Calling a spade
Business World, 19 June 2013


In a column I wrote almost two years ago (Sept. 1, 2011), I discussed a ₱10-million case filed in the Makati RTC against Philippine Air Lines (PAL) and flight attendant GQ Shariem — ₱6 million in moral damages to be shared by PAL and Shariem, and ₱4 million in exemplary damages to be borne by PAL. Plaintiffs were the spouses Eliseo and Angelina B. (for Binay) Alcantara.

What were the charges against Shariem and PAL? That Shariem had conducted herself in “a very unprofessional and rude manner” that could be considered “wanton, deliberately injurious, and with malice or bad faith, as she made unnecessary personal attacks” against Binay-Alcantara, “thereby subjecting the latter to public humiliation and embarrassment, and causing her mental anguish, wounded feelings and serious anxiety” (the adjective “oppressive” was put in for good measure).

PAL enters the picture supposedly because it “whitewashed” the incident; and instead of “admonishing” Shariem, it “distorted the facts,” “countenanced” all her acts, and “exonerated” her. Plus, it did not exercise due diligence in selecting its employees (read Shariem), and if it did, it did not supervise her properly.

In that column, I made it clear that I was on Shariem’s side. There was a personal element involved — I can attest from personal knowledge that she is not a liar, that she is very caring and “servicial,” that she is a practicing Christian, and she is afraid of no one but her God.

But friendship aside, the allegations against her just didn’t ring true. PAL if for nothing else, is known for the quality of its in-flight personnel service — in fact for the longest while, its flight crew were its only saving grace, smoothing out as much as possible passenger discontent with food, malfunctioning equipment, lack of amenities, by going the extra mile, as it were, for them. So it just didn’t make sense that a PAL flight attendant (or most attendants in Asian airlines, anyway) would be discourteous to a passenger — and a business class passenger at that.

The Binay-Alcantara allegation that PAL was whitewashing and countenancing Shariem and exonerated her also didn’t ring true. Shariem, as I pointed out in the earlier column, has been a thorn on the side of PAL management because of her union activities — she is a staunch member of the FASAP (her union).

Don’t get me wrong. She is definitely loyal to Philippine Air Lines, having served it and represented it well since May 1983. This is evidenced by a very long list of unsolicited commendations from satisfied and grateful passengers sent to the company throughout her almost-30 years of service. This is also evidenced by the fact that she has something like 401 days — that is not a typo error — of unused vacation leave. Not because she doesn’t want to take vacation: She would regularly apply for the leave, which would regularly be granted. But invariably, at the last minute she would be asked not to take it, due to “exigencies of the service” — and she would immediately accede.

But what she thinks of the management of PAL — at least during the watch of Lucio Tan — is something else again. And frankly, she cannot be blamed. That era was characterized by controversies that earned for the Lucio Tan management team what many would consider a well-deserved reputation for being not only anti-labor, but for labor exploitation as well. The news reports detailing the controversies involving personnel in all phases of operations during that period — pilots, flight crew, and ground crew — will attest to that.

I give this background of the Binay-Alcantara case and GQ Shariem because there is an unfortunate sequel. Shortly after Binay-Alcantara filed the case, PAL management — in early December of 2011, filed two administrative charges against Shariem, and, after receiving her answer, followed it up with dismissing her from service on Jan. 2012 (Ramon Ang came on board in April).

Was the juxtaposition of the two events coincidental? Is the Pope Protestant? One has to admit that getting rid of GQ Shariem would certainly go a long way to assuage the “mental anguish, wounded feelings and serious anxiety” of the oppressed Binay-Alcantara and therefore get PAL into the good graces of Binay pere and fils — Vice-President and Mayor — not to mention other Binay siblings including a congress person and now a senator. The bonus would be, of course, that PAL management would get rid of a thorn on their side.

So it would be an All’s well that ends well situation — except for GQ Shariem, single mother and dedicated flight attendant, as collateral damage.

And what did she do that merited dismissal? One was that she re-posted in her Facebook account a posting from one of her friends that was “injurious to its (PAL’s) reputation: that a certain Supreme Court Justice, who “handles the cases of PAL” and his wife were given the “choice seat of Lucio Tan,” with the friend saying that she was “sure” that the one-week trip to Korea of the spouses was all expenses paid including pocket money for shopping.

Then they threw the book at her for the other administrative charge: withholding cooperation, disrespect for authority, intrigue, and get this: maltreatment of superiors, colleagues and subordinates.

The PAL management, not surprisingly, denied her appeal. She then went to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). And guess what? The NLRC decision, penned by Labor Arbiter Jonalyn Gutierrez, found in her favor completely: the Facebook postings were private and inadmissible; the second set of charges were not valid grounds for dismissal. So she was reinstated, with full back pay and no loss of seniority.

But her victory was short-lived, because PAL appealed. And the NLRC very conveniently reversed the original decision (penned by Labor Arbiter Numeriano Villena).

And so the process will go on. Probably all the way to the Supreme Court. With GQ Shariem, the one with the least resources, left twisting in the wind. Justice is for the rich.

Her only hope for speedy justice at this point is Ramon Ang. It is said that his handling of labor relations is a sea-change from that of his predecessor’s, because he considers labor his partner and not his slave. Will he come up to scratch?