Another day, another accolade for the country’s economic performance. The latest comes from Moody’s Analytics, which, in a report released six days ago, called the Philippines “Asia’s rising star” with a potential to become “one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.” Its 6.6-percent growth in 2012 is “impressive,” said the report—a growth that “looks sustainable, as risks are low and most sectors of the economy are growing solidly.”
And yet, about the same time Moody’s Analytics released its glowing report, came sobering news: The country’s poverty incidence stood at 27.9 percent in the first semester of 2012—“practically unchanged” from the same period in 2009 (28.6 percent) and in 2006 (28.8 percent), the National Statistical Coordination Board reported. In other words, economic growth over the past six years failed to make a dent among the poor, as the percentage of Filipinos living below the poverty line remained the same between 2006 and 2012. The Philippines’ growth rate may be the highest in Southeast Asia, its stock exchange one of the world’s hottest at this time, breaching record after new record and outperforming those in other countries, but, clearly, the economic fruits of that unprecedented bull run have yet to reach the masses.
Norio Usui, senior country economist for the Asian Development Bank, put it simply: “The benefits of strong economic growth have not spilled over to the people because they still cannot find a job.”
Jobs—the lack of it—remain the Philippines’ biggest problem. In January 2013, records show there were 2.89 million unemployed Filipinos and 7.934 million underemployed Filipinos. About 41.8 percent of the underemployed are in the farming sector, and three out of every five Filipinos are highly dependent on agriculture, said Joel Rocamora, head of the National Anti-Poverty Commission.
In lieu of an economic model built on infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing, the Philippines is instead dependent on consumption, remittances from its large overseas workforce and the business process outsourcing industry, which largely employs college graduates. But a strong industrial base is necessary “to give jobs not only to the highly educated college graduates, but also to high school graduates,” said Usui.
The scarcity of employment is just one of the ills blighting the country’s workforce. Those fortunate to have a job must then contend with another scourge: shockingly inadequate wages. The NSCB says that in 2012, a Filipino family of five needed P5,458 to meet basic food needs every month. When nonfood needs are added (such as clothing, housing, transportation, health, education), the amount rises to P7,821 per month.
The minimum wage in the National Capital Region, meanwhile, is currently pegged at P456. But the cost of living in Metro Manila has also risen to P1,200—or nearly triple the minimum wage—for a family of six members, according to the labor group Partido ng Manggagawa. The amount does not include expenses for recreation, medical expenses and the like. “If we include such items, and we must in a more accurate survey, then the cost of living will significantly exceed P1,200 per day,” said PM chair Renato Magtubo.
There is also contractualization, the practice by many businesses of letting go of employees before their sixth month to evade a legal provision that requires them to promote a worker to regular status—with all the monetary and nonmonetary benefits—after working for six straight months. Among the biggest offenders are the largest malls and biggest fast-food chains, but the labor department seems to be taking it easy in cracking the whip on this odious practice.
Given the Philippines’ buoyant economic growth, aren’t workers entitled to a share of the bounty in the form of better wages and benefits and fair working conditions? Labor groups have filed a petition seeking an P85 increase in the minimum wage, but Malacañang has announced that, for Labor Day today, it is offering nonwage benefits instead.
The Philippines remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with over 50 percent of the national income concentrated in the hands of a few, and only 6 percent going to the bottom 20 percent, the poorest of the poor. Maintaining that status quo—leaving behind, in effect, the workers who produce all this newfound wealth—will only be to our great peril.