Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Holidays as ordinary days

This was my column last Monday. Been really busy; got sick as well so I missed my column today. Sigh.

Today is a special working holiday in commemoration of the founding anniversary of religious sect Iglesia ni Cristo. There was a gaffe a couple of weeks back when Malacañang released on the same day two sets of proclamations one declaring today a special working holiday and another one declaring today a special non-working holiday. Media organizations released news stories based on which of the two press releases they picked up.

Thus, one daily reported that today was going to be a special non-working holiday while another newspaper reported that today was going to be a special working holiday. Apparently, the two proclamations were prepared at the same time to cover whichever decision the President would eventually make. It wasn’t clear what specific criteria the President used to guide her decision.

But the two powerful blocs that stood on the balance were the INC sect on one hand and the businessmen on the other. Recall that the business sector had already complained about how the declaration of additional holidays was costing it millions of pesos. Who would the President favor—the religious sect that has the potential to make or break elections because their members vote as one, or the business sector that makes the economy run and for whom an additional non-working holiday would entail millions of pesos in additional holiday premiums?

In the end, the President picked the interests of the business sector and declared today a special working holiday —but someone committed the blunder of releasing both proclamations. The matter was resolved through subsequent clarifications but the whole thing clearly unraveled the way things are done in this country. Even religious sectors lobby for specific advantages. Business has to fight tooth and nail to ensure that the interest of the greater good prevails.

However, I must register my consternation at this repeated use of this nonsensical hybrid that is called a special working holiday! I have written about this before and while I do not claim to be read by people in the Palace although many of the stuff I have complained about in this space were addressed one way or the other, Malacañang continues to issue proclamations declaring certain days as special working holiday.

A working holiday is an oxymoron. It is a contradiction in terms. Adding the word special does not fix the problem and in fact complicates it even further. Declaring certain occasions as special working holidays is an empty gesture. In Tagalog, “pampalubag loob lamang.” The whole point of declaring holidays is to set it aside as a special day of commemoration and by definition, this means people take a break from their work, students don’t have classes, etc, precisely so that people can properly observe the celebration. How can people observe a holiday if they continue with their usual routines?

The Commission on Higher Education interfered last Saturday and declared that there will be no classes today. The declaration addressed the concern of members of the INC who openly griped about how students who are members of the sect would have to miss classes today so that they could converge at the INC headquarters in Quezon City for the celebration. The downside to the declaration was that administrators of many schools would have to juggle their school calendars once again to make up for the school holiday. We should remember that many schools already deferred the opening of classes for 10 days due to the H1N1 pandemic.

And then there is the issue of how workers should be compensated today. Since last week, human resource management professionals have been in a quandary regarding what formula or scheme would be used to compute salaries of employees today. You see, employee compensation is a highly sensitive matter that needs clear-cut guidelines.

A non-working holiday is not a problem—employees don’t get paid anything extra. But what about special working holidays? According to Department of Labor Memorandum Circular 01 issued on March 8, 2004, workers are not entitled to holiday premiums on special working holidays. However, a number of lawyers continue to contend that non-payment of holiday premiums on holidays violate the spirit and intent of the law covering holidays.

A lawyer-friend who is HR director of a college said he talked to several lawyers to see if there was a consensus. Half of the lawyers he talked to were of the opinion that no overtime premiums would have to be paid. The problem was that the other half thought that workers were entitled to holiday premiums precisely because of the absence of clear-cut guidelines.

Our problem with holidays is borne out of the fact that we keep tampering with our national holidays to suit the whims of various interest groups. The solution to the problem is for Malacañang to keep a hands-off policy toward holidays so that dirty politicking stops getting in the way. It is the job of Congress to promulgate legal holidays anyway.

The schedule of holidays has been fixed for as long as I can remember and they actually already cover all the occasions that should rightfully be commemorated. To illustrate, Malacañang tried to avert possible confusions next year by declaring six months in advance the schedule of holidays for 2010 through Proclamation 1841 last July 22. Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita gloated about how the Palace was being proactive this time around. What he conveniently left out was that proclamations that seek to change the schedule of holidays have to be made six months in advance to comply with the law.

Republic Act 9492 clearly specifies that “for movable holidays, the President shall issue a proclamation, at least six months prior to the holiday concerned, the specific date that shall be declared as a nonworking day.” They were just complying with the law.

Proclamation 1841, which was supposed to avoid possible confusions about the schedule of holidays in 2010, left out the date of elections next year. I’d like to believe this was a simple oversight rather than being indicative of some sinister political machinations meant to thwart the 2010 elections. At the same time, the proclamation ignored the recently-passed House Bill changing the date of the commemoration of Rizal Day from Dec. 30 (his death) to Jan. 19 (his birthday)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Why we can't solve the drug problem

This was my column last Wednesday.  Late post. Sorry.

Like everyone else, I am also deeply concerned—alarmed, in fact—that we seem poised to become the next drug capital of the world. I am sure there are people out there who would accuse me of being alarmist—we’re not Mexico or Colombia, they probably are muttering to themselves. Well, not yet. But does anyone ever doubt our innate ability, our inherent ingenuity, to achieve any distinction that suggests fame or infamy?

Besides, God knows we have all the right ingredients, and in huge quantities at that, to produce whatever man-made disaster imaginable: Corrupt politicians and leaders, a growing drug abuse problem, poverty, and collective penchant for being reactive rather than being proactive.

The drug problem of the country has been there for quite sometime already; it’s definitely not something that cropped up yesterday. Rumors of celebrities using shabu (Meth also known as poor man’s cocaine) can be traced to as far back as the early 1990s. Although shabu markets became a fad only recently, proof that the manufacturing of the prohibited substance has already been happening in the country, they were already available as early as the early 1990s. Sure, many of these shabu factories got raided and were forcibly closed down but it is not a far-fetched assumption that for every factory shut down, there are at least three more that are still operational.

Drug use is so widespread in this country. I’ve talked to people who have been to parties attended by the so-called who’s who in this country and where the main attraction was a buffet of drugs readily available for the taking. The spread, I am told, ranges from marijuana, to shabu, to ecstacy, to Ketamine, to cocaine, to various concoctions that are turned into injectibles. Some bars are notorious for being virtual drug dens and it is precisely this reputation that draws in the crowds.

I’ve become aware of the extent of our drug problem because of my work in HIV/AIDS prevention. Drug use has been proven as the vector of HIV transmission in other countries. It is easy to imagine why—when one is high, one’s vulnerability also increases algebraically as one becomes more daring and uninhibited. From what I know, drug use is already widespread and has been noted in various key cities of the country, not just in Metro Manila.

The important question that needs to be answered is: What are we really doing to stop the drug menace? We’ve had lots of opportunities—and in the past, the luxury of time—to lick the problem. But instead of reducing the extent of the problem, it now seems as if it has even spread like wildfire. It now seems uncontrollable.

Anyone with half a mind can actually cite the reasons why we have been unsuccessful in licking the drug problem. First, there’s a lack of political will to really go after the big-time manufacturers and pushers. Second, and this is a natural extension of the first reason cited above —corruption is also so widespread in our country and it is a foregone conclusion that the big-time manufacturers, pushers and importers of drugs are under the protection of some powerful people in this country. If we really come to think about it, how else are they able to operate and wreck havoc in this country if they didn’t have political and police connections?

The rest of the reasons are secondary. Sure, the drug problem is also largely a social problem and therefore one that requires community or family interventions. What is imperative, though, is that we first cut the supply. If there is nothing to sell, there will be no pushers.

At the Senate hearing called to unravel the sex video scandal last month (how come we have Senate hearings on sex videos but has not had any on the more serious drug problem?) drug use was offered as an excuse for perversity. The sociologists and the other psychologists in this country have already offered their two cents on the connection between drug use and certain sexual fetishes but what amazed me was the rather nonchalant way in which the senators reacted to the drug use angle. They did ask who supplied the drugs but I got the impression that the questioning was being pursued more because they wanted to find out who among the protagonists was a worse influence than the other.

And recently, the problem has just acquired another complication. A young girl, allegedly the daughter of a police narcotics officers, was abducted, drugged, and raped allegedly as a form of retaliation by a drug syndicate. The crime is chilling because it illustrates just what drug syndicates are capable of doing and will actually do to prove a point, including using the life of an innocent girl as pawn in a high-stake game.

As if things were not complicated enough, here now come certain sectors using the tragedy as fodder for efforts to revive the death penalty in the country. The death penalty debate was something that raged for quite some time in the recent past and it was a relief when it finally got settled with the abolition of the penalty. But unfortunately people don’t really accept defeat in this country; they simply wait for a more opportune time when conditions are ripe to advance their cause once again.

I am not going to repeat the various arguments that illustrate why the death penalty is not a deterrent to criminality. But I will say this unequivocally: It is a pointless debate because even if for some reason proponents of the death penalty does succeed in resurrecting death penalty as punishment, I strongly believe such a penalty will not and cannot be implemented. It will only result in having more death convicts who end up serving life sentences instead. This is because I doubt if there are leaders who will allow a convict from being killed through lethal injection during his or her watch.

The death penalty issue is a side issue that threatens to deflect focus from the real issues around our drug problem. As usual, it seems we’re all going to be caught up in the static once again. There’s another reason why we can’t solve many of our problems—we seem to have collective attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. We hyperventilate at the slightest provocation and are unable to focus on the real issues.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Side-view mirrors

This is my column today.

Within a span of 30 days, the cars in our neighborhood that were parked along the street lost side-view mirrors, not once but twice. The first time it happened, which was barely a month ago, the culprit—or culprits, since it is hard to believe someone could pull off theft involving about 20 cars in one sweep all by his lone self—harvested both side view mirrors of all the cars parked on two parallel streets.

And then someone else—or possibly the same felon or felons—came back last week to repeat the dastardly deed. This time, though, only the side view mirrors facing the side of street were harvested. We didn’t quite know what to make of the selective theft. Was it magnanimity on their part? Perhaps the thieves had a sudden attack of conscience since it was the second time in a month that they were stealing from the neighborhood. Or it could have been because they were in a real hurry. Or, who knows, they probably just had a perverted sense of humor.

When I told friends about the thefts, most of them simply shrugged their shoulders as if such thievery was commonplace. Imagine my consternation to discover that, indeed, the theft of side view mirrors is so commonplace there is a brisk market for stolen side view mirrors somewhere in Evangelista, Makati and in Banaue, Quezon City.

One friend told me to be thankful that the thieves only took side view mirrors. He said that he had heard stories of thieves not simply being content with stealing side view mirrors; they also left some kind of signature by doing damage to cars. He said some splatter brake fluids on the car destroying the paint in the process, or leave wide gashes at the side measuring the whole length of the car. Of course, some take more than just the mirrors, some cart off with the car mags or all four wheels. A number simply take the whole car. His theory was that the thief or thieves that honored our neighborhood with regular visits must be small-time crooks, content with making quick money out of filching side view mirrors.

Another friend told me, as if to provide consolation, that at least I didn’t have to go through the harrowing experience of seeing the theft being done with my own two eyes. Apparently this happened to her once. She was stuck in traffic along Araneta Avenue in Quezon City when a band of juvenile teenagers suddenly materialized on the scene and started removing the side view mirrors of the vehicles stuck in traffic. They even had the temerity to give drivers the dirty eye as if daring them to come out of their cars and engage them in a fistfight. She could only watch helplessly while the goons dashed off with their booty to the nearby squatter areas.

Yet another friend told me to think of the loss as some kind of assistance to someone who was probably in need. He romanticized the thief by asking me to imagine that perhaps the poor blokes who make a living filching side view mirrors were in a dire situation, perhaps someone had a child in a hospital (with leukemia, maybe) and really needed money.

It dawned on me that these indeed are the ways we deal with criminality in our country. We justify, philosophize, even romanticize the misdemeanor and make allowances for certain human frailties. It’s like that famous anecdote about how people that got held up in a bus were thankful to the goons who held them up at gun point for giving them fare money so they could still get home in one piece. “Mabuti na lang mabait yung holdupper at binigyan kami ng pamasahe” (It was a good thing the robber was kind; he gave us fare money). And then we shrug off our shoulders and suggest practical things that need to be done.

What I learned, quite painfully, was that the theft of side view mirrors is rampant today. It is possible that such is happening because there are more cars today, most of them parked on streets at night, and therefore pose as easy pickings.

But the more plausible reason is because there is a market for stolen side view mirrors. There must be a syndicate somewhere that collects all the stolen stuff and pools them in one location.
The first time we lost side view mirrors, my brother went to the auto shops along Evangelista Street in Makati to buy replacements. He reported being besieged by itinerant vendors who offered various types and makes of side view mirrors—from original ones to substandard ones (ordinary mirrors cut to size), to surplus (euphemism for recycled goods), to ones of dubious origins (in all likelihood stolen). I didn’t know if my brother was serious or was simply kidding but he said someone asked him what type of side view mirrors was being required and offered to come up with the mirrors at half the price provided we were willing to come back in the afternoon. It wasn’t hard to presume that the side view mirrors would be sourced from somewhere, presumably filched from some cars nearby.

Of course I asked my brother to buy original ones. Another friend was incredulous when I told him how much the darn things cost me. When I told him I didn’t want to buy stolen goods – or even those from dubious sources – he snickered and told me “what’s makes you so sure that the ones you bought from the store were not stolen either?” He had a point. One cannot be absolutely certain these days. I should have asked my brother to go straight to the casa where they charge and arm, a leg and a whole torso. Standing one’s ground and sticking to principle is not easy in this country. Not when the alternative to being practical is to be so impractical as to fork over thousands of pesos at a casa for something that costs only a few hundred pesos on the street.

So we bought brand-new side-view mirrors twice in a row within one month. The story does not end there. The rampant theft of side-view mirrors has apparently spawned a new cottage industry as there are now various gadgets and contraptions designed to protect a car’s side view mirrors from being stolen.

I was told of a contraption that one attaches to the edges of a car’s side view mirrors, like some kind of a guard that would prevent the mirrors from being taken out of their sockets. The downside is that these things cost money and they are quite conspicuous—it’s like one is openly daring thieves to make one’s day. Still another option, I was told, was some kind of a contraption that encases the whole side view mirror installation, locking it off. Another suggested having the replacement side view mirrors glued firmly to the sockets which would mean that the mirrors would have to be destroyed first before they can be taken out. It’s a variation of the loss-loss strategy for dealing with criminals.

And oh, you may have wondered where the much vaunted barangay tanod were when the two thefts happened. Unfortunately, we don’t have any. We used to have some, but they were paid for by the neighborhood rather than by the barangay. But the guys soon found better employment. We happen to have a barangay captain who can’t be bothered about these things. The ironic thing was that he himself lost a car parked in front of his house.

There are various lessons to be learned from this story and the side mirrors are metaphors to what we go through every day. It’s also a sad reflection of the state of things in our country.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Restrictive amendments to Labor Code (2)

This was my column last Wednesday.  Sorry for the late post.

Last Monday I wrote about the current initiative being pushed at the House of Representatives —a bill to amend the Labor Code. The proposed amendments, however, are objectionable because they are restrictive. Instead of building a nurturing business climate that would in turn create more opportunities for employment, the proposed amendments seek to clamp down on industry’s management prerogatives.

A number of business organizations have already registered their respective positions on the bill. In this space, I will cull from the position paper of the People Management Association of the Philippines. PMAP is the national organization of human resource professionals in the country. PMAP has asked lawmakers to reconsider their support to the bill citing potential negative unintended consequences on business and ultimately, on employees.

The proposed amendments to the Labor Code are packaged under a noble intent—to strengthen security of tenure of workers in the private sector. As I wrote in this space last Monday, it’s an issue that is everyone’s concern. Unfortunately, many of our legislators seem to still adhere to what PMAP refers to as “the outmoded conflictual paradigm of big business versus the disempowered worker.” Really, anyone who still subscribes to the notion that business is not interested in providing security of tenure is either grossly misinformed or terribly prejudiced. The buzzword in the business sector in the last five years has been “talent retention” and the most popular programs have been on engaging employees and ensuring commitment towards the organization. To put it clearly and in no uncertain terms: Business also wants to provide workers security of tenure.

Of course, as the PMAP position paper says, there are “inadequacies of certain organizations in the private sector.” There are companies that for some reason or another have been unable to comply with certain laws. This, however, is not the norm. And as PMAP maintains, it is “an issue that might not be necessarily addressed by added government regulation. Safeguards already exist in the law; it is enforcement that needs greater attention.” In short, what PMAP is saying is that we must stop this penchant for complicating things in this country. It seems that our default reaction to solving most of our problems is by adding yet another law to complicate things, or creating another oversight body, or putting in place more control measures rather than on making laws work.

What exactly is wrong with the proposed amendments to the Labor Code? Aside from the outmoded premise of the bill—which is that strengthening security of tenure is best achieved by clamping down on the business sector—the unintended consequences are possibly debilitating. In this column I will just focus on two proposals which are indicative of the myopia of our lawmakers.

First, the bill prohibits the “engagement by the principal of subcontracted employees in excess of 10 percent of the principal’s total workforce” and limits the permissible number of casual and contractual employment to 20 percent of an organization’s total workforce. According to PMAP, “the arbitrary and artificial cap on the number of contractual employees fails to appreciate the purpose of workforce planning and incorrectly sees the process as static and short-term.” Very few companies require a fixed number of workers throughout the year as there are obviously seasonal peaks and lows in business and production cycles. The immediate consequence is that organizations are now forced to reconsider hiring more employees over and above the proposed caps particularly during peak seasons. Instead, companies will now resort to other alternatives such as automation, productivity programs, etc. Rather than create employment, the unintended consequence is reduction in the number of jobs.

Of course it is obvious that the bill is pushing for regularization of contractual employees. (Another proposal is for companies to hire extra employees during peak season but to consider them regular employees who are on leave without pay throughout the rest of the year—a hybrid form of employment arrangement that doesn’t make sense)

Again, unfair assumption is that the business sector is allergic to hiring regular employees and prefers contractualization. Many companies hire contractual employees as a stop-gap measure, as extra “hands” to tide it over while searching for qualified candidates. If qualified people are available to begin with, there wouldn’t be a need for contractuals. The problem is systemic and can be traced back to our yawning mismatch problem—but forcing companies to eschew contractualization is not the solution. It will only lead to job contraction.

PMAP presents a compelling argument: “Not all casual and contractual workers beyond the 20 percent limit will be regularized. From our consultations with our members, indeed, they will increase the number of regular workers but in order to offset the additional costs associated with this regularization, they will decrease their total headcount. For instance, jobs previously performed by several casual/contractual workers will be integrated into a single regular position. Hence, the total number of jobs will inevitably contract. Further, automation and mechanization become viable options for several enterprises especially if manpower costs become prohibitive. Hence, instead of providing security of tenure, the bill will have unintended repercussions on the very core of employment: job availability. What is more alarming is that even local manufacturing companies have raised the possibility of moving their operations to neighboring Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Vietnam if headcount costs become too expensive in the Philippines. Again, this probable shift will be detrimental to the country’s overall employment situation.”

The bill likewise seeks to prohibit contracting out of a job, work or service being performed by or previously performed by regular employees and/or members of the bargaining unit. In addition, the bill seeks to render as unfair labor practice contracting out services or functions being performed by members of, or positions covered by, the bargaining unit or regular rank-and-file and supervisory employees.

According to PMAP “these provisions make organizational restructuring impossible. Further, these create a disincentive for start-up organizations that need to build their infrastructure but may not need to maintain a sizeable workforce once their systems and processes are already efficient and in place. Hence, the already difficult business environment brought on by the global financial crisis might be further aggravated by the bill’s restrictive provisions.”

PMAP further asserts that “as it is, foreign investors already lament the bureaucratic restrictions that make operations in the Philippines difficult. The proposed bill adds yet another hurdle that will push existing businesses to be cautious in expanding their operations and discourage prospective investors from setting up shop in the country. Clearly, the repercussions of the proposed bill extend beyond issues of job availability and a probable increase in unemployment to include larger issues such as economic viability and national competitiveness.”

PMAP has likewise presented compelling argument supported by empirical data that shows how the proposed amendments will unduly disadvantage small and medium enterprises, which comprise more than 90 percent of Philippine business, and how it is incongruent with the country’s thrust to build a competitive outsourcing industry.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Restrictive amendments to the Labor Code

This is my column today.

Being preoccupied with building a legacy to be left behind as a reminder of one’s greatness is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people become preoccupied with building grandiose structures and edifices, some endeavor to produce spectacularly magnificent (or conversely, spectacularly horrendous) works of art, others take on social projects of mammoth proportions, or labor to produce definitive inventions, processes, etcetera.

True, it is sometimes indicative of pretentiousness or worse, a bloated sense of self-importance. If we really come to think about it, a legacy should be a whole body of works or output that all together—in some gestalt form—define character, or substance, or style, rather than a singular work regardless of how spectacular it may be. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that aspiring for greatness through one singular act is something we can all live with—if only such efforts do not produce more harm than good.

There are a few things in this world that are more dangerous than politicians intent on leaving a legacy, particularly if the legacy they want to leave behind and be remembered for is a law that has far-reaching implications on the life of this country. I am told that being associated with a law that assumes the status of a major social doctrine (think Joey Lina and the Anti-squatting Law or Aquilino Pimentel and the Local Governments Code) is every lawmaker’s dream.

There really should be nothing wrong with such a lofty aspiration. We should be putting in place laws that level the playing field or remedy the inequities in our social or economic systems. However, unlike a hideous sculpture in the middle of a major thoroughfare that can be ignored or a major edifice by the Manila Bay that can be allowed to rot away undisturbed, a law is something that everyone has to live and comply with. A law becomes part of the legal and social framework that props up the justice, economic, even cultural systems of a country.

For many years now, lawmakers have been attempting to amend the Labor Code of the country. I probably don’t need to say this, but I think I should just to remind everyone of how sacrosanct that Code is—it is the bible of the workplace. It governs everything related to employment from working conditions, to benefits and wages, to termination and separation. But it is a Code that is frayed around the edges and in many parts already irrelevant. So yes, it is about time it gets updated so that it is able to keep up with the needs of the times. The workplace today is a vastly different place than it was three decades ago.

If we are to think logically and strategically, amendments to the Labor Code should be focused on making it relevant to or up to speed with the trends and conditions in the current and emerging workplace.

Many other countries are doing something similar—they are putting in place mechanisms to ensure that their laws enhance national competitiveness and build long-term sustainability rather than stifle growth. They are focusing on enhancing employability by putting in place more comprehensive frameworks that on one hand, create more opportunities for employment, and on the other hand, ensure that there is a match between the competencies of people and those jobs. In short, they are thinking out of the box—they have thrown out that old paradigm of how “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” by recognizing that the key is not to hold on to that metaphorical “bird in the hand” but ensuring that there are lots more, lots, lots more in the bush.

To achieve this, lawmakers must think beyond partisan interests and eschew populist agenda. Recent developments indicate that this is wishful thinking.

There is now an attempt to ram through the lower house a measure designed to protect security of tenure of workers.

The intent is admirable even if the specific goal smacks of shortsightedness. Like I said, we should be able to put in place comprehensive and proactive frameworks that provide job security to our workers. By comprehensive and proactive, I refer to measures that promote collaboration rather than incite divisiveness, ones that would widen the playing field rather than limit it, ones that would build long-term solutions rather than simply correct perceived existing inequities.

Unfortunately, the means through which some lawmakers want to enhance job security is through an outmoded model—one that prescribes more stringent controls and prescribes tightening of opportunities to protect existing jobs. Instead of harnessing employability and encouraging job creation, our lawmakers are clamping down on industries. In effect, it’s a measure that harks back to the old paradigm that says business and labor are natural enemies and government and the law must be on the side of labor. Why can’t we operate from the assumption that everyone—government, business, labor—want the same thing and that it is possible to address the needs of all without necessarily prejudicing the interests of one sector?

The measure (An Act Strengthening the Security of Tenure of Workers in the Private Sector, Amending for the Purpose Articles 248, 279, 280, 281 and 288, and Introducing New Articles 106, 106-A, 106-B, 106-C, 106-D, 106-E, 280-A and 280-B to Presidential Decree No. 442, as Amended, Otherwise Known as the Labor Code of the Philippines) has been endorsed by the Committee of Labor and Employment.

If passed—and there are indicators that this bill will be passed on account of the fact that it is a populist measure—it will, in essence, limit the number of contractual employees in a firm to no more than 20 percent of the organization’s workforce, further limits the types of jobs that can be contracted or outsourced, provides for a new type of employment called “extra” employees which would be hired as regular even if they only work on peak seasons, and redefines the concept of in-house agency and effectively jettisons an emergent trend in the workplace called shared services.

On the surface, the goals of the bill seem innocuous. When viewed against current realities, however, the provisions of the bill are highly restrictive and seem to operate out of a business context that was existent two decades ago. The authors and supporters of the bill seemed oblivious to the reality that there are competitive forces—both global and local—that affect employment. Any effort to secure jobs must first address business viability, which the bill actually imperils by significantly curtailing management prerogatives and limiting the business models that a business organization can pursue in an effort to remain competitive and viable.

Understandably, various employer groups and professional organizations are now up in arms in opposing the bill. On Wednesday, I will write about the positions of two such organizations—the Employers Confederation of the Philippines and the People Management Association of the Philippines.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lola Techie

This was my column yesterday.  I completely forgot about my deadline and only remembered when it was already up.  Since the column that I was working on the night before didn't work out (I didn't have the information I needed), I was forced to think of something and write it within 20 minutes.  This was it.  

There is no doubt that advertisements have become an integral part of our lives. They not only push products or services, they also serve as powerful annotations of the trends and temperaments of a particular period. Thus, some advertisements achieve lives of their own and become firmly embedded in our culture and in our psyche as a people.

I can also personally track my own development as an individual by using advertisements as some kind of bookmark for each important stage.

In fact, I can probably do so by using certain products with very strong brands. Coke, San Miguel beer, Close Up, Palmolive and other brands used to have a strong tradition of coming up with ads every year that were distinctive and memorable.

My earliest memory of a commercial jingle was that of a young Nora Aunor singing “It’s The Real Thing” for a Coke advertisement, thanks to a yaya who was a diehard Noranian and who would turn up the volume of the radio and shush us all to absolute silence every single time the song was played. There were subsequent Coke ads that stick to memory such as that one featuring a young Bing Pimentel on a bicycle around Baguio City, another one featuring a very young Lilet singing that anthem about how the youth is the future of the world, and then much later, Nikki Gil singing yet another popular song.

Television and print ads likewise launched the showbiz careers of a number of actors and actresses. Close up and Palmolive, for example, are renowned for having catapulted to stardom the likes of Dawn Zulueta, Gabby Concepcion, Alice Dixson, among many others.

What really makes an ad successful? I am sure people in the advertising industry have ready answers to that question—and ones that are based on some empirical data. I am sure they have various measures of success such as memory recall and sales.

My own yardstick is a little simpler. I like ads that are very well made technically; and ones with story lines that tickle the imagination, don’t indulge in hard selling, and promote the right values. Some ads are technically brilliant in terms of the visual and audio components but are often annoying because they insult the intelligence or are too preachy for comfort. Some are serendipitously funny (YC Bikini Briefs, anyone?). Others are just plain boring and uninspired.

But every once in a while, the advertising industry comes up with a brilliant idea that works on various levels.

The ad that is the current talk of the town is that one of Bayan DSL which features a techie lola (grandmother).

The first version of the ad had the grandmother simply talking to the camera, presumably chatting online with her grandson JR. She is shown berating JR for ignoring her, talking to her only when he needed advice on how to operate the computer, and not even “poking” her back on Facebook. I thought this was amusing because I do have a Facebook account but I can honestly say that I haven’t poked anyone yet.

A second version of the same ad has the lola talking about how she would announce on Twitter that he is no longer his favorite apo. My immediate reaction was: Mabuti pa si lola marunong mag-Twitter (How come she knows how to use Twitter and I don’t?)

The third cut of the ad, which is currently running, features the lola engrossed in an online networked game. In this ad, she is seen competing with people presumably all younger than she is and getting all emotionally worked up to the point of being pikon (short-tempered).

I must admit that these ads never fail to amuse me despite having watched them a number of times already. I thought this is the kind of humor that works on various levels. It’s very Filipino. It’s not offensive. And it’s not politically-incorrect.

The idea of a technology-savvy grandmother is not only amusing; it is heartwarming. We all cling to this stereotype that technology and old age don’t go together. I remember how awed I was the first time I actually witnessed a senior citizen texting—I wanted to take a picture of my friend’s 75-year-old grandfather struggling with his cell phone—until my own sister reminded me that our own mother is 72 and she sends text messages on her trusty Nokia 3210 to all of us regularly.

The Lola Techie ad works because it is simple and straightforward—it doesn’t hit us repeatedly in the head with the message. The ad has no frills, no elaborate sets and costumes, no song-and-dance routines. I cannot recall the last time I saw a television ad that leveraged purely on a great idea rather than on sleek packaging.

But like I said, the ad works on various levels. It is funny because it reminds us very strongly of the temperament of our own grandparents. I know my grandmother was like that too, easily prone to anger and irritation yet always and unmistakably affectionate even at the height of a temper. While the ad does perpetuate a stereotype (that one about how senior people are supposed to be technologically illiterate), it does not present senior people in a negative light such as that instant noodle ad featuring a cranky grandfather castigating a daughter-in-law at the dinner table for not hearing him the first time around.

Also, the ad does not reduce grandmothers into a caricature such as what they used to do to Chichay in Philippine movies. Chichay was always cute as the overbearing, overprotective, and sometimes kunsintidor lola but she was often reduced to a caricature. In fact, there is always the tendency to prettify senior citizens—smudge their faces with more rouge, make them wear elaborate costumes, make them behave like sex-starved teenagers, etc. To a certain extent, this seems to be the general drift of the media projection of Dionisia Pacquiao. Although Pacquiao is being packaged as a stage mother, she is really a grandmother.

And what is more, the ad is actually linked to a number of social networking sites. Lola Techie has a Facebook, a Multiply, and a Twitter site, and her own You-Tube channel! She is actually all over the Internet. So one can actually poke her at Facebook, leave messages in her sites, and exchange tweets with her.

So the people behind the ad seemed to have covered all the bases to ensure that the Lola Techie campaign works. I think it is the first ad that has been successful in linking traditional media and the Internet. If only for this development, the ad has already made headway as a trailblazer of sorts.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Making a clean breast of things

This is my column today.

I don’t think anyone out there knew exactly what was—or should have been—the appropriate reaction to last week’s flap over the state of the President’s mammary glands. What seemed clear, however, was that the way the bright boys in Malacañang handled the issue only made the situation worse. Let’s not anymore factor into the equation the efforts at spin control done by Lorelei Fajardo; I don’t think anyone ever listens to what she has to say, mainly because she is seldom coherent anyway.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde’s discomfort, when asked if it was true that the President was suffering from some medical complications related to an alleged previous breast augmentation procedure, was understandable. One of the sad things about the way things are in our culture is that we’ve all been conditioned to regard certain parts of our anatomy with malice. Thus, any public discussion about a woman’s breasts is supposed to be taboo. And when that woman happens to be the highest official of the country, the situation becomes even more delicate.

For crying out loud, who really wants to talk about the state of the President’s breasts? One has to be a total sicko to make such a big fuss out of them.

The only reason why there is a discussion about the issue is because Malacañang mishandled the issue right from the start. Remonde’s discomfort, sheepishness, and subsequent admission and attempt to put things in proper context made things worse. He could have handled the situation in a much better way; perhaps even in ways that could have been more empowering to women in general.

As if prevaricating on the issue was not enough, Remonde’s display of righteous indignation (or indignant righteousness) managed to cast aspersions on sexy actresses, cosmetic surgery, and women who have undergone breasts implantation. Moreover, he raised further the stigma attached to cosmetic surgery.

Let’s do a quick rewind of what the man said. When asked if the President had a medical procedure to repair a leaking breast implant done in the 1980s, Remonde bristled by saying that the question was “absurd.” “Nonsensical” he exclaimed. “The President was not your regular sexy actress fixated with such cosmetic surgery,” he stressed with undisguised righteous indignation.

“As I said, res ipsa loquitur (the matter speaks for itself). Just look if the President had a breast implant. That’s a private matter. It’s obvious if women have had breast implants. The sexy actresses with (unbelievable) boobs, they’re the ones who underwent breast implants. We can’t say the same thing of the President,” Remonde was quoted in various news reports. One wished he stopped there. “Perhaps, you can look at her if she’s the type who’s likely to have a breast implant,” he felt compelled to add, this time sheepishly.

In the process, Remonde made known certain prejudices. To him, breasts implants are for certain “types” of women and the indignant manner that accompanied his commentary left very little doubt about what he thought of these types of women.

Remonde’s remarks are unfortunate. First, they bordered on the chauvinist. Second, because—inadvertently, perhaps —they reflected prejudices. And third, because a more forthright admission should have settled the matter to rest— quickly and in a more delicate way.

As of Saturday, he was still preaching from his seemingly high social perch and doing so awkwardly. In so many words, he was saying that the discussion about the President’s breast implants—which he said was required medical procedure two decades ago—was disrespectful to women in general, and of the President in general. He conveniently left out the fact that his mishandling of the situation was what fueled the whole controversy to begin with.

When we come to think about it, this kind of tiptoeing around the issue of a woman’s breasts is disempowering and takes us all back to the middle ages. I have said this before in a previous column but I will say it again here. A woman’s breasts are an objective reality—there is nothing inherently sexual, malicious, or dirty about them. Breast surgery is not necessarily a moral issue. In fact, if we truly consider what nature intended them to be, we should have profound respect for a woman’s breasts, as they are the source of life and nurturance.

Remonde was sheepish because it turns out the President did have a breast implant done in the 1980s. So Remonde’s prejudice has boomeranged on him.

I am sure that there are lots of people out there whose worlds have now been turned upside by the admission that a Catholic girl from a de Buena familia, why—the daughter of a former President who is President now herself, someone who supposedly should have known better, underwent such a medical procedure.

Quite frankly, I don’t think the fact that she had a breast implant should be an issue at all—it’s her body, for crying out loud. One had to be a rabid detractor to find fault in that. Remonde is correct, for a change. Whether she did it out of a medical condition or out of vanity was not the issue.

I will not presume to know the motivation behind the President’s breast implants. A close female friend of mine did submit to the same procedure just a couple of months ago and she said it was necessary to correct a disfiguration caused by four childbirths. She told me that in the clinic that she went to (yup, hers was done by a famous cosmetic surgeon who is advertising all kinds of cosmetic surgery procedures) she met quite a number of women who have undergone the procedure. Apparently it’s not really an uncommon procedure today.

But I can understand the fact that the President wanted to keep her breast implants a secret. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to cosmetic surgery in this country.

The real issue here was the cloak-and-dagger operation to conceal and later on obfuscate the issue. The fact is that the President was supposed to have checked into the Asian Medical Hospital for quarantine purposes. The act of submission to quarantine was a matter of public interest—she was supposedly doing it to raise public awareness on the H1N1 pandemic and to be a role model for responsible public behavior. So when it became known that she didn’t check into the hospital for quarantine purposes, the whole thing became suspect. The whole thing boiled down to truthfulness.

It is sad that all these served to fortify public perception that the President and her people are not being forthright about the real state of things in this country.

Mixed feelings

It was my fault.  I should have gotten tickets last week when the thought crossed my mind.  I rushed many things today so I could get to the CCP before 8:00 pm. I wanted to watch whatever was showing at this year's Virgin Labfest.  A friend wrote and directed one play and I promised him I will make time to watch.

I got to the CCP at 7:30.  Sadly, tickets were all sold out.  There was a long line of people all hoping for a miracle.  

Last day na pala.  

Anyway. I didn't get in.  Went home disappointed.  But am happy for the success of the Virgin Labfest.  Great job, guys.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Consumer rants

This is my column today.

There are lots of people in this country who make a career out of complaining about anything and everything. I’m not just referring to media people such as columnists and broadcast journalists who think ranting about what should be is their only job description. There are lots of other people out there who it seems have not only read up on their rights as consumers, they look for opportunities to assert these rights and in fact sometimes do so at the slightest provocation.

I know some people who will not think twice about asking a waiter to return their soup to the kitchen because it isn’t the right temperature or the main course back to the chef not because it is bad but simply because it does not taste the way they think it should taste. The former I can understand; the latter I find objectionable because if one wanted something to taste exactly how one would prepare it, then they should not go to restaurants and submit themselves to the ministrations of a chef but rather stay home and cook their own food.

I also know some people who are so picky about service quality that they complain about being made to wait for even just a couple of seconds or when some products didn’t come in variations and colors of their preference. They expect prompt, immediate, courteous service—even from a sidewalk vendor.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel contempt for these people particularly when the exacting and uncompromising adherence to certain product quality and service standards result in overall improvements. I may often find their pernickety amusing but I’ve always had respect for what they represent.

There are times when I fervently wish I could be like them. I may come across as some firebrand because I rant about shenanigans and skewer public officials, every now and then. In reality, however, I am a very tolerant person who tends to make allowances for the shortcomings of service providers—particularly when it is painfully obvious that they are new in their jobs or that their job descriptions require them to accept being treated like doormats.

I am particularly more tolerant of food servers—waiters or waitresses, busboys, chefs. First, because I have been warned many times by well-meaning friends that these people get back at difficult customers by spitting on the food or drinks served them. And second, because my best friend since childhood had a stint as waiter and I am aware of the difficulties they have to put up with such as serving sumptuous meals and watching people play with their food while they are about to keel over from hunger and exhaustion.

When faced with difficult situations as a consumer, I am the type who does not make a fuss. I don’t make a scene. I just walk away—never to return to the place ever again. But that doesn’t really help anyone. So I have decided to follow the urgings of some friends. Here, then, in this column are my top rants as consumers.

I don’t know about you, but on top of my list are stores where cashiers demand identification cards when one is making purchases with a credit card. Yes I am aware that it’s supposed to be a security measure that is supposed to redound to the benefit of consumers themselves. That yarn is actually crap because what it does is make cashiers become complacent when it comes to doing what really should matter in the whole transaction—verifying the consumer’s signature. In fact, some stores forgo signature verification training—which requires investment in time and money —in favor of identification checks as if identification cards are difficult to fake. When one comes to think about it, it is far more difficult to forge a signature than to produce fake identification cards.

Since I made a commitment to exercise my rights as a consumer more assertively, I will name establishments with cashiers who are notorious for such practices: National Bookstore at Harrison Plaza and a number of SM Department Stores. The funny thing is that because the bank that I work for requires all employees to wear IDs, I often shop while still wearing an ID. Being asked for identification when one is already wearing one conspicuously takes the cake for utter senselessness.

A store at the Mall of Asia called Games & Gadgets even pushes the limits of absurdity. I had a most unpleasant experience there last week when I bought a camera that was selling for a rather cheap price. Since I wasn’t carrying cash at that time, I opted to use a credit card. The whole transaction took almost an hour as they painstakingly verified the identification card I gave them, called the credit card company for further verification, and then asked me to enter personal information on a logbook despite the fact that they had already swiped my card on the machine and the transaction was already approved electronically. I felt like a criminal suspected of some felony. When I showed signs of being irritated, the cashier told me that it was company policy to do that for all transactions above 5,000 pesos. Judging by their complete ineptness, the store does not seem to have that many transactions involving more than that amount.

I also have an ax to grind against restaurants that go to town with all-you-can-eat promos but don’t refill the food containers in their buffet table.

Notorious for this is the Red Crab Restaurant in Greenbelt. My friends and I happen to love crabs so this place should be a natural hangout for us. Unfortunately, I have had three very negative experiences dining there so I am not stepping inside that place ever again. In all three incidents, there weren’t enough crabs for the number of guests they accommodated. They tended to replenish all the other food in their buffet spread but were very, very slow when it came to refilling the crab dishes—almost as if they were doing so grudgingly. The first incident should have been a warning already but we gave the restaurant a second chance. The experience was the same. We went a third time because a friend who just arrived from abroad wanted to go there. We paid the full price of a buffet that essentially was composed of rice and a few pieces of leftover crabs.

To be fair, it’s not just that restaurant that’s guilty of this practice of drawing in people through false advertising. The Cabalen chain, for example, should really put a disclaimer at the door of their restaurants telling people that it is “eat all you can while supply lasts.”

Now that Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile himself has been victimized by that cell phone scam that’s been around for years, I hope that something will finally be done about it. Actually, there’s something more shocking than disappearing prepaid loads—unclear mechanics around the use of Internet accessibility and global roaming through cellular phones. I know quite a number of people who have had to fork over thousands of pesos because they didn’t know—and the service providers conveniently didn’t go out of their way to inform customers—that the service required certain procedures that needed to be complied with to enjoy more reasonable charges.

There’s actually a lot more in my list now that I have gotten started, but I will end with this: Mercury Drug suki cards that become defective after just a couple of weeks’ use. I’ve had three suki cards already—all of them conked out after just a month of use. The strange thing was that they don’t even have a system that could retrieve the points that were accumulated in each of the cards that were suddenly unreadable; they just asked me to get another card which I didn’t do anymore after the third one malfunctioned.