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Hanging by a thread: Cebu garment workers deal with pandemic dismissals

/ 04:44 PM October 22, 2020
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(Second of two parts)

Take a scroll on the website of any popular athletic wear brand. A typical shirt or top could sell for a ballpark figure of P500 up to P5,000, or more. These brands may be household names, worn by the most famous celebrities and highest paid athletes in the world, and also by the everyman. They can be both exclusive and common, and to wear them, it seems, is as much a show of economic status as it is social and cultural capital.

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But garments do not exist in a vacuum. Before making their way to more than thousands of brand stores worldwide, they are first and foremost stitched by invisible hands.

Dina Ampit used to be a garment worker in Yuenthai Philippines Inc. It is one of the major garment exporters located in Mactan Export Processing Zone in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, where she clocked in and out of work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week.

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She has sewn all sorts of garments, from T-shirts and shorts, to leggings, jackets and jogging pants throughout her almost 11 year-career in the company. They mostly manufacture for various international brands.

When COVID-19 struck and the city was placed under enhanced community quarantine at the end of March, Ampit said she and her colleagues were told by the management that work would be voluntary due to limited capacity; they can volunteer to work if they wanted, but they would not be forced to report due to the pandemic.

At the time, Lapu-Lapu had already reported two COVID-19 cases, which led Ampit and some of her colleagues to decide to stay at home as a safety precaution. The company continued to operate during this time, albeit with limited workers, as others still reported to work amid the ECQ.

Ampit and her other colleagues were contacted by the management on the last week of July, which told them they could start reporting to work again. By this time, the city has already been under general community quarantine since May 16. Ampit thus returned to the company to work again. But this would only last for a month.

A day in August

*Divine, another former garment worker of Yuenthai, was also one of those affected when the city went on lockdown. Like Ampit, she made the decision not to report to work during ECQ out of fear of catching COVID-19 and infecting her husband at home.

When the city transitioned to GCQ by May, she told INQUIRER.net that she and her colleagues began texting and calling the management to ask about their status and when they could start working again.

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“Sabi nila hintayin [lang] daw ang tawag nila [if pwede] na kami makabalik sa trabaho, [kaya] nag hintay kami at nagtiis,” she said in her interview with INQUIRER.net.

(They said to just wait for their call about when we can return to work, so we waited and endured.)

Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months. Divine said she was only contacted by the management on the last week of August, who told her she could report on Aug. 28. She felt relieved. She has not earned anything for the past five months.

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What happened on Aug. 29, her second day of being back to work, remains vivid. Divine felt something was amiss when she arrived to work that day and noticed there were not any workers present in one of the departments.

Word went around that a payout would be happening, said Divine, but she and her colleagues continued to sew in their workstations from morning to noon. At the time, Divine could not understand her own emotions. She felt confused, shocked and excited.

“Nagtaka na kami, ‘Hala, may bayaran.’ Halu-halo ‘yung emosyon namin… Bayaran na, baka siguro tayo, [kasali] tayo dun. Nagtaka na kami, masaya kami na excited na walang kaalam-alam,” she said.

(We were wondering, “Oh, there is a payout.” We had mixed emotions. If there’s a payout, it could be us, it could include us. We were wondering, and happy and excited. We had no idea.)

Around 2 p.m., as they continued to work, one of their leaders announced there would indeed be a payout. The workers, she said, were then approached one by one by staff and pulled out while in the middle of work.

Divine claimed she was escorted out of the room by a supervisor, who passed her to a manager, who passed her to a security guard who led her to another room where they gathered all the workers to be retrenched that day. They were not allowed to bring cellphones inside.

She remembered seeing a huge presence of security guards inside the room. She recalled there were ten stations inside and each had a security guard. There were also guards by the door, near the front and in every corner.

One hundred sixty-eight of them were retrenched from their jobs that day, she told INQUIRER.net, but they found this hard to believe because they were reportedly not given 30-day notices by the management.

She said majority of the workers retrenched that day, including her, have been with the company for 10 to 15 years, but the separation pay being offered to them was only worth one-half month’s pay for every year of service. New workers or those who have been with the company for about a year were reportedly offered full month’s pay for their service.

Divine also claimed the management did not explain to them their criteria in selecting which workers to retrench, nor did they show any documents illustrating the financial losses of the company to justify their retrenchment.

“Galing pa kami sa quarantine, wala kaming notice natanggap puro kami nabigla,” she said. “Kaya nga ‘yun ang tanong namin ‘nung araw na ‘yun kung aprubado ba talaga sa DOLE ‘yung ginagawa nila. Sabi nila, ang sagot nila, eh lahat daw ng proseso nila is aprubado…”

(We just came off a quarantine. We did not receive a notice. We were all shocked. That’s why we were asking the whole time on that day if DOLE approved what they just did. They said all their processes were approved.)

Negotiations on-going

There are multiple grounds an employer can terminate an employee, as per the Department of Labor and Employment’s Bureau of Labor Relations. There are just causes like serious misconduct, wilful disobedience, gross and habitual neglect of duty, fraud or breach of trust, and commission of a crime or offense against the employer. Then there are authorized causes like installation of labor-saving devices, redundancy, retrenchment to prevent losses, closure and cessation of business, and disease and illness.

In termination for an authorized cause like retrenchment, due process is in the form of a written notice of dismissal to the employee at least 30 days before the date of their termination. A copy of the notice should also be submitted to the Regional Office of DOLE where the employer is located.

Separation pay is the amount of money given to an employee who has been terminated on the grounds of authorized causes. In cases of retrenchment, closure of business or incurable disease, the employee should receive the equivalent of one month pay or one-half month pay for every year of service — whichever amount is higher.

Ampit said the separation pay offered to one of her coworkers was only around P57,000. Like Ampit, the coworker has been working in the company for almost 11 years, but unlike her, the coworker accepted the separation pay. Both of them did not receive a 30-day notice from the company.

According to Divine, they get paid every 5th and 20th of the month. Pre-pandemic, she would earn around P3,600 to P4,000 after salary deductions every payday.

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Divine also claimed that the release, waiver and quitclaim form the management initially presented to the workers on Aug. 29 pertained to redundancy. The form was changed by the management to retrenchment on Sept. 2. It is unclear what prompted the said change; according to Divine, the management did not explain why. She added that some of her colleagues only received their notices via LBC after Aug. 29, the day of termination. Divine herself did not receive any notice after that date.

The dismissed workers have since contested the nature of their termination, and through the conciliation-mediation process of DOLE’s Single Entry Approach, have engaged with the company in their hopes of being given full month’s pay for every year of service.

“Bayaran lang po kami ng sakto po para po makapag-umpisa sa hanapbuhay namin…” said Ampit. “Sana lang po bayaran po kami ng tama, hindi na po kami humihingi ng higit pa.”

(We just ask to be paid justly so we can start over again with new livelihood. We hope we get paid with the right amount. We are not asking for more.)

She added that her colleagues don’t have much and have debts to pay. “Ano pa po ‘yung gagamitin nila para sa pamilya nila? Matatanda na po ‘yung mga kasamahan ‘ko. Mahirap na po, hindi na po sila makahanap ng trabaho. ‘Yung tama lang pong bayad, okay na po sa amin ‘yun.”

(What else could they use for their families? My co-workers are already old. It’s hard, they won’t be able to find new jobs anymore. So [please just have them paid] the right amount. That is enough for us.)

Arnold Arcipe, union representative of the Associated Labor Unions-Central Visayas Region, told INQUIRER.net the third conciliation-mediation conference of the workers and Yuenthai at DOLE’s National Conciliation and Mediation Board last Oct. 2, was unsuccessful after the two parties failed to come to an agreement.

In Arcipe’s update, the workers or the requesting party decided to terminate the conciliation-mediation proceedings in DOLE so they can request for a referral to take the issue to the National Labor Relations Commission. The next meeting of the workers and the company is yet to be scheduled.

Yuenthai sent a statement to INQUIRER.net on Oct. 8 through its human resources head Leo Benitez to address the retrenchment of its workers. INQUIRER.net initially requested for an interview with the management, but was told the company does not give interviews, just press statements.

“Due to a decline in our business, aggravated by the global pandemic and resulting to financial losses, our company, Yuenthai Philippines, Inc., was constrained to announce a retrenchment program last August 29, 2020,” Yuenthai’s statement read.

The company added it had accorded separation pay compliant with Philippine Labor Law to the affected employees.

“The Company has likewise complied with the notice requirements filed with DOLE as well as documentary requirements for the implementation of said retrenchment program with utmost transparency,” it read. “We have remained available to affected employees who need clarification on the computation of their separation pay. Subject to current financial situation of the Company, we have likewise exerted all efforts to amicably settle employees’ claim.”

Barely getting by, keeping up the fight

A glimpse at Ampit and Divine’s Facebook accounts would show what they’ve been up to lately. After losing the jobs they’ve known known for almost 11 years, the two have taken to online selling.

Watches, face soaps, lightbulbs, cookies, study tables, and ironically enough, overruns — name it and they probably have it. But earning from online selling is scarce.

“Paminsan minsan lang po,” Ampit said. “Hindi naman po masyado bentahan kasi walang pera mga tao dito.”

([Good income] is scarce. There are not much sales because people here also do not have money.)

Ampit, who rents a room alone in Lapu-Lapu, was the breadwinner of the family. Now, she isn’t so sure. Her mother and 10-year-old son live in another province, and before COVID-19 hit, only saw them when she would come home in December.

Her son’s classes recently started and she worries about him not having anyone to guide him with his modules. She knows she would have to go home to them soon, but she seems unable to bring herself to leave empty-handed.

“Iniintay ko pa po ‘yung result sa kung anong dapat namin [gawin], kung tatanggapin na lang ba namin if ever,” she said. “Hinihintay [pa namin] ’yung desisyon sa NLRC.”

(I am still waiting for the result on what we should do [next], if we would just accept [what they offer] if ever. We are still waiting for the decision from NLRC.)

Divine expressed her uncertainties about what could be awaiting them, but remains steadfast to continue fighting and encouraging her fellow workers to keep the faith.

“Ang [ginagawa] ko hindi ‘to para sa’kin kundi para sa mga tao, para matulungan ko rin lang,” she said. “Napansin ko ang mga tao namin parang kung walang taong tatayo, dili talaga sila lalaban.”

(What I am doing is not for myself but also for others, to be able to help. I noticed that among our people, if nobody stands up, no one would fight anymore.)

* [Editor’s note: The names of some of the garment workers in this special report have been withheld upon request due to ongoing proceedings before the National Labor Relations Commission.]

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TAGS: COVID-19 PH, labor laws, Mactan Export Processing Zone (Mepz), retrenchments, Textiles
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