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Commentary

Work and freedom

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[On the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”]

On the last Sunday of July we took a night cruise around lower Manhattan, the New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The statue stands out in the bay, far from the lights of Wall Street and the financial center that burn day and night. I never guessed as we headed out at sunset that I would spend most of the evening thinking about my old immigrant relatives and the unemployed men of the urban poor areas of Metro Manila.

Our boat slowed as we approached Freedom Island where the statue rises; we drifted closer until we were almost underneath it. We saw it in silhouette against the last light in the Western sky. With its pedestal, it towers to the height of a 25-story building. The face of the statue as it looked down with deep concern on the poor and powerless people of New York, seemed wrapped in the type of head scarf Muslim women wear. Perhaps the goddess Athena looked down on ancient Athens from the Acropolis in just the same way Bicolanos might think of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

A few hundred meters away was Ellis Island, where millions of poor immigrants landed in the 1920s-1930s, including my parents, aunts and uncles. Poor people were unloaded at Ellis Island; well-off passengers sailed on to Manhattan. For all passengers, especially for the poor, the statue was a great symbol of hope. It was the sign they were welcome in America and could begin life again in the new country. There would be problems, but the immigrants would be able to get jobs with which to raise their families, and they would be able to do so in security and freedom, protected by the country’s laws and labor unions.

It dawned on me that work and security/freedom are exactly what the men in the urban poor areas of Metro Manila are asking for.

There are government programs in the Philippines that help with income and microfinance, but they are usually for the women. This is not to criticize such programs but to highlight the great need for jobs for the men, especially the younger ones. What will happen to our society if the men are basically inutil and have to be carried along by the women? So few decent jobs are now available that the drug industry is one of the biggest employers of young men in the slums.

Can government make an extraordinary effort to provide jobs for the urban poor men? It seems unlikely that our leading job-creating industries—tourism and call centers—can employ the urban poor. Can the government, then, provide work by sponsoring public works programs? President Aquino promised to do this in the Covenant with the Urban Poor that he signed on March 6, 2010, in Del Pan, Tondo. In the covenant there is a section that discusses jobs for the poor communities. There is mention of public works created by government, and jobs that might be paid for by a combination of cash and food. The number of these jobs must be multiplied many times over:

“We will create large-scale public works programs that can generate a substantial number of jobs for poor men and women. At the onset of our term, we will emphasize labor-intensive public works programs that can generate a significant number of jobs for our poor people and give them access to at least the minimum amounts of money, food and dignity needed for their daily survival and well-being.”

The International Labor Organization has recommended that the Philippines use labor-intensive work processes in the infrastructure programs it funds. This will increase the number of men employed by 25 percent. Can the new flood control program employ such labor-intensive practices?

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a practitioner of public-works-type programs. During the recent post-flood cleanup work in resettlement areas in Montalban, it paid the people living there P400 a day to do the cleanup work. The work was done. The people had food to eat, and the men had their dignity.

There are many problems that can be solved through these types of public works: tree planting, for example, building of dikes and digging of water catchments.

We compete for the heart of the poor. If the men have work, even humble tasks at first, they will feel they have a stake in society. If they are unemployed, they are vulnerable to very destructive forms of alienation.

The Irish who came to the United States in the late 1920s, including my relatives, had just ended a civil war. There was nothing much for them in Ireland, especially for those who were on the losing side in that war. Most had only a fourth-year elementary education. America gave them jobs. They weren’t intellectually demanding jobs—construction workers, stevedores and transit employees for men, and waitresses and housemaids for women—but they gave the immigrants a foothold in the country and basic dignity. They were “making it in New York.” Their children had a chance to go to college and become doctors and scientists.

Public works projects will help our urban poor men in Metro Manila repeat such a transformation.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).


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