The state of Filipino fast food workers

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By: Buena Bernal

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MAJOR THOROUGHFARE. Low-wage workers find temporary homes in congested areas in Metro Manila, often migrating from the countryside. All photos by Faye Sales

MANILA, Philippines – On weekdays at 5 am, 30-year-old Jay-R (alias) gets up from a small cramped space in a community he calls home near a frequently congested 6-lane Manila highway.

His space – smaller than a king-sized bed – sits minutes away from the highway’s bustling intersection, with swarming vendors of fruits, vegetables, and imitation goods all trying to get the attention of passers-by.

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CRAMPED SPACE. Filipino worker Jay-R sleeps in a space smaller than other people’s beds

He would walk along the narrow pathways in his community to fetch his niece from his sister’s equally cramped space, so he can walk the skinny 12-year-old girl to school and get her there by 7 am.

With pointed cheeks and strong black curls, the grade-schooler has been bullied a couple of times in class. Jay-R wants to make sure this never happens again.

Family is always a priority for Jay-R.

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FAMILY FIRST. Jay-R had to give up going back to school to support his niece and sister after the latter got sick and needed treatment. The word ‘Family’ with a drawing of a smile is written in chalk at her sister’s run-down door

The soft-spoken young man has worked as part of various fast food service crews for 7 years now.

While he serves meals for others, he can barely secure his.

He entered the industry hoping to save a few thousands to continue his temporarily halted schooling as an Information Technology student.

One family need after another, and he finds himself seemingly trapped – working for a pay just enough to cover household expenses.

Trade unionists in the Philippines believe minimum-wage earners like Jay-R must be paid enough for them to move out of poverty.

In the fast food industry, however, many of the workers intending to save up end up feeling as if they are running on a hamster’s wheel.

Jay-R is just one of them.

‘Yung masurvive ko ‘yung pangangailngan namin, ma-survive ko ‘yung college ko na pinapangarap ko… Pinaka-challenging sa akin ‘yun. At the same time, ‘yun parati nasa isip ko (That I survive paying for our household needs, that I survive finishing college which is what I’ve always dreamed of… That is what is most challenging to me. At the same time, that is what is always on my mind),” he said sternly in an interview.

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MEAL AT HOME. While Jay-R serves meals for others at his workplace, he can barely secure his and his family’s at home

What keeps them from moving up the economic ladder?

Another fast food service crew member and a new father, Mark (alias), said his salary could barely cover other household expenses.

Bale kung halimbawa ‘yung bahay mo malayo, kung minsan pamsahe lang. ‘Yun lang po ‘yung naiuuwi namin (Sometimes, for example when you live far from the branch, a day’s pay is just enough for transportation expenses. That’s all we take home),” said the 23-year-old father in a separate interview.

Workers like Mark are given an hourly wage computed based on the region’s state-mandated daily minimum rate.

But with no fixed shifts in his work set-up, he is at times sent home at an earlier time if there aren’t much customers at the branch he works at.

This means there are days he wouldn’t even be able to take home the full minimum wage.

This also means Mark receives less than what is paid to many other Filipino laborers who are given the region’s daily minimum rate, despite him working for one of the big names in the local fast food industry.

He said he is likewise not provided his pay slip, and other branches that had employed him in the past had failed to provide him work contracts.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 95, which the Philippines is a signatory of, mandates that workers should be informed of the conditions related to their wages “in an appropriate and easily understandable manner” both “before they enter employment” and “at the time of each payment of wages.”

With his new baby entering the family, he said a day’s pay as a fast food worker would not suffice a day’s living costs.

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This sample pay slip of a Filipino fast food worker shows she took home PhP4,753.17 (around US$100) during a 15-day pay cut

Contractual labor

Both Jay-R and Mark have been jumping from one fast food branch to another every 5
months due to fixed term limits in their work contracts.

Staff turnover is high in many low-paying industries in the Philippines due to contractual labor.

At certain points during their over half a decade of fast food work, Jay-R and Mark were likewise both hired through an agency and/or a cooperative to disguise employment relations with the branch management.

There have been moves in the Philippine Congress to either strictly limit or to prohibit job contracting, a system where workers are outsourced from supposedly capitalized general contractors.

In practice, these contractors act as mere dummies or agents of the principals for the latter to evade law-mandated protection for regular workers.

The battle against contractual labor

Job contracting and subcontracting are alternative hiring arrangements where workers are outsourced from manpower agencies or even from workers’ cooperatives, which are in actuality at times corporate-controlled.

If the contractor is not capitalized, it is supposedly a mere dummy or a labor-only
contractor, which is prohibited by law. This irregular practice is used by unscrupulous
employers to deny employer-employee relationship with workers and escape employer obligations.

Job contracting and subcontracting are presently subject to regulation under the
Department of Labor and Employment’s Department Order (DO) 18-A, which makes both the principal company and its contractor jointly and solidarily liable for any violations of workers’ rights.

READ THE FULL TEXT OF DO 18-A

Under DO 18-A, contracted workers are supposedly entitled to a host of benefits under the 4-decades-old Labor Code, including state health insurance under PhilHealth, social insurance under the Social Security System, 13th month pay, and the like.

As in many laws and government regulations, enforcement remains a problem.
DO 18-A was issued by Baldoz after a stalemate in talks at the tripartite level, given
extremely polar views from the employer and labor sector.

The former argued that job contracting is needed to enable businesses to easily outsource workers for seasonal jobs.

On the other hand, some labor groups called for an absolute ban of contractualisation due to the system’s proneness to abuse and misuse.

Employers often use it to hire workers even for core and not just seasonal positions in their enterprise.

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CONTRACT WORKERS. Filipinos use the word ‘endo’ or end of term/contract to refer to the practice by employers of hiring and rehiring workers under 5-month fixed terms

“Endo” / Fixed term limits

Policy proposals in Congress have likewise surfaced to limit fixed-term employment, which some employers use to hire and rehire workers without making them regular employees.

These fixed terms usually last up until before the 6th month of the worker’s employment, a loophole given the mandatory regularization of workers necessary and desirable to businesses who have been with a company for over 6 months.

Colloquially, Filipino workers use the word “endo” or end of term / contract to refer to this practice.

Policy proposals seeking to limit or end contractual labor have not passed into law, with many unionists fearing that some lawmakers themselves are owners of, have a stake in, or are somehow politically beholden to owners of companies that propagate this labor malpractice.

In the Philippines, one in 3 workers in establishments with at least 20 employees are non-regulars, based on the results of a survey released by the Philippine Statistics Authority in May 2014.

They represent 1.149 million of the 3.769 million establishment workers in the country.

Vulnerable employment more than unemployment remains a pernicious social evil,
blocking the way to the promotion of decent work in the Philippines.

“Borrowed status” / Indefinite extensions

Worse, in the local fast food industry, workers are at times asked to extend their service indefinitely at a branch after the end of their 5-month contract or “endo.”

Workers who are asked to do this are on what is known in the industry as a “borrowed status.”

As the branch would not typically renew the 5-month contract of the crew member, the crew member is forced to accept the terms of the indefinite extension while he finds a job opening for another 5-month stint at a different fast food branch.

A fast food worker under a “borrowed status” is given a daily pay lesser than the region’s minimum wage.

ILO Convention No. 131 ensures workers that the minimum wage fixed and adjusted by governments in consultation with both the labor and business sectors is guaranteed by law.

“Minimum wages shall have the force of law and shall not be subject to abatement,” reads Article 2 of the ILO Convention 131.

The Philippines has yet to ratify the convention.

A crew member on “borrowed status” is also often not working under a formal contract, with flexible job assignments and tasks.

There are usually no work agreements but a mere favor expressed verbally.

Extend ka muna. Kulang ng tao (Kindly extend for some time. We don’t have enough
people [in the branch]),” a supervisor would simply say, one of the interviewed fast food workers shared.

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MORE WORK, SAME PAY. Despite a heavier workload, fast food service crew members  with longer years of service are often given the same pay as new entrants

Wage distortion: When seniority is a curse

Wage growth in the fast food industry also hardly comes by, as a worker’s seniority can rarely be taken into account.

With many fast food workers jumping from one branch to another under the
widespread practice of “endo,” seldom can the worker boast of longevity in one given workplace.

This means an increase in worker productivity – a natural result of one’s length of
experience in repeatedly performing the tasks required of the job – is not duly rewarded by the employer.

Jay-R, for example, is considered an asset in his branch given his ability to perform tasks in different areas of the store from the kitchen to the dining area to the cash receiving area.

His 7 years of experience in the fast food industry has made him a dynamic, all-around worker in a store.

Yet, he receives the same pay as a new entrant still struggling to perform a single task in the branch.

Despite this, he is often assigned a heavier workload given his dynamism as a crew member.

Managers would ask additional work favors from the more senior workers, who finish tasks faster than new entrants.

This brand of wage distortion remains widely unaddressed across the industry, where a worker’s experience and relative advantage in skill level are not commensurately reflected in his or her pay.

Jay-R’s salary, he said, only ever increases when there is a government-mandated minimum wage increase. This will apply to all workers receiving the minimum rate.

Floor wage increases are decided by regional wage boards, as petitioned by labor groups.

This seeming lack of wage growth from within the company’s own initiative results to workers being stuck in a perverse cycle of inter-generational poverty, unable to move up the economic ladder.

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EMPATHY. Filipino labor activist Nice S. Coronacion says her previous experience as a fast food worker enables her to deeply empathize with the needs of workers in the industry

‘Wage theft’

Filipino labor activist Nice S. Coronacion, among the youth leaders fighting for better
working conditions in the local fast food industry, considers it a social injustice when
capitalists become exponentially richer yet workers stay poor despite their share in the wealth generation.

A study she co-wrote based on a survey of 100 respondents conducted in 2013 found that an average of 10.33% of the service rendered by fast food workers employed in local McDonald’s branches in Metro Manila are unpaid.

This is an average of some 40 minutes of work a day.

Based on the mandated regional minimum rate at the time of the survey, the workers were deprived of P1,006.23 a month or P12,074.74 a year.

Coronacion is with the youth arm of the Alliance for Progressive Labor (APL) – SENTRO.

She was also a fast food worker herself during her younger years, an experience that raised her awareness regarding the prevalence of what she regarded as wage theft in the industry.

The minimum wage has since hiked, making the worker’s loss using the same data in the 2013 APL Youth-Sentro survey at over P14,000 a year.

Fast food worker Jay-R said this is enough for his college tuition fee for two semesters.

In response to the allegations of wage theft, the Golden Arches Development Corporation (GADC), which operates local McDonald’s stores, said it “does not condone such practices” and “is looking into the points raised by APL-Youth-SENTRO.”

“It is our policy to provide payment to our store crew in the event that they will be required to render extra work hours,” explained Adi Timbol, PR and Communications Manager of GADC.

“The same principle applies to our office-based employees,” she added.

Different terms, same social evil: Unpaid work

But separate interviews with workers from fast food chain McDonald’s as well as its local rival Jollibee affirm the practice of what is known in the industry as “turnover work” or “charity work.”

During their turnover work, fast food workers said they are made to do tasks such as
cleaning, washing dishes, lining of trays, stacking of cups, accounting of bills, as well as making an inventory of plastic utensils beyond their paid work hours.

Supposedly, this practice is meant to make it easier for the worker in the next shift to
transition to his or her tasks, thus the term “turnover.”

The turnover work, essentially an extension of a worker’s shift but without the
corresponding pay, especially takes a toll on working students employed in fast food chains.

Some of the working students in the fast food industry arrive late in their classes or are robbed of time for reviewing their lessons due to “turnover work” that could sometimes last for an hour a day.

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CHARITY WORK. The unpaid work hours or shift extensions especially takes a toll on working students who are pressed for time trying to balance work and school

Annie (alias), now 22, started working at a fast food store at the age of 18.

She worked for McDonald’s local rival Jollibee for 4 years and says her unpaid work varies from 30 minutes to 3 hours a day.

Other Jollibee workers also provided varying lengths of unpaid work hours they called
“charity work,” but all attested to the prevalence of the practice.

Annie said some of the branches she has worked at also use the term “CAYGO” or “clean as you go” to refer to an industry practice that has ripped her and workers like her off of precious time and money which could have been used for their other daily needs.

[Kapag] kahera matagal po talaga magsettle ng pera… Sinusulat pa yung serial number ng pera bawat bills (If you’re a cashier, [the turnover work] takes really long… We still need to write the serial number of each bill),” Annie explained in a separate one-on-one interview.

Sought for comment for this subject article, Jollibee has yet to air its side on the matter.

Coronacion, who has been helping raise awareness among young workers of their labor rights, said most fast food workers are young people intending to save up for school.

“It’s not just the salary that they were deprived of but their youth,” Coronacion explained in an interview.

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DECENT WORK. Current working conditions in the fast food industry do not conform with international labor standards

International Labor Standards

The current work conditions in the Philippine fast food industry do not conform with what is envisioned in international labor standards.

The practice of “endo” strongly diminishes fast food workers’ collective bargaining power,with many of them unable to form or join unions and exercise their freedom to associate due to the precariousness of their jobs.

Freedom of association is one of the cornerstones of promoting decent work for all.

Workers’ legal standing to negotiate with employers their pay, the benefits they get as an employee, and their working conditions is crucial in ensuring members of the working class have a chance at a better life.

ILO Convention 97 or The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention is a universally applicable standard on labor agreed upon by a three-party structure composed of representatives from the government, employer, and labor sector.

Places with higher levels of collective bargaining generally have fairer income distribution as trade unions can represent and push for the needs of low-wage laborers, according to a 2008 ILO World of Work Report.

Freedom of association has been strongly linked to fairer wages.

But in the Philippines, labor union density is dwindling.

Latest state figures show newly registered unions are at their lowest since 1976, with only 126 new unions registered in 2013.

Filipino laborers would rather divert their focus and energy on job seeking, which in the fast food industry almost always happens for the average worker every 4 or 5 months.

Jay-R himself had to postpone for several times his re-entry to college due to one
unforeseen family need after another, including the medical expenses when his sister suddenly got ill.

This is an income risk he would have been less vulnerable to if he was provided
a comprehensive health care plan, which could have likewise covered his dependents.

Had he been safeguarded against any such wage theft in the form of “turnover work,” he could have likewise either saved up for emergency expenses or gone back to school to finish his IT studies to be qualified for a higher-paying IT job.

But Coronacion is optimistic that Jay-R’s case would soon be an isolated one rather than the norm in the fast food industry.

“I strongly believe that we can change things. That from a work that is very precarious and disposable, I dream that they finish school,” said Coronacion of her group’s efforts to organize fast food workers into formidable groups that can demand for better pay and working conditions.

“I’m here because I’m convinced that there is strength in numbers but more so that in unity we have the power to change the situation,” she added. (END)

 

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