This was my column last April 30.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, also known as international worker’s day.
Everyone should expect the usual demonstrations and speeches as the working class assert their rights and insist on better recognition of the important roles they play in industry and society. Although the celebration has its roots in the eight hour-day movement, which advocated that work hours be limited to eight hours (the remaining 16 hours to be divided equally for recreation and rest) and the Haymarket riots in Chicago in 1886, May 1 has also been appropriated by the socialist movement as an important commemorative day.
Thus, May 1 is usually celebrated in the former Soviet Union states, Cuba, and in the People’s Republic of China with grand military parades and display of power and force. The United States, of course, sets its own celebration of Labor Day on the first week of September. But elsewhere, as in the Philippines, May 1 is an occasion to celebrate the many social and economic achievements of the labor sector, most of which were attained through hard work and vigilance.
We should expect militant labor groups to assert their political and ideological agenda. It’s their day, after all.
In the run-up to this year’s Labor Day, the government and our legislators have been rushing several measures which would comprise their gift to the labor sector tomorrow. Our senators and congressmen had months to work on the Cheaper Medicine Act, but they felt the urgency only recently when someone brought up the idea that Congress needed to gift workers with something on the first of May.
Up until last Monday, certain congressmen were still flailing around and threatening all kinds of hexes and curses on what was supposed to be a watered-down version of the bill. It didn’t look like a compromise was in the offing. But now that the bill has been packaged as a gift to workers—a sector any legislator or elected official can’t afford to antagonize, and definitely not when an election is in the offing—people are suddenly more open to compromises.
I am told that, as usual, Rep. Teddyboy Locsin is the person that has made the breakthrough in the long-awaited Cheaper Medicine Bill. What can I say, other people can hem and haw, blabber like baboons, and swagger around like idiots but when push comes to shove, it takes real intelligence to get things done. And so, as I write, it looks like the bill will be enacted into law after all, just in time for tomorrow.
I have a problem with this collective penchant for setting certain deliverables to coincide with certain days. It’s like taking one’s significant other and being nice to that person on Valentine’s Day and then ignoring that person the rest of the year. Or not being naughty only on Christmas. Or displaying good behaviors such as not smoking on New Year’s Day. Or taking a bath only on one’s birthday.
So just because it’s Labor Day, people are rushing things and working overtime just so there could be some good news that could be delivered to workers. I know it’s better than nothing. At least there are some efforts to pay attention to the plight of workers even if it’s only on Labor Day. But if we come to think about it, that’s not really good news, is it? Surely we can become more proactive and strategic in the way we deal with our most important resource left which are people. I’ve said this a lot of times but I will say it again here and now: All or most of our other resources are already gone, and the only remaining source of competitive advantage that we have in vast quantities is people. Token gifts on Labor Day and half-baked palliative measures won’t cut it.
Most industry groups are already resigned to the possibility that a mandated wage hike increase is in the offing. A wage hike at this point is going to be counter-productive because it will further fuel the vicious cycle of spiraling prices and costs in this country.
To be able to afford the wage increase, industry will have to source the additional money to cover the spike in operational cost from somewhere. This means that to be able to pay their cashiers and merchandisers higher wages, supermarket chains will most likely impose price increases on the goods they sell. Restaurants, food chains, and other establishments will have to increase the prices of their products and services. Factories will have to charge extra as well.
And so on. To cut a long story short, industry will only pass it on to consumers eventually.
At least Congress and Malacañang have withdrawn their initial (ridiculous) proposal for a legislated wage increase. The matter has been delegated to the regional wage boards, as it should be. The dynamics are different in each region and all these need to be taken into account in the determination of any wage hike. It doesn’t make sense to decree a uniform wage increase across the country.
There’s actually a much better way to do it, which is to empower workers and management to discuss and agree on any employment issue including wage increases. Some companies are obviously doing so well that they can afford to give their employees double, even triple the current minimum wages, and a number of them do just that. Others are barely getting by and can’t even afford the current minimum wages; asking them to comply with higher minimum wages is like asking them to commit suicide.
The reality is that many companies do have collective bargaining agreements in place and many of these agreements have insulated these companies and their employees from the minimum wage increase brouhaha. In other words, the minimum wages in these companies are already over and above the reach of any new wage hikes.
Similar mechanisms such as labor management councils or management-employee collaborative councils can be strengthened. Wage hikes should be productivity driven. They must take into account the individual conditions of the companies that hire the employees in the first place. If Congress truly wants to safeguard the welfare of workers, it can pass a bill empowering workers to negotiate directly with management on wage hikes, subject to certain parameters such as financial conditions, productivity, etc.
And of course, government can strengthen social security in the country. The current move to provide cash assistance to the poor is admirable, but it doesn’t qualify as social security. This administration is doing a fantastic job of sending the message that it cares for the people while at the same time confusing the issues. It reminds one of the smoke and mirrors tricks.