The low paid workers propping up Manila’s construction boom

Angelito Matiga, 47, helps to build expensive houses in Cavite, just 14 kilometres south of Manila. He works six days a week and earns US$7 dollars (300 pesos) a day.

The construction sector makes a sizeable contribution to the economy of the Philippines – 414 billion pesos (US$ 9.4 million) in 2014, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority (PSA).

This robust growth, up from 302 billion pesos (US$6.86 million) in 2011, is due to a combination of factors: the millions of dollars in foreign remittances flowing into the country’s from overseas Filipino workers (which hit an all-time record high of US$26.9 billion in December, and much of which goes into house building projects); low interest rates; and the need for more office space and accommodation to meet the country’s growing population needs.

But as job opportunities continue to rise in the construction industry, sector wages are failing to follow suit.

Most of the country’s 2.45 million construction workers are still trapped in poverty.

“Life is difficult,” Angelito, a married father-of-five, tells Equal Times.

“Without a permanent job, I am forced to borrow money from friends to buy food.”

Despite 15 years on-the-job experience, Angelito is considered an unskilled worker because he lacks certification from the Philippines Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), an agency of the Department of Labour and Employment (Dole).

Professional certification would help Angelito gain skilled worker status, and with it, access to better-paying, more stable work – both at home and abroad.

Without it, however, Angelito relies on short-term contracts in the construction sector.

When these jobs are unavailable he accepts odd jobs to make ends meet.

Skilled workers in the construction industry such as electricians, masons, plumbers and carpenters earn around 450 to 650 pesos a day (approximately US$10 to US$15).

In 2012, the number of construction workers assessed and certified by TESDA jumped to 50,651 from 30,230 in 2010.

But the high cost and prolonged periods of absence from work associated with training prevent many construction workers from upskilling, thus having the opportunity to earn more money.


Health and safety

Health and safety is also an issue on construction sites around the country.

Subcontracting companies require workers to wear personal protective equipment to ensure safety at work, but the cost is deducted from workers’ salaries.

With the rapid pace of development in the Philippines, safety often falls behind.
For example, 14 workers died in two separate incidents this year.

By comparison, according to figures from the Association of Construction and Informal Workers (ACIW), 12 workers died between January and May 2012.

The first accident of the year took place on 21 January in Bulacan, north of Manila.
It involved the collapse of a wall at a warehouse construction site. Twelve workers were killed including a 14-year-old boy.

The subcontracting firm, Hoclim Philippines and its principal developer Number One Golden Dragon Realty Corporation, were found liable for various offenses such as operating without permit and employing a minor.

Then, on 4 February, two construction workers died when a portion of a 63-storey condominium in Taguig City, Manila collapsed.

Both projects have since been suspended.

Much of Philippines’ poor workplace safety record in the construction industry lies in the fact that firms fail to compile to Dole standards, and there are not enough labour compliance safety officers to ensure that they do.

In addition, the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) is lobbying for the passage of Bill 4635, known as the Safety and Health Inspection and Employers’ Liability Decree (SHIELD).

At present, the Philippines labour code does not provide criminal penalties for non-compliance with a number of safety and health regulations.

This draft law would impose heavy penalties for those who violate the country’s health and safety laws.

A call for workplace safety and decent salaries for construction workers was made at the 3rd Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) Asia-Pacific Conference held in Manila in early April.

“There is vibrancy here [in Philippines],” BWI president Per-Olof Sjöö told Equal Times, “but the [country’s economic] growth should be for the benefit of the [construction] workers. This is the challenge for the Philippines,” he said.

BWI also called on the Filipino government to ensure the safety and rights of construction workers abroad.

Dole has announced that there will be up to 150,000 job openings for Filipino workers in Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

But BWI is warning job seekers to exercise extreme caution.

“Qatar is a hostile environment,” said Sjöö, referring to thesystem of kafala, which gives employers the power to withhold an employee’s passport. In addition, the ban on trade unions means there is no way to ensure workers’ safety or the protection of their rights.

BWI’s Asia-Pacific office told Equal Times that the only solution is for Filipino construction workers, both at home and abroad, to join trade unions.

Currently less than one per cent of the construction sector workforce is a member of a trade union.