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Labor Day protest marches heated but end peacefully

A phalanx of policemen blocks workers carrying posters of “Communist Manifesto” authors Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, former Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, and former Chinese supreme leader Mao Zedong at a rally at the US Embassy in Manila. Labor groups marched on Wednesday to demand wage increase after President Aquino announced a package of noncash benefits on Labor Day. NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Except for their overheated rhetoric and the burning of the effigies of President Aquino and US President Barack Obama, which matched the sweltering heat, the country’s workers kept Wednesday’s Labor Day observance peaceful.

So orderly were the marches and rallies in Metro Manila that the protesters had cleared the streets by 6 p.m.

Police reported no untoward incidents in the capital and other parts of the country.

With President Aquino resting in his hometown in Tarlac province, it fell on Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz to plead with the workers to give the government more time to deal with their problems. She said that Aquino planned to meet the labor leaders regularly; the next one will be on May 30.

The Catholic Church, in turn, reminded government and business of the primacy of the human person over capital and profit.

In his homily during a Labor Day Mass held at Quiapo Church and attended by the leaders of various labor groups, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle expressed concern about “international trends” in the labor industry where workers are “classified” and their “classifications” are used as bases for their rights.

Equal treatment

He said businesses should not discriminate against but instead treat all workers equally regardless of their classification.

“Whatever is the classification of workers, they are human beings. Their rights are not diminished when they have a different classification,” Tagle said.

But classifying workers violates workers’ rights, he said.

Employers should not classify workers and instead should treat them all equally, he said.

Tagle called on labor leaders and their organizations to be sincere for the good of all workers. He also proposed the elevation of the protection of workers’ tenure to international agencies.

Baldoz said Aquino found the workers’ demands “very reasonable.”

Contrary to some news reports, the labor leaders were not disappointed with the results of their meeting with the President, Baldoz told reporters at a job fair in SM Mall of Asia.

Among the proposals being considered by the government is a suggestion for more tax exemptions for minimum wage earners.

Higher SSS premiums

Aquino, however, called for higher contributions to the Social Security System (SSS) for workers, drawing a sharp response from labor representatives who called the idea “adding insult to injury.”

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares criticized Aquino for rejecting the workers’ demands for wage increases, security of tenure and tax exemptions, which showed, he said, that the President had “no heart for the working class.”

In proposing higher SSS premiums, Aquino noted that the contribution rate had been increased only twice since 1980, while pensions had been raised 20 times.

Aquino wanted the current contribution rate to be increased to 11 percent from 10.4 percent, which would translate to P60 a month for workers earning P10,000.

The President said the increase in contributions would allow SSS members to enjoy higher benefits.

But Colmenares said increasing the SSS contribution would put an additional burden on workers, who already endured a lot of other deductions from their wages.

He said Bayan Muna’s own study showed that the SSS had enough funds to give members higher benefits without increasing the monthly premiums.

According to Colmenares, the SSS has assets worth P343.67 billion as of March 2012, while its annual investment income amounts to P21 billion to P23 billion a year.

The SSS also has collectibles worth P8.5 billion in unremitted premiums as of December 2010, he said.

The SSS also has collectibles amounting to about P14.6 billion from employers who failed to avail themselves of the agency’s amnesty program, Colmenares said.

But the SSS, he added, has yet to file charges against 170,000 delinquent employers who failed to remit their employees’ contributions.

What the workers need is not additional burdens, but additional income, protesters said.


Protests everywhere

More than 11,500 workers marched in Cebu, Iloilo, Aklan and Capiz.

Speakers took turns decrying the labor policies of Aquino and reiterating their demand for a P125 across-the-board increase in the minimum wage.

Workers also marched in Southern Luzon provinces, demanding wage increases and pleading for less deductions from their wages.

Protests were held in cities in Laguna, Cavite, Batangas, Quezon and Rizal. Hermenegildo Marasigan, spokesman for the workers’ alliance Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawa sa Timog Katagalugan-Kilusang Mayo Uno, said about 10,000 workers joined the marches against low wages and continued “contractualization” of jobs in the region.

Despite the intensity of the workers’ demands, there were no reports of violence.

In Metro Manila, terminated workers of Digital Telecommunications Philippines (Digitel) and their supporters marched across the business center in Makati City to protest what they called “unfair labor practices” at the telco.

Digitel, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the country, is now a subsidiary of the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT), which is led by businessman Manny V. Pangilinan.

The workers have been picketing PLDT headquarters on Makati Avenue for 21 days since the management’s refusal to implement a Supreme Court decision ordering the company to start talks for a collective bargaining agreement with the workers and reinstate 13 employees it had dismissed in 2005 with full compensation.

There were no untoward incidents. Except for about 30 protesters who sought shelter at first-aid stations, the marches were peaceful, according to Manila Police Director Senior Supt. Robert Po.

Protesters burned 10-foot-tall effigies of President Aquino and US President Barack Obama to symbolize the supposed state of the nation under the Aquino administration.

Welcome but no talk

Politicians running for office in the May 13 elections joined the pleas for worker benefits. They were welcome at labor rallies, but were not allowed to speak.

But United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) senatorial candidate Jack Enrile said the government should keep the door open to an increase in the minimum wage to show that it is truly sincere in saying it protects the rights and welfare of the country’s workers.

Gordon proposal

Enrile said labor groups should continue pressing for reforms and better working and living conditions as the economy continued to improve.

Another UNA senatorial candidate, Richard Gordon, suggested that the government tap the potential of tourism to create new jobs.

Gordon said the government could harness the potential of tourism as a source of jobs if it would allow the full implementation of the Tourism Act of 2009.

Gordon, a former secretary of tourism, said the tourism development law, which he himself authored, had yet to be fully enforced.

He alleged that the implementation of the law has been hampered by concerns raised by the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs regarding revenue leakage. He noted that the finance department and the BIR have historically opposed the granting of fiscal incentives as this could lead to revenue loss.

But he said there were clear provisions in the law that give the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority full jurisdiction over the grant of incentives to tourism enterprise zones.—Reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Tina G. Santos, Nancy C. Carvajal and Niña Calleja in Manila; Radyo Inquirer; Maricar Cinco, Shiena Barrameda and Delfin T. Mallari Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon; Nestor Burgos Jr., Bernadeth Rosales and Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas; Tessa Distor and Alex Austria, trainees.

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Tags: Labor Day , Philippines , protest marches , rallies

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