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The ‘informalization’ of Philippine workers

JOB SEEKERS Jobless Filipinos fill out application forms at a job fair of the Department of Labor and Employment on Labor Day at SMNorth Edsa inQuezon City. LYN RILLON

(Last of two parts)

Ronald has been working for a real estate company for 14 years, but he was never quite sure if he was ever on the employees’ list.

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“It seems like we are not part of the company because we have not signed any contracts and we do not receive any benefits, only our salaries,” he said.

Ronald gets between P360 and P400 a day, below the minimum wage of P466, and nothing else—no SSS, PhilHealth, Pag-Ibig and bonuses.

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Upon the invitation of his cousin who works as a construction worker in Manila, Ronald left his home province of Bukidnon to try his luck in the Big City.

He never thought life would be complicated in Manila. Being an undergraduate, he had few choices and finally settled for a job as a utility assistant and water-meter reader.

Now, even his job description is not clear to him. A real estate development company behind a number of subdivisions in Manila and Cavite province hired him as an “on-call troubleshooter” for doing work as an electrician, carpenter, mason, plumber and house painter.

“Sometimes someone calls me in the middle of the night because there’s no electricity in a village and I have to go right away,” he said.

‘Informalization’

Ronald works under an employment scheme that labor relations expert Rene Ofreneo of the University of the Philippines School of Labor and Industrial Relations calls “informalization.”

While contractual workers are bound by a five-month time frame, Ronald is part of an informal sector that is forced to find jobs “in the limited and underdeveloped organized sector of the economy.”

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“Informal-sector work involves coping with the requirements of daily living, no matter how minimal the income is from an informal economic undertaking, which include hawking, home-based production, unregistered repair services and so on,” Ofreneo said in his paper “Precarious Philippines: Expanding Informal Sector, ‘Flexibilizing’ Labor Market” (2013).

Community of builders

Unlike Ronald who has had a steady, albeit informal, job for more than a decade, a community of construction workers in Rizal province is not as lucky.

In Sitio (settlement) Tabing Ilog, when there’s work to do, almost everyone works, no matter what kind. When projects come to an end, everyone is on the lookout for the next one.

For most men in this village near Gate 1 in Cogeo, Antipolo City, construction work has been a way of life, said Rodolfo Cristobal. There are about a hundred families living in Sitio Tabing Ilog which share a unique relationship as neighbors and coworkers.

“Masons. Carpenters. Welders. Electricians. Plumbers. Name it, we have them all. When contractors need men, we usually go as a group,” Cristobal said.

But for a barangay (village) composed mainly of builders who have the skills to put up towering structures and skyscrapers, many cannot afford to construct decent houses of their own.

No electricity, running water

Cristobal, who is in between jobs, lives in a hovel with no electricity and draws water from a nearby well.

He left his last project in Taguig City in September last year when he was hardly bringing anything home for his wife, Marissa, and their 10 children.

As a mason, Cristobal was paid P370 a day, also below the minimum wage. He had no other benefits when he was part of the crew that was building a posh hotel in Bonifacio Global City.

At 49, he can hardly find a job at construction sites because he is considered “old.”

“I’m still strong but jobs are scarce. Actually, I never know when I’m needed, so I just have to be ready anytime,” he said.

The minimum wage for private sector workers in Metro Manila is set at P466, consisting of P451 in basic pay and P15 in cost-of-living allowance.

The cost of living for a family of six in Metro Manila was pegged at P917 per day in 2008 by the National Wages and Productivity Commission.

The figure has not been updated but Partido ng Manggagawa said its own study in 2013 showed that the cost of living in the metropolis stood at P1,217 a day, or nearly triple the minimum wage.

Take-home of P185 per day

“I left my last job because my wages weren’t enough for my family. In Taguig, each meal costs P50 and I only take home around P1,300 per week or P185 per day. I wanted to skip my meals so I could save but I need to eat for strength because my work is mainly physical. This is hard labor work. I might faint if I work on an empty stomach,” he said.

Cristobal said he was spending about P200 per meal daily for his family of 12. As to whether it’s lunch or dinner, it depends on what time he gets the money from doing extra work or borrowing money from friends.

Unequal, exclusivist growth

Times have been harder since Cristobal lost his job last September. He is one of the 12 million jobless Filipinos estimated by Social Weather Stations in the last quarter of 2013.

For a country that achieved a 7.2-percent growth in gross domestic product last year, the second-fastest in Asia next to China, many like Cristobal do not feel its benefits.

“Growth is unequal and exclusivist,” said Ofreneo. “To this majority, it is difficult to connect their own lives with the celebratory view of the dawning of the Asian century,” he said.

Cristobal said he was grateful for any construction work he could find. He belongs to a family of construction workers. His father was a contractor. He became a mason. His sons are also construction peons.

Son’s death

When his son, Benbon, and nine other workers died at the construction site of Eton Residences in Makati City in 2011 after their overloaded gondola snapped, the family cried for justice.

To this day, no one has been held accountable for their deaths. They lost their claim to the case at the National Labor Relations Commission and it was brought to the Court of Appeals, Cristobal’s wife said.

But Benbon’s death did not stop Cristobal’s two other sons, Valentino and Junie, from working on construction projects. They are only high school graduates and cannot find other work.

“It’s hard labor and we risk our lives out there. We just try to get through the day,” he said.

Exponential growth

No official data on the size of the informal sector is available because it is not part of the country’s labor statistical system but a number of factors show it “has grown exponentially.”

In the absence of official statistics on the informal sector, estimates give a sense of its size.

The Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics placed the informal sector at 41.5 percent of the total employment figure of 36 million in 2010, an “underestimate,” Ofreneo said.

The Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines said it was 77 percent, or 25 million out of the 36 million employed in 2006, “an overestimate but is closer to reality, given the large number of unregistered microenterprises in the country,” he wrote.

No papers, social protection

In Ronald’s and Cristobal’s cases, their employers don’t even bother to put their workers’ employment on paper. The number of workers under this scheme is said to be huge.

With no papers, no taxes paid and no formal ties to the company that supposedly employs him, Ronald, like other members of the informal economy, receives no social protection from the government.

When a catastrophe strikes, like an illness or natural disaster, they are left scrambling for money. For them there are no PhilHealth, Pag-Ibig and SSS benefits to cushion the impact.

Ronald, for example, has three children, one of them with special needs. Every time his son suffers a seizure, he has to shell out at least P6,000, which is more than half of his salary for a month.

“We have to borrow money from anyone—neighbors, friends,” said his wife, Sol, who works as a house helper earning P3,500 a month.

According to Ofreneo’s study, although there were efforts from the government to protect informal workers, none have substantially eased their plight.

“In the past, the government exhibited a combination of benign neglect and occasional programs of assistance that were generally limited in scope and budget,” he said.

It cited the antipoverty programs of the government, like the conditional cash transfer program, PhilHealth coverage of indigents and lending initiatives, among other things, but “coverage and funding for these programs are generally limited.”

Magna Carta

Ronald and his family have not benefited from any of these programs. For one, based on 2013 government statistics, they are not considered poor because they earn more than the poverty threshold of P8,022 monthly for a family of five.

It is because of this kind of stories of informal workers that the Magna Carta of Workers in Informal Employment has been introduced and refiled since the 12th Congress.

“The idea is to push for the passage in Congress of a so-called Magna Carta of Workers in Informal Employment or Macwie (House Bill No. 768) that guarantees the following universal rights for informal workers: the right to a job, the right to form an association and the right to get social protection in crisis periods, including the right to protection against harassment by agents of the state in relation to their micro and informal economic activities,” Ofreneo wrote.

Recent events at the workplace made Ronald realize the risks and uncertainties of his job that the Macwie could address.

For instance, citing the case of Ronald’s coworker who died in a construction site, “they (their bosses) almost denied they knew the person,” he said.

“They made it appear like they were just helping the worker, like doing an act of charity,” Ronald said. “And we had to act like we saw and heard nothing.”

“What if it happens to me? What will happen to my family?” he said, adding that the worker’s bereaved family “somehow got a donation.”

In terms of regularization, too, Ronald recalled how his coworkers were suddenly laid off from work when the company realized it had too many drivers and fired almost all of them.

“What if one day they decide they no longer need me?” he asked. “I only trust that they would at least consider my loyalty for the past years but I will never know for sure.”

Enabling environment

Many of the workers themselves said education and poverty were a chicken-and-egg question in which education could lift the family out of poverty while poverty was depriving them of education.

Ofreneo, however, said that aside from education, the government should act to create an “enabling environment” for workers to get better conditions and improved labor-worker relations.

Among the suggestions are:

— Offering cash-for-work to workers instead of awarding projects to big companies in building infrastructure.

— Improving the electric wholesale system because while the Philippines has cheap labor, electricity is more expensive than in Vietnam or Thailand, which hinders foreign investments.

— Revising the system on land reform and reviving agricultural reforms because the landless poor are more susceptible to taking on temporary jobs.

— Taking decisive action against smuggling because the large monetary losses from it can be used to improve labor conditions instead.

— Passing the Macwie for workers’ social protection.

Until these are implemented, Ofreneo said contractuals, casuals and informal workers—whatever Ronald and Cristobal are called—livelihood opportunities would remain hanging by a thread.

FIRST OF THE TWO-PART ARTICLE

Worker hired, fired every 5 months

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