While millions of jobs were lost last year across most sectors following the lockdowns put in place to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, employment in the Philippine mining industry remains largely unaffected. This is due mainly to the resilience of the minerals development sector and the efforts of mining firms to keep their workers employed.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the country’s unemployment rate was 8.7% in April 2021, an improvement from the 10.4% posted at the end of 2020 – the highest in 15 years. In terms of magnitude, the April figures translate to a total of 4.14 million unemployed individuals who are 15 years old and above.

The Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) estimates the Philippines’ total job losses at 2.1 million in 2020, around 500,000 of which were in construction and another 100,000 in manufacturing, with the steepest decline in employment in the services sector reliant on tourism. ADB pegs the job losses north of 500,000 in wholesale and retail; 265,000 in accommodation and food; and a drop of about 100,000 jobs in transport, public administration, and other services.

Meanwhile, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau says the mining and quarrying sectors even posted a slight increase in employment numbers, from 182,000 in 2019 to 184,000 in 2020. In April 2021, however, employment in mining and quarrying dropped by 7,000, which can be attributed to the temporary closure of some operations due to local government directives. Nevertheless, this figure is expected to improve particularly in the large-scale metallic sector with the resumption of OceanaGold Phils. Inc.’s Didipio Project operations soon following the renewal of its mining agreement with the Philippine government.

Quick response

Members of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) – composed primarily of the country’s largest metallic mines – responded early to the pandemic, enabling them to effectively mitigate the risks of infection within and around their mines. In Carmen Copper Corporation’s (CCC) mine in Toledo City, Cebu, for instance, the company secured its employees’ livelihood by assuring continued salaries, providing assistance to protect their health, and setting up precautionary measures to reduce infection risks. CCC instituted flexible work arrangements, such as work-from-home options for non-critical employees and accommodations for workers directly involved in the mine and mill operations. The company also provided free service buses for commuting personnel as public transportation was halted during the lockdowns.

With its health and safety protocols already in place, Carmen Copper Corporations was able to maintain full operations throughout 2020.

Health and safety measures were strictly implemented in the workplace such as social distancing and mandatory wearing of personal protective equipment. CCC also conducted regular disinfection and housekeeping of work areas and facilities.

CCC followed the “Trace, Test and Treat” strategy in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. The company’s emergency responders and medical teams meticulously traced contacts people exposed to persons positive with Covid-19 and provided regular testing. It also established quarantine areas inside the mine site and provided nutritious meals, vitamins and supplements for workers who have been exposed to positive patients.

Thankful

CCC’s efforts to secure jobs and keep employees safe are being replicated by COMP member-firms across the country. These efforts have not gone unnoticed by their workforce.

“During the onset of the pandemic, we did not report for work for 15 days,” recalls Jordan Zamuco, a company driver at Philex Mining Corp.’s Padcal Operations in Tuba, Benguet. “We were on on-call duty since there were company volunteer programs where our assistance to transport donations to our host and neighboring communities were needed. After 15 days, we were back on track; our work has been continuous since. There were instances when the skeletal workforce arrangement was necessary in our department but we were well compensated. We received our daily salary. What I am most thankful for are the continued benefits from the company that we received without delay.”

“I am grateful to this company for continuing to provide benefits for us employees,” says Mine Operations Group manager Benedict Gapongli. “Despite this situation we are all facing, the company even gave us bonuses and salary increases.”

None of Philex Padcal Mine’s nearly 1,900 employees – majority of whom are from the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), which posted a 25% unemployment rate at the start of the pandemic – were separated since the start of the pandemic. Same with the company’s corporate offices in Mandaluyong, where some 80 employees are posted.

New Philex Mining Corp. (PMC) HR Senior Supervisor Luzbele Roxas, hired during the pandemic. PMC is part of the MVP Group of Companies.

“In Philex, I can feel how agile the company is in adapting to the pandemic,” shares Human Resources senior supervisor Luzbele Roxas. “The work-from-home setup and laptop subsidy keep me safe and make me productive at the same time. One of my key functions in HR is recruitment. I’m well equipped to handle challenges in this function with the aid of digital solutions. Moreover, with De Los Santos Medical Center, Cardinal Santos Medical Center, and other MVP partner medical institutions on my speed dial, I can confidently take care of our existing and prospective employees on their health needs. The work environment here in Philex is family oriented. Perhaps that’s the reason why we have many long-tenured employees.”

“My work during this pandemic period has been most rewarding,” says Keith Conrad Fabros, a shop clerk and tool keeper at Padcal’s Mobile Equipment Department. “I may have additional workload, but I am quite able to cope with it. I am thankful that despite this pandemic, I still have a steady job and my family and I are healthy. The company provides free medical benefits to employees, such as the random swab tests. This makes us and our families protected from the virus.”

“There are so many things to be thankful about being part of this wonderful company, of course with the directives and supervision of our beloved president, Mr. Eules Austin,” says Irish Distor of Philex Mining Corp.’s Information Technology Department. “Thank you very much, Sir! Mabuhay po kayo!”

“During these difficult times a lot of people lost their jobs. That is why I am most thankful to Philex for ensuring that I keep my job and bring food on the table, and for helping keep our families safe,” says Irish Distor from Philex’s Corporate Office. “We were given the tools we need to do our jobs and the flexibility to work from home. Philex also showed us how much they care for their employees when we were given flu and Covid-19 vaccines.”

Lucky

Benguet Corporation (BC), for its part, managed to secure the jobs of 1,433 employees in the company’s head office and various projects. The company’s gold operation in Itogon, Benguet managed to remain open even with the drastic decrease in the attendance of contract miners by 56%. Despite lower production, BC retained its 475 employees in its Baguio Gold Operation and is currently hiring for newly vacant positions.

“As the coronavirus continues to rapidly spread across the world, it is causing a considerable degree of anxiety, fear, and concern to all,” says Mark Gallo, Human Resources assistant at BC’s head office. “Having this in mind, the company has safeguarded the welfare of its employees by providing flexible working hours, shuttle services, regular RT PCR screening tests, vaccines, quarantine facilities, and other safety essentials to protect them from the infection. We are lucky.”

The company’s subsidiary, BenguetCorp Nickel Mines Inc (BNMI) greatly contributed to the increase of employment in Sta. Cruz, Zambales when it resumed mining last year. Since October 2020, BNMI contracted additional 704 employees for it nickel mining operation.

“Hearing news of unemployment in the country and closing down of many businesses in different industries, makes me realize to be grateful that I still have a secured job I can count on during these trying times to provide for my family,” Gallo adds.

Roy Cale and 200 of his fellow workers and contractors at Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) were able to keep their jobs despite the pandemic. With his job secured, he and his nine teammates in the firm’s Mine Environmental Protection and Enhancement Team aim to produce up to 120,000 seedlings that SMI will then grow, propagate, plant, or distribute to community members in Tampakan, South Cotabato.

Roy Cale is one of the nine workers under the Mine Environmental Protection and Enhancement Team (MEPE) of Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI). As a nursery aide, he brings to life various seedlings that SMI will then grow, propagate, plant or distribute to community members. This year, Cale and his other teammates aim to produce up to 120,000 seedlings of various tree species.

Cale is a resident of Barangay Tablu in Tampakan, South Cotabato. He joined the SMI MEPE Team in 2017 and has since helped produce more than half a million seedlings.

During the onset of COVID-19 pandemic last year, Cale was thankful that his workspace is in the great outdoors, making him feel safe from possible workplace infection. Cale was also thankful that, despite job losses that other industries suffered due to lockdowns and economic downturns, SMI immediately activated its crisis management and business continuity plans that allowed him to keep his job. Some 200 other SMI staff and contractors were able to keep their jobs as well.

‘Malasakit’

The pandemic served as an opportunity for Berong Nickel Corporation (BNC) in Quezon, Palawan to assuage its employees that no challenge is too difficult if they focus on their work and on showing their “malasakit” – or concern – for both the company and each other.

“Initially we were afraid that we will lose our jobs like what happened in other companies, Jay Dionisio, an artist at BNC’s Safety Department. “We were fetched from our homes by our company and made to stay in the mine to protect us from the virus. This arrangement allowed us to work unhampered, thus ensuring our income kept coming and our families won’t go hungry.”

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(Clockwise from top left) Rolando Sajot, Jaypee dela Cruz, Florita Mutas, and Jay Dionisio all showed “malasakit” for Berong Nickel Corp. and fellow employees, which helped the company to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Rolando Sajot, BNC Safety superintendent, says the strict enforcement of Health Protocols in the mine enabled the company to keep all its 778 employees safe. “We managed to maintain our Safety Performance Indicator at ‘0’ – meaning there were no recorded accidents from 2019 to December 2020,” he points out. “We posted 4 million man-hours of no lost time accident, and 25 million man-hours of no fatality since 2007.”

“Our efforts to care for and protect the forest and seas continued amid the pandemic,” says BNC Mine Environmental Protection and Enhancement officer Jaypee dela Cruz. “One of the most important elements of our reforestation initiatives is our Nursery operations, manned by people like Mrs. Florita Mutas who, at 43, still sends seven of her children to school.”

“With God’s grace, we were able to continue our work here, which gave me the means to feed and provide for all the needs of my children,” Mutas relates.

Happy and Contented

While other companies have shut down their businesses due to the pandemic, exploration and community development work in and around TVI Resource Development Philippines Inc.’s (TVIRD) Balabag Project in Bayog, Zamboanga del Sur has not stopped, says Julito Bate, a carpenter and father of seven children. “TVIRD values its workers, especially those who are honest in doing their work.”

Marvin Edal, a former illegal small-scale miner in this town, says working with TVIRD is his “dream come true”. A member of the Subanen tribe, Edal was able to fulfill his wish of serving his community, especially in times of calamity and disaster, as part of the company’s exploration team. On top of that, he now earns a lot more compared to the meager P20 he received per day in his old back-breaking job of carrying sacks of gold ore to his boss’ makeshift processing plant.

The pandemic has not prevented him from helping his townmates and those in neighboring villages owing to the company’s continued operations. “My only wish is for TVIRD to start its mining operations soon so we can further spread the benefits of responsible mining,” he says.

The chief’s grandson. Despite his lineage, Marvin Edal is described as “warm, approachable and hard-working – one of the best employees of TVIRD’s Community Relations group.” Photo shows Marvin (in light blue) assisting his grandfather, Timuay Casiano Edal, in managing administrative duties for the Subanen tribe.

Edal’s sentiment is shared by Dionel Barut, an Administration assistant and in-charge of TVIRD’s kitchen staff, as well as the purchase of supplies for the kitchen, mess hall, and accommodation facilities in Balabag. “I like working here because the company takes good care of its employees,” he relates. “Besides the good pay, much importance is given to our health and safety.”

Barut worked once in a 5-star hotel at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig but left and joined TVIRD in 2020. He has no plans of leaving anytime soon. “We are happy and contented here, especially whenever we see our fellow workers delighted with the food we serve – and then receive ‘thank-yous’ from them. Makes one forget there is a pandemic wreaking havoc all around,” he adds.

Manpower reduction never an option

Being in an export-oriented industry, Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC) continued to operate albeit in a limited capacity and with due observance of the regulations set by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases or IATF. Manpower reduction was never an option for the company. Instead, LCMC opted to manage the employees’ earned leave credits not merely as a cost control measure, but more so to conform with the IATF protocols for companies allowed to operate and to help stem the spread of the virus in the work place.

“The good thing here is that even with the Covid-19 pandemic, Lepanto didn’t stop operating,” says Mauricio Bangngayon, a Mine Shift Boss at LCMC’s Mankayan, Benguet mine. A high school undergraduate, Bangngayon left his village in Tanudan, Kalinga 10 years ago and found a job here, initially as a mucker, then as an LHD operator 3 years later, until he was promoted to his current post.

“The company continues to fight, and I am still here,” he stresses. “The thing I like most is that I am with my family here. My wife doesn’t need to work abroad because I can provide them a decent living because of my job.”

Mauricio Bangngayon (center), flanked by the Uyod brothers Abelard (left) and Samel (right) are thankful that their company, Lepanto Consolidated Mining Co., continues to fight to keep their jobs at the firm’s Mine Division in Mankayan, Benguet.

The company put the welfare of its employees above anything else by providing them with the necessary personal protective equipment, vitamin C especially for the frontliners, shuttle services to ferry the employees to work and back home, and disinfectants for offices, to name a few.

Lepanto also conducted massive testing for all the mine site employees. Those who tested positive were sent to quarantine facilities with free meals. The Lepanto Hospital continues to give free medical services to all the Lepanto employees and dependents. With Lepanto’s good relationship with the Mankayan Local Government Unit, getting its employees vaccinated was never a problem.

Like Bangngayon, Abelard and Samel Uyod, both from Tadian, Mt. Province, found their luck in Lepanto, Mine Division. Both of them are third generation employees, as their father and grandfather used to work for the company as lead miners. The Uyod brothers are grateful for the opportunities given to them my LCMC even with their lack of college degrees.

Abelard started working as a security guard in 2001 and eventually became a security officer, because of his dedication and excellent performance being an underground patrol.

“My being able to continue working here despite the pandemic is really a great help,” Abelard relates. “My children are still studying – two of them are now in college – and we need to fund their tuition fees. We don’t know any other income source that’s why my brother and I are so fortunate that we’re still here.”

His older brother Samel started as a mucker in 2004, then became a lead miner, and was promoted to LHD operator, until he bagged the senior surface safety inspector position in 2010. He says: “Our families’ primary source of livelihood – our salaries – wasn’t affected that’s why our standard of living remains steady even with Covid-19 wreaking havoc everywhere. We are able to withstand the pandemic because we still have our jobs and for that we are most thankful.”

Solidarity in the time of Covid-19

Back in Toledo City, Carmen Copper Corporation (CCC) saw recently the signing of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between management and workers. Of CCC’s 2,365 employees, 1,916 or 81% are rank-and-file employees.

President and CEO Roy Deveraturda says the signing is a symbol of solidarity, regardless if you’re a union member, the management, a service provider, or contractor. A key factor to the swift and peaceful CBA signing is the professionalism shown by the officers of the union, whom he described as “men of integrity and purpose.”

Carmen Copper Corp. President and CEO Roy Deveraturda (right) shares a light moment with labor union president Herbert Cabaluna during the signing of the new CBA between the firm and its employees.

“They know that they also have responsibility because I believe they understand that before the wage earners can receive their share of the fruits of their labor, the wage giver must have the capability to give it to them. I salute the honesty, dedication and professionalism of the union members toward the common good,” Deveraturda says.

After the first three years, another negotiation will be made to deliberate on the next salary increase for the last two years of the CBA, he adds. “In a scenario wherein the general situation, brought about by the current pandemic, talks of furlough, layoffs and retrenchments from other companies, CCC is talking about salary increases and enhancing the welfare of its employees.”.

Union president Herbert Cabaluna, who described the CBA signing as a “very important” development, agrees: “Despite the pandemic and its effect to the economy, our CBA managed to increase and improve economic benefits like wages, benefits, allowances, bonus and programs. Aside from economic benefits, the CBA also institutionalized job security and protection of workers’ rights.”

As CCC continues to strive for its goals amid the pandemic, Deveraturda urged all employees to do what they can for the company: “We must all love the company, show your commitment, cooperation and of course, your competence in the performance of your assigned tasks.”