As the COVID-19 quarantine-related restrictions for commerce and transportation are lifted in the Philippines, companies are dusting off desks, cleaning coffee mugs, warming up equipment and gradually bringing back staff to resume full operations. Of primary interest to manufacturing companies like Microchip Technology Philippines are the restrictions on the allowable workforce, the movement of personnel, transportation, and health and safety protocols affecting factory staffing, materials availability, and the ability to ship products. In the Philippines, these restrictions started to scale back in mid-May and are staged to continue in a series of continuing reductions every two weeks through the end of June. As business operations recover, challenges remain in managing the workforce, negotiating the supply chain and understanding the expenses required to operate under the “new norm” while Business Continuity Plans continue to be reviewed and revised.
Here are some of the more important business-related elements of the quarantine levels enacted by the Philippines:
Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ): In effect from March 17 through May 15, 2020, this was the initial lockdown with the strictest requirements, most notably requiring the general population to stay at home, imposing curfews, prohibiting all public gatherings including schools, halting public transportation and banning air travel while allowing cargo flights, skeletal workforces (~15%) for essential businesses (BPOs, IT and exporters, for example) and travel using some private vehicles with varying types of passes required to clear checkpoints.
Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ): In effect from May 16 through May 31, 2020, this was the first stage to ease control to allow up to 50% of employees to return to work at essential businesses. The easing also allowed gatherings of up to five people while maintaining most other restrictions.
General Community Quarantine (GCQ): In effect from June 1 through June 15, 2020, essential businesses are allowed to resume full operations within health and safety protocols in place for physical distancing, disinfection and the wearing of Personal Protection equipment (PPE). Air travel is allowed to resume while public transportation remains restricted until June 21, 2020. Company shuttles are allowed for point-to-point services.
Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ): Planned for June 16 through June 30, 2020, this is the transition phase to the “new normal,” which will continue easing the restrictions for contact-related businesses such as barbershops, salons, restaurants and the like. Movement and public transportation will remain restricted until June 22, at which point the last obstacle for businesses to fully resume operations will fall.
While some larger companies during the most restrictive ECQ were able to house staff on site or nearby in skeletal crews, some smaller companies were unable to do so and may never recover from the loss in revenue or from the loss of employees. The majority of companies in the technoparks shut down under the ECQ and were rendered powerless to return workers to factories. For factories allowed to house employees on site, a huge effort was required to provide emergency transportation, accommodations, food and drinking water, toiletries, Wi-Fi, and even entertainment for the sequestered staff – all while maintaining health and safety protocols for physical distancing and disinfection. For example, Microchip Technology Philippines was able to build temporary sleeping cubicles and showers; to buy tents, foam mattresses, bedding and personal hygiene kits; to provide canteen and laundry services; and to allow Wi-Fi access for employees to stay connected to family and friends.
Microchip Technology’s 11 Guiding Values help to define our corporate culture and guide our decision-making. One key Guiding Value on display as we’ve transitioned through the levels of quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been that Employees Are Our Greatest Strength. Exercising this Guiding Value has supported the expenses necessary to provide the safest, most comfortable living accommodations in the factory conference rooms, hallways, basement, and even in office cubicles.
While many larger companies in the Philippines provide company shuttles at pre-established pick-up points, limited public transportation strands many workers at home with no way to reach to their assigned shuttle. To address this challenge, solutions including van brigades that can navigate narrow village streets to pick up workers should be considered though at an additional, unplanned expense. The physical distancing rules effectively halves the number of riders, which in turn requires a doubling of the shuttle buses, most of which are under lease. If shuttle bus leasing companies cannot provide more buses, employees who can work from home should continue to do so or drive to shuttle stops if they have personal vehicles. Leasing these additional shuttle buses was in no company’s budget as we began 2020.
Additional measures under the new norm will be expensive – perhaps prohibitively so – for smaller companies that cannot afford to double the number of company transports due to physical spacing rules requiring them to halve workplace capacity, whose workplace environments cannot support physical distancing, and whose treasuries cannot afford to buy rapid test kits for employees and their families. If these smaller companies produce items critical to the supply chain, larger companies will feel the sting – and cease producing specific products during the qualification of an alternate supplier. Until the Bureau of Customs and staffing of third-party logistic providers is back to normal, and until ports are running at full force, materials and exports will continue to be delayed, potentially limiting the number of employees needed to return to work to run production.
It has been very expensive for companies to survive through these levels of quarantine while keeping factories and employees in a state of readiness to return to work. Additional expenses will be borne for compliance to the new norm. As many businesses recover under the new norm, they’ll undoubtedly take a closer look at their business continuity planning, if any such plans exist, and if not, they should be created without hesitation.
The problem with a typical business continuity plan is it tends to focus on one or a few concurrent major events – say, flooding or a power failure due to a typhoon – but it’s doubtful any plan took into account a global pandemic that affected so many factors simultaneously including workforces, supply chains, transportation, logistics and food supplies. As we return to work, we’ll have to adjust to the new workplace and embed the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic into our business continuity plans. And, hopefully, we’ll never have to exercise those measures again.
Greg Fisher is Managing Director at Microchip Technology Philippines.