To steal food worth P31.50
If a man steals something, he ought to be jailed. Simple, right?
Yet there is nothing simple in the case of Paul Matthew Tanglao, a 21-year-old sales clerk who was arrested on Dec. 10 for filching a can of corned beef in the supermarket in Santa Ana, Manila, where he is employed. Tanglao has confessed to the crime, saying it was hunger that drove him to sneak the canned food into his apron and later eat it in the store warehouse. Somebody saw the theft, however, and reported him to the guards, and thence to the police. Since Sunday, Tanglao has been detained at the Santa Ana station of the Manila Police District, on the strength of a complaint of qualified theft. The cost of the can of corned beef is P31.50.
The charge of qualified theft, and not simple theft, was slapped on Tanglao for the added element of the trust or confidence of his employers that he supposedly abused. Qualified theft carries a higher penalty than simple theft.
Last January, during a public hearing held by the Senate committee on constitutional amendments and revisions of codes and laws to tackle proposed reforms in outdated provisions in the Revised Penal Code, Sen. Franklin Drilon pointed out a shocking fact: Under the 85-year-old Code, the monetary values of which were established in 1932, a household helper who steals an item worth over P250—thus making her or him eligible for the charge of qualified theft—faces a penalty of reclusion temporal, with imprisonment ranging from 12 years and a day to 17 years and 4 months.
Drilon was also quoted as saying: “Beyond obsolescence, the [Code] may even be attacked as inflicting cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment… Is it not clearly cruel, degrading and inhuman to imprison for 12 years and 1 day to 20 years one who is found guilty of robbery in a public building, such as the Senate, or a church, where the value of the property is only P251? Isn’t that cruel?”
The principle behind clapping Tanglao in jail for pilfering a can of corned beef worth P31.50 may be sound, and certainly the supermarket was within its rights to file a case against its employee. But the context of that crime—the hunger of a lowly worker, which he tried to assuage with stolen food the price of which would amount to an infinitesimal shave off the business owners’ profits—again raises troubling questions about the rank social inequality that continues to fester beneath the veneer of the nation’s touted economic progress.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the number of unemployed Filipinos was at 5.0 percent in October, higher than the 4.7 percent recorded in the same period last year. That translates to 2.2 million Filipinos out of a job and desperate for everyday food for their family. Technically, Tanglao doesn’t even belong to this category, being gainfully employed. But what depths of hunger would drive someone like him to risk that job so he could have something to eat?
And why would the supermarket insist on pressing charges over so paltry a stolen amount, instead of just firing Tanglao? Surely, the humiliation of the time he has spent in detention, and the loss of employment, would be enough punishment for the 21-year-old. The police, in fact, were reported to have tried to dissuade the business owners from pushing through with the charge, to no avail.
At what point does punishment exceed being just and become plain cruel? Netizens have rightly pointed out the irony of Tanglao’s fate against news, for instance, of police officers facing heinous charges of kidnapping and murder being rewarded with new positions, or an accused tax evader like Jeane Napoles, the flamboyant daughter of convicted businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles, conveniently getting her case thrown out. For the poor and hungry of this land, life remains nasty, brutish and deeply unfair.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.