Union protests surprise layoffs at Canlubang milk plant, files notice of strike

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 3:38 p.m.) — Wyeth Philippines Progressive Workers Union has filed a notice of strike at the regional National Conciliation and Mediation Board office in Laguna over the nutrition giant’s termination of 140 workers, a move that workers said violated a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

Workers at the Wyeth Nutrition plant in Canlubang were barred from going to work on Thursday without warning, the union said. They were later allowed in only to be told that 140 of them, including 10 union officers, were being laid off so the company could cut costs.

“Management locked us out on May 18, they themselves ordered a stop to operations,” union president Debie Faigmani said in Filipino in a statement to media. Faigmani, who is among those laid off, said this was an illegal lockout that the union will protest.

The Labor Code defines a lockout as a “temporary refusal of an employer to furnish work as a result of an industrial or labor dispute.” Like with strikes, notice must be filed 15 days before an employer implements a lockout. Strikes and lockouts can only be done because of a collective bargaining deadlock or over unfair labor practices.

“They have to answer their workers and the public about these brazen moves that do not consider the livelihoods and welfare of those who created their profit and their wealth,” Faigmani said in Filipino. “Meanwhile, protests in various forms will continue.”

In a statement on Friday afternoon, Wyeth Nutrition acknowledged “an organizational restructuring at the Wyeth Canlubang factory, to keep its operations viable in the face of challenging market conditions, was announced to its employees yesterday.”

The company also disputed the claim of a lockout, claiming it was the employees who held an assembly outside the factory. “Management representatives went to dialogue with the union officers and encouraged them to allow their members to enter the factory,” it said.

It said that it would be giving workers affected by the retrenchment severance packages “superior to what the law requires.” 

Wyeth Nutrition is reportedly offering severance packages of up to 250% the monthly rate for every year of service for workers who have been in service for more than 20 years. Those who have been with the company for a shorter period will get from 150%-200% of the monthly rate per year of service depending on tenure.

“The new organizational structure is necessary and vital to delivering operational efficiencies at the factory. In our efforts, we are committed to supporting our people while seeing to the health of the business,” Wyeth Nutrition also said.

In its 2022 annual review, parent conglomerate Nestlé S.A. reported sales in the Philippines of more than 2.6 billion Swiss Francs, or around P160 billion. The sales figures were not broken down in the corporate report. 

‘CBA violations’

Labor NGO Ecumenical Institute of Labor Education and Research (Eiler) said Thursday that the layoffs violated a CBA that the union and management signed in December 2022. A CBA includes negotiated agreements on wages, security of tenure and on the treatment of workers.

“Worse [Wyeth] did not follow due process of consultation and negotiation with the union,” Eiler also said of the surprise layoffs. Eiler and WPPWU noted that management had refused calls for dialogue about the pending job cuts.

Faigmani said the company had pleaded with workers to keep production going during the pandemic because they were in an essential industry. “We went to work then, but all that has been set aside by the company,” he said in Filipino.

‘Trendsetter’ CBA

In an interview by labor rights advocacy collective Mayday Multimedia on Thursday, Faigmani called the CBAs that the 64-year-old union have secured “a trendsetter because it has the highest pay in the food industry in the Philippines.” According to the Asian Labour Review, the union managed in its 2013 CBA to negotiate for a cumulative salary increase of P11,750 over a period of three years.

Faigmani said the union believes the retrenchment of its members is also a tactic to weaken the union “and at the same time take away the wages and benefits that Wyeth workers are getting now.”

He added that the sudden retrenchment, which had been preceded by rumors and informal and unwritten “advisories” but no actual dialogue with management, “cannot be said to have been done respectfully… we do not deserve this kind of treatment.”

The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights told a House panel in Ferburary that less than 8% of workers are in a union and an even smaller percentage have Collective Bargaining Agreements.

CTUR representative Kamille Deligente said the numbers are “a manifestation of the barriers to workers’ right to organize.”

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