Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the rights of workers, with the exception of the military, police, short-term contract employees, and some foreign workers, to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes; it prohibits antiunion discrimination. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights.
Laws and regulations provide for the right to organize and bargain collectively in both the private sector and corporations owned or controlled by the government. The law prohibits organizing by foreign national or migrant workers unless a reciprocity agreement exists with the workers’ countries of origin specifying that migrant workers from the Philippines are permitted to organize unions there. The law also requires the participation of 20 percent of the employees in the bargaining unit where the union seeks to operate; the International Labor Organization (ILO) called this requirement excessive and urged the government to lower minimum membership. The scope of collective bargaining in the public sector is limited to a list of terms and conditions of employment negotiable between management and public employees. These are items requiring appropriation of funds, including health-care and retirement benefits, and those that involved the exercise of management prerogatives, including appointment, promotion, compensation, and disciplinary action, are nonnegotiable.
Strikes in the private sector are legal. Unions are required to provide strike notice, respect mandatory cooling-off periods, and obtain approval from a majority of members before calling a strike. The Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Relations reported 140 notice of strike/lockout and preventive mediation cases from January to June. Of the total, 57 cases were settled and 55 cases were withdrawn by the filer.
The law subjects all problems affecting labor and employment to mandatory conciliation-mediation for one month. Parties to a dispute must attempt mediation before giving notice to strike; if that fails, the union may issue a strike notice. Parties may bring any dispute to mediation; but strikes or lockouts must be related to acts of unfair labor practice, a gross violation of collective bargaining laws, or a collective bargaining deadlock. The law provides for a maximum prison sentence of three years for participation in an illegal strike, a requirement that the ILO urged the government to amend.
The law permits employers to dismiss union officers who knowingly participate in an illegal strike. Union officers convicted of striking illegally are subject to imprisonment for up to three years, although there has never been such a conviction.
The law prohibits government workers from joining strikes under the threat of automatic dismissal. Government workers may file complaints with the Civil Service Commission, which handles administrative cases and arbitrates disputes. Government workers may also assemble and express their grievances on the work premises during nonworking hours.
The secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment, and in certain cases the president, may intervene in labor disputes by assuming jurisdiction and mandating a settlement if either official determines that the strike-affected company is vital to the national interest. Vital sectors include hospitals, the electric power industry, water supply services (excluding small bottle suppliers), air traffic control, and other activities or industries as recommended by the National Tripartite Industrial Peace Council (NTIPC). Labor rights advocates continued to criticize the government for maintaining definitions of vital services that were broader than international standards.
By law antiunion discrimination, especially in hiring, is an unfair labor practice and may carry criminal or civil penalties (although generally civil penalties were favored over criminal penalties).
The government generally respected freedom of association and collective bargaining and enforced laws that provided for protection of these rights. The Department of Labor has general authority to enforce laws on freedom of association and collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Commission’s (NLRC) labor arbiter may also issue orders or writs of execution for reinstatement that go into effect immediately, requiring employers to reinstate the worker and report compliance to the NLRC. Allegations of intimidation and discrimination in connection with union activities are grounds for review by the quasi-judicial NLRC, as they may constitute possible unfair labor practices. If there is a definite preliminary finding that a termination may cause a serious labor dispute or mass layoff, the Labor Department secretary may suspend the termination and restore the status quo pending resolution of the case.
Penalties under the law for violations of freedom of association or collective bargaining laws are imprisonment of not less than three months or more than three years with a fine of not less than 1,000 pesos ($20) or more than 10,000 pesos ($200). Such penalties were generally not sufficient to deter violations.
Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Before disputes reach the NLRC, the Labor Department provides mediation services through a board, which settles most unfair labor practice disputes. Through the National Conciliation and Mediation Board, the department also works to improve the functioning of labor-management councils in companies with unions.
The NTIPC serves as the main consultative and advisory mechanism on labor and employment. It functions primarily as a forum for advice and consultation among organized labor, employers, and government in the formulation and implementation of labor and employment policies. It also acts as the central entity to monitor recommendations and ratifications of ILO conventions. The Labor Department, through the NTIPC, is responsible for coordinating the investigation, prosecution, and resolution of cases pending before the ILO concerning allegations of violence and harassment directed at labor leaders and trade union activists.
Workers faced several challenges in exercising their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Unions continued to claim that local political leaders and officials who governed the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) explicitly attempted to frustrate union organizing efforts by maintaining union-free or strike-free policies. Unions also claimed that the government stationed security forces near industrial areas or SEZs to intimidate workers attempting to organize and alleged that companies in SEZs used frivolous lawsuits to harass union leaders. Local SEZ directors claimed exclusive authority to conduct their own inspections as part of the zones’ privileges intended by the legislature. Employers controlled hiring through special SEZ labor centers. For these reasons, and in part due to organizers’ restricted access to the closely guarded zones and the propensity among zone establishments to adopt fixed-term, casual, temporary, or seasonal employment contracts, unions had little success organizing in the SEZs.
There were no reports of labor-related violence during the year. In 2016 a union leader and trade union organizer were killed in separate incidents. In both cases it was speculated that their positions provided a motive for the violence.
Some employers reportedly chose to employ workers who could not legally organize, such as short-term contract and foreign national workers, to minimize unionization and avoid other rights accorded to “regular” workers. The NGO Center for Trade Union and Human Rights contended that this practice led to a decline in the number of unions and workers covered by collective bargaining agreements. Employers also often abused contractual labor provisions by rehiring employees shortly after the expiration of the previous contract. The Department of Labor reported that there were multiple cases of workers alleging employers refused to bargain.