Striking Aleco workers return to work; SMEC take-over deferred
By Mar S. Arguelles
LEGAZPI CITY —The 70 striking workers of the Albay Electric Cooperative (Aleco) returned to work on Monday, Jan. 13, following a directive from Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.
Members of the Aleco Employees Labor Union (ALEU) had been on strike since September last year as they put to task the Aleco management for unfair labor practices and violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Last Sunday, the 70 members of ALEU massed at the holding area in front of the Aleco entrance gate to also express their strong opposition to the impending takeover of Aleco by the San Miguel Energy Corp. within this month.
SMEC was the lone bidder of a concession contract agreement, which, after a referendum, allows them to take over the power coop’s operation for the next 25 years.
Regional Director Nathaniel Lacambra of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) in Bicol earlier called for a closed-door mediation meeting with the officers of the ALEU to discuss ways to resolve the four-month old labor unrest.
Legazpi City mayor Noel Rosal said in a phone interview that positive developments came up after Labor Secretary Baldoz personally assumed jurisdiction of the case and issued a return to work order to the striking members of ALEU.
Rosal said the case will now be heard for arbitration as the issue on public interest is at stake.
The city mayor said the return-to-work order would bring back normalcy to Aleco transactions and thus fast track the billing and collection processes to enable them to meet the settlement of the outstanding P300M bill that the PEMC is seeking.
Aleco has a total of 450 personnel. Of this number, 213 were rehired after the planned takeover while the rest opted to retire to avail of their separation pay.
Some P280M was earmarked by SMEC for the separation pay but only P70 million, or 25 percent of the total amount have so far been liquidated for the purpose.
After confronting the four-month-old labor strike, the cooperative now has to face anew a power disconnection notice for its failure to settle last year’s outstanding power bills amounting to P300M, an Aleco official said.
According to lawyer John Fernandez, vice chairman of the Aleco interim board, a notice of disconnection was served that threatened to cut off power supply in the entire coverage area of Aleco, which is comprised by the whole province of Albay, including Legazpi City, if the power coop failed to settle its accounts within five days upon receipt of the notice last Friday, Jan. 10.
Fernandez explained Aleco has to settle its P300M cumulative unpaid power bills for the months of September, October, and November in 2013 payable to the Philippine Electricity Market Corp., the cooperative’s current power provider.
Fernandez said the Aleco management could have settled the account had it not been for the on-going labor strike that disrupted the billing and collection operations of the cooperative.
However, in a phone interview,Nel Bautista, public affairs chief of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippine (NGCP), quickly denied the disconnection report.
Veronica Briones, representative of the National Electrification Administration (NEA) and concurrent Aleco project supervisor, clarified that what was actually served was a notice of collection from PMEC.
Earlier, tension gripped the cooperative since Monday last week as the striking workers supported by the Albay Multi-Sectoral Stakeholders Organization (AMSSO) set up a blockade at the gate of the compound, preventing employees to report for work and the power consumers from transacting business and paying their accounts with the cooperative.
Earlier that day, the strike went out of control when the strikers reportedly prevented and manhandled Aleco employees who wanted to report for work.
The Legazpi City Police Office riot squad was present during the heated confrontation. Both camps, however, expressed dismay over the inability of the law enforcer to control the situation.
The AMMSO, led by lawyers Bartolome Rayco and Rechie Regala, is supporting the strikers, aside from providing them legal assistance.
The group also opposes the takeover by SMEC.
The Rayco-led AMMSO has accused the Aleco interim board of withholding from the public the concession agreement contract signed by SMEC and Aleco on Oct. 29, last year.
Rayco even demanded that the Aleco provide them with a copy of the signed contract.
Mayor Rosal on Wednesday met with the strike leaders and handed a copy of the concession contract to lawyer Donna Escio of the National Union of People’s Lawyers.
Escio said the contract would be thoroughly reviewed as to whether it indeed conformed to the provisions in the terms of reference crafted by the Aleco interim board.
As this developed, Ellen Go, SMC Global Power general manager, said in a letter to the Aleco interim board through lawyer Veronica Briones, Aleco project supervisor, that the assumption of full operation of Aleco set on Tuesday will be deferred until such time that, according to her, “we receive sufficient guarantees which will ensure our peaceful, continuous, and uninterrupted possession of the distribution system, which is one of the obligations of Aleco under the concession agreement.”
Go said she hopes that Aleco can reconcile the divergent factions that led to the present disturbance in the business, as the company is committed to assist Aleco in transforming it into an efficient and viable power distribution utility.