Trade unions and shared prosperity

In November 2017, President Duterte raised the concept of “shared economic prosperity” during a speech at the Apec CEO Summit in Vietnam. He also made mention of “wealth distribution” as a pillar of just globalization in proper tandem with “wealth generation.” As a worker and labor advocate, I wish those “politically correct” ideas would become reality in our own country. But the unfortunate truth is that “shared economic prosperity” and “wealth distribution” remain a dream for millions of Filipinos who work harder and longer yet continue to live in poverty and economic insecurity.

For one, real wages are falling far behind while labor productivity increases. Recent studies of UP Prof. Melisa R. Serrano showed that while Filipino workers continued to contribute substantially to the economy, they got only a miniscule share of the fruits of their labor. There are many reasons that can be offered to explain why workers, although they have contributed much to the wealth generation and “wealth accumulation” of some individuals, families and corporations, still experience economic hardships. Among the more reasonable explanations is the decline of the power of organized labor, specifically the trade unions that were and still are potent tools for workers’ economic empowerment. By engaging in collective bargaining negotiations, trade unions can secure better pay and higher benefits and incentives from employers. Also, strong trade unions can influence the crafting and implementation of socioeconomic policies that would result in long-term economic benefits for workers and their families.


Put simply, trade unions, by securing good collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with company owners and by shaping prolabor government policies, perform a critical role in the democratization of wealth in our society.

But unfortunately, union density has dramatically declined and is now at a very low ebb in the Philippines. Data from the Department of Labor and Employment show that in 2003, 20.2 percent of wage and salary workers were organized into unions but by 2014 it had dropped to just 7.7 percent. Out of those organized workers, 19.7 percent were covered by CBAs in 2003—a figure that dropped to only 8.1 percent in 2014.


Why the steep decline in union organizing and collective bargaining coverage?

The most feasible causes are the continuous assault on the fundamental rights of workers, particularly to security of tenure, and the existing barriers that keep workers from fully exercising their rights to self-organization and collective bargaining.

Labor flexibilization in the form of contractualization is one of the main causes of low union density in the country. With no security of tenure, contractual workers do not even think of joining a union for fear of losing their uncertain jobs, while regular workers have to contend with bureaucratic impediments and employer harassment while they are in the process of organizing. In short, the odds are stacked up against organizing unions in the country. But without unions, workers are in a much weaker position to demand productivity sharing from their employers, and they cannot influence government policies that would best serve their interests.

Thus, they remain poor. And they get even poorer because of the increasing prices of goods and services due to new tax impositions, while the expanding economy continues to reward a few very rich individuals and families.

Trade unions are appealing to the President to end labor contractualization, which circumvents workers’ constitutional rights to security of tenure, self-organization and collective bargaining. The President can stop this practice from spreading farther and victimizing more workers. He can also exert moral suasion on Congress to pass measures such as the proposed law on security of tenure and to make the requirements for union organizing less prohibitive to workers, among other reforms. If he really wants to, he can set aside for the moment the probusiness advice of some of his economic managers, and give the labor sector a better deal under his administration.

The President emphasized in his inaugural speech that he would strive to bring back the people’s faith and trust in the government. He also said he would end contractualization and bring justice to our workers. Now is the right time to fulfill his promise.

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Vicente C. Camilon Jr. is assistant general secretary and spokesperson of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines.

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