Forced overtime is forced labor

By Ernesto F. Herrera, The Manila Times, Thursday 9 October 2003

FORCED overtime, job stress and job security are the burning issues affecting today's beleaguered work-force.

In the garments industry, employers contend that overtime is necessary to meet export quotas. In a highly competitive market, they say they really have no choice but to make overtime mandatory in order to deliver their promised production; otherwise they will easily lose out to more willing and able firms and eventually would have to close down.

Along that line of thinking they argue that it's better for workers to be working more than the normal eight hours a day than for them to be working for less hours, or worse, not to be working at all. If they can't hack it, then they should quit. There are a lot unemployed people willing to take their place. Harsh as it seems, it is the truth.

Forced overtime has become the rule in many garment factories that seek to meet higher demand without the cost of hiring additional workers, as a monitoring study conducted by the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines attests. The TUCP is part of a global alliance against sweatshops. In the past several months, it has been monitoring hundreds of companies to determine if they have been complying with labor standards and fair labor practices. The results of the study paint a very bleak picture indeed. Abuses abound despite diligent labor inspection. And forced overtime%G�%@long, long hours of work, many times under-compensated%G�%@leads the list of these abuses.

Here are just a few examples taken from the TUCP study. The names of the companies have been changed in order to protect the workers who were brave enough to report their employers and cooperate with TUCP's monitoring team.

For instance, at Apparel Assembly, a Filipino producer of baby dresses for JC Penney, Sears Roebuck and Little Betty in Rizal, overtime work is imposed seven hours a day with no morning and afternoon breaks.

During the once-a-week overnight work, management distributes Duromine, which you might be familiar with as it figured prominently in the news recently. Duromine keeps workers awake even for 24 hours. Pharmacists say that the drug increases adrenaline, produces an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and causes dry mouth, insomnia and constipation.

Forced overtime takes its toll both on the mind and the body. Tired workers can make tragic mistakes.

For example, a 24-year-old female operator's three right-hand fingers were cut by a pressing machine in the second week of overtime work in October 2001 at Charing Inc. in Subic. The company, a Taiwanese producer of Acer computer parts which are exported to US, Japan, Europe and Asia, forced workers to render six hours overtime work everyday for three weeks in September to October 2001 to meet orders.

A TUCP verifier said the management realized the need to put sensors as a safety feature in the machines only after seven recorded accidents involving their pressing machine operators. However, forced overtime, which contributes to the accidents, continues.

In Tarlac, Texworld Industries, which makes t-shirts and baby dresses for Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Gymboree, management locks gates and holds time cards to force workers to work overtime. At one time, employees were forced to work for three days straight and afterwards, were given only a three-hour break to go home before getting back to work.

In Western Exports Corporation in Cavite, a Korean-owned producer of K-Mart, Quelle, Siggerman and By Design-labeled knitted sweaters, employees are made to work 48 straight hours once a month. Four female union members were suspended in April 2002 after they refused to work overtime.

Labor unions can help immensely to stop the practice of mandatory overtime. The problem is these garment companies are notorious for union busting.

In We Care Corporation, a Korean manufacturer of bags with Jansport and Eddie Bauer brands in Bataan where employees are made to work 14 to 16 hours a day, management specifically demands forced overtime when the union calls for a meeting. Time cards are held in the office to prevent workers from leaving and escaping overtime work. The contracts of those who refuse to work overtime are prematurely terminated.

How can these workers join a union if they are not even allowed to attend meetings outside of work?

Many employees of these companies dare not complain or file cases for fear that they would no longer be asked to render normal overtime work and will lose extra compensation, or worse, get fired.

Generally, there is no legal limit on the number of hours an employer can schedule overtime work.

Article 83 of the Philippine Labor Code says: The normal working hours of an employee shall not exceed eight hours a day. Article 87 of the same Code adds, Work may be performed beyond eight hours provided that the employee is paid for the overtime work, an additional compensation equivalent to his regular wage plus at least 25 percent thereof. . . .

So while the law is clear on compensation that employees must receive for overtime work, there are no limits on overtime hours.

Perhaps our lawmakers can take it upon themselves to put a bill on the legislative mill that would allow workers to decide for themselves whether to call it a day, or at least one that would limit mandatory overtime to prevent abuses.

Admittedly, for many of our workers, working overtime is the only way to make ends meet, but they also have to able to decide for themselves when enough is enough. Forced overtime is disruptive to workers' lives. Not knowing how long their workdays will be makes it hard for our workers to lead normal lives. They cannot devote what little time is left for them to their families. And they suffer physically and mentally, sometimes with tragic consequences.