"Such an arrangement is disgusting and inhuman."
Labor Secretary Silvestre "Bebot" Bello III, a long-time human rights and workers welfare advocate, may be in for some roasting with his issuance of DOLE Department Order 215-2020. Under the said order, employers can now “temporarily lay off workers for an entire year during a national emergency."
In a word, the order has given employers carte blanche authority to do away with their obligations to their workers under the Labor Code which specifically provides for separation and related benefits once laid off for an extended period of time (usually a month or a maximum of three months) even under a national emergency.
In the first place, there is yet no declaration of a national emergency. What President Duterte declared last month is a state of calamity up to one year or up to September 2021. There is a huge difference between a national emergency and a state of calamity more so in the case of employer-employee relations, the terms of which are expressly provided under the Labor Code as amended.
There is no dispute that employers can lay off their workers such as in a bankruptcy, continued losses due to loss of demand, prolonged labor disputes, armed conflicts, under a declared pandemic and other such circumstances as would render the business inoperable. In those instances, the employer can petition the government for relief such as putting their workers temporarily under "floating status" with the understanding that they will be provided alternative work schemes and adjusted wage-related benefits during an agreed upon period.
This was what Bello ordered at the start of the pandemic for a period not longer than six months, to give the parties time to adjust to the new normal. Apparently, the workers agreed to this adjustment albeit grudgingly as they were afforded some kind of an unemployment assistance package by the Social Security System (SSS) and food and related benefits from the national and local governments under the Bayanihan-To-Heal-As-One and the use of by the LGUs of part of their calamity funds. Thus, mass layoffs were somehow averted as in most instances the workers were given their just due in the meantime that businesses were assessing their future living with the pandemic. The problem is this state of suspended affairs extended for another year. That is much too much under any and all circumstances.
As most labor groups said, this order gives employers, especially abusive ones (and there are many), the opportunity to take advantage of the pandemic to evade their obligations. It gives them an easy way out, especially since the DOLE does not really have the means to verify and validate whether the suspension is indeed necessary for the company's survival. Already, we are having loads of disputes on the earlier request of certain employers to suspend or defer the giving of the mandatory 13th month pay for workers. This extension can be more explosive as now we are asking the workers to “çhill out" for a year.
If the employers are of the belief and it can be proven that they can no longer cope with the demands of the times, thus needing to lay off workers, they can do so the most honorable way. Declare that they can no longer hold and prepare workers for retrenchment. That way they save themselves and provide workers the proper and legally responsive means to adjust to a new normal – get their just due as they prepare themselves for job-hunting or become entrepreneurs themselves.
Workers should be given all the benefits they have earned in the course of their service with the company not floated facing long deprivation and an uncertain future. That is the most decent and proper way to treat them for their sacrifices. Floating them for a year is truly disgusting and even inhuman.