Workers Gear Up for More Battles as Aquino Gov’t Continues to Favor Big Business

In 2010, what the workers in Metro Manila got was a “paltry” increase of P22 ($0.50) a day, when the Regional Wage Board finally decided to grant an increase after nearly two years of nothing. The existence of the regional wage boards has been a sore point to progressive organized labor, who pointed to the regional wage boards’ two-decade record as stark evidence that these “were really meant to keep wage increases at the slightest and corporate profits at its highest.”

Indeed, early this year, the policy-making National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC) under the labor department expressed its concern that Philippine labor is “the most expensive” in Southeast Asia, even as their data showed that among 13 countries in Asia and the Pacific, the Philippines particularly the workers in Metro Manila ranked seventh in terms of having the lowest minimum wage. The NWPC did not factor in the higher cost of living in the country. This month, too, even the International Labor Organization’s Global Wage Report showed that workers’ wages in the Philippines have suffered one of the biggest cuts in Asia because of the global crisis.

“The ILO report on wages merely confirms what we workers have been experiencing all along – that what we could buy with our wages has been steadily decreasing,” said Lito Ustarez, KMU vice-chairman. On top of the wage cuts, the purchasing power of the Philippine peso steadily declined in the past decade, so that as of June this year, it is worth only 61 centavos compared to its value in 2000, said Ibon.

“The reduction of workers’ real wages, which is a result of the global crisis, is another reason why the Aquino government should legislate a substantial wage hike immediately. Such an increase will give workers immediate relief from the soaring prices of basic commodities and give them a bigger fraction of what they worked for,” Ustarez added.

Progressive labor groups “fully anticipate the coming new year to bring new hope for the passage of a substantial wage hike bill only because they vow to intensify efforts to push for a legislated wage hike.”

Demand for Jobs and Social Protection

Peoples’ organizations in the Philippines blame the continuing lack of genuine land reform and the implementation of neo-liberal policies in the country as the reasons behind the persistent backwardness of the country’s economy and the resultant joblessness and poverty of majority of Filipinos.

Rural livelihoods, which, based on government data, account for 12.3 million jobs in 2010 have been “greatly undermined by the influx of cheap, heavily subsidized imported food commodities and agricultural goods.” According to Ibon, small Filipino farmers and direct food producers who are already long suffering feudal exploitation stemming from their landlessness are now facing even more bankruptcy and desolation under agricultural liberalization.

But if Filipinos had had any hope of compensating for the lack of rural livelihood through greater government subsidies, it was swiftly dashed during Aquino’s first six months, as his government attempted immediately to abolish these subsidies. En route to privatizing the National Food Authority (NFA), which subsidizes part of the price of rice, the Aquino government has slashed its budget for palay (unhusked rice) procurement for 2011.

Neither is Aquino showing signs of correcting the age-old problem of landlessness. On the contrary, his government’s seeming policy of defending the monopoly of land by big landlords, such as his family who owns the 6,453-hectare Hacienda Luisita, is a sign of “more farmers’ dislocation from haciendas all over the country,” the Anakpawis Partylist said in a statement last week.

Other than agriculture, a significant number of Filipinos worked in the services sector in 2010, which recorded 18.6million employed as of July. Out of the one million net new jobs created, Ibon noted that some 515,000 were in the economy’s lowest earning sectors: agriculture (201,000 jobs), wholesale and retail trade (251,000) and private households (62,000).

“The increase in jobs in agriculture is particularly problematic, considering earlier reports that indicated a 2.5 percent contraction during the third quarter of the year. This implies lower average incomes for workers in the sector,” said Ibon. The average basic pay of wage and salary workers in trade (P258 or $5.415 daily in 2009) and private households (P126 or $2.64) are also way below the national average of P291 ($6.108) .

Employment in the industry sector, which includes manufacturing, increased a bit from 5.1 million to 5.5 million in 2010, based on NSO data. The comparatively tiny share of the sector in the Philippines’ total employment reveals the backwardness of the country’s industry and economy. The nature of jobs it generates further shows how bleak the situation is for workers.

The number of non-regular workers has been steadily increasing in the country. A Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics (BLES) report released early in 2010 pointed to the trend, as it noted that the total number of non-regular workers, which includes casual, seasonal, contractual or project-based workers, and paid apprentices in all non-agricultural establishments, increased by 16.4-percent from 2004 to 2008. After 2008, when the global financial crisis imploded, the number of non-regular workers expectedly ballooned further. Firms cited the crisis for implementing various cost-cutting measures.

A host of Labor Code-stipulated benefits do not apply to non-regular workers. Thus, hiring more non-regular workers lowers the cost of doing business and therefore hikes corporate profits. This kind of “flexibility” in hiring and firing is one of the neoliberal policies under globalization that the Philippine government through the labor department has been helping investors in the country to implement. In the aftermath of the global financial crunch, the labor department has additionally crafted various department orders, which allowed firms to do away with some labor standards such as paying overtime, etc.

The persistent proposals to “dust-off” the country’s current labor code could be traced to attempts to formalize the deregulation of the country’s labor standards. Still, even if none of the contending proposals in congress has been approved, pocket changes are being instituted through various Supreme Court decisions, new laws and the labor department’s orders.

In 2010, the trend of transforming portions, if not all, of an establishment’s workforce into lower-paid non-regular employees was headlined by reputable, profitable companies, such as the Philippine Air Lines (PAL) and ABS-CBN.

A cursory survey of firms in the country reveals that non-regulars work side by side with regulars, at times even outnumbering them more than twice or thrice. Aside from PAL and ABS-CBN, companies have been slashing wages and undercutting unions through redundancy and early retirement programs. Most unions whether affiliated with the progressive KMU or with the government-backed TUCP or “independents” have problems of falling membership and economic benefits as more and more non-regulars are being hired by their employers to perform work previously being done by regular workers.

It is because of this that despite their seeming political differences, Filipino labor leaders could claim or aspire for “unity” to oppose contractualization. In 2011, the drive against this trend of slashing workers’ wages and benefits through downgrading workers’ employment status may push various labor groups into more protest actions, challenging, in the process, the substance of the Aquino government’s promised change.

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  1. This article is well-written, very informative. It shines light on the beginning-of-the-year projections of the Aquino regime’s confident claims that “good times” are ahead for ordinary Filipinos. Tell that to the Pinoy commuters who will pay more transit fares or anyone else facing higher costs of living, in terms of food, electricity, gasoline, propane gas, and all other commodities of daily living. Inflation—what better way to charm the birds out of people pockets—much more “unnoticeable” and less confrontational than an outright reduction of wages or “outsourcing/insourcing” of union jobs to private sweatshops.
    I invite Bulatlat readers to learn more about Capitalism’s deadly tricks. The following article is an effective antidote to the “Brave New World” of Pnoy (President Benigno S. Aquino III), the economist:

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