What prompted Coke workers to strike

“The workers who toil every day for Coca Cola to take home billions of profits have been experiencing the worst working conditions under the 99%-Coca-Cola-owned Red System agency.”

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — On daybreak of May 20, the 300-plus strong independent union of Coke drivers, pickers and forklift operators, backed by their families, supporting unionists allied with Pamantik-TK (Kilusang Mayo Uno in Region 4) and residents of the nearby community, started picketing the four gates of the Coca Cola plant. During the day, the strikers reportedly encouraged the more than 1,000 production workers to join and support the strike. By 4 p.m., the strikers declared total paralysis of Coca Cola-Sta. Rosa’s operations.

A first in the Sta. Rosa Coca Cola plant, the workers’ strike reportedly resulted from contractualization of some 430 drivers, pickers and forklift operators. They have worked with Coca Cola for more than a decade but since they were transformed into contractuals under an agency called The Red System Inc., they started to be denied the benefits due them as regular employees of the said multinational company.

The union filed a notice of strike on March 22, 2013 based on the company’s unfair labor practices. In the strike vote that followed, 262 out of 267 union members agreed to go on strike.

“The workers who toil every day for Coca Cola to take home billions of profits have been experiencing the worst working conditions under the 99%-Coca-Cola-owned Red System agency. As drivers, forklift operators, and pickers who ensure the safety and orderly release and delivery of finished products, the suffering we have endured has reached its limit,” said Fernando Avellino, president of union of Coca Cola Sta. Rosa plant drivers, forklift operators and pickers.

He said that previously, CCBPI directly hired drivers like him who have worked for Coke for 10 to 18 years, but they were placed under contractual status with the Redsystem Company Inc. (TRCI). They then started to be paid on a per-delivery basis, receiving an average of P4,000 ($98) every payday. They are not called every day, Avelino said, but when they are called, the working day could stretch beyond eight hours.

Deliveries, the strikers said, took up an exhausting 18 hours to and from the factory. Delivery shortages are deducted from the workers.

Coca-Cola forklift operators and pickers, also in service for more than 10 years like the drivers, are in-charge of loading and unloading products for delivery. They work on a 12-hour shift from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but they reportedly receive only three hours’ worth of overtime pay. Lunch breaks are limited, workers are often pressured to finish their lunch in 30 minutes. They are required to explain any minute in excess.

The absence of health and safety standards such as the company’s obligation in providing restrooms is also one of the workers’ main issues. Company clinics are unable to provide for their medical needs, and ill workers are forced to work and send a ‘notice to explain’ if they are unable to perform and reach their quota.

Under the TRCI, “employees’ benefits such as rice subsidy and 13th-month bonuses were all removed,” too, Avelino said.

Taxes, social service contributions, and the like are automatically being deducted from their salary.

Unionizing complicated by contractualization, DOLE “siding with employers”

In July 2012, the movers of Coca-Cola products petitioned for a certification election to formalize a union that would represent them in a collective bargaining agreement.

The Calabarzon regional office of the Bureau of Labor Relations ruled in January 2013 that the 430 workers were regular employees, but this decision was reversed a month later as the case was mysteriously transferred to DOLE national office, the union said.

On January 14, 2013, Department of Labor and Employment Bureau of Labor Relations IV-A Med Arbiter Tiongzon declared all workers under the Red System as regular employees of Coca Cola Bottlers Philippines, Inc. Concurrently, Tiongzon granted the workers’ petition for a certification election.

But on February 5, 2013, the union learned through copies of the exchange of letters and communication between Romeo Montefalco, DoLE Intramuros OIC, and Alex Avila, DoLE IVA Director, “the illegal transmittal” of their Petition for Certification Election to the DoLE Office of the Secretary. Pamantik views Labor Secretary Baldoz as “a notorious anti-worker official.” The alleged illegal transmittal led to their petition being dismissed, and the workers were then again considered as contractual employees under the Red System Agency.

Subsequently, the management reportedly reduced the number of company trucks being used by union members from 121 to 62. They also filed allegedly fabricated charges against union members and officers.

At this juncture, the Coca-Cola Sta. Rosa drivers and pickers received, and struggled against, another setback. The Federation of Free Workers (FFW), which reportedly directs a union under the Red System agency, filed a motion for intervention to prevent them from forming another union, even when the workers in Sta. Rosa had never consented to join their union. Even before having a certification election, the FFW reportedly competed against the union led by Avelino, which is affiliated with Pamantik network. FFW reportedly offered signing bonuses up to P30,000 ($737) to entice workers to join them instead.

Their oppressive working conditions and the management’s repeated attempts to block recognition of their union prompted the workers to go on strike.

“While Coca Cola has continuously portrayed an environment-friendly and consumer-friendly image via television ads worth millions of pesos, we [the workers] have been deprived of our very basic rights to just and living wages, health and safety standards, security of tenure, and organization. We have made the best use of all legal remedies and options, but apparently, the Department of Labor and Employment, the management, the Red System Agency, and the yellow Federation of Free Workers are conniving and are by all means denying us of our rights—substituting legal processes with unlawful measures,” Avelino said.

Workers said their decision to launch a strike was their highest and last political resort to call for their rights to wages, benefits, tenure, and union. As they set-up camps and picket lines outside the Coca Cola plant, they called on consumers to support their strike, as they said they face severe working conditions in and out of the factory.

The union’ strike was victorious and the unionists are set to return to work. They are, however, vigilant to ensure that Coca Cola follows through with its signed agreement.

As of this writing, though, the strike has not been recorded by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB) of the Department of Labor and Employment. Asked for information on the strike, NCMB labor communications officer William E. Calina told Bulatlat.com in an email that “the purported Coke workers’ strike in Laguna is not true.” But he said there are cases involving the company that are undergoing conciliation talks in the regional branch no. 4-A of the NCMB. ()

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