Aquino joins Tarlac sortie on Labor Day; talks with union leaders

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President Aquino. AP FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III, bothered by cough and cold, took a rest on Labor Day in his hometown in Tarlac on Wednesday before joining a political rally and seeking another dialogue with disgruntled trade union leaders.

The President also tasked Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares to seriously study the proposed additional exemption of minimum wage earners from income tax.

Mr. Aquino had coughing fits, apparently from a cold, in his recent public appearances. But he was well, taking medicines prescribed by doctors, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said.

After a dialogue with moderate labor leaders in Malacañang on Tuesday morning, the President had no labor-related meetings on Wednesday.

His only scheduled public appearance was a 4 p.m. rally with local leaders in Victoria town, Tarlac.

Mr. Aquino spent the night in Tarlac after visiting jobs fair in Tarlac City Tuesday afternoon.

The suggestion to schedule the President’s Labor Day activities a day earlier on April 30 came from the Department of Labor and Employment, Lacierda said.

He said the DOLE made the suggestion “weeks ago or a month ago.”

Mr. Aquino was not avoiding Labor Day rallies, he said.

The DOLE had arranged a Labor Day Skype conference for Mr. Aquino with Filipino migrant workers in Qatar from a jobs fair in Tarlac City.

Mylene Gomez, 28, was among the migrant workers who waited for two hours at a computer shop in Qatar for the chance to talk with Mr. Aquino.

But the President simply breezed through the booths at the fair in St. Michael’s Park and left without saying a word, disappointing 3,000 job-seekers who thought he was going to speak to them.

In Qatar, Gomez was also disappointed but told a reporter that she wished the President well and hoped he would continue supporting migrant workers like her.

“We know he is doing something for migrant workers. I hope he presses the effort, especially for our families in the Philippines,” Gomez said.

Mr. Aquino was seeking another dialogue with labor leaders after Tuesday’s formal talks and a more personal meeting in Malacañang so he could hear out their concerns, Lacierda said.

“When the President met with them [again], they had a better discussion,’’ he said, recalling that at least 17 labor leaders personally aired their concerns in the presence of several Cabinet officials at the second dialogue.

“One labor leader expressed [surprise] at the openness of the President and the Cabinet members. [T]hey were able to voice their concerns and the President was very open,’’ he said.

Cabinet officials continued the discussion after Mr. Aquino left for Tarlac for the job fair, and it was at this point that both sides agreed to hold another dialogue, Lacierda said.

“The commitment is that by the end of May, we will have another round of dialogue with the labor sector representatives,’’ he said.

It was during the dialogue that Mr. Aquino instructed Henares to prioritize the review of the proposed income tax exemptions for minimum wage earners, Lacierda said.

Henares confirmed the information, saying the exemption was a second priority for Mr. Aquino, after going after tax evaders.

The President announced nonwage benefits for the country’s workforce during the meeting. Labor leaders came out of the meeting dismayed and saying he did not respond to their demands.

Hearing about their grumbling, Mr. Aquino called them again to a no-holds barred discussion in a room in Malacañang and after listening to them, gave the order to Henares.

Since minimum wage earners bear the brunt of the expanded value-added tax, the tax should be imposed only on the amount earned in excess of their income, and not on their total income, Daniel Edralin of the Alliance of Progressive Labor proposed during the dialogue.

At present, the minimum wage is exempt from income tax, but income in excess of the minimum wage is subject to tax.

“The President tasked us to study it, and how we can do it without our tax collection suffering. If at all there will be tax consequence, and then there’s the issue of our credit rating,’’ Henares said. “We have to balance all of these concerns, and come up with a structure addressing all these.’’ With a report from Jo Martinez-Clemente, Inquirer Central Luzon

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