There is no education like adversity, the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said. By that measure, we surely must have learned many valuable lessons in the last two years living under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sadly, however, the government seems bent on discarding one of the most valuable lessons we learned while in lockdown—that a substantial number of workers could do their jobs productively from home. Doing so kept employees safe, since they could work in relative isolation, remotely. There were subsidiary benefits as well. Workers no longer had to waste one or two agonizing hours commuting to and from their place of work, and therefore were more physically and mentally fit to provide a full day’s work.
Earlier this month, the Fiscal Incentives Review Board (FIRB) rejected a petition from the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) to extend work-from-home arrangements for registered information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, in view of rapidly rising fuel prices.
But the Department of Finance (DOF) has been adamant that these companies located in economic zones—who were allowed to let 90 percent of their employees work from home during the pandemic—would no longer be allowed to do so after March 31, on pain of losing their tax incentives.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said the work-from-home arrangement was “only a time-bound temporary measure” to deal with the surge of COVID-19 cases.
“Given the increasing vaccination rate of Filipinos nationwide, we can now undertake safe measures for physical reporting of employees, including those working in the IT-BPM firms operating within ecozones and freeports.”
Dominguez added that returning on-site would “pave the way for the recovery of local micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that depend on IT-BPM employees for their livelihood.”
The response, unfortunately, is typical of the shortsightedness of the President’s economic team, that looks at short-term signs of recovery but ignores the long-term costs.
Over the last two years, BPO and other office workers have shown they can be as productive if not more so working from home than onsite.
Giving these workers the option to work from home would not only ease traffic on our crowded streets, it would save a lot in fuel costs and relieve workers of the stress of commuting. These are concrete benefits whether or not there is a pandemic.
The suggestion that compelling call center workers to return to work onsite would somehow save local micro, small and medium enterprises that depend on them for their livelihood is frankly ludicrous. These workers would spend on food, clothing and services, regardless of whether they go to work or work from home.
This bean-counting mentality, unfortunately, is also being applied to calls to suspend excise taxes on fuel, in view of the dramatic price spiral in oil prices. The President’s economic team argues that doing so would cost the government P131 billion in revenues—without mentioning the windfall gains it would get from value-added taxes.
Instead, the Department of Finance (DOF) says it favors “targeted” subsidies for drivers and operators of public utility vehicles, farmers and fishermen—blithely ignoring the fact that none of these measures will provide a whit of relief to ordinary working Filipinos who do not fall into any of those categories.
All of this goes to show that the bean counters in the President’s economic team don’t really care about the welfare of ordinary working Filipinos. All they care about is their bottom line.