DOLE condemns violent dispersal of NutriAsia workers

BULACAN, Philippines – The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) condemned the violent dispersal of NutriAsia workers who went on strike in Marilao, Bulacan.

NutriAsia is the manufacturer of popular condiments such as Datu Puti vinegar, Mang Tomas sauce, and UFC ketchup.

In a phone interview with Rappler, Labor Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod said the local police and the court must uphold the resolution mandating that all labor disputes should be under DOLE.

"'Pag labor disputes, ang may jurisdiction diyan, DOLE. Kung sa question ng legality, ang may jurisdiction diyan, 'yung National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC)," Maglunsod told Rappler.

(If there are labor disputes, DOLE has jurisdiction over those. If it's a question of legality, the National Labor Relations Commission has jurisdiction over it.)

A regional trial court in Bulacan had issued two temporary restraining orders (TROs) against the strike earlier in June. Police then dispersed workers assembled outside the factory last Thursday, June 14, for violating the TRO.

Maglunsod said the workers went through the right process, and were merely exercising their right to hold a strike.

"Unang-una, natural karapatan ng manggagawa 'yan – lalo na kung tatanggalan mo ng trabaho, tatanggalan ng boses. Saan sila pupunta?" he told Rappler. 

(First of all, it's a natural right of the workers, especially if you'll be firing them, preventing them from speaking out. Where will they go?)

Maglunsod said this should be respected by the court and NutriAsia management.

"Kausap ko 'yung pulis na hayaan sila mag-rally sa harap ng NutriAsia basta hindi nila i-block 'yung entrance at exit ng pabrika.... Sabi ko, 'Hayaan lang muna. Hindi hulihin. Hindi puwede 'yun,'" the labor undersecretary said.

(I talked to the police to let the workers stage a rally in front of NutriAsia as long as they don't block the entrance and the exit of the factory.... I told the police, "Let them be. Don't arrest them. That cannot be.")

He said DOLE will be writing to the court and the police, reminding them to uphold the resolution that gives the department jurisdiction over labor disputes.

Violent dispersal

On Thursday, NutriAsia workers sustained injuries from the violent dispersal. Seventeen were detained and were asked to pay bail of P15,000 each.

Union president Jassia Gerola slammed the detention of the workers, saying that they were peacefully camping in their picket line when the police started to disperse them. (READ: PH still among world's 'worst' countries to work in – report)

"Sila nag-umpisang tanggalin ang mga kubol namin. Dahil kokonti lang kami sa picket namin noon, pinilit kami i-disperse palabas. Tinulak kami sa batikwasan," Gerola told Rappler.

(They started to remove our makeshift camps. Because there were few of us in the picket line at that time, they dispersed us by forcing us out. They pushed us to the boundary.)

According to Gerola, the violence started when a union member tried taking a video of the incident, and a policeman shoved the worker's arm to stop her from recording.

"Nagkatulakan, saka nag-umpisa na silang magpapalo ng magpapalo. Walang pakundangan, parang mga hayop ang mga tao. Wala ni isa sa 'min ang may armas panlaban," he said.

(Jostling happened, then they started hitting us. Without any respect, we were treated like animals. We did not have any weapons to fight back.)

The police downplayed the incident, saying it was merely a "confrontation." They also blamed urban poor group Kadamay for allegedly instigating the violence.

INJURED. Jornell Quiza (L), Rudy Bernabe (C), Roger Tandaguen (R) were among the injured NutriAsia workers during the violent dispersal on June 14, 2018. Photo by Jane Bautista/Rappler

INJURED. Jornell Quiza (L), Rudy Bernabe (C), Roger Tandaguen (R) were among the injured NutriAsia workers during the violent dispersal on June 14, 2018.

Photo by Jane Bautista/Rappler

Labor-only contracting

Back in February, DOLE had ordered NutriAsia to place over 900 workers in permanent positions.

The labor department found that NutriAsia's contractors Alternative Network Resources Unlimited Multipurpose Cooperative, Serbiz Multi-Purpose Cooperative, and B-Mirk Enterprises Corporation were engaging in labor-only contracting practices.

"The order cited a number of violations including the exercise by the principal (NutriAsia) of full authority over the deployed workers in the performance of their assigned jobs," DOLE said in an earlier statement.

DOLE added that there was lack of substantial capital on the part of the contractors, "as evidenced by the employees' use of the principal's equipment and tools in performing their outsourced services."

NutriAsia was also found violating labor laws and general labor standards. (WATCH: On Labor Day, thousands of workers protest vs endo EO)

According to Gerola, most workers hired by the contractors were under contractual schemes. Gerola, a machine operator, was hired by B-Mirk and had been serving NutriAsia for more than a decade as a contractual employee.

The workers had formed a union following the compliance order issued by DOLE. Gerola accused NutriAsia of union busting, as he and other union officers were laid off soon after.

Maglunsod said the DOLE regional office would call for an exit conference to discuss NutriAsia's appeal.

'We don't practice contractualization'

In a statement on Saturday, June 16, the condiments giant denied it was engaging in illegal labor practices.

"The company's engagement with B-Mirk group as a provider is in line with all legal requirements necessary for a legitimate contracting agreement. In addition, the company also ensures that B-Mirk group provides all mandated benefits to its regular employees," NutriAsia said.

"For about two weeks, they (workers) managed to prohibit entry to and exit from the plant, which not only completely paralyzed operations but also disrupted the livelihood of fellow workers," the company added.

NutriAsia also called on the public to "observe restraint" when commenting on the issue.

"We thus call on the public to observe restraint in issuing unfounded statements in the interest of upholding the law and in promoting the spirit of truth and fairness," said the company.

DOLE issued Department Order (DO) No. 174 in March 2017, setting stricter guidelines for contractualization. Under the order, manpower agencies – not the main employers – are ordered to regularize their workers. (READ: Keeping 'endo' alive: DOLE's Department Order No. 174)

In April, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered DOLE to submit a list of companies engaged in contractualization. The labor department found that 767 companies were engaged in labor-only contracting. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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