Editor's Note: This is the first of Executive Profiles, a series of articles on success stories, a Who's Who in Philippine society.
True to his calling, Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd is one of the most hardworking – if not the most hardworking and belabored – member of the Cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte. He concurrently serves as the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.
Given his stature and credentials both in government and corporate leadership, the businessman and lawyer from Isabela (born June 23, 1944 in Gattaran, Cagayan) – called Bebot by family and friends – who has served under four Philippine presidents in various capacities, certainly knows the ins and outs of public service and civic responsibility.
He was appointed by Pres. Corazon Aquino as governor of Isabela following Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986 as part of a sweeping change in local governance. He may have not won the elections in 1988 but was named Justice Secretary from 1990 t0 1992.
Under the administration of Pres. Fidel Ramos, Bello served as Solicitor General from September 1996 to February 1998.
During the term of Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, he was the Chairman of the Government Negotiating Panel for Talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People's Army (CPP-NDF-NPA) from January 2001 to August 2004.
He took the reins of leadership at the Philippine National Oil Corporation (PNOC) Development and Management Corporation as president and chief executive officer from November 2004 to December 2005, followed by a stint at the Philippine Reclamation Authority as general manager in 2006. He was also the Presidential Adviser for New Government Centers from July 2007 to July 2008, and Oversight Officver for Indigenous People and Cabinet Officer for Regional Development for Region 2, then as Cabinet Secretary toward the end of GMA's term.
He was 1-BAP Party List Representative in the 16th Congress of the Philippines (2013-2016).
He also sat on the boards of conglomerates and large corporations such as San Miguel Corporation, Camp John Hay Development Corporation, Urban Bank, Baguio Country Club, CAP Realty Inc., College Assurance Plan, Comprehensive Annuity Plan and Pension Corporation, Red Eagle Lending Investors Corporation, CAP Life Insurance Corporation, CAP General Insurance Corporation, Puerto Azul, Philippine Plaza Hotel and Ambassador Hotel, as well as part of the Philippine Airlines board of advisors.
As law practitioner, Bello is a distinguished associate of various law offices, namely Yulo & Bello; Yulo, Torres & Bello; Yulo, Quisumbing, Torres, Ali & Bello; Yulo, Torres, Tarriela & Bello; Tanjuatco, Oreta & Factoran; Pinlac, Feliciano, Partiza, Mojica & Bello; and C. Alcantara & Sons.
The distinguished son of Isabela obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the Manila L. Quezon University (MLQU) in 1961, then took his Bachelor of Laws and graduated with distinction from the Ateneo de Manila University in 1970.
He is married to Regina Gerona and they are blessed with five children – Karlo, Kyrill, Katrtina Marie, Kristoffer and Pia Alexandra.
In time of his 77th birthday today and to mark his fifth year as Labor chief on June 30, The Manila Times engaged with Secretary Bello in a digital interview for Executive Profiles.
To preserve the tone and brilliance of his answers to the questions, we are running the Q&A in its entirety.
How is heading the Department of Labor different from your previous stints as Justice Secretary, Solicitor General and as CEO of various large corporations?
The multitude of stakeholders and the volume of work at the Labor Department make the big difference. Ang daming trabaho. Parang hindi nauubos. When I get something done, another important task comes. They just keep on coming. Also, the labor and employment concerns are so complex – from domestic labor landscape to overseas employment issues – that they seem to be insurmountable.
But I'm not complaining because that means DoLE is at work and serving its purpose. Besides, keeping ourselves busy is good for our health.
Could it be your common denominator as lawyer with President Duterte the main factor why he chose you for the portfolio? He is known to choose people within his circle – either from the legal profession or his home town in Davao or Mindanao but you hail from the north.
My acquaintance with the President dates back to as early as our law school days, when we shared the same dormitory at the YMCA in Manila. He was taking law at San Beda while I had mine at Ateneo. Our friendship grew through the years when I settled in Davao and had my law practice.
But more than anything else, I believe our President taps an official based on his passion to work, ability to support a team, and love for the country. So I think anybody who is not a lawyer or from Davao nor close to him can join his government as long as he can deliver, synergize, and govern with honesty.
Has your advocacy in human rights played a role for better worker packages now more than ever, noticeably no labor strike since 2016?
I would like to clarify that there were labor strikes under my term as DoLE chief. Hindi nga lang ganun karami so I can say we're enjoying industrial peace at the moment. This is the fruit of our relentless communication with workers' organizations and business groups. This is the fruit of effective dialogues with our social partners, the cornerstone of our decision-making process.
Having an understanding of labor issues since my younger years and dealing with business leaders later on is proving to be very useful to me now in striking a balance between the laborers and employers.
Let me add though that the Covid-19 pandemic may have contributed largely to the softening of positions of both employers and workers that they tended to be more understanding with one another than resorting to more drastic actions to resolve their differences.
Number 6 in the 8-Point Labor and Employment Agenda looks like it has been realized already under your leadership. Are there DoLE programs that are yet to be implemented?
I would like to express my gratitude to the labor groups and business organizations that supported the government's call for a sound, dynamic and stable industrial peace even during the most trying times of the pandemic brought by Covid-19. We owe a lot from the workers especially those from the frontlines who chose to keep the economic engine running instead of complaining.
We are also indebted to the many enterprises that saved jobs and even took the extra mile by extending financial and medical assistance to hard-hit workers. Indeed, the benefits of the tripartite mechanisms encouraged by the government yielded the best results during the country's worst health crisis. The pandemic is not expected to go away soon which is why most if not all DoLE programs for now and in the near future would be dealing with measures to uplift the plight of our beleaguered workers.
How is Tupad, CAMP, AKAP and other programs during the pandemic coming along?
All these programs were implemented to the fullest because the President wanted to ease its devastating impact of the pandemic to our workers. He made sure funds were available for the Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers program or Tupad, Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program or CAMP, and the Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong or AKAP. In my report to the President early this year, I told him more than 1.8 million workers received Tupad assistance amounting to more than P9 billion while P3.311 billion were released to 658,886 employees under CAMP. Meanwhile, 502,133 OFWs received AKAP aid worth P5.094 billion.
In one of the earlier Cabinet meetings, aired as "Talk To The People," President Duterte jokingly said that the department may have been running short of funds for OFW repatriation. Has this been solved? What actions are taken when OFWs refuse to come home even if the companies they have been working ceased or suspended operations due to the pandemic?
An attached agency of DoLE, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration or OWWA handles the repatriation of our troubled OFWs. OWWA reported that from March 2020 to April 4, 2021, it has spent a total of P11.5 billion for Covid-19 assistance to OFWs. Of this amount, P6.7 billion went to hotel expenses, P671.9 million to food, P2.7 billion to transportation, P1.1 billion to financial assistance, and P162.6 million to supplies. Anticipating more distressed OFWs to come home, OWWA has requested P9.885 billion additional budget to cover expected expenditures for the remaining months of this year. This President approved the release of an initial P5.2 billion for this purpose because our OFWs are very dear to him. I share this love of President Duterte for them that is why I am quite passionate when it comes to issues involving our dear OFWs.
Since appointed officials are co-terminus with the President, is the Senate next for you? What if President Duterte's successor wants you to continue at DoLE, would you accept the reappointment – or perhaps in another department?
The President has given me the big responsibility to take care of our workers. Now that they are in a very precarious situation due to the pandemic, I don't think this is the right time to leave DoLE, at least until the end of his term mid next year.
We have initiated programs for our workers that we need to nurture, and for them to make the most of. Among these are the One Stop Shop Centers for OFWs, the OFW Bank, and the OFW Hospital among a host of other projects for the benefit of our OFWs and the Filipino workers in the country.
But I serve at the pleasure of the President and I trust in his wisdom. Thus, the Senate becomes a good option to consider. When the President leaves Malacañang and the new Chief Executive wants me to stay or back in DoLE, how can I say no when there's going to be a lot of unfinished tasks for our workers?
In anticipation of a post-pandemic scenario, will there be a raise in minimum wage and better employment package?
A great rush of business activities is expected to happen when the pandemic eases up and the economy reopens in full blast. All enterprises – big and small – will take this chance to recover what they lost in the crisis. In fact, they can earn a fortune from markets – here and abroad – hungry for trade and windows for opportunities. If this moment occurs in my term in DoLE, we will make sure our workers will be part of the action and partake of the harvest. Minimum wage and better employment packages are not far to be achieved as we sustain industrial peace and capitalize from the gains of our version of tripartism and further improve its systems.
Since you've served in various capacities under four administrations, what could set the current one apart from the others?
The administration of President Duterte has been rocked by many political, security, health, and economic crises. But it courageously fought all of them and won unanimously through the support of the Filipinos. Perhaps, no administration has kept the peoples' trust and confidence this long. Though embattled with the pandemic, the government is making progress in its journey to recovery. The economic rehabilitation seen by experts this year will prove once more the resiliency of the current administration. It will cap the present leaderships' long list of solid accomplishments and allow President Duterte to graduate from Malacañang with flying colors.
Who is Bebot Bello outside the corporate world and political landscape?
I'm just an ordinary family man. Loving husband to my wife and caring father to my children.
Is there anything else you want to achieve? It may sound a cliche, but what is your wish on your 77th birthday?
This interview has been so long. My wish is to have a good long rest after this. Kidding aside, thank you Manila Times for this engagement. I will always be of help if you need something from the Labor Department. Seriously, all I want for my birthday is quality time for my beloved wife and children. My work has taken away so much of my time for the family. It's difficult to balance work and family. That's something I want to achieve now.
How do you want to be remembered?
Para mabilis at simple, Bebot – serbisyong-Tupad para sa manggagawang Pilipino.
Is there anything else you want to convey to the reading public?
I want to thank the Filipino workingmen and the people for their continued trust and support to the Duterte Administration. Their faith in the government's ability to lead us away from the quagmire gives us strength to persevere in serving our people more. Thank you very much!