DoLE should tread carefully in strike-ending decisions

Published by rudy Date posted on January 9, 2020

By The Manila Times, 9 Jan 2020

OVER the weekend, the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) interceded in a strike by employees at the Petron Bataan Refinery (PBR), ordering them to end their walkout and return to work. While DoLE’s explanation for prohibiting the labor action at the country’s largest refinery was logical, the department should be careful that its intervention does not embolden other employers to engage in union busting and other unfair labor practices.

The more than 600 workers walked off the job on Saturday, accusing PBR of union busting and noncompliance with provisions of their collective bargaining agreement. The DoLE, however, attempted to forestall the strike, issuing an order on Friday, January 3, informing the company and the workers that it was assuming jurisdiction over the labor dispute. The workers apparently received the order sometime Sunday morning and were ordered by their union leaders to disperse and return ready for work on Monday morning.

The order over Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd’s signature read in part, “Any intended strike or lockout or any concerted action is automatically enjoined. If one has already taken place, all striking and locked-out employees shall, from receipt of the order, immediately return to work.

“The employer shall immediately resume operations and readmit all workers under the same terms and conditions prevailing before the strike. The parties are likewise enjoined from committing any act that may further exacerbate the situation.”

The order also summoned the union and PBR management to a hearing in Bello’s office on Friday, January 10.

The DoLE order emphasized that a work stoppage at the refinery would adversely affect the economy and disrupt the provision of basic services such as transportation and electricity.

In spite of the DoLE order “automatically enjoining” any labor action on the part of the union or PBR management, union representatives accused the company of ignoring that and continuing to try to intimidate the workers. A union spokesman said 176 of the 630 striking workers had already been terminated by PBR and that when workers arrived for duty on Monday, the company insisted on maintaining a “preventive suspension” it had imposed against 24 leaders of the union.

If this is true, the DoLE must address this clear violation of its published order to PBR and the union.

For years, the DoLE has been saddled with a reputation, which at times has been justified, for favoring the interests of employers over the interests of workers, particularly when it comes to organized labor. Despite the appointment of a Labor secretary widely viewed as being pro-labor, the unfortunate public perception of the DoLE has not greatly improved in the past three years.

That is not necessarily a criticism of the DoLE or its current chief because managing the labor environment is a complex task, one that, for the greater good of the country, has to be carried out with equal and fair concern for the needs of workers and the businesses that employ them. Bello was correct when he observed in his order to PBR and its striking workers that it is preferable that disruptive labor actions be avoided and alternative means of resolving disputes be used as much as possible. But the DoLE cannot allow that rational position to be abused by employers to persecute workers or cow them into not exercising the rights granted them under the law.

As it stands now, the apparent contradiction between PBR’s actions and the details of the DoLE order make it appear as though that is exactly what is happening, which is why it is imperative that the DoLE address the workers’ complaints in a clear, timely fashion. Whether an actual violation has occurred or there is a misunderstanding that can be resolved with further clarification, DoLE should use the opportunity to send a clear message to employers and workers alike that impunity will not go unchallenged.

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