After employees of the national weather bureau dramatized their protest over the continuing suspension of their Magna Carta benefits last Tuesday, they got an unexpected visitor. That same afternoon, mere hours after members of the Philippine Weathermen Employees Association (PWEA) staged a lunchtime walkout and called a news conference, President Aquino showed up at the Pagasa forecasting center, with the budget chief in tow.
At the closed-door meeting that immediately followed, the President assured Pagasa employees that the suspension of the benefits specified in Republic Act 8439, or the Magna Carta for Scientists, Engineers, Researchers and other Science and Technology Personnel in Government, would be lifted, and that they would receive all the benefits they expected to receive for the first half of the year. He also clarified that the Magna Carta benefits of the agency would need to be aligned with those of other affiliated units of the Department of Science and Technology, beginning with the benefits scheduled for the second half of the year.
(Budget Secretary Florencio Abad followed through the following day, clarifying the issue of hazard pay, which Pagasa used to disburse to all employees, whether they served in hazardous conditions or not.)
We will take a closer look at something else Mr. Aquino did (or did not do) at that unscheduled meeting, but for now let’s consider the visit itself. It was not, as some critics have alleged, an overreaction on the President’s part. How could it be? An agency Mr. Aquino identified as vital from his first days in office (we remember that he fired the agency director for what he perceived as an inability to adapt, to respond, to new realities) had suddenly publicized its grievances. He was obliged to respond.
And consider the circumstances last Tuesday, too; mere days after last week’s floods, the country was bracing for yet another storm. While there was nothing in the employees’ news conference to suggest that Pagasa forecasters would neglect their duties or abandon their work—the union precisely took care to stage their protest during the lunch hour—it was only prudent for national government officials to assume the worst.
The President could have deputized Abad and Science Secretary Mario Montejo to meet with the Pagasa employees, or called the agency’s officials to a meeting in Malacañang. That would have fulfilled his obligation to respond. That he did not, that he decided to see to the problem himself, and immediately, is something unusual and, in our book, worth commending.
A surprising sermon
When President Aquino arrived at the Pagasa forecasting center on Tuesday, the reception—according to a report aired on dzBB—was enthusiastic; surprised Pagasa employees were excited to see him. When he left, the sendoff was decidedly more subdued.
Apparently, the President had used the unusual occasion not only to promise budgetary support for the suspended Magna Carta benefits but also to give a “sermon”—and the employees were stunned.
What did the President say, exactly? Not all the details are clear, but according to sketchy reports, he had lectured the Pagasa employees present on their duty to the country, especially at a time of imminent danger.
An official of the Philippine Weathermen Employees Association admitted that she found herself upset.
“That was our initial reaction,” PWEA vice president Vivien Esquivel said. “We did not expect that President Aquino himself would be delivering a sermon to us when we were the ones protesting. We were mortified.”
Other union members said they thought the President was out of turn. Many agency personnel report for work even though they quite literally have no money, even though working conditions are poor; perhaps they needed no lessons in responsibility. Esquivel, however, confessed that, on reconsideration, she understood where the President was coming from. “For me, the discussion was okay. The President made his point. It wasn’t as if he was speaking sarcastically.”
For a President who is cementing a reputation for tough and frank talk, we think his remarks before Pagasa employees—as they have so far been characterized—is all of a piece. We just need to make sure he puts his money where his mouth is.