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When Worker Exploitation Goes Too Far

Worker exploitation continues to exist today and comes in many forms.

Worker exploitation continues to exist today and comes in many forms.

Worker exploitation shouldn’t still exist today – except that it does.

There’s the 9-9-6 work culture in the Chinese tech industry, a scheme where employees work from 9 in the morning until nine in the evening, driven by the notion that it is devotion to one’s work that causes innovation. And then there’s the continued practice of unpaid internships in the United States, an accepted labor industry norm in a country which sells the idea of the American Dream, only attainable through ‘hustle’ and relentlessness.

For a country like the Philippines whose Labor Code was enacted almost half a century ago, injustices in working conditions and worker compensation continue to exist, but things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Employees who have been wronged by their employer can seek redress by bringing their case to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), whose main job is to enforce the provisions Labor Code and make sure workers have humane working conditions and are compensated properly.

But it doesn’t only take a single national law to change the landscape in the labor industry for good. It takes years and years of labor cases brought before the courts, where the law is either interpreted in someone’s favor or works against them. It used to be easy to exploit workers in the Philippines, but with the DOLE clamping down on companies who are not meeting either labor standards or rules on labor relations, it has become a more worker-friendly labor industry.

Back in 1992, one such case of borderline worker exploitation was decided on by the Supreme Court. After reading the case, I instantly wondered if such working conditions were prevalent today. There’s no question that some employers in this day and age still treat their employees like slaves (with the only separator between slave and employee being the wage), but how common was it three decades ago? Let’s take a look at the case of Damasco v. NLRC (G.R. No. 115755).

A Textbook Case of Exploitation: Damasco v. NLRC

Imelda Damasco worked for a supplier of glass, Manila Glass Supply. You’d be shocked to learn that someone with a position of ‘Sales Clerk’ did a lot more than just sell glass, as the job title would infer. In 1992, Damasco received a daily salary of 140 pesos, which was slightly above the minimum wage at the time. As Manila Glass Supply’s ‘Sales Clerk’, she was ordered to do almost all the works related to the glass business of the company, including the cutting, sales and delivery of glass as well as the financial aspect of the work – balancing, accounting and checking of capital and profits every end of the month.

As you can probably already predict at this point, Damasco didn’t last with the company. The job title of Sales Clerk apparently had a lot of jobs attached to it, and her daily salary wasn’t even that far off from what was legally mandated.

A lot of jobs advertised these days have such generic names for job titles that you have to read through the duties and responsibilities (if even those are provided in detail) to get an idea of what you’d actually be doing. Generic job titles seem to be the way to lure an unsuspecting worker in, only to find out when they actually land the job that there are a thousand other things you’re responsible for.

Horrible Working Conditions

It wasn’t enough that Imelda Damasco was responsible for performing the entire business operations by herself. She was made to work from 8:30 in the morning up to 9:30 in the evening, continuously from Monday to Sunday. And she wasn’t paid overtime pay, not even rest day pay and holiday pay. This was a worker who spent more than 90 percent of her waking hours working for someone who didn’t even give her the full benefits, not even the ‘floor’ of what was required by law.

One August day in the year 1992, around 7 in the evening, her boss called her up and told her to finish all her works that night. But she told her boss that she would not be able to do so because it was already late. And on top of her day-to-day tasks, she was even tasked to train her other two co-workers, which for her own sake she had stopped doing.

Asked why she stopped training them, she answered that it was because if in case the other two workers committed mistakes in accounting, she, Imelda, would be the first one to be lambasted by the boss and even required to share in paying the shortages.

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Wow. Not only did Imelda have such horrible working conditions and inadequate pay, but her employer deducted from her own salary any shortage in sales that occurred.

When her boss heard her response, he swiped and ashtray in front of her, threw it and shattered it. He threw some notebooks at her, and she began trembling in fear, her whole body shaking. “I don’t wan to see your face anymore,” her boss said. Imelda couldn’t stop crying after the whole scene, and the two co-workers, her trainees, applied alcohol on her and gave her water to drink, because her body started getting cold and felt weak.

It took an incident like this – and not the long hours, no rest days, inadequate pay – for Imelda to finally quit her job. It must have been so hard to land any job, back then.

Granting Overtime Pay

As was well-deserved by the employee Imelda Damasco, the lower courts and the Supreme Court sided in her favor and awarded her all the deficiencies that Manila Glass Supply owed her. It was only the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) that deleted the award for overtime pay.

This issue on overtime pay was brought before the Supreme Court, who ultimately decided on reinstating it in Damasco’s favor:

“We note that Sia (the boss) has admitted in his pleadings that Damasco’s work starts at 8:30 in the morning and ends up at 6:30 in the evening daily, except holidays and Sundays… In view of Sia’s formal admission that Ms. Damasco worked beyond eight hours daily, the latter is entitled to overtime compensation. No other proof is required. Sia already admitted she worked an extra hour daily. Thus, public respondent (NLRC) gravely erred in deleting the award of overtime pay to Ms. Damasco on the pretext that the claim has no factual basis.”

But how about Damasco’s boss Sia’s assertion that she was receiving a wage higher than minimum, that overtime pay was already integrated into her salary? To this, the Court said:

“It does not follow that any additional compensation due her can be offset by her pay in excess of the minimum, in the absence of an express agreement to that effect. Moreover, such arrangement, if there be any, must appear in the manner required by law on how overtime compensation must be determined. For it is necessary to have a clear and definite delineation between an employee’s regular and overtime compensation to thwart violation of the labor standards provision of the Labor Code.”

Choosing who you work for can mean the difference between being exploited or being treated fairly.

Choosing who you work for can mean the difference between being exploited or being treated fairly.

Choose Your Employer Wisely

In an ideal world, everyone can choose who they want to work for, which would mean that employers who subject their employees to inhumane conditions while not paying them properly, would go extinct. But we don't live in a world like that, and so the line between employment and human trafficking always has to be drawn.

While the case presented above doesn't amount to human trafficking, you can see that there are workers out there who are desperate enough to keep working a job despite the awful working conditions and for almost nothing.

Even if you do reach the point of desperation, not being able to land any job that you're supposedly overqualified for, remember to still choose your employers wisely. It's hard to think clearly when the stomach is empty, so please be aware of your own rights as a worker.

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