Ang Bayan
September 15, 2020

Capitalists, Duterte intensify exploitation of workers under pandemic conditions

When the Duterte regime allowed selected industries to operate under the pandemic in May, it did so without requiring capitalists to test workers and ensure their health and safety in the workplace. Since then, its has only released two non-compulsory orders where companies were merely “encouraged” to respect basic workers rights and welfare. No sanctions were set for non-compliance. The regime’s sole commitment was to “inspect” workplaces to monitor adherence to minimum health requirements. It has dismally failed at this task.

Without enough state subsidy amid the regime’s ill-conceived military lockdown, workers grew desperate for work to stave off hunger and poverty. Unemployment shot up to unprecedented levels as the economy collapsed. Capitalists were all too ready to take advantage of workers’ desperation in order to squeeze them for more profits by foregoing safety standards, slashing wages and withholding necessary benefits. In refusing to heed workers’ and unions demands for safe workplaces, the regime colludes with private companies not only to deny workers necessary health protection but also their right to just compensation for working under conditions that are inherently unsafe in the face of the raging pandemic.

Unsafe labor zones

In August, recorded infections rose sharply in Calabarzon’s (Region IV-A) export processing zones, where workers are highly concentrated in assembly lines. In Laguna Technopark alone, 30 out of 140 companies reported Covid-19 outbreaks at the end of July. These include large factories owned by Gardenia, Ftech, Alaska, Coca-cola, IMASEN, Technol Eight, Optodev, Interphil, Edward Keller, Toshiba and Nexperia. A factory in Biñan (NIDEC) reported 290 infections during a requisite swab testing. Regional health officials attributed the spread to private companies’ refusal to implement appropriate health measures. Officials said that common sources of infections included transport arrangements, dorms and dining areas but infections could also have spread from production lines. Contrary to government guidelines for social distancing, most factories are already operating at 80% to 100% capacity since restrictions were lifted according to workers’ safety watchdogs.

Majority of Filipino workers are non-unionized and contractuals in these zones. Most tend to dismiss their symptoms, if they had any, for fear of losing their jobs. But worse is the companies’ willful disregard for their health and welfare in the rush to earn greater profits.

In a live online conference hosted by labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno in late August, workers in various industries in Calabarzon and the National Capital Region expressed their disgust over capitalists’ haphazard implementation of health protocols in the workplace.

Workers in pharmaceutical company Interphil, for example, exposed that its management continued to require some workers to work even after being exposed to an infected co-worker. In July, the company refused to shut down operations to disinfect the premises even after two workers tested positive. When the infection spread, the company sent infected workers home without pay. The company did not provide proper quarantine facilities so workers had no choice but to go back to their rented, crowded boarding houses and homes, exposing their families and other workers to infection. There was no contact tracing, no follow-up health checks from the company. In most cases, the local government only sent the barangay midwife to monitor their temperature.

In a Ginebra factory owned by San Miguel Corporation, no mass testing was conducted, contrary to Ramon Ang’s public pronouncements that all SMC employees will undergo swab testing. Workers who experienced symptoms continued to work in highly dense assembly lines and congregate in tightly-packed common areas. In Nexperia, only symptomatic workers were given swab tests despite rising positive cases inside the labor zone. Nexperia’s health plan (paid by the workers themselves) did not extend testing to workers’ families.

Meanwhile, a worker in a call center in Metro Manila divulged that there have been companies which willfully withheld information from health authorities to avoid being shutdown. These companies colluded with testing centers to conceal the extent of Covid-19 infections. Infected workers were only sent home and made to fend for themselves. Some workers would keep mum on their condition for fear of losing their jobs. They were left with no choice but to continue working in compact air-conditioned offices even if they could already sense that they were infected.

Worse, many companies have used the pandemic to terminate workers or shortchange contractuals. In June, around 300 workers from Jollibee food commissary Zenith Foods Corporation were arbitrarily fired and promptly replaced. In Southern Tagalog, arbitrary layoffs have also been reported in the factories and warehouses of Lazada, Nippon Paint, SKMTI, TS Tech, Logistics, Conception and Unimagina.

State collusion

The Department of Employment and Labor (DOLE) admitted last September 9 that it has inspected only 40,943 establishments out of more than a million registered businesses. Almost a fourth (9,943) of these companies did not comply to requisite health measures such as wearing of face masks and shields in the workplace, providing hand washing and other sanitation facilities, and regular temperature and health checks. The said companies also failed to report cases of infections and undertake necessary health evaluations.

Again and again, the Duterte regime refused toheed the demand for government toundertake mass testing among workers and the people. In one of DOLE’s orders, it only stated that private companies “may test” their workforce every three months, or as they see fit. Most workers had to pay for the tests themselves, which costs from P4,000 to P8,000 per test. State health insurance, through the corruption-ridden Philhealth, only covers P900 per test.

The regime also refused to require private companies to provide adequate isolation facilities and health care for workers who tested positive and their close contacts inside labor zones. It did not build enough facilities to absorb the infected outside the zones either. Instead, it ordered local government units to convert classrooms into temporary isolation units and overburdened the already weak barangay health systems.

Almost all companies refused to extend assistance to workers’ families or give them a “quarantine pay” for the requisite 14 days. Instead of compelling these companies, the regime toothlessly “suggested” that workers be given paid and extended sick leave and supplemental allowance. In fact, even before the pandemic, many companies refused to pay the appropriate hazard and overtime pay. The system of “no work-no pay” is ruthlessly enforced. Regular workers are forced to use up their regular sick and/or vacation leave. Contractuals, who have no such benefits in the first place, are simply let go.

The regime banned public transportation, yet did not provide affordable transportation for workers. It again shifted the responsibility to private companies, which in turn, hired other private companies and let the workers pay for the expensive service. Workers in Laguna complained of shelling out as much as P60/day, from their meager P373 daily wage, for shuttle services.

Worse, the regime urged the slashing of wages through a department order that would allow companies to “negotiate” wage cuts. Many of those who have work-from-home arrangements have already accepted cuts up to 50% of their basic pay to hang on to their jobs.

What needs to be done

Since May, unions and workers’ organizations have been calling for mass testing to ensure workers’ safety and health in workplaces. They called for more vigilance in tracking the infected and prompt tracing of their close contacts.

They repeatedly called for stricter monitoring of health protocols inside factories and work areas. Regular disinfections should be conducted and entire facilities put under a quick lockdown should a worker test positive. Companies should regularly provide workers with face masks, face shields, alcohol and vitamins to boost their immunity systems. They should have proper anti-Covid-19 facilities installed, such as sanitation booths in entrances and exits.

Beyond factories, workers called for testing in their communities and cities to track and confine the spread of the virus nationwide. Testing only workers or those “authorized outside residence” is self-defeating as they come into contact with family members and vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and very young children.

Workers called for more isolation facilities and basic health care for the infected and possible cases, inside and outside labor zones, and if possible, inside the property of the company.

In addition to health measures, workers demanded economic guarantees that are equally important in managing the pandemic. They demanded that the government compel private companies, especially the biggest in the country, to give them paid quarantine leave, separate from their sick and/or vacation benefits. They demanded that they be given just hazard pay amid the risks they are willing to take to keep the factories and production lines running. The “no work-no pay” system should be suspended and workers should be paid in the event that production facilities are required to go under a 24-lockdown. Companies should pay for door-to-door shuttle services so workers can avoid contact with a wider body of people, and vice versa.

Moreover, workers demanded that the state provide workers with economic security, including sufficient financial aid should they fall sick at work. Kilusang Mayo Uno has put forward the demand of P10,000 a month to tide an unemployed worker. The group also called for the regime to prop up small businesses so that they can continue to operate and pay their workers.

Beyond these measures, workers’ safety organizations called for workers to organize themselves for their own health and safety and compel companies to modify their practices. They can then work with their respective managements to keep track of safety protocols and ensure a healthy, and thus productive, workforce.

In the midst of the pandemic, labor centers urged workers to assert their union rights, alongside the more basic right to self-organize. Most of these health and economic guarantees are best fought through unions and collective bargaining especially in the face of the Duterte regime’s pro-capitalist policies. The workers’ union in Gardenia, for example, was able to compel its management to compensate quarantined workers. Another union (Daiwa) was able to secure workers 50% of their basic pay when their factory was shutdown during the first total lockdown.

A worker from a multinational pharmaceutical company remarked that while the pandemic devastated the entire economy, it also highlighted the workers’ place in society. Labor is crucial in stimulating the economy, he said, all while keeping society and all its functions afloat.