OPINION: The San Juan hostage incident is a labor rights issue

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The reason that prompted the hostage-taker to resort to drastic measures is telling of the current state of affairs in Philippine labor standards.

Ross Tugade is a lawyer and is working for the Commission on Human Rights. She is currently a Master of Laws student in Transnational Crime and Justice at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s.

Turin, Italy (CNN Philippines Life) — A tense hostage situation involving a former security guard at Greenhills Virra Mall named Alchie Paray gripped the whole nation yesterday. Around 30 people were held hostage inside the shopping mall in San Juan, Metro Manila, in an ordeal that lasted almost 10 hours. After a standoff causing one person to be injured, the hostage negotiation itself resulted in the resignation of six mall security officials amid allegations of internal corruption.

Paray eventually released all hostages and was given the chance to air his side. Before he was tackled and arrested by authorities, Paray asked the public, “Pagkatapos nito, saan ang punta ko: sa kulungan o sa sementeryo?” (“After this, where will I land: in jail or in the cemetery?”)

Paray’s fate is now up to the criminal justice system, where he will be charged and made accountable for committing clearly unlawful acts in taking a group of civilians hostage and injuring one individual. However, the uncertainty right at the heart of Paray’s question is the very same precarity surrounding wage work in the Philippines today. Beyond one man’s act of violence loom larger systemic hardships felt by ordinary Filipino laborers.

The state of the law

The general manager of Safeguard Armor Security Corporation, Paray’s private security agency, denied that Paray was illegally dismissed. One of his former superiors said that the security guard was only to be reassigned to a different post as part of a “rotation” scheme of the company.

A rotation policy implemented by a private security agency is not illegal per se. In Carique vs. Philippine Scout Veterans Security and Investigating Agency, a 2015 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the “implementation of the rotation policy [by respondent agency] is within the ambit of management prerogative.” Absent a showing of bad faith and an intent to circumvent the law, rotational schemes are validly part of a private security agency’s security planning.

Department Order No. 15-16, series of 2016, which was issued by the Department of Labor and Employment to provide the guidelines governing the employment and working conditions of security guards, also allows for the transfer of assignments of security guards. Such transfers are conditioned on compliance with labor laws and the provision of statutory benefits to private security personnel.

Details surrounding Paray’s alleged termination are not yet clear to the public. The clear dissatisfaction that prompted him to resort to drastic measures, however, is telling of the current state of affairs in Philippine labor standards, despite what the law says.

Avenues for grievances and solidarity

In a 2014 legal study surrounding precarious work in the Philippines, the lawyers Mely Ann Emerie Cristobal and Efren Resurreccion II cite factors such as “abject poverty, the lack of employment opportunities in the country, and the generally ambivalent perception of employees towards joining unions” that cause workers to “merely suffer in silence because of the possibility of unemployment.”

While security guards such as Paray are generally granted security of tenure, their labor conditions could not be far off from other workers who suffer from uncertainty in their jobs — they work long hours and endure low pay.

In a metropolis dotted with shopping malls earning millions in profit, security personnel tasked with guarding their premises are a vital part of the labor force. At the very least, they should be recognized as essential to keeping the consumer-driven economy of the shopping malls thriving.

Moving forward, workers’ rights should be given high priority and attention at any time by the government. Workers themselves ought not to be deterred from organizing themselves to assert what is rightfully entitled to them by and within the bounds of the law. Nothing less than the Philippine Constitution affords full protection to labor, humane conditions of work, a living wage, and participation in decision-making processes affecting workers’ rights.

Enhancing mechanisms for airing grievances, encouraging management and employees to sit at the negotiating table, and pushing for greater solidarity are steps toward enabling workers’ dignity to flourish and remain intact. Only then can our workers avoid making fatal questions and decisions in order to fight for their rights.