Judging from the first six months in office of the Aquino government, there seems to be no relief in sight for workers who have been suffering from record joblessness, runaway prices of basic goods and services, and violent attacks on their democratic rights.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — In 2010, Filipino workers were treated to glittering promises of change as newly elected President Benigno Aquino III replaced Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Malacañang. After nearly 10 years of Arroyo’s wage freeze amid economic policies that resulted in continuously rising prices of basic commodities and services, record joblessness, violations of human rights and trade union rights, Aquino’s promises naturally brought hope.
Did the first six months of the Aquino government indicate that he would deliver on his promise of change, especially in the lives and working conditions of the Filipino worker? It appears that the Aquino government is merely continuing Arroyo’s economic and labor policies. Thus, Filipino workers seem perched for early disappointment. If there is any remaining hope, it would have to emanate from their resolve to continuously press for their rights to decent wages and gainful livelihood.
In 2010, the country’s workforce managed to survive largely from their own grit, as “jobless growth” and hunger continue to pervade under Aquino. Worse, some who would have been unemployed if not for their tenaciousness in looking for sources of income — even to the extent of engaging in “vulnerable employment,” for instance the kuliglig drivers — have been facing violent threats to their trade.
“Vulnerable employment” is the proxy term used by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for the informal sector whose “employed” masses work with no assured earnings, no social protection like health insurance, medical benefits, and no unemployment insurance. In the Philippines, it is the informal sector that has been expanding through years of supposed economic growth.
Of the 36 million employed Filipinos in 2010, only 19 million are wage and salary workers. The rest belonged to “own-account,” “self-employed” and “unpaid family workers,” or the ’employed’ people who are most likely in the informal sector. The number of self-employed workers went up by 757,000 and unpaid family workers by 510,000 in the July 2010 labor force survey. On the other hand, the number of wage and salary workers even fell by 330,000.
Even among the ranks of wage and salary workers, there are also those who fall under the ILO’s category of “vulnerable employment,” or those who comprise the “working poor” because they earn less than $2 a day.
According to IBON, an independent non-government think-tank, there is a problem if the economy is consistently able to register growth and deliver corporate profits but unable to create enough jobs and raise wages. The situation in the Philippines, Ibon said, highlights the need for urgent reforms in the domestic economy that should address this inability to create regular, productive, and gainful jobs.
But if Aquino continues to pursue the same economic programs, which for nearly ten years had generated only these low-quality kinds of employment, the year 2011 promises to be another year of ceaseless struggle against hunger and poverty, lack of decent jobs and livelihood for the country’s workforce. And the poor majority’s democratic rights would remain an illusion.
Demand for Immediate Economic Relief
This early, Aquino’s drive for greater privatization through more “public-private partnerships” already threatens Filipinos with higher prices. There are impending increases in transport costs and prices of goods as an “introductory” 200-percent toll fee hike await the users of South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) come Jan 1. “The Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) decision will make life harder for millions of wage-earners, traders, public utility drivers, operators and truckers,” warned the Taxpayers’ Unity vs Toll Hike in SLEX.
The “introductory” increases do not yet include the full proposal for fee hikes by the private operator of SLEx, and the 40-percent increase, at least, in the toll fees for the Skyway, which also connects to the SLEx but is operated by another private corporation.
Another hike awaits millions of railway commuters as the government deliberates on the amount of increases to be imposed on the fares for the Light Railway Transit (LRT) and the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) even as private operators of the railways reportedly continue to rake in profits. The government said this week that the minimum fare would most likely be raised from P10 to P18 ($0.227 to $0.41). “It is reasonable to expect that the fees would be increased on the first quarter of 2011,” transportation and communications secretary Ping de Jesus said this week.
The Aquino government, through DOTC secretary Ping de Jesus, also justified the looming hikes in toll fees and in the railways as “reasonable” and needed to ensure that investors would come in for such projects. But protesters such as the TUTOL-SLEx and lawyer Ernesto Francisco have questioned the seeming anomalies behind such hikes, as well as the government’s seeming deafness toward their arguments.
Meanwhile, prices of rice, sugar, wheat and bread, water, electricity and oil products repeatedly increased in 2010. Since the price-setting of oil was deregulated in 1996, prices have spiked 139 times as of June this year, according to Ibon. This month of December alone, oil prices increased three times. All these increases threaten to continue in 2011 as the Aquino government has not yet made any move to repeal the laws or the programs that freely allow these hikes, such as the Downstream Oil Industry Deregulation Law and the Electric Power Industry Reform Act or EPIRA, which deregulated the setting of electricity charges. Worse, in a business summit where Aquino angled for more public-private partnerships, his administration aired various proposals to further assure the profits of investors at the expense of Filipino consumers and taxpayers. Aquino has so far also tried once to increase and expand the Value-Added Tax.
All these price hikes have made the Philippine labor sector’s demand for a legislated wage hike “a debt that is long overdue,” as the alliance Koalisyon ng Progresibong Manggagawa at Mamamayan or KPMM put it. “Our right for a substantial wage hike has long been denied to us, we do not deserve to wait any longer,” said Joselito Ustarez, vice-chairman of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).
But the Aquino government is merely replicating the previous Arroyo government’s obstinate refusal to legislate an across-the-board, substantial wage adjustment for all Filipino workers. The proposed bill that was filed from day 1 of the 15th Congress had been scheduled for discussion by the House Committee on Labor and Employment nearly a half-year later, only to be set aside because of the congressmen’s decision to take an early Christmas break.