Monday, February 23, 2009

Not all gloom and doom

I’ve been forewarned that there will be times when as a columnist I would make a stupid error of fact – one that is so blatantly erroneous I would feel like banging my head against any hard surface.  I just did in my column today.  And I am so mortified by it.  It actually hit me when I woke up today and I felt like I had a heart attack.

What can I say.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  There’s no justification for it – even the fact that I barely had 30 minutes of sleep Saturday night and I wrote this column while running a training program (during the times when participants would be doing workshops or group discussions).  I really meant EDSA DAY, not EDSA DOS.  And what I really meant to say was that I don’t think Cory Aquino is still affected by it all anyway and the non-declaration of EDSA DAY as a holiday makes the President look ungrateful. 

I apologize.  Sincerely. I’m going to bang my head against the wall again now.

What follows is my embarrassing column today.


Now that media has stopped sensationalizing the layoffs and retrenchment programs that some companies were forced to implement as a result of the global recession, perhaps it is time to assess the labor and employment situation in a more sober and objective way.

I’ve written in this space about the need to present a more balanced picture of the labor and employment situation in our country. I know that certain industries were hit badly—foremost among them the semiconductor industry. However, if we are to be really objective about it, the situation in our country is not really as bad as what was being projected a couple of weeks back. If we were to go by the kind of reportage that was being put out there at that time, it would seem as if the employment situation in the country was on the brink of total collapse.

True, Intel and other semi-conductor companies retrenched hundreds of people last month. News stories about the layoffs were presented as if they were atomic bombs. The truth is that the decisions to retrench were not made overnight—many of the companies put in place exit plans for their employees, provided career counseling, and some even conducted training programs to soften the impact of the retrenchment on their people.

These things didn’t make it to the news reports.

I don’t mean to belittle the effect of the retrenchment on the affected employees or their families. I am sure that the loss of employment posed consequences for most of them. However, it is also important to point out that things weren’t as bad as what many would have us believe, precisely because we needed to give people reason to hope and investors the motivation to continue projects that would generate or at least sustain employment.

I had the chance to interact with Secretary Marianito Roque of the Labor Department last week at the general membership meeting of the Bankers Council for People Management where he was the keynote speaker. Either Roque has changed his repertoire of talking points from the gloomy to the upbeat, or the media have not been fair to the man and were only quoting his previous statements selectively. The Roque that I interacted with last week was far detached from the Roque that I saw on many television news reports and read about being quoted in many newspapers the other week.

He didn’t seem like the Secretary of No Labor of Unemployment anymore.

According to Roque, the jobs that have been lost so far and those that will be lost in the next few weeks or months as the result of the global recession are “recoverable.”

He cited facts and statistics to buttress his argument. For example, the jobs that were lost in the 1997 Asian financial contagion (87,000, he said) were double compared to the total number expected to be lost in the current recession (34,000 tops, he said).

Roque admitted that the effect on the country’s export sector has been major, with semiconductor and electronics firms taking the hardest blow. However, he noted that the business process outsourcing industry is posting a 25-percent growth, which should translate into some 100,000 additional jobs (clearly more than the 34,000 jobs that are projected to be lost). What’s more, he said that the agricultural sector is still posting growth rates. Banana plantations are hiring people, the abaca industry is enjoying an upsurge in global demand (we own 80 percent of the global abaca market), and pineapple and tuna remain viable industries.

What about dwindling opportunities for migrant workers? The honorable secretary pooh-poohed the doomsday scenario painted by the usual bellyachers. He said that our overseas workers do need not to feel threatened because with the sole exception of Taiwan, the other countries have not really started laying off migrant workers. Taiwan allegedly has reversed its initial reaction to the global recession when Taiwanese businessmen realized that sending Filipino workers home would have severe effect on their manpower quotas and have now opted to retain foreign workers at minimum wages instead. Roque said that the country has a total of—hold your breath now— 400,000 unfilled job orders for abroad. Qatar alone has issued 120,924 visas for Filipino workers.

So as you can see, the employment situation is not really all gloom and doom. The question is: How come this information is not out there side by side with the bad news?

***

Today is a holiday for students—and their teachers and their school administrators, of course; but it is regular working day for everyone else. According to Malacañang, the reason why the anniversary of Edsa Dos (EDSA DAY - bong) is not being officially commemorated this year through a holiday is because the business community has already complained about there being too many non-working holidays for 2009.

Since when has this administration been concerned with popularity or being at the right side of things? And what does it say of us when we subject holidays to the pleasures or displeasures of a particular sector? Granting, for the sake of argument, that there are already too many holidays scheduled this year, the question that still needs to be answered is: Why was Edsa Dos the one that was bumped off the calendar? Is giving in to the business sector a valid reason to cancel the declaration of a special holiday?

To be fair, the Palace is right—the business community, or at least those from the business process outsourcing and manufacturing industries, have indeed complained about there being too many holidays this year. In case people forget, holidays increase overhead as companies have to shell out extra for holiday pay. And truth be told, there are more than enough holidays already and there will probably be more non-working days since we happen to be visited by typhoons on a regular basis. In addition, we also have this predilection of sending employees home during heavy downpours when streets get flooded and traffic gets hopelessly gridlocked.

Still, the non-declaration sent a number of loose tongues wagging. It’s indicative of the sorry lack of credibility of this administration that everything it does is subject to speculation and given political color. One of the theories that I heard being floated was that the non-declaration was made to spite former President Cory Aquino on account of that unthinkable apology she made to Joseph Estrada. (What follows should have been deleted! - bong a.) What has Cory Aquino got to do with Edsa Dos? If there’s anyone who benefited from Edsa Dos, it is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as she rose to power on the strength of that uprising. So if there is anyone who should feel slighted by the snub or who comes across as ungrateful, it should be the President herself.

I’ve written about the many implications of not having clear-cut policies on, or in many cases, a failure to observe policies related to the proper implementation of holidays. What we have now is yet another manifestation of this problem. My problem is that it seems the declaration of holidays has become the sole prerogative of Malacañang, something that has become subject to the whims and caprices of the people who walk the corridors of powe

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