Universal Robina v. Acibo (G.R. No. 186439; January 15, 2014)

FACTS: URSUMCO is a domestic corporation engaged in the sugarcane milling business; Cabati is URSUMCOs Business Unit General Manager.

The complainants were employees of URSUMCO, and were hired on various dates between 1988 and 1996, and on different capacities, i.e., drivers, crane operators, bucket hookers, welders, mechanics, laboratory attendants and aides, steel workers, carpenters, among others. The complainants signed contracts of employment for a period of 1 month or for a given season, and were repeatedly hired to perform the same duties and, for every engagement, were required to sign new employment contracts for the same duration of one month or given season.On August 23, 2002, the complainants filed before the Labor Arbiter complaints for regularization, entitlement to the benefits under the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), and attorneys fees. The Labor Arbiter dismissed the complaint in the decision dated October 9, 2002, for lack of merit. The Labor Arbiter pointed out that the complainants were required to perform several projects that were not at all directly related to URSUMCOs main operations, and that they were project employees, they could not be regularized since their respective employments end upon the completion of each project. Also, complainants were not entitled to the benefits granted under the CBA that, as provided, covered only the regular employees of URSUMCO.

7, out of the 22 original complainants, appealed the Labor Arbiters ruling before the NLRC. NLRC reversed the Labor Arbiter's ruling; it declared the complainants are regular URSUMCO employees because they performed activities which were usually necessary and desirable in the usual trade or business of URSUMCO, and granted their monetary claims under the CBA. NLRC denied petitioners motion for reconsideration.

Petitioners elevated the case to the Court of Appeals (CA) via a petition for certiorari.

The CA granted in part the petition. It pointed out that the primary standard for determining regular employment is the reasonable connection between a particular activity performed by the employee vis-vis the usual trade or business of the employer. As the complainants have been performing their respective tasks for at least one year, these same tasks, regardless of whether the performance was continuous or intermittent, constitutes sufficient evidence of the necessity, if not indispensability, of the activity to URSUMCOs business. On the claim for CBA benefits, however, the CA ruled that the complainants were not entitled to receive them. CA pointed out that the CBA covered regular employees of URSUMCO performing tasks needed by the latter for the entire year with no regard to the changing sugar milling season. For collective bargaining purposes, they constitute a bargaining unit separate and distinct from the regular employees.

The petitioner filed a petition for review on certiorari after the CA denied their motion for partial reconsideration.

ISSUE: Are respondents regular employees of URSUMCO?

HELD: Respondents are regular seasonal employees of URSUMCO.

Article 280 of the Labor Code provides for three kinds of employment arrangements, namely: regular, project/seasonal and casual.

Regular employment refers to that arrangement whereby the employee has been engaged to perform activities which are usually necessary or desirable in the usual business or trade of the employer. By way of an exception, paragraph 2, Article 280 of the Labor Code also considers regular a casual employment arrangement when the casual employees engagement has lasted for at least one year, regardless of the engagements continuity. The controlling test in this arrangement is the length of time during which the employee is engaged.

Project employment, on the other hand, contemplates on arrangement whereby the employment has been fixed for a specific project or undertaking whose completion or termination has been determined at the time of the engagement of the employee. The services of the project employees are legally and automatically terminated upon the end or completion of the project as the employees services are coterminous with the project.

Seasonal employment operates much in the same way as project employment, albeit it involves work or service that is seasonal in nature or lasting for the duration of the season. To exclude the asserted seasonal employee from those classified as regular employees, the employer must show that: (1) the employee must be performing work or services that are seasonal in nature; and (2) he had been employed for the duration of the season. Hence, when the seasonal workers are continuously and repeatedly hired to perform the same tasks or activities for several seasons or even after the cessation of the season, this length of time may likewise serve as badge of regular employment.

Casual employment refers to any other employment arrangement that does not fall under any of the first two categories.

In the case at bar, the respondents were made to perform various tasks that did not at all pertain to any specific phase of URSUMCO's strict milling operations that would ultimately cease upon completion of a particular phase in the milling of sugar; rather, they were tasked to perform duties regularly and habitually needed in URSUMCO's operations during the milling season. The respondents duties as loader operators, hookers, crane operators and drivers were necessary to haul and transport the sugarcane from the plantation to the mill; laboratory attendants, workers and laborers to mill the sugar; and welders, carpenters and utility workers to ensure the smooth and continuous operation of the mill for the duration of the milling season, as distinguished from the production of the sugarcane which involves the planting and raising of the sugarcane until it ripens for milling. They perform activities that are necessary and desirable in sugarcane production. Also, the respondents were regularly and repeatedly hired to perform the same tasks year after year. This regular and repeated hiring of the same workers (two different sets) for two separate seasons has put in place, principally through jurisprudence, the system of regular seasonal employment in the sugar industry and other industries with a similar nature of operations.

Therefore, the nature of the employment does not depend solely on the will or word of the employer or on the procedure for hiring and the manner of designating the employee. Rather, the nature of the employment depends on the nature of the activities to be performed by the employee, considering the nature of the employers business, the duration and scope to be done, and, in some cases, even the length of time of the performance and its continued existence.

The NLRC acted in grave abuse of discretion when it declared the respondents regular employees of URSUMCO without qualification and that they were entitled to the benefits granted under the CBA, to URSUMCO's regular employees. We also find that the CA grossly misread the NLRC ruling and missed the implications of the respondents regularization. To reiterate, the respondents are regular seasonal employees, as the CA itself opined when it declared that private respondents who are regular workers with respect to their seasonal tasks or activities and while such activities exist, cannot automatically be governed by the CBA between petitioner URSUMCO and the authorized bargaining representative of the regular and permanent employees. PARTIALLY GRANTED.