Rice Crisis Makes Wage Hike More Urgent

Vol. VIII, No. 12, April 27-May 3, 2008

Children begging in the streets at night
Knocking on cars till the morning light
People standing in line for a kilo of rice
Welcome to the Dark Ages, the era of lies…

— The Jerks, “Rage”

For Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement) chairman Elmer “Bong” Labog, the rice crisis presently plaguing the country makes a legislated P125 nationwide, across-the-board wage increase all the more urgent. The rice crisis, he said, worsens workers’ already miserable conditions.

From what used to be as low as P26/kilogram, rice prices have shot up to as high as P40/kilo in the last few weeks. The National Food Authority (NFA) continues to sell rice at P18.25/kilo, but only in limited quantities. Long queues of people waiting to get a kilo each of NFA rice have become a common sight.

“Workers, especially those living in urban poor communities, have long been trying to survive on lugaw (gruel),” Labog said in an interview with Bulatlat. “This means hunger will worsen because they can no longer afford rice at its present high prices. It is rice of a very low quality that is being sold by the NFA (National Food Authority) at P18.25, and the average worker struggles to feed a family of six daily with only a kilo of rice. The problem of workers is that their wages are not enough to buy the staple food.”

This problem, Labog says, is worsened by the present rice crisis.

Wage increase: 1999-present

The demand for a P125 wage increase was first put forward by the KMU – then under the leadership of Crispin Beltran – in 1999, nearly a year into the presidency of Joseph Estrada who won the 1998 presidential elections on an avowed populist “platform.”

Back then, the family living wage for a family of six – the average Filipino family – was P379.51 ($9.71 at the year’s average exchange rate of $1:P39.09) a day on a national average, based on data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC). In contrast, the daily minimum wage stood at a national average of P193.67 ($4.95).

A P125 wage increase at that time would have brought the national average minimum wage to P318.67 ($8.15), or P60.84 short of the national average family living wage that year.

The Estrada administration, which ascended to power on the basis of a proclaimed love for the “Filipino masses,” never paid heed to this demand of the KMU.

Estrada was ousted in 2001 through a popular uprising that was largely anti-corruption. He was succeeded by his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The demand for a P125 wage increase was among the items in the “People’s Agenda” that cause-oriented groups presented to Arroyo during her first days in office.

The required living wage for an average Filipino family was in 2001 a far cry from what it is now. That year, it stood at a national average of P445.53 ($10.89 at that year’s average exchange rate of $1:P40.89), based on data from the NWPC. The highest regional minimum wage then was in the National Capital Region (NCR), which was pegged at P250. At a national average, however, the daily minimum wage that year stood at P222.42, based on data from the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE).

Even then, a P125 across-the-board, nationwide wage increase would have been insufficient to bridge the gap between the minimum wage and the required family living wage. An additional P125 would have brought up the 2001 daily minimum wage to P347.42 – which is P98.11 short of what an average Filipino family needed to survive daily that year.

Nearly seven years after first assuming power, the Arroyo administration has yet to heed this demand of the KMU.

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