When Scientists Are Underpaid....

Plight of Pagasa employees prompts calls for salary hike, review of Magna Carta for Scientists

A storm has been brewing, not only within the Philippine area of responsibility but within weather bureau Pagasa itself.

MANILA — Various organizations have declared their full support for the fight of the employees of PAGASA, or the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration. The sorry economic plight of the weathermen and women have prompted calls for across-the-board salary increases for state workers and a review of Republic Act 8439 or the Magna Carta for Scientists, Engineers, Researchers and Other Science and Technology Personnel in Government.
The weathermen and women of Pagasa led by their union Philippine Weathermen Employees Association (PWEA) said they have not been receiving their benefits since March. According to the group’s president Ramon Agustin, many employees of Pagasa, including the weather forecasters have not been reporting for work because they did not have enough money for transportation.Ordinary employees receive P7,000 to P8,000 ($ 167 to $190) monthly in benefits, but those who rely heavily on the benefits suffered greatly when the benefits were suspended.
PWEA has been raising their concerns about the suspension of such benefits since March. The benefits include subsistence allowance of P160 ($3.80) per day, hazard pay equivalent to 15 percent of their salary, as well as the longevity pay.
Agustin said Pagasa’s healthcare insurance provider terminated its contract with the agency because employees were unable to meet the monthly premiums. He also said that because of the failure of the government to release their benefits, a weather observer and union member died last May 24 from a stroke that was a complication of diabetes. The man, Alex San Pedro, reportedly died because he was unable to take his maintenance medicine.
The group said their situation went against what is mandated by the Magna Carta for Scientists. The latter stipulates that employees should receive benefits, longevity and hazard pay and the subsistence allowance and laundry allowance or Sala.
The progressive alliance of government employees the Confederation for the Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (Courage) immediately supported the Pagasa employees, saying that their issues are very valid and are no different from the plight of all the 1.4 million state workers nationwide.
“Our basic pay has been frozen to starvation levels and yet the administration has continuously withheld the benefits we used to receive that augments our meager pay. This situation must be addressed or else the government shall face a strong storm brewing from its own backyard,” said Courage president Ferdinand Gaite.
Gaite opined that the bureaucracy is losing the best and the brightest employees because they are forced to join the private sector out of necessity.
“They need to support their families. Salaries in the government for ordinary, rank and file employees are hardly large. We have been witnesses to the diaspora of our scientists, forecasters, meteorologists, geologists and other science and technology personnel to private local and foreign companies because of our own government’s policy of cheap labor. In the case of Pagasa employees, besides having to suffer low pay, the forecasters are forced to endure the constant berating and ridicule of Pres. Aquino who calls them inefficient,” he said.
In July 2010 and in the wake of tropical storm Basyan, Aquino gave weather officials a dressing down for making a wrong forecast of the typhoon’s direction. Basyang hit the metro suddenly, catching residents and disaster unaware and unprepared. Also last week, during a meeting of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Committee, the president scolded the Pagasa representative for lowering the rainfall warning in the morning and raising it again after a few hours.
Heavy responsibilities, no funding
Gaite said what Aquino refuses to acknowledge is how the agency is ill-equipped and its technology is outdated.
Pagasa’s mandate and functions are comprehensive and heavy. In a report on its website, the agency is said to carry the task of maintaining a nationwide network pertaining to observation and forecasting of weather and other climatological conditions affecting national safety, welfare and economy. It also undertakes activities relative to observation, collection, assessment and processing of atmospheric and allied data for the benefit of agriculture, commerce and industry. The agency is also tasked to engage in studies of geophysical and astronomical phenomena essential to the safety and welfare of the people; as well as undertake researches on the structure, development and motion of typhoons and formulate measures for their moderation.
Another heavy function of Pagasa is to maintain linkages with local and international scientific organizations and promote exchange of scientific information and cooperation among personnel engaged in atmospheric, geophysical and astronomical studies.
For all intents and purposes, however, Gaite said even as Pagasa has a Modernization Law and a Magna Carta for employees, both remained unfunded and ultimately useless.
Gaite said that besides pushing for benefits for state workers, Courage continues to actively campaign for a a P6,000 ($142) increase in their minimum pay. The current minimum pay (or Salary Grade 1 Step 1) is only P9,000 ($ 214) when the mandatory deductions for the Government Social Insurance System (GSIS) , Philhealth and PAG-IBIG premium payments, withholding tax and others have been taken out . Even by government estimates, a family of six need at least P30,000 ($714) a month for its cost of living. A Pagasa forecaster receives a gross pay of P12,000 ($286)
The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) this year withheld various benefits of state workers on the pretext that these were already integrated, factored in on their salaries. Even the Collective Negotiations Agreement (the public sector counterpart of CBA) Incentive was capped by the DBM. Courage consequently filed a case at the Supreme Court questioning the said action.
In a report in Malaya, PWEA’s Agustin said the employees of Pagasa are demoralized.
“It’s difficult to accept that our long-standing request that the DOST and the government immediately release our Magna Carta benefits has not been acted upon. We have long suffered trying to survive without these benefits; having these benefits taken away was a blow against our dignity, but we gritted our teeth and bore it because we wanted to show how important our service is for our fellow Filipinos,” Agustin said.
Review the Magna Carta
The lack of implementation of the Magna Carta is also to blame for the brain drain in the country. This was pointed out by Dr. Giovanni Tapang, the chairman of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People(Agham) and vice-President of Kalikasan Partylist.
Tapang said there are are ambiguous provisions between the law and the implementing rules and regulations, resulting in various interpretations to the disadvantage of eligible scientists.
Tapang said provisions in the law declare that its money will come from the General Appropriations Fund, but on the other hand, the implementing guidelines state that funding sources for these incentives should be derived from the savings of the agency. This, Tapang said, is a recurring problem not just in Pagasa and the DOST, but also in other government agencies whose employees are eligible for Magna Carta benefits.
“This matter should be addressed to put an end or at least lessen the exodus of scientists who play a crucial role in national development and the country’s progress,” he said.
The Magna Carta was passed supposedly as part of the government’s recognition of the contribution of science and technology professionals for the country’s development and progress.
The government by passing the law declared itself to be committed to the promotion of science and technology through development of human resources. Among the magna Carta provisions are the provision of scholarships and popularization of science culture and incentives for pursuing careers in science and technology.
According to Tapang, however, since the law was enacted in in 1998, it did put a stop to the country’s brain drain. He said that In 1998, there were 9,877 science workers who went out of the country to seek for better opportunities abroad. After more than 10 years, the number has grown by 148 percent. Some 24,502 S&T professionals that include engineers and health workers have left the country to seek greener pastures or to pursue further studies and better research opportunities abroad.
Government workers victims of rationalization
Bayan Muna Partylist Rep. Teddy Casiño, for his part, has called for the immediate release of the Magna Carta benefits of the Pagasa employees.
“We need to recognize the heroic efforts of our weather bureau workers, not just through words but through concrete actions. They should be given their rightful and lawful benefits,” said Casiño.“Pagasa workers have the right to protest. The law entitles them to receive hazard pay, longevity, laundry and subsistence allowances. Denial or delays in the release of such benefits is unjust and a disservice to the people whom they serve.”
Casiño questioned how the the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) through its Administrative Order No 002 series of 2007 charges hazard pay to “appropriations and/or savings of the agency.” Pagasa is an adjunct agency of the DOST.
Casiño like Courage’s Gaite said the Pagasa workers’ predicament is not an isolated case, citing the protests of public health workers nationwide over unpaid hazard pay since January this year, pending the approval of the Department of Budget and Management for the use of agency savings. Even though exposed to all kinds of hazards in hospitals and communities in their course of duty, health workers are denied of the P2,000-P8,000 ($48-$190) per month hazard pay mandated by RA 7305 or the Magna Carta of Public Health Workers.
“Our government workers in Pagasa and public hospitals should not bear the brunt of so-called ‘rationalization’ of the government benefits system being done by the DBM,” said Casiño.
“We cannot just tell our public servants to wait and suffer some more, especially in the face of calamities in addition to the increasing prices of oil, utilities and basic commodities. If we expect them to provide hourly weather updates or timely and life-saving medical service, the government give them humane compensation. Otherwise we will be pushing more of our brightest workers out of government service and out of the country,” Casiño said.
Stop berating state employees
The Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in the meantime criticized Pres. Aquino for lecturing the Pagasa employees about their duties while at the same time refusing to give a date as to when the employees will receive their benefits.
DBM secretary Florencio Abad in a statement has said that the employees will get their retroactive benefits once some kinks have been ironed out. He said that Pagasa and DBM are also discussing the matter. Depending on the longevity of the service of an employee, he or she may get anywhere from P3, 500 to P6,000 ($83 to $142) per month of hazard pay and all these benefits will be given retroactively.
In a surprise visit to Pagasa, however, Aquino reminded the employees that their agitation is adding to the worries of our countrymen with the ongoing monsoon rains and the typhoons that had been visiting the country the past weeks.
“He should stop lecturing Pag-asa employees about their duty to the nation amidst the typhoon season and start addressing the demands of these government employees,” said KMU chairman Elmer Labog.
“General promises with no timetables won’t do. If Pres. Aquino really wants Pagasa employees to fulfill their duties to the nation well, then he should immediately act on their just demands,” he added. “Pagasa employees have shown their worth for the nation with years of dedicated service while Aquino has been ineffective when it comes to addressing the disasters that continue to afflict the country.