In union there’s strength, but what if so few workers are organized?

THE country’s labor unions may have been more unified than ever in recent years, but their ranks represent a mere fraction of the country’s 43 million workers.

After a decade of thunderous sound, the voice of labor has become hoarse and now remains a mere whisper.

This, despite the progress that union leaders have achieved in coming up with a stronger unity.

One notable achievement was in 2012, when over 40 of the biggest local labor federations like the moderate Associated Labor Union (ALU) and the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) formed the Nagkaisa (United) labor coalition to push for reforms in government policies on contractualization and wages.

Labor federations are the umbrella organizations of separate labor unions.

To further bolster its lobbying influence, Nagkaisa also formed an alliance with the prominent militant labor group, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), in 2017. 

Despite differing ideologies, Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) President Louie Corral noted they formed the “issues-based” coalition to match the unified position of organized employers’ group in government dialogues.   

This made labor groups more vocal not only in the streets during protests, but also at the negotiating table with employers.

But even with its combined memberships, Nagkaisa-KMU still represents only a fraction of the total number of workers in the country.

Based on the latest statistics of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), only 4.6 percent, or over 2 million, of the country’s labor force are members of the 19,191 labor unions as of June.

To note, some of these labor unions are not even affiliated with Nagkaisa-KMU.

Most, or 17,640, of these DOLE-registered labor unions are based in private firms, while 1,551 are from the public sector. 

These unions were able to negotiate for 1,059 collective bargaining agreements (CBA), which benefited 220,905 workers.

Slow growth

IN its latest annual report on labor relations, DOLE’s Bureau of Labor Relations (BLR) noted that while actual union membership in the private sector continues to grow each year, it could not keep up with the increase in new entrants in the work force.

“Union membership grew by 15 percent over the past 10 years from 1.3 million in 2008 to 1.5 million in 2017. Over the same period, unionization rate in the private sector peaked in 2008 at 9.9 percent, while the lowest rate was recorded in 2016 at 7.5 percent,” the BLR said. 

This slightly improved in 2017, when the unionization rate, or the growth in union membership, reached 7.8 percent.

Public sector labor unions registered improvements from 2010 to 2016 with its members rising to 538 million, from 388 million.

But in 2017, the number of unionized government employees dropped to 450 million. 

The lagging union coverage in the country translated to a low union density, or the proportion of union membership to total paid employees. In its Integrated Survey on Labor and Employment (ISLE), the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) revealed that union density has been on the decline in the last six years. 

From 9.9 percent in 2012, union density dipped to just 6.5 percent in 2016. ISLE is a study conducted every two years, which covers firms with 20 or more workers. 

The PSA noted that union density in 2016 was concentrated in three sectors: electricity, gas, steam and air-conditioning supply; mining and quarrying; water sewerage, waste management and remediation activities.

Labor groups blamed contractualization for the apparent slow organization of workers. In fact, they claim many firms engage in the practice for the sole purpose of not dealing with a labor union.

Management threat

FEDERATION of Free Workers (FFW) Vice President Julius Cainglet said nonregular workers, including those under probationary and contractual status, have a hard time organizing themselves since they have no security of tenure.

“Probationary workers have an option to join the union, but in reality management fires, or do not regularize workers, if they show signs of wanting to join a union, asking about employee benefits, or point out to management abuse,” Cainglet explained.

He said the same is true for contractual or agency-hired employees, who are at risk of being removed from their current assignment or not given any new principals if they attempt to organize.

Associated Labor Union-Trade Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP) Spokesman Alan Tanjusay said workers who want to form a union may also face harassment, blacklisting, demotion and even filing of criminal complaint from their management.

Tanjusay said ALU-TUCP tries to offset this by tapping their considerable number of personnel, buildings, connections and other resources at their disposal to provide the support needed by potential members. 

As of 2017, the ALU labor federation had the most number of members at 71,106. It was followed by FFW with 33,730 members.

Legal battle

AMONG these labor unions which faced such pressure from management is the Unified Employees of Alorica (UEA).

UEA President Sarah Prestoza said they decided to organize in 2015 after their previous company, West Contact Services Inc., was absorbed by Alorica Philippines Inc. (API).

“We formed the union after hearing incidents of Alorica exploiting its workers in the companies it absorbs,” Prestoza said.

Their concerns were later realized, when UAE was officially registered with the BLR. 

Alorica questioned the validity of the registration of UEA, accusing the labor union of committing fraud and having ghost employees as its members.   

UEA said Alorica then launched an “eight-strike attendance” policy, which reduced its membership from 1,500 to just 690. 

Prestoza said they successfully defended the legitimacy of their union before the BLR, which prompted Alorica management to elevate the case to the Court of Appeals. The CA eventually ruled in favor of UEA, but this was appealed by Alorica. 

In its “Decent Work Country Diagnostic Report: Philippines 2017” report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) expressed concern over the “litigious” characteristic of forming a labor union in the country, which could be questioned even before the Supreme Court. 

“The law allows that the results can be contested through the same appellate process over again,” the ILO said. 

“Cases in which the process went through the two cycles of appeal are not uncommon, either prolonging the acquisition of bargaining status for years or worse, resulting in the collapse of the union seeking to acquire representation status,” it added.

In September, UEA eventually threatened to hold an official labor strike after Alorica still refused to recognize its legitimacy. The strike never materialized and, instead, a short protest was held by UEA members outside the Alorica premises that month.   

In November, Alorica charged Prestoza while other participants of the September protest were charged by the API management with malicious mischief. The following month Prestoza and other officials of UEA were dismissed by the management of API. 

Physical violence

OTHER than anti-labor polices, labor unions are also threatened with physical violence by the employers and even the government.

KMU has accused the Duterte administration of violating freedom of association and the right to organize by arresting its leaders and condoning attacks against labor groups in the picket line.

Among the violent dispersals it condemned were those that took place in Nutriasia Plant in Marilao, Bulacan, Shin Sun Tropical Fruits in Compostela town, Compostela Valley, and Middleby Philippines Inc. in Biñan City, Laguna.

No less than President Duterte tagged the KMU as one of the fronts of the National Democratic Front, even linking it to a reported government destabilization plot. 

Despite its anti-government positions, KMU denied Duterte’s remarks, insisting it is a legitimate labor union recognized by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

“Unionists are not terrorists. Organizing workers into unions, bargaining collectively and holding strikes are rights enshrined in the Philippine Constitution and in international conventions,” KMU Spokesman Elmer Labog said in a previous statement.

Earlier this year, ITUC included Philippines among the top 10 worst countries in the world for working people. It expressed concern over the rising incidents of intimidation and dismissal of labor union members, as well as the prevalence of violence against workers.

In November, KMU sent a letter to the International Labor Organization (ILO) asking it to look into the increasing violation of labor rights in the country.   

Employer perspective

EMPLOYERS’ Confederation of the Philippines (Ecop) Corporate Secretary Alberto R. Quimpo conceded that many employers are wary of labor unions.

Thus, Quimpo said, many firms would discourage their employees from organizing out of fear it would challenge its authority, or make “impractical” demands. 

Still there are some employers, particularly members of Ecop, who still value the cooperation of labor groups.

Despite disagreements on certain issues like the abolition of contractualization, Ecop and Nagkaisa have pushed for labor advocacies, such as anti-child labor and occupational safety policies at the National Tripartite Industrial Peace Council, the policy advising council of the DOLE.

Earlier this year, Ecop and FFW piloted a program wherein selected companies would provide incentives to their workers as a form of corporate social responsibility. The ILO also launched a similar program in November, but on a bigger scale through its Responsible Supply Chain in Asia project.

The two projects appear to be only pro-labor, but Asian Institute of Management human resources expert Dynah A. Basuil said the initiatives would also benefit employers as these would boost labor productivity.

By getting the commitment of their workers through higher wages and other benefits, Basuil said employers could actually earn more.

For his part, Quimpo said he favors dealing with unionized workers, as negotiations for benefits are “much easier.”

“I would rather work in a company that has a union, because if you have a union, you only work [negotiating] for a CBA every three years. Once you have the CBA, all you have to do is implement its provisions,” Quimpo said.

With an enforceable CBA, Quimpo said there would be less labor disputes within companies. Such advantage is made more apparent during the annual process of determining the minimum-wage increase in each region.   

Wage connection

DURING the stakeholder consultations conducted by the Regional Tripartite Wages and and Productivity Board-National Capital Region in November, representatives from Ecop stressed wage hikes should be decided in CBAs rather than imposed by the state.

Ecop said this will ensure that companies will be able to implement wage increases that they can afford and are also acceptable to their workers.

The National Wages Productivity Commission Executive Director Executive Director Maria Criselda R. Sy said this is how wage setting should be done.

“One of the ways to boost real wages is to strengthen the collective bargaining powers of the workers,” Sy said.

Typically, workers with CBA enjoy higher income and more benefits like leaves and health care than those who don’t have it.

An ILO-funded study by University of the Philippines Professor Melisa R. Serrano said this is because unionized establishments are more likely to provide incentive schemes, which would augment the regular income of their employees.

Due to the low union density in the country, however, many workers still rely on their minimum wage as their main source of income.

‘Can’t organize millennials’

DESPITE all the threats and deterrents against labor organizing, the low union density still boils down to the issue of recruitment, Labor Assistant Secretary and concurrent BLR director Benjo M. Benavidez said.

He noted labor federations and unions would have to update their recruitment methods, as well as expand the industries they tend to target to increase their membership.

“They should really change their strategy…they still can’t organize the millennials,” Benavidez said.

ISLE data from the PSA showed labor unions still tend to be concentrated in larger firms.

“Establishments employing 200 or more workers registered the highest union density rate at 8 percent. A lower rate of 5.3 percent followed for establishments with 100 to 199 workers, while those with 20 to 99 workers had the least share of 2.9 percent,”the  PSA said.

Partido Manggagawa Chairman Renato Magtubo confirmed this, saying that organizing workers in smaller companies is more costly for labor federations.

Also, Magtubo said small firms lack the financial capability to negotiate with their workers.

Covering non-regulars

ASIDE from methodologies, labor groups are also being urged to reach out to the still largely unorganized part of the labor sector: nonstandard/regular employment.

In her journal article, titled “Between Representation and Regulation: Union Strategies on Non-Standard Employment in Selected Industries in the Philippines,” Serrano said some labor groups are already engaged in the empowerment of workers.

“Many trade unions have embarked on organizing nostandard workers and creatively experimenting on models of representation and schemes of specialized protection for these workers,” she said.

Their interventions for non-regular workers (NRWs) range from informing them about their labor rights to joining them in street protests. 

She also recognized the efforts of large labor groups in lobbying for policies that would further limit NRW, particularly contractualization.

But Serrano said such efforts by labor unions to extend the coverage of their CBAs to NRWs remain limited. Of the 119 leaders of local labor unions and federations based in Metro Manila she surveyed, only about 20 said their firms are doing so. 

Data from the PSA, which was cited by Serrano, show there are 7 million NRWs in local firms with 20 or more workers in 2015. This includes probationary workers, contractual workers, casual workers, seasonal workers and apprentices.   

The DOLE is currently in the forefront of efforts to reduce NRWs in the country through its anti-illegal contractualization campaign.

As of December 3, the DOLE said it was able to regularize 411,449 contractual workers nationwide. It is targeting over 300,000 more in 2019.

Easier registration

TO further increase the number of   labor unions, Benavidez said they have recently launched an online registration for workers who want to put up their labor union.

“This makes it easier for them to register. Although they will still have the option to register manually at the DOLE office,” Benavidez said.

He said the DOLE will also be pushing for the passage of a pending bill, in Congress, House Bill 8186, which will relax union organization requirements.

Under existing DOLE rules, an applying labor union should be supported by at least 20 percent of a company’s work force should agree before it is recognized as the sole bargaining agent.

“For independent unions, the bill will reduce this to 10 percent the [membership of a company’s total work force]…. As for a labor federation, they would only need submit the names of five [affiliated chapters], from 10 before,” Benavidez said.

HB 8186 will also reduce the processing time for union applications to three days from the current 30-day period.   

The legislative measure is expected to encourage more union to either join or form their own unions.

“The DOLE is supportive of this since it will minimize requirements making enabling more unions to register. This will be our next priority for legislation,” Benavidez said


Samuel P. Medenilla

A reporter who covers the labor beat for the BusinessMirror. He graduated with a journalism degree at the University of Santo Tomas in 2009.