Labor Law

EQUIPMENT TECHNICAL SERVICES vs. CA G.R. No. 157680    October 8, 2008 Seasonal or Project workers, Termination of Employment

 

In termination disputes, the burden of proving that an employee had been dismissed for a lawful cause or that the exacting procedural requirements under the Labor Code had been complied with lies with the employer. Where there is no showing of a clear, valid, and legal cause for termination of employment, the law considers the case a matter of illegal dismissal.

FACTS:

Petitioner ETS is primarily engaged in the business of sub-contracting plumbing works of on-going building construction. Among its clients was Uniwide. Petitioner Joseph James Dequito was, during the period material, occupying the position of manager of ETS, albeit the CA referred to him as ETS’ president. On various occasions involving different projects, ETS hired the services of private respondents as pipe fitters, plumbers, or threaders.

In December 1998, ETS experienced financial difficulties when Uniwide, its client at the time, failed to pay for the plumbing work being done at its Coastal Mall. As a result, ETS was only able to pay its employees 13th month pay equivalent to two weeks’ salary.

Unhappy over what they thought was ETS’ failure to release the balance of their 13th month pay, private respondents brought their case before the Arbitration Branch of the NLRC

Later, two other cases were filed against ETS for illegal dismissal and payment of money claims when the complainants thereat were refused work in another ETS project, i.e., Richville project, allegedly because they refused to sign individual employment contracts with ETS.

The three cases were consolidated before the labor arbiter. However, conciliation efforts failed.

The Labor Arbiter issued a Decision, holding that private respondents were ETS’ regular, not merely project, employees. Accordingly, ETS was adjudged liable for illegal dismissal and directed to pay private respondents their money claims plus 10% of the total award as attorney’s fees.

ETS appealed from the labor arbiter’s decision. The NLRC rendered a resolution which, while reversing the labor arbiter’s holding with respect to the nature of private respondents’ employment and the illegality of their dismissal, nevertheless upheld the validity of the monetary award extended by the labor arbiter, part of which included the award of backwages.

ETS elevated its case to the CA via a petition for certiorari under Rule 65. As its principal contention, ETS ascribed on the NLRC the commission of grave abuse of discretion in affirming the monetary award in favor of private respondents, despite its finding that there was no illegal dismissal in this case

The CA stated that the NLRC’s determination that private respondents are “project workers” is “utterly unsupported by the evidence on record and is patently erroneous” and, therefore, is tainted with grave abuse of discretion

Hence, this petition.

ISSUE:

Whether or not respondents are seasonal or project workers.

RULING:

The petition is without merit.

As the Court has consistently held, the service of project employees are coterminus with the project and may be terminated upon the end or completion of that project or project phase for which they were hired. Regular employees, in contrast, enjoy security of tenure and are entitled to hold on to their work or position until their services are terminated by any of the modes recognized under the Labor Code.

The principal test for determining whether an employee is properly characterized as “project employee,” as distinguished from “regular employee,” is whether or not “the project employee” was assigned to carry out “a specific project or undertaking,” the duration and scope of which were specified at the time the employees were engaged for that project.8 And as Article 280 of the Labor Code, defining a regular employee vis-à-vis a project employee, would have it:

Art. 280. Regular and casual employment. – The provisions of written agreement to the contrary notwithstanding and regardless of the oral agreement of the parties, an employment shall be deemed to be regular where the employee has been engaged to perform activities which are usually necessary or desirable in the usual business or trade of the employer, except where the employment has been fixed for a specific project or undertaking the completion or termination of which has been determined at the time of the engagement of the employee x x x.

It bears to stress at the outset that ETS admits hiring or employing private respondents to perform plumbing works for various projects. Given this postulate, regular employment may reasonably be presumed and it behooves ETS to prove otherwise, that is, that the employment in question was contractual in nature ending upon the expiration of the term fixed in the contract or for a specific project or undertaking. But the categorical finding of the CA, confirmatory for the most part of that of the labor arbiter, is that not a single written contract of employment fixing the terms of employment for the duration of the Uniwide project, or any other project, was submitted by ETS despite the latter’s allegations that private respondents were merely contractual employees. Records of payroll and other pertinent documents, such as job contracts secured by ETS showing that private respondents were hired for specific projects, were also not submitted by ETS.

Moreover, if private respondents were indeed employed as project employees, petitioners should have had submitted a report of termination every time their employment was terminated owing to the completion of each plumbing project.

In termination disputes, the burden of proving that an employee had been dismissed for a lawful cause or that the exacting procedural requirements under the Labor Code had been complied with lies with the employer. Where there is no showing of a clear, valid, and legal cause for termination of employment, the law considers the case a matter of illegal dismissal.

Based on the foregoing criteria, the factual findings of the labor arbiter on the regular nature of private respondents’ employment, juxtaposed with ETS’ failure to support its “project-workers theory,” impel us to dismiss the instant petition.

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