“Are the workers being abandoned?” This is the reaction of labor rights NGO, Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) when the Department of Labor and Employment issued Department Order 213, Series of 2020 or the “Prescribing Guidelines in the Prescription of Actions and the Suspension of Reglementary Periods To File Pleadings, Motions and Other Documents” last May 5. 

The Order looks innocent, procedural and simply compliant to the prohibition of conferences or face to face meetings under the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) or General Community Quarantine (GCQ) except for Section 6 that states, “All inspections are suspended for the duration of the community quarantine. Routine inspections shall continue to be suspended even after the lifting of the community quarantine…” This provision includes occupational safety and health investigations which is very essential during this pandemic. 

“This means that when safety protocols are not observed by the company, the workers cannot ask DOLE to inspect the workplace and invoke the ‘DTI and DOLE Interim Guidelines on Workplace Control and Prevention and Control of COVID-19.’ What’s the use of these guidelines when the agency that’s supposed to monitor its implementation has suspended one if its main tasks amid this very critical time? Who will protect the workers’ rights, especially, their health and safety? Is the government just abandoning them?” said Daisy Arago, CTUHR Executive Director. 

The group also decries the provision of the Order stating that inspections shall be suspended even after the lifting of the community quarantine. “If DOLE is suspending labor standard inspections or compliance to pending complaints of labor rights violations, indefinitely, what then is the role left for DOLE?  No amount of advisories, again they are not mandatory, can protect the workers from the inspection, unless DOLE uses its power, to enforce its laws on incorrigible employers,” Arago added. 

The Joint DTI and DOLE Guidelines only serves as a guide and does not in any way, oblige employers to follow them. The different agencies are also contradicting themselves in terms of the need for mass COVID-19 testing for workers. The Department of Health claims that it is not obligatory for employers to test their workers for COVID-19 before returning to work. The Palace, on the other hand, claims that the obligation for mass testing among workers is in the hands of the private sector. Meanwhile, DOLE issues Labor Advisory 18, Series of 2020 which states that employers should shoulder the cost of COVID-19 prevention and control measures. But then again, an advisory still does not make it obligatory. 

Amid all these, it seems like the workers have only themselves to turn to as they returned to their jobs to keep the country’s economy afloat. 

“Amid this very critical time, DOLE should step up its inspection, mobilize not only its inspectors but workers and leaders whom they trained as inspectors, to ensure that workers are protected as they battle the risks of contracting COVID-19 along the way and in the workplace, just to jumpstart  the economy. Suspending inspection when it is most needed is abandonment,” Arago averred. 

She also added that workers are eager to return to their work, not because workplaces are safer after a 2-month lockdown but because the government has failed to provide sufficient aid to their families and they are going hungry. The economy also needs them, as much as they need their livelihoods.  

“We call on unions and workers to oppose the DO 213 as it affirms DOLE’s abandonment of workers and gives license to employers to violate all established labor rights standards under the pretext of combatting the spread of COVID -19 and indefinite suspension of inspections,” CTUHR ended.#