MANILA, MAY 2, 2008
(STAR) By Marvin Sy - Unable to announce a wage increase in time for Labor Day, President Arroyo made surprise visits to various regional wage boards yesterday in an apparent attempt to prod the tripartite boards to speed up their deliberations.

Officials said the President made the unannounced visits to oversee the progress of deliberations on the wage hike petitions filed before the regional boards.

Acting Labor Secretary Marianito Roque said the early deliberations conducted by the wage boards as requested by Mrs. Arroyo would pave the way for the issuance of new wage orders in the various regions within the month.

The National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), on the other hand, reported that workers in Metro Manila and other key regions in the country are likely to get the much-awaited wage increase in the next two weeks.

NWPC executive director Ciriaco Lagunzad III said the regional wage boards in the National Capital Region (NCR), Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog and Central Visayas have begun discussions and are expected to come out with new wage orders by mid-May.

The President, for her part, confirmed yesterday that she signed an executive order granting a 10-percent increase in the salaries of government workers.

Mrs. Arroyo made the announcement during a visit to the regional wage board in Pampanga. But she failed to make any announcement for the private sector.

Mrs. Arroyo earlier proceeded to visit the Occupational Health and Safety Center (OHSC) in Quezon City where the National Capital Region (NCR) wage board was conducting consultations.

The President took time to listen to the demands of workers belonging to the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), which filed a petition seeking an increase of P80 for the minimum wage.

Mrs. Arroyo then went to the North Luzon Expressway and all the way to her hometown province of Pampanga, which caught media by surprise.

After several minutes tailing the presidential convoy, the media ended up at the Villanueva, De Leon and Hipolito law offices in Angeles City where the Region 3 wage board was conducting its own consultation.

“I’m sitting in two tripartite meetings. I was at the NCR together with Secretary Roque and now here for Region 3. (This visit is) not to exert undue pressure, that’s why you notice I didn’t say anything in the meeting earlier but just to see for myself how things are going,” Mrs. Arroyo told reporters.

She said she was bringing food to the members of the wage boards that she visited, “to give sustenance to those doing overtime work.”

‘Supervening conditions’

Even as Mrs. Arroyo failed to make any announcements for the workers on Labor Day, the NWPC took the initiative to declare that favorable conditions are forthcoming.

“The wage boards in Metro Manila and other key regions are already set to hold public hearing on May 13 after which they will conduct marathon deliberations and if all positions are submitted, they can already render decisions in a day or two,” NWPC executive director Ciriaco Lagunzad III said.

Lagunzad explained that a public hearing is a minimum requirement for the issuance of a wage order.

Even if the Regional Tripartite Wages Productivity Boards (RTWPBs) in the four key regions fail to finish deliberations shortly after the public hearing, Lagunzad said the wage boards would still come out with their decisions before the end of May.

“We are hopeful that the boards in the key regions would be able to grant salary increases before the end of May while the other boards nationwide by end of June,” Lagunzad added.

According to Lagunzad, of the 17 regional wage boards nationwide, only four of them, namely from the Ilocos Region, Regions IX, XI and CAR, have yet to declare “supervening conditions” in their areas of jurisdiction.

Wage boards can declare a supervening condition when there is an extraordinary increase in prices of basic commodities.

Lagunzad said the NWPC already confirmed the declaration of supervening conditions, thus allowing the different wage boards to resolve pending wage petitions.

According to Lagunzad, the different wage boards have historically declared supervening conditions twice - during the 1991 Gulf War and in 2005 in consideration of the impact of EVAT on the purchasing power of workers.

Due to extraordinary increases in prices of basic commodities, the TUCP and their affiliate unions in the different regions filed formal petitions seeking increase in take-home pay of workers ranging from P80 to P150.

Lagunzad also noted the latest wage petition filed by the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno in Eastern Visayas. It was the first time for the KMU, which is pushing for legislated wage increase, to file a formal wage petition before the regional wage board.

Citing erosion in the purchasing of power of workers due to extraordinary increase in prices of essential commodities, the members of the KMU sought a P125 daily increase in the daily pay of workers in Eastern Visayas.

Although the filing of wage petition by the KMU may be considered unusual, the NWPC welcomed the move of the militant labor group, Lagunzad said.

But the different wage boards would have to consider in their decisions not only the needs of workers, but also the capability of employers to provide wage relief, he said.

At this time, the issue of how much increases the wage boards would be granting could not be determined.

Lagunzad said the records showed the biggest salary hike granted by the wage board was P30 in Metro Manila.

Technically, the wage boards are not supposed to entertain any wage hike petitions before August because of the one-year ban from the last grant of an increase as provided by law.

But the law also allows the wage boards to consider petitions if there are supervening conditions, such as the increase in the price of rice and other basic commodities.

With the declaration of supervening conditions, TUCP spokesman Alex Aguilar said the workers are expecting the different wage boards to grant not less than half of the adjustments they are seeking.

“Based on the inflation rate, the board in Metro Manila should grant not less than P46 or else the RTWPBs should already be up for abolition. So the boards should be careful in issuing wage orders this year,” Aguilar said.

Non-wage benefits

Vice President Noli de Castro, for his part, unveiled a package of non-wage benefits to workers as a Labor Day gift to government employees and workers from the private sector.

De Castro said the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and the Social Security System (SSS) have already agreed to extend for one year the moratorium on payment of penalties for those workers with pending housing and other loans.

De Castro made the announcement during the Labor Day celebration held at the World Trade Center in Pasay City, representing Mrs. Arroyo in the event.

De Castro said the government is working with Congress for the immediate enactment of a measure that would exempt low-income workers from paying taxes.

The House of Representatives is already deliberating on a proposal to exempt minimum wage earners from paying income taxes and increase their take home pay.

On the part of the Senate, a bill has been filed proposing the creation of a P1 billion fund to cover costs of early repatriation and adequate assistance to overseas Filipino workers.

Senate President Manuel Villar said the proposal has been made, citing reports of substantial number of OFWs detained after being maltreated and abused by their employers.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. urged big business firms to take the initiative in raising the compensation of their workers without waiting for the decision of the regional wage boards.

Pimentel said employers should be socially responsible to share the profits of their business with their workers especially at this time.

The private sector led by the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP), on the other hand, turned down the government’s request to grant special allowances to workers to help them cope with the increasing costs of food and basic commodities.

“We will not give any special allowance to employees,” ECOP president Sergio Ortiz-Luis declared yesterday.

“That has been overridden by events because the wage board will already be fast-tracking their decision to increase salaries,” he added.

Ortiz-Luis said they would wait for the decision of the wage boards and act accordingly.

“We will wait for the wage board because their decision is expected within the month,” he explained.

When asked what help the employers would give their workers in the meantime, Ortiz-Luis said the government is already giving non-wage benefits.

Not enough

Militant groups led by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC) sniffed at the 10-percent increase in government workers’ salary as announced by Mrs. Arroyo.

The groups said the pay hike is not enough for public school teachers to cope with rising inflation and costs of necessities.

Militant workers from the private sector also expressed disappointment over the non-wage package of benefits announced by the government.

The Partido ng Manggagawa (PM) said the benefits were not meant to relieve the hunger of Filipino workers but merely lessen their anger.

“Non-wage benefits are only wage extenders, not a replacement for wage hike for all workers,” PM spokesman Renato Magtubo said.

Magtubo said they would continue pushing for the passage of a P125 across-the-board legislated wage increase.

Migrante International, an alliance of overseas Filipino workers and their families, asked the government to make the OFWs’ remittance services “free of charge.”

Migrante chairwoman Connie Bragas-Regalado said the government must do away with additional charges to the remittances of OFWs on top of existing charges through different currency exchange rates and other schemes.

Regalado pointed out the money charged by banks from OFWs’ remittances can enable their family to buy half sack of rice and other basic necessities. – With Mayen Jaymalin, Rainier Allan Ronda, Aurea Calica, Jose Rodel Clapano, Christina Mendez, Sheila Crisostomo, Elisa Osorio, Rachelle Marie Dangin, Roemar Baltazar

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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