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In praise of career bureaucrats

My day job often requires dealing with regulators and government functionaries, a task that cannot be described as generally enjoyable or pleasant.  It is true that most people in government are actually competent and sensible; unfortunately, our systems seem to have been designed for people to act like robots running on an obsolete operating system. So while we may find some of the best and most dedicated people in government, dealing with government offices is something many of us would rather avoid.  

Fortunately, there are government agencies that are trying very hard to keep pace with the rest of the world.  It’s always gratifying to hear that one need not take a whole day off anymore just to apply for or actually get a license or certification from some government office and that certain processes are already automated and can be accessed online.  The most difficult hurdle has always been in terms of mindsets as most career bureaucrats seem fully convinced that everyone else, particularly those in the private sector, is up to no good and that everyone is potentially a recalcitrant violator of laws. 

Our recent experience with the Labor Laws Compliance System examiners from the National Capital Region of the Department of Labor and Employment was surprisingly gratifying. 

As many are probably aware, rigid compliance with labor laws in this country is difficult for many reasons.  First, we just happen to have too many labor laws and regulations, many of them archaic and outdated (we truly and seriously need to come up with a more proactive Labor Code).  In addition, many occupational health and safety standards have been rendered irrelevant or obsolete by more recent developments in the form of new technology or new ordinances.  For example, reserving an area exclusively as lactation station for nursing mothers may not be feasible in offices with very limited spaces.  In many cases, companies are not fully aware of occupational health and safety standards.  Many are not aware that there are laws that require companies to have policies and mechanisms to respond to HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B, Tuberculosis, etc,.

There is very little argument against the spirit and intent of the LLCS assessment that the DOLE is currently undertaking nationwide.  We need to make sure that everyone complies with labor laws.  I think most of the large business organizations are labor compliant, as well.  People were more worried about punitive sanctions should they be found deficient in areas they had very little control of, or of the consequences of having one of their manpower agencies found non-compliant with certain labor standards.

In our case, we were wary about the administrative nightmare of submitting to the compliance assessment process almost seven hundred times on account of the fact that the LLCS prescribes that every branch of a business is supposed to be considered a distinct entity subject to a separate and independent compliance assessment.  Did I tell you labor laws can also be impossibly daunting to implement? Imagine the kind of administrative nightmare big retail companies such as fast-food chains or banks have to face to ensure that all their branches get certified.

So even if we were pretty confident that we were compliant with labor laws and standards, we still expected the certification process to be an administratively grueling and arduous process.  Thankfully, the DOLE examiners proved to be rational people - conscientious and firm, yes, but also quite reasonable.  We were particularly heartened by the collaborative approach that they took - from the very start, they made it clear that the objective of the whole assessment was to help industry become compliant with labor laws.  Rather than just point out how something was wrong, they would go out of their way to suggest solutions.  After a month of assessment which involved actual visitation and inspection of 17 selected representative branches in Metro Manila, the DOLE NCR team declared the bank that I work for was compliant with labor laws during the exit conference held last week.  The whole process was instructive and enlightening; I think we all became advocates of not only labor laws compliance but also of the power of collaborative partnerships.

I am going out of my way to write about the whole experience because I firmly believe government should really go out of its way to make things easy for industry and the private sector.  I do find it infuriating when certain agencies immediately resort to punitive, or worse, embarrassing measures, in dealing with suspected or “possible” violators of regulations.  I think government should teach and instruct and take it upon themselves to ensure compliance through collaborative ways rather than operate from their ivory towers and make decrees and impositions like emperors.  Government should serve and the best way to do this is for people in government  to change their paradigm about their roles as career bureaucrats. 

If we come to think about it, we’ve really had less labor disputes in the last decade and our industrial climate seem generally peaceful.  We need to give credit where it is due particularly since it seems we do tend to be quick and easy with criticism.  This column salutes the field officers of the NCR DOLE led by Director Rowella Grande for showing those of us in the banking sector that government can be empowering, too.

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