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Freeman Cebu Business

Return or remote?  

FULL DISCLOSURE - Fidel O. Abalos - The Freeman

Two weeks ago, PEZA-registered BPOs/BPMs got an early Christmas gift from DOF Sec. Benjamin Diokno. He released a memorandum extending the work-from-home (WFH) arrangement for these enterprises, albeit, provisionally. Though a temporarily relief, they can take a sigh of relief in the sense that Sec. Diokno, together with the  members of the Financial Incentives Review Board (FIRB), promised to permanently resolve it. 

To recall, several months ago, PEZA ordered its registered enterprises to let, at least, 70% of their workforce to go back to work not later than September 12, 2022. Clearly invoking the 70/30 export/local sales provision (as a basis for the tax perks) which requires limits on WFH scheme to just 30%. Otherwise, they will lose their incentives.

The insistence of these enterprises to continue this arrangement is obvious. By now, they must have already experienced and realized that this has positive impact in the workplace as well as in the workers’ and their families’ well-being. Moreover, with a considerable reduction in the number of employees in the workplace, their rented office spaces reduced significantly, thus, improving the companies’ bottomline. More importantly, these employers (whether a tech-company or heavily using technology) were able to conveniently recruit the best talents anywhere in the country.

Likewise, the employees reaped some benefits from this set-up too. With so much autonomy and flexibility (with their laptops and gadgets in tow), they were able live and work anywhere. They were even able to save on rent and transportation cost (and cost of living, in general), breath cleaner air and enjoy the serenity of their workplaces as they retreat to the countryside.

However, as most companies embraced it, the downsides became more obvious. While this set-up enabled some employees to continue earn a living, a good number of workers lost their livelihoods.  With no offices to maintain, janitorial jobs were no longer needed. With employees working in their homes, companies closed their cafeterias or canteens (for their employees), thus, some jobs were gone forever. 

Other businesses were directly impacted too by remote work. Landlords or owners of office spaces, apartments and lodging houses in the metropolis also financially struggled as they were left with empty units or rooms when employees retreat to the countryside. Consequently, some of their workers also took a hit. Likewise, food caterers and their workers were badly affected as companies engaging their services (for their employees) opted to work from home. 

Undeniably too, the “office-adjacent economy” took a beating at the height of the pandemic.  This economy includes businesses like coffee shops, transport services, restaurants, etc. In the pre-pandemic era, these businesses thrived as employees took after-meeting lunches or dinners or were habitually taking a break from a busy afternoon by sipping a cup of tea or coffee. At the end of the day, they took taxis on their way home. As these businesses continue to miss the WFH-workers’ patronage, the “office-adjacent-economy” remained lethargic. 

Simply put, there will be less spending on goods and services when employees work-from-home.  This is well validated by a study in the United Kingdom. The study revealed that its GDP shall be £15.3 billion lower a year if this WFH set-up continues.

Probably, these are the underlying reasons why PEZA ordered its registered enterprises to let, at least, 70% of their workforce go back to work not later than September 12, 2022. Now that the arrangement is temporarily extended, it there something rosy to expect? Though it is good to remain hopeful, frankly, this extension will only elicit more questions than answers.

Lest we forget, while this arrangement prevalently came about because of the pandemic, the government has mandated this set-up long before COVID-19 struck us. To recall, congress passed the Telecommuting Act (Republic Act 11165) before the pandemic prevailed globally. It was passed simply because our working mothers (especially the single moms) were asking for it and they truly deserved it.

Obviously, therefore, even without COVID-19, that most workers shall embrace telework in a scale that might approximate on what we have right now is a big possibility. Ironically, the pandemic may just be the catalyst.

In retrospect, however, we may also ask, did our lawmakers consider such possibilities when they passed the Telecommuting Act?  Secondly, have they considered amending some of our laws and recognize the fact that the services rendered by the IT-BPM/BPO companies are just so different from those companies under PEZA’s jurisdiction (like manufacturing concerns) which requires workers to be present in their workplace? We doubt.

BENJAMIN DIOKNO

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