LITTLE VOICES: Labor arbiters in GenSan must publicly account for their decisions

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GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 11 April) — The call for public accountability of labor arbiters assigned in this southernmost corridor of Mindanao is a compelling public need because of their alleged collusion with companies.

In consonance with the doctrine that public office is a public trust, labor arbiters are obliged to publicly explain why, in future-defining cases, our lowly workers are always losing in their salas, but are always winning in the Supreme Court.

For instance, in Purefoods vs. NLRC, G.R. No. 122653, dated December 12, 1997 and in Joaquin T. Lu vs. Tirso Enopia, et al., G.R. No. 197899, dated March 6, 2017, the workers miserably lost in the salas of the two labor arbiters in General Santos City but the workers eventually won in the Supreme Court after 10 years in the case of Purefoods and after 20 years in the case of Joaquin T. Lu.

Of late, the case filed by the Citra Mina Workers’ Union (CMWU) against the Citra Mina management was again dismissed by the labor arbiter in GenSan. The 179 workers claimed they were dismissed without any just cause and allegedly in blatant violation of the required twin-notice rule: a notice to apprise the employee of the ground for which his dismissal is sought and a notice informing the employee of his dismissal, issued to him after being given reasonable opportunity to be heard.

We will not be surprised if the Supreme Court will, again, smash such a decision on the face of the labor arbiter here.

Purefoods and Joaquin T. Lu were landmark cases because for the first time, the Supreme Court laid down rulings that fish canning factory workers and fishers on board commercial fishing vessels are, by contemplation of law, regular employees because they are performing necessary and desirable works.

What makes these cases more interesting is not only because they are landmark cases, but also because they arose from labor-management conflicts within the fishing industry in General Santos City where Sentro and Citra Mina workers are pitted against the fishing industry and Joaquin T. Lu.

At present, various labor movements, including Sentro, are continually advocating for an end to contractualization and end-of-contract scheme or endo.

For me, such an advocacy is quite off-tangent, if not unnecessary. The prevailing laws and jurisprudence had struck down contractuazation and endo as plainly illegal and against public policy long time ago.

Laws and jurisprudence have already defined so clearly the rights of the workers. The remaining area is the incapacity of the workers in enforcing such rights under our present adjective laws. It is in this area where employers are holding their devil workshops with impunity.

The legal doctrines laid down in Purefoods are unassuming. In Purefoods, the Supreme Court ruled that works which are necessary and desirable to the business or trade of the employers cannot be subjected to a time or term contract or endo. It also ruled in this same case that the five-month contract scheme is null and void and against public policy because the party for such contract cannot be considered to be of equal footing.

The Supreme Court, in striking as illegal the end-of-contract scheme or endo, was too emphatic when it declared: “Cannery workers are never on equal terms with their employers. Almost always, they agree to any terms of an employment contract just to get employed considering that it is difficult to find work given their ordinary qualifications. Their freedom to contract is empty and hollow because theirs is the freedom to starve if they refuse to work as casual or contractual workers.”

On the other hand, in Joaquin T. Lu vs. Tirso Enopia, et al., G.R. No. 197899, the Supreme Court ruled that fishing workers on board commercial vessels are considered regular employees also for the reason that they perform necessary and desirable works.

In explaining why the works of commercial fishers are necessary and desirable, the Supreme Court simply stated that “the fishing business cannot possibly exist, let alone flourish without the fishermen crew of fishing vessels who actually understood the fishing activities in the high seas and that without their services the companies deep-sea fishing industry would have not come to existence, much less fruition.”

In striking down casualization, endo and the sacada in the high seas, the Supreme Court simply applied the provision of Article 280 of the Labor Code (on regular and casual employment), which seems like a forbidden domain for the labor arbiters here.

Workers say they can think of only two reasons why they are losing their cases in the salas of labor arbiters in GenSan but are winning in the Supreme Court: either the arbiters here do not know the law or they are paid to make wrong decisions.

Unless the labor arbiters in GenSan publicly account for their decisions, the logic pendulum will always sway towards the number 2 reason.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ben Sumog-oy is Action Officer of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) in General Santos City.]

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