Is NutriAsia a Sign of New Times?

For years, decades really, I have heard of the “oppressive” labor laws in the Philippines. These were primarily semiconductor stories (because I was an analyst of this industry) and manufacturers of semiconductors are sometimes faced with wild swings in demand for their capacity. At the top of a cycle, fabrication facilities (fabs) are 100% utilized. During hard times, they may even be idled. If labor laws do not accommodate these industry dynamics, the fabs will migrate over time to jurisdictions that do.

In the Philippines, the Labor Code favors workers and employment terms are not “at-will.” An employer must have just cause to terminate an employee. Yet, while the law favors workers, reality has favored employers, who have had the supply/demand advantage in the Philippines and have managed to work around the laws. In some cases, like with household help, the laws have been ignored. In the case of NutriAsia, employment is kept on permanent temporary status. That is, for an industry where manufacturing does not suffer the vicissitudes of the semiconductor industry, workers are indefinitely kept on quasi temporary “contract” status. And so the laborers did the romantic thing—they went on strike.

We know NutriAsia in its retail incarnation as Silver Swan Soy Sauce and Mang Tomas Sauce. They are also the company that sent a grandmother to the hospital during a picket line skirmish. Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have even heard of this matter. Sadly, it would have been consumed in the excess of tragedies fed to us from across the sea—the mudslides, the typhoons, the daily affronts of poverty. Things are different now. As this column goes to print, a press conference is being held in San Francisco standing against NutriAsia. The company is being dropped as a sponsor of the Pistahan Festival (Yerba Buena Gardens on August 11 and 12). The public is being asked to boycott the company’s products.

By the time this article is published, the press conference on August 8 at the Bayanihan Community Center on Mission Street in San Francisco will have already happened. Stay tuned for further news on this matter.

The present moment has seen the Philippine worker empowered like never before. Because of the multi-year boom that took place under the last administration, the explosion of call centers and business processing businesses, and the exodus of labor, the existing workforce in the Philippines is faced with strong demand. One result is that it is harder for find a maid or a driver. Another result is that workers are well positioned to right inequities that companies have taken for granted in the Philippines. Bringing long term outsourced workers internal is not so much a moral obligation as it is a symbol of a shift in market power.

How can we do anything but applaud. Labor in the Philippines is better off and the forces of the market are at play to sort this out.

I only hope the parties work out their problems among themselves before the government steps in with suffocating laws and regulations that typically never anticipate a dynamic future. No one wins in that situation.