will not have the right to increase your wages every year and your benefits will be only as provided by law.

Torres: Unions are very important in our society — they are the democratizing forces inside the company. Without union, the company dictates whatever policies they want. But with the union, this can be negotiated.

For example, what will be the basis for termination of employees apart from what the law provides? What are their benefits? Should there be a pension fund? Should there be wage increase every year?

What can you say about the unending debate about endo and contractualization?

Torres: We were the first one to fight against it as TUCP before, under Herrera’s leadership. But now we carry on. We want to end the contractualization, we were the ones who called for a unity meeting from all trade union centers in the Philippines to unite against endo.

We were also very active in demonstrations in the Department of Labor calling for endo because we are against short term employment. We want workers, after the six month probationary period mandated by law, to remain employed in the same company as regular workers.

The employee should no longer have another short term contract and should only be removed for just cause and with due process. He should also be entitled to so many benefits like joining a union.

Right now, although short term employees can legally they can join a union, they are still afraid to do so because they think they can be removed after their six-month contract if they join.

Our federations are really fighting for contractual workers to be regular ones and we have many success cases.

Milagros Ogalinda: Very important yung collective bargaining. For example, sa teachers, three years ang probationary period sa private school but we’re able to get it for only one year through negotiations.

Ang teachers’ org may goal tayo — stable development goals or “Sustainable Development Goal 4.” In short, quality education ang advocacy namin. So if they are not licensed, they are para-teachers, how can they teach quality education? Eh ang labor and education may link sila sa isa’t-isa.

Capoquian: Sa Obrero Pilipino, ang aming ginagawa para ma-regular yung mga employees ay ganito: before i-veto ng President yung batas ng contractualization, doon sa mga export processing zone pa lang, we already file cases and fortunately naman, halos lahat nanalo kami.

We no longer protests on the streets, matagal ang results doon at marami nang umaalis. Kaya kami, we file cases and we wait and fortunately, we always win.

Why do you think the problem of contractualization persists?

Torres: Ang lakas ng employers kay Presidente. Palagi nilang tinatakot ang gobyerno na pag nawala yung contractualization, maraming mawawalan ng trabaho. Hindi naman totoo yun. Kaya lang nila kinukuha ang contractual workers, kasi kailangan lang nila ng workers sa kanilang factories or companies nang walang benefits at madali nilang tanggalin. Palaging panakot iyon ng employers na lalo pa raw madadagdagan ang walang trabaho pag nawala ang contractualization. Bakit dadami? Kaya nga nag-hire ng workers kasi kailangan. Ayaw lang ng regular because tinatakot sila na mawawalan ng trabaho.

Torres with NTUC Phl officers (clockwise) Deputy General Secretary Cedric Bagtas, Treasurer Milagros Ogalinda and President Rodolfo Capoquian. PHOTO BY JOHN ORVEN VERDOTE

There are many benefits that are not available for the contractual employees and they can be easily removed.

In the international scene, NTUCP is part of ATUC. Ang advocacy naman namin diyan is mostly protection of migrant workers. Because in the Asean, as you would note, there are four labor migrant workers’ destination countries and all the rest are migrant workers sending countries.

In the Asean, the destination are Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, also Brunei. While all the rest are labor-sending countries, including the Philippines. Which is why they should be given equal treatment in the country of destination. Equal meaning equal to the nationals.

For example, if the local receive a certain amount of wage, migrant workers should also be given that, if they have social benefits or accident insurance, they should also have one. We also extend the protection of helping migrant workers to be protected in the Asean and in the Middle East where we have so many workers.

We are gaining ground on that. Both ATUC and NTUC are very active in promoting workers’ interest.

What are NTUC Phl’s future plans?

Torres: Under the Presidency of Rolly [Rodolfo Capoquian,] our future plans include strengthening our group, increasing of membership and also campaigning against gender inequality. Last meeting we discussed with the LGBTQ members and learned how they are being discriminated. They have problems that are not covered by law so we are trying to help them. Their concern is also our concern, we are not just confined in women’s and youth’s concern.

Moreover, our plan is to be recognized as the leading labor center in the Philippines because we have the numbers already, 21 labor federations already and we are contentiously working to increase that.

Of course, we still have problems in the center — adequate finances, for example. But our member federations are contributing to the operations of NTUC so we can sustain.

What is you vision for the workers and hope for the government when it comes to labor rights?

Torres: To strengthen collective bargaining, to abolish contractual employment or short term employment, and to push for higher wage and better protection on safety and health of workers.

The organization of workers should be really given support by the government because in the labor code, it is provided that the state, represented by the Department of Labor, should assist workers and labor organizing, the department should not to be a hindrance.

We really want to have a strong workforce or at least we can increase the number of people with sufficient income. This will enable them to educate children and live life better.

Regional members of NTUC Phl’s as of February 2020

1. Alliance of Independent Unions in Hotel and Restaurant Casino (AIUHRC)

2. Alyansa ng mga Manggagawa at Pilipinong Organisado (AMAPO)

3. BPO Workers Association of the Philippines (BWAP)

4. Federation of Free Farmers (FFF)

5. Health Employees and Advocates of Labor in the Philippines (HEAL Phil)

6. Kilusan ng Manggagawang Makabayan (KMM)

7. National Congress Unions in the Sugar Industry of the Philippines (NACUSIP)

8. National Labor Unions (NLU)

9. National Union of Bank Employees (NUBE)

10. Obreri Pilipino

11. Philippine Agricultural Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (PACIWU)

12. Philippine Land Transport Union (PLTIU)

13. Philippine National Union Council (PNUC)

14. Philippine Federation of Labor (PFL)

15. Philippine Sector Labor Integrative Center (PS LINK)

16. Samahan ng Manggagawang Pilipino-National Alliance of Teachers and Office Workers (SMP-NATOW)

17. Teachers Organization of the Philippine Public Sector (TOPPS)

18. Trade Unions of the Philippines and Allied Services

 

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