TODAY’S 124th celebration of May Day or the International Labor Day is an opportune time for the Philippine trade unions to hand down their verdict on whether the impressive “growth” in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the past three years under Benigno S. Aquino’s government is inclusive or has actually benefitted the hoi polloi, especially the workers.
Aquino has only two years left in his term as he now enters his fourth year in office, which is already enough to assess what he has done and his ability to significantly curb the still high poverty incidence. He can no longer use the remaining two years as an excuse that his job is not yet finished because what he did and did not do in the past four years – in terms of tackling poverty and the wide wealth gap between the few rich and majority poor – are sufficient to reveal the strategic or long-term trend of his supposed antipoverty program. A disturbing trend, in fact.
Despite the country’s 7.2 percent GDP last year – second only to China’s 7.7 percent – it remains far from inclusive as the Philippines still has the highest unemployment rate in the region. The government’s official – and many consider as underrated – jobless rate is 6.5 percent or about 2.6 million Filipinos in October 2013. However, a survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) in the same period disclosed that joblessness has really swelled to 27.5 percent representing 12.1 million unemployed.
Last January, unemployment surged to 7.5 percent or 2.9 million Filipinos without work, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Underemployment, on the other hand, is also high reaching 19.5 percent or 7.1 million people. Even if we use government data, merging the unemployed and underemployed will create a huge army of 10 million workers with no or unstable income and who will likely be forced to toil in contractual jobs.
[The government, as expected, was quick to blame the natural and man-made calamities that successively hit the country last year – notably, the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Bohol and Cebu provinces in October and super typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) that devastated central Philippines in November, as well as the month-long siege of Zamboanga City by a rogue faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in September – for the high unemployment.]
In fact, the corporate use and abuse of these precarious jobs are rampant and becoming the norm in employment – from the bursting factories in “special economic zones” to the ubiquitous malls and to the mushrooming call centers in the BPO industry. Workers here usually share basic similarities: Low or high but uncertain wages and benefits, no security of tenure, and banned from joining unions.
The country was likewise granted last year its very first and long-sought investment grade from no less than the world’s top 3 rating agencies – Fitch Ratings (March 27), Standard & Poor’s (May 2), Moody’s Investors Service (October 3). But like the GDP issue, the nagging question here is whether the rating would sooner or later benefit only the few again.
This is a valid point amid the dramatic rise of the Philippines’ richest in the Forbes’ annual list of the world’s wealthiest persons. This year the country has 10 US dollar billionaires – led by the frequent top 2 leaders, taipans Henry Sy Sr. (ranked 97th globally) and Lucio Tan. The combined wealth of the 10 scandalously rich Filipinos reach to $40.1 billion or a staggering P1.8 trillion, which accounts to a huge 16 percent of the country’s GDP last year.
From 2010 – when Aquino assumed the presidency – to 2012 only, the dizzying wealth of the country’s superrich, particularly the top 40 families, has skyrocketed from over $20 billion to $47.4 billion or P1.9 trillion (based on the then $1 to P41 exchange rate). Last year their collective riches were placed at P2.4 trillion or “more than the combined annual income of 17 million (Filipino) wage earners.” In fact, a study says that GDP growth has “remained concentrated to the high income class … with the top 15 percent … getting more than 60 percent of the national income.”
[Oddly, last October the Bureau of Internal Revenue reported that nearly half of the rich Filipinos included in the Forbes’ “top 40” in 2012 were not in the BIR’s parallel roster of top individual taxpayers. Also, three of that year’s Forbes’ top 4 wealthiest Filipinos – Henry Sy Sr. (1st), Lucio Tan (2nd) and John Gokongwei Jr. (4th) – were surprisingly ranked low among the top Philippine taxpayers or 73rd, 138th and 260th, respectively. Last March, the BIR further bared that only 39 of the Philippines’ top 100 corporations were listed in the country’s top 500 corporate taxpayers.]
Ironically, the erstwhile National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), which, together with three other government statistics agencies were recently merged into the PSA, admitted that the country will most probably fail to attain the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of the United Nations (UN) of decreasing to 17.2 percent of the Philippine population earning or surviving on less than a dollar a day (currently P44) by 2015 due to the still high 25.2 percent poverty rate or 23.7 million Filipinos in 2012, which many nongovernment analysts even consider as conservative estimate.
Reflecting this bitter revelation, a survey by the SWS in the last quarter last year showed that 18.1 percent of Filipino families interviewed or equivalent to 3.9 million households or about 19.5 million individuals have experienced hunger, including 583,000 families that endured “severe hunger.”
Aquino’s reluctance to – or fear of – actively opposing the neoliberal economic programs of liberalization, deregulation and privatization, as well as the well-entrenched oligarchy (in which his family also belongs) will make inclusive growth impossible during his reign.