By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

CEBU’S information technology and business process management (IT-BPM) industry is seeking an exemption from a government order to return to office work starting April 1, noting that the region continues to be affected by December’s Typhoon Odette.

“If they really want to implement it nationwide, maybe they can exempt Cebu because of the typhoon,” Cebu IT-BPM Organization (CIB.O) Executive Director  Buddy R. Villasis told BusinessWorld in a phone interview last week.

The Fiscal Incentives Review Board (FIRB), which regulates industries eligible for incentives, particularly those that operate in economic zones, has declined to extend an old order allowing the industry to conduct the bulk of its work with home-based employees. The denial of the extension effectively means the industry’s workforce must revert to on-site work starting April 1.

Mr. Villasis said Cebu’s IT-BPM workforce of about 200,000 remains dispersed all over Mindanao, Samar, Leyte, Bohol, and Negros, to which employees with roots in those places returned during the pandemic.

Government policy has centered on increasing the proportion of on-site work in order to propel the recovery of the transport industry and small businesses that depend on spending by office workers.

“Is the city ready? Is the transport sector ready? Are all the telecommunications facilities fully restored? Are all the boarding houses ready to accommodate the thousands of people who will be coming back to Cebu? These should be considered,” Mr. Villasis said.

Cebu, he said, will need about two more months to get ready for the returning workers, with pending tasks including preparing offices and allowing their workers to look for accommodation.

Finance Secretary and FIRB Chairman Carlos G. Dominguez III said on Wednesday that the board, at a Feb. 21 meeting, rejected a petition by the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) to extend work-from-home arrangements for workers in IT-BPM companies registered for incentives.

Mr. Dominguez said the increased vaccination rate wallows “safe measures for physical reporting of employees, including those working in the IT-BPM firms operating within economic zones (ecozones) and freeports.”

Work-from-home arrangements were only meant to be temporary in response to the pandemic, he said. The IT-BPM industry’s entitlement to incentives is tied to their use of premises located in economic zones.

Asked to provide comment, PEZA Director General Charito B. Plaza said in a phone message: “We’re negotiating” the FIRB ruling and preparing “a letter of reconsideration.”

“The companies are not against returning to sites fully but not that fast. It will take them some time to bring in everybody back to onsite,” Mr. Villasis said.

CIB.O members met with officials of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF)-Cebu and other government officials on Thursday to “lobby… for Cebu to delay the full implementation of the return-to-office order, otherwise it will be problems,” he added.

“We got our power and telco (connections) back five days after the typhoon, but not all. Losses reached P500 million per day of no operations. So that’s a major headache,” Mr. Villasis noted.