Some business groups and big real estate companies on Monday said they favor government moves to get workers back into offices to stimulate spending, in contrast to business processing outsourcing (BPO) firms that have asked for more time to shift their workers away from work-from-home arrangements.
In a joint statement, 13 business groups—made up largely of real estate and retail companies—said encouraging workers to return to their offices and other workplaces will help revive business activity and key economic centers in the country.
They also echoed a government argument that doing so would support the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that have been hurt by the pandemic.
“We now look forward to heightened business activity, which will benefit the entire nation and spur its return to economic wellness. The path to recovery, we aver, begins with the presence in the business and commercial centers of the country’s workers,” the business groups said.
The statement was signed by Ayala Land Inc., Chamber of Real Estate and Builders Association Inc., Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines, Go Negosyo, Management Association of the Philippines, Megaworld Corp., Philippine Constructors Association, Philippine Retailers Association, Philippine Chamber of Commerce Inc., Resto Ph, Robinsons Land Corp., and SM Prime Holdings Inc.
The groups said that as employees return to business centers, this will also boost business confidence and help restore industries hurt by the pandemic.
At least 1.1 million tourism workers have been displaced by the pandemic.
The business groups also noted that mall traffic and ridership in MRT-7 have already started to recover following the boost in vaccination rates across the country.
“Economic momentum has been established and we are now within easier reach of the prosperity we all enjoyed in 2019. We encourage the public to now venture out of their homes while maintaining safety protocols,” they said.
“Fully occupied business districts and commercial centers indeed represent a welcome and collective milestone for the country,” they added.
The Fiscal Incentives Review Board (FIRB) led by the Department of Finance (DOF) earlier ordered BPO companies to require their workers to report to work physically in their offices by April 1 or lose their tax incentives.
This directive, however, is being opposed by several labor groups, BPO companies, and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority.
Senators, meanwhile, said they support the option for work-from-home arrangements and a four-day workweek to cushion the impact of the continuing spikes in oil prices.
Senator Risa Hontiveros said it is reasonable to let BPO workers continue with the work-from-home arrangements to help cushion the effects of rising transport costs.
She also said it was erroneous for the Finance Department to say that it is important to end the work-from-home scheme to revive economic demand based on spending by BPO workers.
The Civil Service Commission (CSC) has long-supported the reduction of the workweek into four days since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Commissioner Aileen Lizada said Monday.
“There has been a four-day compressed workweek for a long time since 2020. Its validity is up to the declaration of a public state of health emergency which will end sometime on September 10, 2022. So, it has long been supported,” Lizada said.
She then cited the CSC’s Memorandum Circular Number 18, series of 2020 which allows national government agencies, local government units, and state universities and colleges to adopt alternative work arrangements due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lizada, however, pointed out that offices should still be operational for five days and not be left unmanned.
Once approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, the compressed 4-day work week can be implemented upon the prerogative of private companies, Labor Undersecretary Benjo Benavidez said Monday.
This may be implemented two ways: the 48 hours for completion per week will be compressed to fewer days, or there will be less hours of work along with less days. Most companies who implement the 4-day work week use the first option, said Benavidez.
Should companies opt to compress hours to fewer days, hours added to the remaining workdays that exceed the 8-hour workday should be paid accordingly, he added, citing a provision in the Labor Code.
On Monday, Phoenix Petroleum announced that its employees would continue working from home, at least until July.
Despite easing pandemic restrictions, the company has decided to maintain the alternative work set-ups that are currently in place nationwide for its knowledge-based employees who do not need to be in the office and will reassess the situation by the third quarter of the year.
“We deem it best to maintain our current work set-up and allow employees who do not necessarily have to work on-site to fulfill their duties at home,” said Phoenix Vice President for Human Resources Celeste Ong.
“I’m proud that our personnel have been adaptive throughout the unpredictable developments of the pandemic. Despite the non-traditional work set-ups, our employees have been able to adjust accordingly and remain productive,” Ong said.
Since the pandemic hit, a large part of the company’s employees has been placed in work-from-home (WFH) set-ups and other alternative arrangements to keep them safe.
The decision to allow employees to work from home was also fueled by employee preference. Based on internal research, which included focus group discussions, 84 percent of employees who are on WFH arrangements prefer to continue functioning remotely or at home even post-pandemic.
“We value the feedback of our employees, and since they have been able to fulfill their obligations even under unconventional work set-ups, the company is willing to support their needs to feel safe and taken care of. Even our engagement rates have been high for the last two years, showing that with the right tools and initiatives, WFH may actually be more ideal,” Ong added.
Phoenix Petroleum Senior Vice President Raymond Zorrilla added that the move to let employees work remotely is also aligned with the Department of Energy’s support for WFH.
Beyond the BPO industry, Hontiveros said employers should offer the option of working from home for workers who have performed well during the pandemic, even if they did not report to work onsite during that time.
Senator Joel Villanueva said if the government is scrambling to “soften the pain” of surging oil prices for many sectors like drivers and farmers, then 1.3 million BPO workers should be entitled to the same mitigation.
But BPO workers, Villanueva pointed out, in spite of plowing P1.5 trillion into the economy yearly, “are not asking for billions of pesos in fuel subsidy.”
“They just want to be allowed to continue working from home. It is a mitigation measure that will not cost the government anything,” he said.
He also said the location of workers had no bearing on their spending habits or the level of their savings.
In fact, he said, by working at home, “BPO workers are keeping community enterprises alive.”
Presidential candidate Senator Panfilo Lacson said he supports a four-day workweek to help Filipinos cope with rising fuel prices.
He said, however, that workers under such arrangements, especially daily wage earners, must get proper compensation.
“As long as daily wage earners will be compensated for their extended hours of work which should be equivalent to five days, I will support that four-day workweek to save on the use of fuel,” he said.
“It is a good suggestion, and we should support that,” he added.
He noted the four-day week will not only help Filipinos save on fuel but give them more time to spend with their families on their days off.
In the House, Quezon City Rep. Alfred Vargas urged the government to promote work-from-home and hybrid work arrangements as part of the “new normal.”
Vargas said this would help protect workers from the fallout of the pandemic and the rising fuel prices.
“The high cost of fuel is especially difficult for many workers and employees who are now returning to office-based arrangements,” he said.
Vargas, chair of the House committee on social services, filed the resolution amid a move by the government to require the BPO industry to get its workers to return to their offices.
“Despite being an initial remedial response to the pandemic, the work-from-home arrangement has proven to be a productive means of
operations for many sectors, and some employers have even reported higher productivity with this remote set-up,” he said.
Filipino workers have also benefited from the flexibility in work location, Vargas said, citing a study where Filipino workers showed “the highest level of enthusiasm for fully remote work.”
Vargas said he is confident the Department of Labor and Employment will take the lead in promoting work-from-home and similar work
Meanwhile, Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda said the country is still in need of higher-quality jobs as the latest underemployment numbers are worrisome.
“Underemployment, the share of workers looking for side jobs to augment income, went up to 14.9 percent in January from 14.7 percent in December. That remains a cause for concern. It could mean workers are simply taking whatever jobs are available, no matter how low-paying they are,” Salceda said.
“It could also mean that wages are simply no longer enough to meet the needs of more Filipinos, and that would be consistent with what’s
happening on the ground with food prices,” he added.
“It could also mean that government income support does not meet the needs of working households, hence, the search for secondary
employment,” Salceda said.