By Miguel Raymundo
The country celebrates Labor Day this week to honor the working class. Sharing the labor front’s woes, OpinYon finds it fitting to tell how dishonored labor made Henry Sy the richest man in this country. This is the story of Ligaya Cruz.
As she walked past SM mall in Makati city, a bitter memory flashed through her mind.
Over a decade ago, Ligaya Cruz and other mall workers were brutally dispersed by the mall’s security guards aided by some baton-wielding policemen for picketing.
She later suffered a miscarriage.
Like their colleagues in other strike-plagued SM branches in Metro Manila then, they protested the so-called “555” – the insidious practice of mall owner, ethnic Chinese taipan Henry Sy, to renew workers’ contracts every five months or after so-called “end of contracts.”
Also referred to as “endo,” such scheme of hiring and firing workers has become alarming across many key industries, specifically in SM, the nation’s largest mall operator.
Ever shrewd that he is, Sy has been resorting to contractualization, obviously to skip labor laws which provide a six-month minimum contract to entitle the workers to certain monetary benefits, including leaves with pay, and the right to join unions.
In 2003 alone, SM employed 20,000 contract workers, the biggest on record by a single retail-based company. That number has since ballooned to over 30,000 now as the tycoon diversified his money-spinning businesses — ranging from retail to property, banking and finance and tourism infrastructure.
Wealth Means Crime
The figures undoubtedly make Sy as the nation’s undisputed king of contractualization, lending credence to widely-held beliefs that for every great wealth, there’s a great crime behind.
Altogether, Sy –the nation’s richest businessman — personifies sheer capitalist greed coupled with a freeloading mindset, casting doubts on his often-told rags-to-riches story.
Not surprising why critics label Sy as the ethnic Chinese tycoon who built his mall empire on the blood and sweat of slave labor, particularly women.
More often than not and with impunity, their contracts are terminated without notice even during peak shopping seasons such as Christmas and school opening, thus the flurry of strikes hounding SM over the past years.
Job contractualization, which has turned the Philippines into a nation of cheap labor, began during the Marcos dictatorship of 1970s-mid-1980s when a decree was signed allowing companies to hire workers on contract for special work.
Tenure Versus Contractualization
Amid intense lobbying by profit-hungry business elites, the job contracting scheme has been institutionalized – and legalized — in the succeeding administrations as an integral part of the country’s Labor Code, allowing labor contracting and sub-contracting.
Despite the legal cover, contractualization is considered as labor’s greatest menace.
Paradoxically, while it fattens an employer’s income, it deprives those hired of job security, better pay, benefits and allowances and union rights.
After busting the militant employees’ union at SM in 2003, Sy has since banned labor activities across its malls and department stores. Any sign of union organizing effort among employees is immediately met with sanction or outright termination.
Amid rising restiveness in the labor sector, not a few lawmakers have proposed passage of House Bill 5110, or An Act Strengthening the Workers’ Security of Tenure. It noted that there are millions of skilled and talented Filipinos in the labor force today who don’t have regular jobs. They are forever trapped in the vicious cycle of grinding poverty.
Daily, some 6,000 Filipinos leave at Manila’s ports to look for jobs abroad, no matter the slave-like working conditions awaiting them in foreign lands.
Attempts by labor leaders to muster political support for the bill fell on deaf ears.
Last year on the eve of Labor Day on May 1, they asked President Aquino to certify the long-stalled bill as urgent.
To their dismay, Aquino thumbed down the request, arguing that the bill—if approved – would pose more harm than good to his much-ballyhooed job-creation program.
“Companies might hesitate to hire because of certain provisions and therefore, deprive our workers of the opportunity to gain employment, “he argued.
To Aquino, he reckoned that should the bill become a law, only 1.8 million would benefit, while an estimated 10 million Filipinos could lose their jobs. His figures run counter to the faceless and countless multitudes of jobless Filipinos.
In reaction, labor leaders warned that as long as President Aquino sides with the capitalists at workers’ expense, this country will continue to wallow into the mire of poverty.
“Our already constrained wages have remained stagnated since Aquino came into power,” they said, adding that regular jobs have become very scarce.
Worse, the increase in contributions to the Social Security System and PhilHealth had added a financial burden to the lowly paid workers in the midst of surging poverty level.
Another adverse factor which could diminish the workers’ purchasing power is the impending hike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas and electricity and the transport fares of state-run Metro Rail Transit and Light Rail Transit in Metro Manila.
“All these are detrimental to ordinary wage-earners as the government continues to sacrifice our welfare in the altar of corporate interests and has remained inutile to our most pressing concerns,” the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) said in a statement.
Summing up, the militant labor group noted that “the past three and a half years have opened our eyes to the painful truth that the Aquino government is undeniably anti-worker to its very core.”
As contractualization persists, there’s no denying that overall, it only led to a sharp decline of the Filipino workers’ level of productivity, one of the lowest in the Asean region.
Added to a dehumanizing pay scale and the government’s neglect of their plight, no wonder why labor has increasingly turned to militancy, driving away potential investors.
This explains why job-creating foreign direct investments had shied away from the Philippines, not to mention its excessive tax rates, leading to a jobless economic growth.
These days, bureaucrats boast that the economy is one of Asia’s fastest-growing and yet inexplicably, jobs and other income-earning opportunities had become increasingly next to impossible to find.
The hard reality is that unemployment rate rose to 27.5 percent, or an estimated 12.1 million, as 2.5 million Filipinos joined the ranks of the jobless between September and December last year.
The unemployment rate soared even as the economy surprisingly grew 7.2 percent, the second-fastest after China’s, showing that the economic growth was not inclusive.
Three labor groups—Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, Partido ng Manggagawa and Kilusang Mayo Uno — warned that “jobless economic growth” would continue unless the evil of contractualization is decisively addressed with political will.
The harder reality is, the likes of Henry Sy, mega-investors and rags-to-multi-billion American dollar wealthy, have taken control over government.They have the power to order Congress to craft laws intended to exploit labor and the natural wealth of the country.
Their likes can bend laws and corrupt people in the courts of justice and “rob” farmlands from poor peasants. Worst, they make even the President their puppet,while burying the Filipino in deeper poverty.