Business unusual: When the business community responds to a virus

Co-authored with Jayvy Gamboa

In the novel The Plague by Albert Camus, there is an eccentric and mysterious character who goes by the name of Cottard. Unlike most people, this man welcomed the coming of the plague and lamented its end, since he was engaged in the illicit trade of contraband, taking advantage of the people’s cravings and the government’s distractions.

Our business community is faced with a monumental choice at this moment in history: will they behave like Cottard and take advantage of the COVID-19 disaster in the weeks and months ahead?

Duterte asks for help

On March 16, as the whole of Luzon was placed under enhanced community quarantine, President Rodrigo Duterte in a televised address to the nation pleaded to “big corporations” for help and consideration, despite the supposed bad blood between these businesses and Duterte. In the address, Duterte named the Ayalas and Manny Pangilinan – with whom he had a rift due to their ownership of the country’s two major water concessionaires.

With the mandatory work suspension for majority of industries, the government appealed to the business and private sectors to carry some of the burden faced by workers, who are left with no choice but to stay at home and live through the next weeks without money for their families. Duterte himself asked to create flexible work arrangements, at the very least.

The Ayalas and Pangilinan, among other business leaders, heeded the plea and released multi-billion COVID-19 response packages for their corporations’ employees, which includes wages, allowances, advanced bonuses, and loan deferments. Work-from-home arrangements were also implemented to protect employees while business proceeds.

I like very much the rationale provided by Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Fernando Zobel de Ayala for the P2.4 billion COVID-19 package it quickly put together: “In these most trying times, those significantly affected by the COVID-19 situation are the thousands of workers that will be affected by the enhanced community quarantine because their places of work have been closed. These include retail workers, construction workers, service providers, security agencies, and employees of many similar businesses who are largely on a no-work-no-pay type of employment.”

First Gen Corporation, a Lopez Group-owned renewable energy enterprise, “has also been taking proactive steps to ensure the well-being of [its] employees” by implementing “precautionary measures such as imposing travel restrictions, emphasizing social distancing, and providing work from home arrangements,” noting that its powerplants can be operated with a few key personnel that ensures continuity of power supply. In addition, the Lopez Group donated P100 million pesos to ABS-CBN Foundation’s efforts to complement the LGUs in delivering basic commodities to needy communities. We will write about ABS-CBN media’s work during this crisis in another article.

Major public utilities such as Meralco, Smart, Globe, PLDT, Manila Water, and Maynilad, and banks such as BPI, BDO, Metrobank, Security Bank, and RCBC have also risen to the occasion and have declared 30-day payment extensions.

The big malls – Ayala, SM, and Robinson’s, among others – have also responded well, closing their malls when required by the government and providing relief to their lessors who in turn could help their workers.

At the height of Duterte’s rants against his imagined oligarchs, I defended the Ayalas, Lopezes, and Pangilinan, forcefully arguing based on my personal experience with them that they are patriots and nation-builders. The events of these past weeks have proven my point beyond doubt.

Business support for frontliners and the poor

With most of the Filipinos in Luzon staying in their homes, support for health workers and frontliners surged. Jollibee Group donated P100 million worth of food to frontliners, while SM Group commited another P100 million worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies.

Most striking is how the Office of the Vice President of the Philippines, in partnership with Kaya Natin! Movement had managed to crowdfund from individuals and companies more than P35 million in just two weeks for frontliners.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) contributed as well. As early as March 13, Kanto Freestyle Breakfast sent food packs to health workers. Many restaurants followed its lead.

Finally, 20 top business groups raised over P1.5 billion to fund the distribution of grocery vouchers to urban poor residents in the Metro Manila area. This is much needed help and will complement government efforts.

Not all is well on the employment front

Although businesses, big and small, have responded humanely to the realities faced by their employees and the greater Filipino public, there are still those that have yet to act, or have acted to the employees’ detriment.

First on the list is the laying-off of employees by the country’s major airlines. Citing business losses due to travel restrictions, Philippine Airlines laid off about 300 ground-based personnel, while Cebu Pacific laid off over 150 cabin crew. It is unimaginable how the retrenched employees and their families can survive through the quarantine, and post-quarantine, now that they are without jobs.

Some businesses refused to implement flexible work arrangements, or even forced their employees to report for work. Early on, DOLE assured the workers that they may refuse to report for just cause (i.e. public health and safety). However, social media is replete with anecdotes from workers, such as those from the BPO sector, who were left empty-handed.

As Cottard took advantage of the plague and made money out of it, these businesses even went further and deprived their very own employees of humanity. It is plainly unacceptable in a time of crisis.

We will see in the days ahead whether workers will be made to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 disaster. If employers act badly, the government must step in to correct the wrong.

Business unusual is the call

We make a strong and unequivocal call to the business sector.

Telecommunications companies should provide expanded – and unlimited – mobile data coverage for all subscribers. Never did the Filipino people face a crisis of this magnitude in the era of social media and internet connectivity. It would be of great help to Filipinos to have access to information and updates on COVID-19 and to connect with their families, especially those immobilized.

Water concessionaires all over the country should never fail to deliver water to households, especially now that summer is approaching. Health officials emphasize the need for proper hygiene and sanitation. Nonetheless, it is essential for every household to have access to clean running water, whether or not there is a crisis.

It is also a must for businesses that continue operating to put a premium on their employees’ welfare by providing nothing less than hazard pay, transportation, and accommodation, if need be.

We all have lost, or are yet to lose, something or someone in this pandemic. Definitely, some have lost more than others, such as an ordinary worker as compared to a business enterprise. It must not be business as usual.

Regardless of what we have lost along the way, one question remains: what else can we give?

This question is a call, which the business sector must answer. Some have responded. Some have not, like Cottard in The Plague. There is still time.


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