[OPINION] NutriAsia skirts the law to oppress workers, hide its greed

NutriAsia, Inc maintains that the strikers are not their contractual employees but are regular and permanent employees of their contractors. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Teddy Casiño

Published: 10:29 AM August 14, 2018

Updated: 10:30 AM August 14, 2018

Last week, the picketline at the NutriAsia, Inc factory in Marilao, Bulacan was violently dispersed and plant operations have resumed. But the labor dispute remains.

The union is still officially on strike, demanding that the company regularize some 900 contractual workers, recognize the union and reinstate dismissed members. In support of the workers, activists and concerned citizens have called for a boycott of NutriAsia’s products, among them such iconic brands as Datu Puti, Silver Swan, Mang Tomas, UFC, Jufran, Mafran, and Papa catsup.

NutriAsia, Inc maintains that the strikers are not their contractual employees but are regular and permanent employees of their contractors. The company insists that it has no employee-employer relationship with the said workers and, therefore, can’t be held liable for alleged violations of workers' rights and unfair labor practices. They accuse the affected workers of barking up the wrong tree.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. Here's why:

1. The DOLE actually found NutriAsia and its contractors to be engaged in labor-only contracting not once but twice

In February this year, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) ordered NutriAsia to admit as regular employees 914 workers in its Marilao plant hired by 3 of its contractors – Alternative Network Resources Unlimited Multipurpose Cooperative, Serbiz Multi-Purpose Cooperative, and B-MIRK Enterprises Corporation. According to DOLE, said firms acted as illegal labor-only contractors for NutriAsia, and so their hired workers should be considered regular employees of the company. DOLE also found the company and its contractors liable for several violations of labor laws and standards.

On this basis, workers under B-MIRK organized a union called Nagkakaisang Manggagawa ng NutriAsia to push for regularization. The management not only refused to comply with the DOLE order, but also refused to recognize the union, eventually leading to the June 2 strike.

Subsequently, the DOLE regional office issued another order on June 25 that ordered NutriAsia to regularize 80 employees from another contractor, Asia-Pro Multipurpose Cooperative (APMC). As in its February ruling, DOLE said NutriAsia and its contractor were illegally engaged in labor-only contracting.

Unfortunately, the same order reversed the February finding on B-MIRK and said it was not engaged in labor-only contracting. The union has appealed said findings of the regional office.

2. B-MIRK is a toll packing company AND labor-only contractor

NutriAsia insists that workers in its Marilao plant are actually regular and permanent workers of the “B-MIRK Group,” which it says is a legitimate toll packer/service provider of many leading companies.

For its part, B-MIRK claims to own a toll packing facility near NutriAsia’s Marilao plant, which exclusively caters to NutriAsia’s needs. The facility is actually called the NutriAsia Taurus 9 Plant and packs sauces and other products into sellable packages like sachets and plastic bottles.

However, B-MIRK also supplies workers to NutriAsia’s main plant in Marilao.

In its company profile, B-MIRK Enterprises Corp says it is engaged in contract manufacturing services. To quote: “Any process that a company wishes to move off site for reasons of space, capacity, capability or cost is a candidate for B-MIRK’s contract manufacturing services at highly competitive rates. The company provides labor, equipment, location and knowledge to create the best solution for our partners’ (customer) manufacturing/packaging requirements. B-MIRK acts as an extension of its partner’s company.” (Emphasis mine.)

Aside from functioning as an “extension of its partner’s company,” B-MIRK provides manpower services through the B-MIRK Multipurpose Cooperative (B-Mirk MPC), which is also a NutriAsia contractor. In its promotional materials, B-MIRK MPC says it provides ”primarily manpower services to its clients who seek for no administrative hassles and zero-VAT solutions.”

The striking workers were employed in NutriAsia’s main plant, not in B-MIRK’s Taurus 9 Plant. Many had been working for NutriAsia for at least 10 years. When management learned that they were organizing a union, their leaders were denied entry in the main plant and subsequently dismissed. An additional 70 workers were likewise denied entry and dismissed after participating in a clapping protest activity during their break time. It was such actions by the NutriAsia management that actually compelled the workers to strike.

3. NutriAsia uses B-MIRK to hide its real status as an employer

NutriAsia is, in fact, engaged in one of the oldest tricks in the contractualization handbook: using a third party (a manpower agency or, in this case, B-MIRK) to skirt its obligations as an employer.

On paper, the 900 or so workers at its Marilao plant may be employed by B-MIRK or some other contractor. But in reality, they are working for NutriAsia itself, doing work that is clearly essential and indispensable for a condiments manufacturing company – from logistics, production, quality control and packaging. It is NutriAsia that owns the plant, tools and equipment they use, supervises their work, pays them wages (as shown in their pay slips), and decides on every facet of their employment.

Even if it were true that workers in NutriAsia’s Marilao plant are “regular and permanent” workers of B-MIRK, they are mere contractuals as far as NutriAsia is concerned. NutriAsia managers and supervisors can hire or fire them at will without any consequence to the company. Once a worker is dismissed or laid off, or makes monetary claims for injuries at work, it’s only then that B-MIRK comes in to clean the mess, shielding the principal of any liability.

Even workers in the NutriAsia Taurus 9 Plant, allegedly owned by B-MIRK are, in effect, employees of NutriAsia. In fact, they churn out nothing but NutriAsia products.

4. NutriAsia uses contractors to sugarcoat its greed

NutriAsia is a multi-billion-peso company. It owns almost all of the country’s top brands in condiments and sauces. It corners 87% of the local vinegar market, 86% of the soy sauce market, 77% of ketchup and 97% of lechon sauce, among others, earning at least P11 billion in annual sales.

But because on paper, NutriAsia workers are supposedly employed by firms like B-MIRK or Asia-Pro, they can’t demand a share from all that money.

By making B-MIRK appear as the employer, NutriAsia gets off the hook for the workers' sorry plight. It is not NutriAsia that pays a measly P380 daily wage. It is not NutriAsia that imposes heavy 12-14 hour shifts, fails to pay overtime and 13-month wages, mistreats its workers or busts the union. Not at all. It’s B-MIRK that’s doing all those bad things.

Worse, by making it appear that they are “multipurpose cooperatives,” labor-only contractors can even avoid paying taxes, earning even more for themselves and their principals.

5. Government can and should protect the NutriAsia workers

Despite the vagueness of the Labor Code when it comes to temporary and contractual work arrangements, there is enough leeway for DOLE to interpret the law’s provisions in the spirit in which it was made – to protect workers from capitalist abuse and greed. In fact, this was what DOLE’s February order did. It went for the essential and ordered NutriAsia to regularize its contractual workers doing regular work.

When it comes to employment status, what is on paper is not necessarily what is in practice. NutriAsia might show all kinds of documents to show that it does not employ its own workers but merely contracts out work to B-MIRK. And B-MIRK might show all kinds of documents to show their workers have regular and permanent status. But all that flies in the face of the reality of workers working in a factory owned by NutriAsia producing NutriAsia products using NutriAsia equipment while being supervised by NutriAsia managers. Anyone who can’t see that is either blind or blinded. – Rappler.com