WORKERS may have had the “toughest” time this year as business disruptions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic continued to plague their livelihood, job security and opportunities.
However, the gradual reopening of businesses amid the decreasing infection count by the end of the year, as well as the rising number of fully vaccinated individuals in previous months, has led to optimism among labor officials that it may finally mean the start of a much-awaited recovery for the country’s workforce.
With the said improvements, the government is now eyeing to keep the country’s unemployment rate to just 7 percent by 2022.
THE long period of on-and-off lockdowns since the onset of the pandemic finally caught up with many companies in the last quarter of 2020, and continued throughout the first half of the year.
Data from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) showed that the number of permanently displaced workers, as reported by their employers, started to soar by October 2020 at 67,609.
It reached its peak the following month to 94,711, before dropping to 50,232 in December 2020 and 25,226 in January 2021.
By February, it rose again to 46,518 and continued to stay at over 36,000 until June, even when quarantine restrictions were eased during the period.
This was attributed by Labor Assistant Secretary Dominique R. Tutay to the big number of firms, employing huge work forces, that decided to finally shut down their operations.
“We surmise these are medium to large companies that folded due to prolonged uncertainties,” Tutay told the BusinessMirror in a Viber message.
Easing of restrictions
THINGS were finally starting to turn around in July, when the number of unemployed finally dropped to 28,526. Then the government decided to impose another round of lockdowns in Metro Manila in August to arrest the spread of the more infectious Delta variant, first reported in India.
However, the number of unemployed never reached the same level from the last quarter of 2020 despite the resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
From August to November, the number of permanently displaced workers hovered only between 25,000 and 30,000.
Likewise, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) noted that the employment rate rose from 91.6 percent in August to 92.6 percent in October.
This, as the government finally started piloting its Alert Level System (ALS), which focused on granular lockdowns instead of large-scale restrictions of its previous community quarantine scheme, and started making bigger gains in its vaccination drive.
FORMER dean of University of the Philippines-School of Labor and Industrial Relations (UP-SOLAIR) Rene E. Ofreneo voiced his concern over the rise in unemployment in October, which reached 16.1 percent—the highest since April’s 17.2 percent.
“The underemployed, those working at less than 40 hours a week, the unpaid family workers and those ‘with jobs but not at work’ have been increasing. So the total unemployment is going down, but the economy is not creating good quality jobs,” Ofreneo noted.
He urged the government to step up its measures in attracting “good quality investments” during the pandemic if it wants to address the issue.
The former labor undersecretary said this initiative could be even more challenging after Typhoon Odette (international code name: Rai) devastated six regions in the country.
IN May, the government launched its National Employment Recovery Strategy (NERS) to address the pandemic’s impact on the country’s work force.
The NERS task force, headed by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and co-chaired by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda), consolidated all government programs which provided support to both employers and their workers.
The programs include loans to struggling companies as well as employment facilitation, skills training, upskilling and retooling of displaced workers.
As of December, DOLE reported the NERS programs benefited 2.08 million workers and 129,000 establishments.
NERS also has a component wherein the government partnered with the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (Ecop) to generate a million jobs before the end of the year.
However, due to the additional Covid-related lockdowns in previous months, Tutay said only 60 percent of the said target was met as of this month.
LABOR and Employment Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III said he will prioritize employment facilitation before he ends his term in 2022.
“With respect to the local employment situation, the prospect is very good, especially considering almost every worker is now vaccinated [against Covid-19],” Bello said.
As of December 24, 2021, the Department of Health (DOH) reported that 18.3 million of the frontliners in essential sectors (A4 category) got their first dose of Covid-19 jabs and another 15.3 million are already fully vaccinated.
Tutay said this is around 75 to 80 percent of the workers in this category.
THE Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) stressed the need for the government to consult the labor sector in implementing NERS to ensure its success.
TUCP spokesman Alan Tanjusay wondered aloud, with dismay, why the labor sector is no longer getting any updates about NERS from the government.
“We don’t see and feel the presence of NERS. We don’t know its status. Where is it and how is it doing,” Tanjusay said.
He noted without such consultation, many of the government’s Covid-19 responses ended up being “trial and error” schemes.
To note, TUCP and other labor groups voiced their opposition to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases’ (IATF) position, which requires vaccination for onsite workers.
They called for the suspension or scrapping of what they called an “anti-labor” policy.
MEANWHILE, for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) observed a mixed improvement in their deployment.
For sea-based OFWs, POEA observed their deployment is now back to prepandemic levels at 40,000 per month.
The same could not be said of land-based sector workers, who currently face several challenges, including travel restrictions abroad, as well as the country’s existing deployment cap for health-care workers (HCWs).
It reported the agency was able to deploy an average of over 30,000 land-based OFWs per month this year.
This is still way below the average 126,413 monthly deployment figures in 2019, when POEA sent 1.51 million land-based OFWs abroad.
POEA limited the number of HCWs who can be deployed this year to just 7,000, to ensure the country will have a sufficient workforce for its Covid-19 response. A similar 7,000 cap will take effect by 2022.
The deployment cap does not apply to HCWs with existing employment contracts abroad, those deployed under government-to-government arrangement and to the United Kingdom.
WHILE the government did not impose any deployment ban on other countries directly because of the growing Covid-19 presence abroad, it did suspend sending OFWs to some countries due to security and welfare issues.
Among the countries affected by the deployment suspensions this year are Israel due to the conflict in the Gaza Strip, Myanmar due to the successful coup there earlier this year, and Afghanistan after the Taliban took over its government.
In the case of Oman, the deployment restriction stems from the decision of the Omani government to stop allowing the entry of OFWs.
In the case of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the government imposed a deployment ban twice to the Middle East country: on the issue of protocols and who will pay for the quarantine accommodation of OFWs, and the P4.6 billion worth of claims of thousands of 9,000 displaced Filipino construction workers.
BELLO said addressing the unpaid claims of the displaced construction workers in Saudi Arabia would be among the issues he will try to resolve during the last few remaining months of his term.
The matter is expected to be raised at the next meeting between labor officials and their Saudi counterparts.
Bello’s other priorities include the completion of the first-ever OFW Hospital in Pampanga, as well as making more “democratic” the decision-making in the International Labor Organization (ILO), the UN’s labor arm where he leads the government group.
Last, Bello said part of his agenda for 2022 is to continue to push for the granting of wage subsidy to pandemic-affected establishments, which, he noted, Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III supports.
“We need to bring back workers who lost their jobs, but we also have to understand the situation of our employers that they might be able to bring back all of their original workers, so we may need to subsidize 60 percent [of the wages of the said workers],” Bello said.