Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A ‘hands-off’ Presidency

In his presidential inaugural address, President Benigno Aquino III referred to the Filipino people as “you are my boss,” obviously in reference to the people who elected him to the highest office in the land. After one hundred days in office, the harsh reality of the Aquino government has started to sink in.

The President’s words, however, seem to grow hollow and hollower as his calendar days go by, and as the real meaning of the word “boss” becomes clearer—that it means to embrace only the interests of those in the middle class and upper crust of Philippine society, the same class the new president was born to. If it is any comfort to Noynoy Aquino, it is his own class that he truly represents. And while loyalty to his own class of origin is understandable, it will not be the correct basis of leadership for a president elected by a huge plurality of votes, more than 80 per cent of whom are poor.

Noynoy Aquino promised in his acceptance speech to institute changes that would reverse the anti-worker legacies of his predecessor. Among the most urgent issues that confronted labour in the previous Arroyo government were wage freeze, work contractualization, flexible work arrangements and regional wage-fixing, and trade union repression.

Yet, during the early days of his presidency, Noynoy Aquino looked the other way when the workers’ union of the nation’s flag carrier, the Philippine Airlines (PAL), accused its owner, the Lucio Tan Group, of violating labour standards such as paying flight attendants below minimum wages, not paying for their maternity leave, and not providing equal opportunities for the airline’s employees. To date, PAL employees have been prevented from collective bargaining as PAL management continues to play hardball negotiation. A proposed deregulation of the airline industry through an open-skies policy looms in the horizon as it threatens the dire labour situation at PAL.

Aquino is also quick to point out threats to changes he wanted his government to implement, yet is slow to react to violators of workers’ rights. ABS-CBN, a multi-media conglomerate owned by the powerful Lopez family, terminated more than a hundred long-time employees in violation of their rights but Aquino seemed unperturbed. Like PAL owner Lucio Tan, the Lopezes are perceived as avid supporters and close to President Aquino.

President Aquino’s position in most labour-management standoffs in his early presidency, which by now seems the business-as-usual or standard Aquino official policy, is to take a hands-off approach. The Aquino government calls this a policy of minimal intervention in labour disputes. It gives the appearance of impartiality, that the government is not taking sides. But by using the power of the Secretary of Labour to assume jurisdiction over labour disputes, the President in effect is forcing workers and their trade unions to stop all protest actions and force them to sit down with management to mediate their grievances or contract disputes.

Not that there's anything wrong with mediation and arbitration. While they may appear as harmless mechanisms to settle disputes, the past experiences of labour in the Philippines have taught them that employers are prone to take advantage of their powerful positions and coerce their employees to accept their own view of settling their disputes. It is not enough for President Aquino to tell PAL and other unions, for example, to continue talking and that management should respect their employees and their rights to decent wages and equal opportunities. The history of labour in the country is replete with instances where employers can get away with violating labour standards because the government is on their side.

Whenever labour unions start to flex their muscle by exercising the right to strike in order to press their demands, the government is lightning quick to assume jurisdiction. Trade unions have become disempowered, and once they sit on the negotiation table under the pretext of mediation, they have lost the only bargaining power they have. Employers and the government on their side, as history tells us, will force their way in coercing labour to its knees. The threat of police and military intervention is always present if the unions would attempt to disrupt work or production through other means of protest.

Labour has perceived the Aquino government as 1oo per cent anti-workers. The evidence speaks for itself. At this early stage of his presidency, Noynoy Aquino is on track to follow the anti-labour legacy of the past Arroyo administration.

Just as the Aquino government has already taken an anti-labour stance, President Aquino’s land reform program appears as equally wanting, if not by intelligent design, neglected as a government priority. He never mentioned anything about land reform in his inaugural speech, a program so close to his late mother’s heart. Noynoy Aquino’s decision not to interfere in the settlement of the dispute over Hacienda Luisita, a plantation owned by the President’s family and relatives, reveals the lack of strength and character in his leadership. Taking the cue from its non-interventionist labour policy, the Aquino government has again relied on the farcical and ineffectual process of mediation to settle the age-old Luisita problem, despite the issue having reached the Supreme Court to make a final determination.

By nature, President Aquino seems to possess the habit of evading responsibility. Consider, for example, the Rizal Park hostage taking and how he would not dare accept that key people in his administration were somehow responsible for their inaction or incompetence. The same goes with the involvement of one of his cabinet undersecretaries in the alleged jueteng scandal and the lack of moral culpability of his administration.

Last October 4-5, 2010, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) convened in Brussels, Belgium. The ASEM, which was established in 1996 in Bangkok, is composed of leaders from the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU), China, South Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan and Mongolia. Twice a year, the ASEM holds a forum among its members to discuss economic and social issues that affect them, like trade, foreign debt, workers’ protections and other related matters.

President Aquino was invited by the secretariat of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), the civil society’s counterpart of ASEM, but declined to attend because the forum’s most important leaders would not be present. It was the first time that a Philippine president did not attend the summit.

Whereas in the past, previous Philippine presidents gave importance to the ASEM forum by their attendance, President Aquino decided not to go, and as a result, has missed the chance to push the concerns of Filipino migrant workers in Europe, which hosts hundreds of thousands of overseas Filipino workers. Europe is also one of the biggest sources of development aid for the Philippines, and the ASEM could be an appropriate forum for President Aquino to speak about his campaign promise to solve poverty by eradicating graft and corruption.

The President’s current preoccupation showed its clearest manifestation when he recently visited New York. Thrilled to set foot in the place that evoked nostalgia and reminded him of his teens when the Aquino family was in exile, he said there was nothing that beats being back in his old haunts and eating hotdog on a New York street. With his pliant entourage gathered around him, the President offered his profuse apologies for making reporters wait while he took his lunch—mind you, $54 instead of the $22,000 tab by his predecessor—in the same cavalier way he makes light of the awesome responsibilities bestowed upon an elected leader of the people.

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