Philippine Airlines dispute tests government's labour policy

In an unprecedented display of unity, 16 of the main trade union organisations in the Philippines met on November 8 to oppose the impending lay-off of almost 3000 workers by Philippine Airlines (PAL), the nation’s main airline. The groups issued a statement in solidarity with workers from the PAL Employees’ Association (PALEA) and called for the government of President Benigno Aquino to reverse its October decision to support the mass lay-offs.

The dispute is a litmus test for the new Aquino government. Elected in May on the basis of promises to “end corruption and poverty in the Philippines”, Aquino has shown no resolve to improve the situation and rights of the country’s working people.

The dispute began in August 2009, when the PAL management announced its intention to outsource “non-core” functions such as catering and call centres. The proposals came after the suspension of collective bargaining negotiations for more than a decade. PAL management also made bizarre and discriminatory proposals that would compel stewards to retire at age 40.

In response to opposition from PALEA and other union groups, the acting labour secretary, Romeo Lagman, in June 2010 declared the planned PAL mass lay-off to be a “valid exercise of management prerogative”. Then the government’s new labour secretary, Rosalinda Baldoz, affirmed the previous order on October 29, scandalously declaring the PAL management’s proposals to be a “just, reasonable, humane and lawful exercise of its management prerogative”.

The proposed lay-offs would constitute a major setback for workers’ conditions and rights. A precedent would be set that allows companies to engage in additional outsourcing and cost-cutting measures despite their prohibition in collective agreements. It would seriously weaken PALEA, which is one of the most militant unions in the country.

According to Gerry Rivera, (PALEA) president and vice chair of the militant Partido ng Manggagawa, the October 9 meeting of trade union groups ranged from the Kilusang Mayo Uno and Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino through to the moderate Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. They called on Aquino to overturn the Baldez decision and issued a statement that condemned the ruling as a “clear and present danger to labour rights”.

“This decision is dangerous because it sets aside the PAL-PALEA collective bargaining agreement where it is clearly stated that contracting out the work of regular employees is prohibited.”

“This could be the last nail in the coffin of job security in our country.”

“That is why ... this is not just a fight of PAL employees. It is also the fight of all Filipino workers. Employers, however big or small, would be emboldened to follow PAL.”