SLL v. NLRC (G.R. No. 172161; March 2, 2011)


FACTS: Respondents were supposedly employed by petitioner as project employees in 11996, 1997, 1998, and 1999. They were paid less than the minimum wage for the four periods of their employment. During their 4th employment, Lagon, the employer, due to economic constraints, had to cut down on the overtime work of the employees. Thus, when respondent-employees asked for overtime work, Lagon had to refuse them, and told them that if they insist, they would have to go home at their own expense and that they would not be given any more time nor be allowed to stay in their quarters. The case was brought before the Labor Arbiter, on a complaint for illegal dismissal, non-payment of wages, non-payment of 13th month pay, among other things, against the employer. The employer reasoned that the employees were project employees, since they were employed for a specific undertaking, and thus were not regular employees entitled to minimum wage. Further, the employer reasoned that the employees were actually paid above the minimum wage, since the allowances for snacks, lodging house, electricity, water, and transportation should be included in the wages.

The LA opined that private respondents were regular employees because they were repeatedly hired by petitioners and they performed activities which were usual, necessary and desirable in the business or trade of the employer. With regard to the underpayment of wages, the LA found that private respondents were underpaid. It ruled that the free board and lodging, electricity, water, and food enjoyed by them could not be included in the computation of their wages because these were given without their written consent. The LA, however, found that petitioners were not liable for illegal dismissal.The LA viewed private respondent's act of going home as an act of indifference when petitioners decided to prohibit overtime work. The NLRC and CA affirmed and ruled against the employer.

ISSUE: [1] Were the employees entitled to minimum wage?
[2] Should the free board and lodging, electricity, water, and food enjoyed by the employees be included in the computation of the wages HELD: Preliminarily, the Court noted that the case involves factual disputes decided by the trial courts, whose decisions the Court cannot disturb. Settled is the fact that decisions by labor arbiters, due to their expertise, cannot be disturbed and are accorded respect and finality when supported by substantial evidence. Thus it cannot decide on the issue of whether the employees are project or regular employees, and must affirm the ruling that they are regular employees. In any case, project employees are entitled to the minimum wage, since they are not among the exclusions enumerated in the Labor Code Implementing Rules.

On the issue of whether the facilities should be included as wages, a four-pronged test must be completed: proof must be shown that such facilities are customarily furnished by the trade; second, the provision of deductible facilities must be voluntarily accepted in writing by the employee; and finally, facilities must be charged at reasonable value.Mere availment is not sufficient to allow deductions from employees wages.

These requirements, however, have not been met in this case. SLL failed to present any company policy or guideline showing that provisions for meals and lodging were part of the employees salaries. It also failed to provide proof of the employees written authorization, much less show how they arrived at their valuations.At any rate, it is not even clear whetherprivaterespondents actually enjoyed said facilities. DENIED.

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