Philippines: Airline workers fight contract labour

Issue 
Philippines Air Lines Employees Association member and picket organiser Genevev Alegada. Photo: Zane Alcorn.

Members of the Philippines Air Lines Employees Association (PALEA) have been engaged in three weeks of pickets at the Philippines Airlines (PAL) terminal at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

About 2600 ground crew have fought against forced contractualisation — the replacement of permanent, secure jobs with contract labour.

PALEA president Gerry Rivera told Green Left Weekly the dispute had its origins in 2009 when PAL management declared their intention to outsource the roles of the 2600 ground crew.

These workers run PAL’s IT systems, revenue and accounts, legal, medical, catering, airport services, reservations and customer service.

In April last year, in violation of provisions in the workers’ collective agreement, PAL issued notices of termination to the first tranche of workers to be contractualised — in catering and reservations.

In response, the union filed a notice of its intention to strike. In turn, the Philippine department of labour and employment (DOLE) issued an “assumption of jurisdiction”.

Under this circumstance, the department can arbitrate on a dispute, and workers and management are forbidden from escalating the conflict.

The department investigated the matter, but in August the DOLE ruled that the contractualisation plans were “a valid exercise of management prerogative”.

Rivera said: “We supposedly have all these rights; but they are not afforded to the workers. These are violations of guarantees under the international labour convention on self-organisation and collective bargaining.”

The union took the DOLE decision to the court of appeal, the outcome of which is still pending. But rather than wait for the appeal to be heard, PAL issued notices of termination on August 25 to all of 2600 workers.

Rivera said that PALEA responded with industrial action: “On September 27, the union launched a protest action, which to a certain extent paralysed operations, but the company proceeded with an illegal lockout of the 2600 employees.

“So here we are, holding the picket.”

Rivera said claims by the company that operations were largely back to normal were false. He said other PAL workers not affected by the lockout had been reporting to picketers each day that there were ongoing big delays and cancellations.

Rivera said that the owner of Philippine airlines, Lucio Tan, had a history of union-busting in other industries he controls. However, he said the attack on PAL workers was unprecedented.

“This is a first of its kind in the Philippine labour movement — that a company has suspended a collective agreement to try and implement a contractualisation plan.”

Philippines President NoyNoy Aquino responded to PALEA’s industrial campaign by announcing he would seek to have the workers prosecuted for “economic sabotage”. The union is confident there is no grounds for this and Aquino is simply bluffing.



This year, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) had found Lucio Tan guilty of tax evasion to the tune of 25 billion pesos (almost $600 million).

Rather than support the workers in the dispute — and also remind Lucio Tan to cough up the missing taxes — Aquino has instead threatened to come down hard on the workers.

The attempt to contractualise PAL and break the union comes in the context of less than 0.5% of regular, salaried Philippine workers being unionised and on a collective agreement.

Given this situation, Aquino’s support for the union-breaking contractualisation push seriously undermines any small shred of progressive credibility that he might try to lay claim to.

Rivera told GLW he had been in the company more than 28 years. “I have been a supervisor for more than 23 years. I receive a salary of 31,500 pesos [about $740] per month, but the offer I have received is for 11,111 pesos, but without security of tenure, without rights, without the capacity to organise; everything is taken away.

“The PAL case can become a very bad precedent for the labour movement, because other companies are likely to, under the pretense of losing money, contractualise their workforces also.

“Instead of upholding the primacy of labour over capital, the government is doing the opposite and backing capital over labour. So this is not just an issue of PALE. Really, this is an issue of two contending classes, or clashing forces: of the capitalists controlling this government and the work; and the working class.”

Rivera said the picket had received messages of support and donations “from across the Philippines and from all over the world, from different progressive and trade union organisations”.

The picket has the backing of two umbrella groups, the Church Labour Conference (CLC) and the Kontra (“resist”) network, which is a coalition of 30 worker and trade union organisations aimed specifically at fighting contractualisation in the Philippines. Rivera said spirits are high and the workers are very determined.

“This is about the dignity of labour, the dignity of the working class, the dignity of the workers,” he said. “And I hope that every worker in this country will be inspired by our actions. It is a hard time; this is a very difficult task, but we are doing this because it is the right thing to do.”

[You can donate to the PALEA strike fund: Account Number 00008-057-00403-9, Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation , Quirino Ave, Baclaran, Paranaque City, Philippines. A longer version of this article, including interviews with other unionists involved in the struggle, can be read at Zane Alcorn’s blog.]