MANILA, May 2, 2005
(STAR) By Mayen Jaymalin And Paolo Romero - As a gift to workers on Labor Day, President Arroyo has ordered an increase in the daily take-home pay of minimum wage earners and a package of other benefits.

"Upon my order, (Labor) Secretary (Patricia) Sto. Tomas will meet with the regional wage boards to set the proper wages within 30 days," Mrs. Arroyo said in a May Day speech before moderate labor groups at Malacañang.

The President directed the country’s 17 regional tripartite wages and productivity boards to set adjustments in the minimum wage rates of workers in their respective regions within 30 days, "with or without petitions for a salary increase."

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), a moderate labor organization representing various sectors in the work force, said it was ready to argue its case for a P78 across-the-board salary increase for private workers before the wage boards.

Workers welcomed the President’s response to their demands that were contained in a manifesto and presented to her at Malacañang as the nation celebrated Labor Day.

"Let this successful dialogue between the President and legitimate labor groups signal a new dawn in our collective effort to create more jobs at decent wages," said former senator Ernesto Herrera, secretary general of TUCP, which led some 35 labor groups in presenting their 10-point demand.

They came out of the meeting very satisfied, said TUCP spokesman Alex Aguilar.

"We are very happy because she granted not only wage increase but all our demands," Aguilar said in an interview.

The President has also ordered the Department of Finance to study the possibility of exempting workers earning minimum pay and below from paying withholding taxes.

According to Aguilar, Mrs. Arroyo also allocated 50 hectares of land for the housing of workers and placed the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) under the supervision of the Department of Labor and Employment to speed up the resolution of pending labor cases.

DOLE said the President gave the directive to act on the workers’ demand for salary adjustments regardless of whether there is a pending petition before regional wage boards.

Bitonio assured that all RTWPBs are ready to come out with a decision within 30 days or even earlier.

"The boards can start with the process of determining wage increase because the regional chairmen have already updated the information needed in coming out with a decision," the labor official said.

For the wage board in the National Capital Region, he said a public hearing is set on May 9 regarding TUCP’s P78 petition to increase the minimum daily wage of about P280.

There are an estimated 34 million workers in the country apart from the 1.4 million state employees. Overseas, some eight million Filipinos are working in various parts of the globe.

Employers are opposed to a pay increase, claiming it would result in massive closures of small and medium enterprises and the retrenchment of workers nationwide.

The government has rebuffed this, saying wage boards do not grant hefty across-the-board pay increases and allow only reasonable salary adjustments within a region that are affordable to employers.

The National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), an attached agency of DOLE, further cited data indicating that increases in minimum wage was the last reason for the shutting down of businesses.

In her speech before labor groups, the President also thanked all domestic and foreign employers for employing Filipinos, whom she described as "industrious, highly skilled and respectable."

"I call on you to honor this day every day the sweat of the brow of your employees, who help you give you a good life," Mrs. Arroyo said. "In return, we must ensure your workers have a decent wage, a decent workplace, and a decent quality of life."

"We are country blessed with the best workers in the world… the quality of the Filipinos’ work is known and respected all over the world," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She said as President, it is her responsibility to make hard decisions to give workers "a new place in the sun, with good jobs, decent wages, better education, a cleaner and safer environment and social justice for all."

The Chief Executive vowed to improve the welfare of women and disabled workers. She also promised to strengthen tripartite mechanisms of government, labor and business to improve the economy. She said workers are the backbone of the country and the lifeblood of industry and commerce.

Speaking for the labor sector at the Malacañang meeting, TUCP president Democrito Mendoza also asked for a review of tariff agreements entered into by the Philippines with the World Trade Organization.

"Everyday, millions of Filipinos are weeping because of high consumer prices and fares, lack of money for the education of our children, medicine of parents who get sick, and payments for our rented homes, electricity water and many others," Mendoza said in Filipino.

"If the country is buried in debt, almost all workers are too," he said.

Other Directives

ong the President’s other directives in response to the labor groups’ 10-point demand were:

• A comprehensive tripartite–government, labor and business–consultation and discussion would be undertaken to review and amend provisions in the Labor Code, particularly on contractualization;

• Representatives from the labor sector would be included in the inter-agency committee, led by the Departments of Energy, and Labor and Employment (DOLE), reviewing the Oil Deregulation Law.

• Trade and Industry Secretary Juan Santos was directed to include a representative from the Labor Solidarity Movement, composed of several major moderate labor groups, to sit in the Price Coordinating Council in order to have the workers’ perspective in countering undue price hikes.

• Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap was tasked to double the number of rolling stores of basic goods, particularly, rice to serve more poor communities.

• PhilHealth was ordered to expand its coverage from its 20-fold increase since 2001, to include OFWs.

• DOLE and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) were ordered to double their scholarships for children of OFWs and prioritize students from the poorest barangays.

• The Employees’ Compensation Commission was to set aside 50 hectares of its property in Tanay, Rizal to build complete housing units and other facilities for disabled workers.

• DOLE, the Department of Trade and Industry and Small Business Guarantee and Finance Corporation are to extend loans and financial assistance for labor unions, and prioritize women workers for microfinance.

• DOLE will set aside P2 million for the implementation of the 2004 Social Accord for Industrial Peace between labor and business;

• DOLE and the Department of Foreign Affairs are to conduct more job fairs.

• To protect workers in the automotive industry, Congress was asked to pass a bill prohibiting the importation of second-hand vehicles, except trucks, buses and ambulances. In the meantime, higher taxes were imposed on the said importation.

• An urgent administration bill would be filed in Congress increasing the salaries of state workers. Pending the bill’s passage, the Department of Budget and Management will come up with a "transitional relief package" to government employees.

• Labor unions are going to be included in fight against corruption being undertaken by the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission headed by Merceditas Gutierrez, and the Run After Tax Evaders (RATE) program by the Bureau of Internal Revenue headed by Commissioner Guillermo Parayno.

According to Sto. Tomas, said the "transitional relief package" would include "transport support" and "provident funds." She said the details are still being discussed with Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin.

The TUCP said it looks forward to their dialogue with the President’s economic team to be initiated by Sto. Tomas.

"We believe that the administration’s fiscal reform agenda can only succeed if it includes genuine safeguards for the poorest of the poor," Herrera said.

He also vowed that TUCP will be actively involved in the crafting of amendments to the Labor Code "against the contractualization of labor and other prevailing practices that imperil a worker’s right to job security and decent wage."

Herrera added they welcome the inclusion of organized labor in the anti-corruption efforts of the government.

"We shall train and mobilize our members as the people’s watchdogs against corruption and price manipulation in their respective areas," he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Manuel Villar called on employers yesterday to provide workers with extra benefits in the form of scholarship grants and training programs in view of the workers’ low compensation packages.

Villar has filed Senate Bill 553 or the "Pensionado Act" that seeks to grant an advanced studies development program to exceptional employees from the government and private sector.

"Employers may not be able to regularly increase the salaries or wages of their employees, but they can extend benefits in other forms that would be appreciated by them as well. The most practical of which are scholarship grants and training programs," he said.

Under the bill, Villar proposed the establishment of a pensionado program that would pool together all fellowships, scholarships and training grants offered by various organizations locally and abroad.

The measure likewise proposes that a program be devised for exceptionally able and highly motivated employees, preferably between the age of 30 to 40, to undertake advanced studies in the branch of science, technology or related fields of learning or expertise. - With reports from Paolo Romero, Christina Mendez

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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