Labor's prospects for 2014: Boom or gloom?

DIRECT FROM THE LABOR FRONT - Atty Josephus B Jimenez - The Philippine Star

The year is about to end, this, in fact, may be our last column for 2013. It is thus not only useful but imperative for the labor front to scan the socio-economic environment and even the political horizon in 2014, so that we can, more or less, project, based on visible signs and trends, whether there are more opportunities emerging for the working class, or more threats to their work, career and well-being. At first glimpse, it may turn out to be a strange combination of both boom and gloom. The working class remains vulnerable to threats to job security, inadequacy of wages relative to cost of living, increasing costs of social protection including social security, medical care, housing, education and other basic needs. It is this segment among the 100 million Filipinos who need safety nets in a globalized economy.

The government, however, looks at the coming year in a more positive light. For one thing, indications show that there will be more foreign investments coming in, and even the local investors are bullish in the light of some concrete reforms in governance. However, the series of calamities that hit the country, exacerbated by the bureaucrats' glaring inadequacies in managing disasters, plus the increasing costs of oil and power may turn off prospective investors. Nonetheless, since both houses of Congress are now allied with the president, there shall be more cooperation, and thus, an improved sense of urgency to pass measures that shall both promote more economic development and better social protection. The judiciary and the bureaucracy are all supportive of the national leadership, as well as most of the local government units. Labor, however, is torn between boom and gloom.

The good news first; foreign relations appear to be positive. Our country's improved relations with the USA, Japan, the ASEAN countries and even the European communities and the Middle East will continue to attract more capital that will create more jobs, push economic activities more, and generate more taxes. Second; the industrial relations in the country appear to be more harmonious and cooperative. No more radical unionism, much less strikes and lockouts are putting pressure on both employers and workers. Third; employment opportunities abroad will remain on the rise, as demands for engineers, marine officers and seamen are even not sufficiently filled in by our local manpower. We have to be wary though of dirty, difficult, dangerous, deceptive and degrading jobs. But OFW remittances at US$20 billion annually shall remain a solid infusion into our economy.

The bad news, however, is that the cost of living continues to rise at levels beyond the reach of minimum wage-earners. While wages are being pegged at levels manageable by employers, in the name of competitiveness, affordability and other considerations, the president himself admitted that the government has no authority to stop power generators and distributors from raising the cost of electricity. Thus, the government appears to be veering away from the Constitution's mandate to afford full protection to labor. Secondly; the government's own SSS, PhilHealth and PAG-IBIG have raised the workers' contributions, as well as the employers who have the opportunity to pass on the increment to the consuming public. So, the workers are like candles burning on both ends. This will be very detrimental to the labor front's rights, welfare and well-being.

A third bad news is the government's continuing inadequacy to protect the working class, especially the poorest of the poor, who are still being exploited, paid below minimum wages, deprived of benefits, and exposed to hazards at work, endangering their  health, safety and welfare. Fourth; the SSS and ECC continue to deny claims for death, sickness and disability benefits for flimsy reasons, and fifth; the NLRC is still very slow in resolving arbitration disputes. Sixth; the unions are dying because the militant and radical ideologues have ruined the goodwill that responsible unionism ought to stand for. Seventh; the most unprotected segment of the labor sector are the unemployed, underemployed and the malemployed, the child laborers, the prostituted men and women, and the victims of illegal recruiters and international traffickers.

Next year will be a crucial one for the working class. The events that shall unfold by then can either make or break the labor front. Disasters and calamities, crimes and accidents are going to hit the workers the most. It is thus both useful and strategic that the government and the private sector should help each other in providing adequate social protection to the most vulnerable among our populace. This will be the acid test for our leaders, not only to rehabilitate and rebuild our devastated land but to assure our people, especially the workers, that, in times of both prosperity or utmost difficulty, that the government will never abandon them. That may be the only way to assure our workers and their families that they will indeed have a happy and affordable New Year. For when labor is at risk, the nation will be in imminent danger. It is vital that labor should have more boom than gloom in 2014. That is what matters most for the country. No more and no less.

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