FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

There is no way we can predict earthquakes, unfortunately. The best of our science does not see prediction possible in the foreseeable future.

They say some animals sense a quake forthcoming. Perhaps. But at best that gives us only a few moments of lead time before the ground begins shaking.

We do not only sit on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and straddle the typhoon belt. We are also atop numerous fault lines and clashing tectonic plates that make earthquakes a frequent phenomenon. The best we can do is to better enforce building standards, organize first responders to move at a moment’s notice and pre-position enough supplies to deliver aid quickly.

The quake that hit Northern Luzon last Wednesday was a strong one. Understandably, it damaged weak structures and caused landslides. There is little we can do about heritage structures built centuries before. As in the Bohol quake that hit a few years before, this one damaged many old churches built during the period of Spanish occupation.

Unlike previous quakes of the same magnitude, this one took only a few lives even as it happened late in the morning when most people were up and about. The death toll, pending reports from villages cut off by landslides, was in the single digits. This is something we must be thankful for.

Appropriate credit ought to be given the first responders and local governments who acted swiftly after the quake struck. They deployed rapidly, alerted people to stay away from damaged buildings because of possible aftershocks, rescued the injured and distributed relief.

When calamities visit, we rely on the local governments to save lives. Much work has been done the past few years to build up the capacity of local governments to respond to emergencies. Resources were poured into supporting our first responders.

I am not sure if we need a specific department to handle disasters. That might be just another layer of bureaucracy. The empowered local governments, as we saw in this last quake, are better capable of doing the first response.

We have accomplished much in terms of improving disaster resilience among our communities. We have a program that builds reliable evacuation centers in vulnerable areas where relief goods are prepositioned.

In the case of major earthquakes, where the number of people told to remain outside homes and buildings is significant, we do need to assemble items like portable shelters. With every disaster, we learn new things.

There is much to do over the next few days. Irrigation structures that serve tens of thousands of hectares were damaged. Damaged buildings will have to be dismantled. Landslides need to be cleared.

Every disaster is a sad event. But we will have to credit our government agencies for their prompt and efficient response.

Long wait

If only our courts worked as fast as our disaster response teams.

As civil cases go in this country, the case of illegal dismissal filed by former employees of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) went through the long and tortuous route. It took nearly three decades since the cases were filed for a final decision to be reached.

Employees of the HSBC went on strike Dec. 22, 1993 after failure to reach an agreement with management on a number of issues. The very next day, the foreign bank terminated employees participating in the strike.

The dismissed employees filed suit. Among those who filed the case of illegal dismissal were: Isabelo Moro, Melo Gaba, Nelia Deriada, Rosalinda Juliet Laquellano, Maida Sacro-Militante, Daisy Fagutao and Mario Fermin. They were all members of the HSBC employees union.

This case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court. On Aug. 22, 2016, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the dismissed employees, ruling that the bank failed to prove the strikers committed illegal acts. Therefore, there was no basis for their dismissal.

HSBC went back to the Court of Appeals to contest the basis for the higher court’s decision. The dismissed employees asked the National Labor Relations Commission to act as arbiter. There was much argument over the computation of back wages and benefits the employees should receive under the 1990-1993 collective bargaining agreement between the bank and the union.

The NLRC dismissed all motions for partial reconsideration from both parties. It was decided the illegally dismissed employees be awarded back wages and separation pay based on the salary rates they had at the time of dismissal.

On July 11, 2018, the Labor Arbiter issued an order granting the employees’ Motion for Execution. HSBC was ordered to pay the dismissed employees a judgment award in the amount of P56,209,347.

Recently, the Court of Appeals issued an order for HSBC to pay the dismissed bank workers in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case. The bank should comply with this soon.

Considering the number of years it took for this case to reach a final resolution, and the amount spent for the proceedings as well as lawyers’ fees, the judgment award might not seem to be worth it. But that is only if we look at it in pure financial terms.

This case sets an important precedent. It should not be too easy to dismiss employees when they go on strike. The employer must have clear basis for doing so. The Court set a high standard: the commission of illegal acts.

The final resolution of this case should be good news for employee unions in the country.


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