Moving while standing still: Filipino labour standards fail to protect workers

Filipino construction workers

Although the government touts its protections for workers, intimidation and a lack of strong unionisation continues to hold them back.

By Zachary Frye

In early March, a disgruntled security guard stormed the Greenhills shopping complex in metro Manila, his former workplace, taking 55 hostages. During the episode, he accused his former superiors of corruption, abuse and unlawful termination.

Although nobody was killed, he shot a former colleague who then was rushed to the hospital. The company in question, Safeguard Armor Security Corporation, denied wrongdoing, claiming he was being legally transferred to another post. The security guard disagreed, later saying that the ‘transfer’ meant he was losing his job.

After the dust settled, the Philippines’ Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) vowed to investigate the situation, especially accusations that the company was diverting portions of the guard’s wages meant for his social security, health and housing funds.

Although DOLE found the company engaged in pay irregularities, the investigation found no evidence of tampering with government benefits.

Still, Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development, suggested the ordeal could indicate larger weaknesses within compliance standards and advised DOLE to implement measures to reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future. 

The government says workers’ rights are a priority, but their actions don’t always show it

The Filipino government posts the country’s labour laws on its official website, laying out terms on basic worker’s rights. Provisions include protections on minimum wages, overtime pay, maternity leave and unjust termination, among others.

With that said, since taking office in 2016, the Duterte administration has made contradictory moves regarding labour rights. On the one hand, Duterte has pushed for stronger worker protections, bolstering his ‘everyman’ persona that endears him to so many Filipinos. Other times, he has targeted rights groups as a threat to his government’s economic agenda, leading to a surge of worker activism.

In an interview last month, Rueben Torres, director of DOLE in the early 1990s and current Vice President of the Philippines’ National Trade Union Center, said that the government should do more to ensure worker’s rights.

He thinks the government should act “to strengthen collective bargaining, to abolish contractual employment or short-term employment, and to push for [a] higher wage and better protection…”

The government needs to be an active part of the solution, not something that workers see as a hurdle, he went on to argue. “The Department of Labor should assist workers and labour organizing, [not be] a hindrance…this will enable [workers] to educate [their] children and live life better [sic],” he added.

Unions are present but often weak

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Philippines has some 600 registered trade unions, in both the public and private sectors. With that said, less than 10% of the country’s 39 million-strong workforce are members.

This leaves a huge number of working Filipinos without access to the kinds of protections and benefits that help to stamp out exploitation. Furthermore, unions are often fragmented, rendering collective bargaining ineffectual.

Private sector unionization Philippines

Other times, the government actively undermines union causes. In October 2019, police and military personnel raided labour and environmental activists’ offices in Manila and Bacolod, a city on the southern island of Negros, arresting 56 people. Although authorities say they recovered stockpiles of illegal weapons at these locations, labour groups say the weapons were planted with the intent to intimidate them into silence.

“Under the cover of being tough on crime, this government is targeting human and trade union rights defenders as part of a deliberate political strategy that relies on the suppression of people’s rights and freedoms,” said Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, a Brussels-based workers’ rights organisation.

Only fair conditions can ensure security for Filipino workers

While violence can never be condoned, evidence suggests that the guard at the Greenhills shopping complex was acting out of a sincere belief that it was his last resort to shine light on his situation.

“[He] never demanded money,” said Representative Eric Pineda. “His demand was that he wanted to be heard and explain his side. He claimed incompetence, negligence, and corruption. He cited unjust working conditions and employment security since he was allegedly dismissed by his employer. His statement resonated clearly and was heard here at Congress.”

While the issue of labour rights may have gotten a temporary boost in the Philippines following the hostage incident, rampant corruption, weak unions and a leader who constantly uses his platform to label activists ‘enemies of the state’ suggests there is a long way to go to ensure workers feel like they are getting a fair shake.

The government admits that more needs to be done on this issue. Per the ILO, significant gaps remain in ensuring even the most basic working standards for millions of Filipinos.

Laws and guarantees of basic protections on the books are important, but proper implementation and enforcement are the keys to giving people real security in their livelihoods.

As more and more Filipinos enter the middle class, it becomes that much more important than their gains are secured and that people feel satisfied and safe at work. With a total breakdown in trust, however, as shown in the Greenhills case, it becomes that much harder to implement workable systems on any scale. Duterte would do well to start trying.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.