SSS v. Asiapro Cooperative (G.R. No. 172101, November 23, 2007)

Cooperative Law, Labor Arbiter, NLRC, Supreme Court -

SSS v. Asiapro Cooperative (G.R. No. 172101, November 23, 2007)

In determining the existence of an employer-employee relationship, the following elements are considered: (1) the selection and engagement of the workers; (2) the payment of wages by whatever means; (3) the power of dismissal; and (4) the power to control the workers conduct, with the latter assuming primacy in the overall consideration. The most important element is the employers control of the employees conduct, not only as to the result of the work to be done, but also as to the means and methods to accomplish. The power of control refers to the existence of the power and not necessarily to the actual exercise thereof. It is not essential for the employer to actually supervise the performance of duties of the employee; it is enough that the employer has the right to wield that power. All the aforesaid elements are present in this case.

First. It is expressly provided in the Service Contracts that it is the respondent cooperative which has the exclusive discretion in the selection and engagement of the owners-members as well as its team leaders who will be assigned at Stanfilco. Second. Wages are defined as remuneration or earnings, however designated, capable of being expressed in terms of money, whether fixed or ascertained, on a time, task, piece or commission basis, or other method of calculating the same, which is payable by an employer to an employee under a written or unwritten contract of employment for work done or to be done, or for service rendered or to be rendered. In this case, the weekly stipends or the so-called shares in the service surplus given by the respondent cooperative to its owners-members were in reality wages, as the same were equivalent to an amount not lower than that prescribed by existing labor laws, rules and regulations, including the wage order applicable to the area and industry; or the same shall not be lower than the prevailing rates of wages. It cannot be doubted then that those stipends or shares in the service surplus are indeed wages, because these are given to the owners-members as compensation in rendering services to respondent cooperatives client, Stanfilco. Third. It is also stated in the above-mentioned Service Contracts that it is the respondent cooperative which has the power to investigate, discipline and remove the owners-members and its team leaders who were rendering services at Stanfilco. Fourth. As earlier opined, of the four elements of the employer-employee relationship, the control test is the most important. In the case at bar, it is the respondent cooperative which has the sole control over the manner and means of performing the services under the Service Contracts with Stanfilco as well as the means and methods of work. Also, the respondent cooperative is solely and entirely responsible for its owners-members, team leaders and other representatives at Stanfilco. All these clearly prove that, indeed, there is an employer-employee relationship between the respondent cooperative and its owners-members.

It is true that the Service Contracts executed between the respondent cooperative and Stanfilco expressly provide that there shall be no employer-employee relationship between the respondent cooperative and its owners-members. This Court, however, cannot give the said provision force and effect.

As previously pointed out by this Court, an employee-employer relationship actually exists between the respondent cooperative and its owners-members. The four elements in the four-fold test for the existence of an employment relationship have been complied with. The respondent cooperative must not be allowed to deny its employment relationship with its owners-members by invoking the questionable Service Contracts provision, when in actuality, it does exist. The existence of an employer-employee relationship cannot be negated by expressly repudiating it in a contract, when the terms and surrounding circumstances show otherwise. The employment status of a person is defined and prescribed by law and not by what the parties say it should be.

It is settled that the contracting parties may establish such stipulations, clauses, terms and conditions as they want, and their agreement would have the force of law between them. However, the agreed terms and conditions must not be contrary to law, morals, customs, public policy or public order. The Service Contract provision in question must be struck down for being contrary to law and public policy since it is apparently being used by the respondent cooperative merely to circumvent the compulsory coverage of its employees, who are also its owners-members, by the Social Security Law.

This Court is not unmindful of the pronouncement it made in Cooperative Rural Bank of Davao City, Inc. v. Ferrer-Calleja wherein it held that:

A cooperative, therefore, is by its nature different from an ordinary business concern, being run either by persons, partnerships, or corporations. Its owners and/or members are the ones who run and operate the business while the others are its employees x x x.

An employee therefore of such a cooperative who is a member and co-owner thereof cannot invoke the right to collective bargaining for certainly an owner cannot bargain with himself or his co-owners. In the opinion of August 14, 1981 of the Solicitor General he correctly opined that employees of cooperatives who are themselves members of the cooperative have no right to form or join labor organizations for purposes of collective bargaining for being themselves co-owners of the cooperative.

However, in so far as it involves cooperatives with employees who are not members or co-owners thereof, certainly such employees are entitled to exercise the rights of all workers to organization, collective bargaining, negotiations and others as are enshrined in the Constitution and existing laws of the country.

The situation in the aforesaid case is very much different from the present case. The declaration made by the Court in the aforesaid case was made in the context of whether an employee who is also an owner-member of a cooperative can exercise the right to bargain collectively with the employer who is the cooperative wherein he is an owner-member. Obviously, an owner-member cannot bargain collectively with the cooperative of which he is also the owner because an owner cannot bargain with himself. In the instant case, there is no issue regarding an owner-members right to bargain collectively with the cooperative. The question involved here is whether an employer-employee relationship can exist between the cooperative and an owner-member. In fact, a closer look at Cooperative Rural Bank of Davao City, Inc. will show that it actually recognized that an owner-member of a cooperative can be its own employee.

It bears stressing, too, that a cooperative acquires juridical personality upon its registration with the Cooperative Development Authority. It has its Board of Directors, which directs and supervises its business; meaning, its Board of Directors is the one in charge in the conduct and management of its affairs. With that, a cooperative can be likened to a corporation with a personality separate and distinct from its owners-members. Consequently, an owner-member of a cooperative can be an employee of the latter and an employer-employee relationship can exist between them.

In the present case, it is not disputed that the respondent cooperative had registered itself with the Cooperative Development Authority, as evidenced by its Certificate of Registration No. 0-623-2460. In its by-laws, its Board of Directors directs, controls, and supervises the business and manages the property of the respondent cooperative. Clearly then, the management of the affairs of the respondent cooperative is vested in its Board of Directors and not in its owners-members as a whole. Therefore, it is completely logical that the respondent cooperative, as a juridical person represented by its Board of Directors, can enter into an employment with its owners-members.

In sum, having declared that there is an employer-employee relationship between the respondent cooperative and its owners-member, we conclude that the petitioner SSC has jurisdiction over the petition-complaint filed before it by the petitioner SSS. This being our conclusion, it is no longer necessary to discuss the issue of whether the respondent cooperative was estopped from assailing the jurisdiction of the petitioner SSC when it filed its Answer with Motion to Dismiss. (Image: Ravi Pinisetti)

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