Like It Is

May Day

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The trouble I find in writing a column is that I tend to repeat myself—because the things I complain about are still there, or worse (in my biased view), are still there after I’ve offered a solution.

So here I go again for my Labor Day piece. Let me start with the one I think most needs to be changed: job security. And let me do so by emphasizing the repetitiveness of what I’ve said before by quoting what I’ve said before:

“The security of tenure is probably one of the worst pro-labor laws you can imagine. If there’s one thing it’s not, it’s security of tenure. It deters, instead of [encourages], job creation. You think twice, thrice before hiring anyone because of the huge cost and difficulty of terminating. Or you hire for five months, and then kick the employee out in the most hurtful fashion.

“If a job is necessary, when you fire someone, you just hire someone in his place. There’s no reduction in the available job statistics. Someone lost, someone else gained. The ‘loser’ works harder next time to ensure he retains the job, the ‘winner’ works harder to ensure he keeps it. Productivity goes up, cost goes down.”

This is so blindingly obvious to me that I can’t for the life of me see why it hasn’t been changed. Only the simplest of minds would think protecting an employee regardless of performance or corporate need is desirable. Maybe a century ago, when you didn’t have to compete with the world, may such a concept have been tenable, but not today. Today, in the global community, the Philippines ranks a miserable 65th among 144 countries. (Mind you, it’s an improvement from 85th in 2010, but the Philippines must aspire to be in the top 25 percent of economies surveyed.)

The next thing is minimum wage, and here’s what I said before, too, on it:

Labor groups argue for higher wages on very reasonable grounds that P456 ($11.12) per day is not a decent living wage. I agree. But zero, which is what close to 3 million Filipinos (or 10.1 million—a more realistic and, sadly, more believable figure, based on SWS’ latest survey) get is even less acceptable. They get zero because they have no jobs. They have no jobs because businessmen aren’t investing here. Foreign businessmen aren’t investing here because they can get cheaper labor in China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Even in Thailand and Indonesia.

Our daily minimum wage is $11; it’s $9.75 in Thailand, $8 in China, $5.30 in Indonesia, and $3.20 in Vietnam. The Philippines gives twice or thrice more than Indonesia and Vietnam, respectively.

Now look at the foreign direct investments over the past six years: China, $1,047 billion; Indonesia, $58 billion; Thailand, $51 billion; Vietnam, $41.7 billion; and the Philippines, $13.6 billion.

Do you see the link? High minimum wage isn’t the only factor that is driving foreign investors away from the Philippines, although all surveys and anecdotal discussions indicate it’s a major one. Do you want a low-paying job or a no-paying no-job?

Instead of getting P456 in daily wage, around 10.1 million Filipinos who want a job get nothing. In the informal sector in the provinces, a daily wage of P230-P280 is common, and people there somehow live on that. Now I’m not suggesting that’s an acceptable wage; it’s not. But what I am saying is that people can survive on far less than P456. But they can’t survive on nothing.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m very supportive of labor, I want everyone to have a decent, well-paying job. I believe that the two issues I mentioned are the reasons people don’t have decent, well-paying jobs because they cause investors, the ones who provide jobs, to look elsewhere, to where they are not constrained like this.

Globalization has changed the game, and we’d better learn how to play it to win. What high wages and restrictive conditions also do is encourage many businessmen to work outside the system.

It was good that the law was changed to allow night-time work for women, but take it further. Allow flexible working hours as long as these total no more than 40 in a week. The world is changing, and we must, too.

If the labor unions truly cared for workers, they’d be arguing on behalf of these people. Arguing, not for uncompetitively high wage rates, but that all companies, formal and informal, pay the SSS, PhilHealth and Home Development (Pag-Ibig) contributions that every Filipino should be given.

Another area that needs great reform if jobs are to be created is education. The level of education has deteriorated alarmingly over the past several decades. It’s not just the lack of classrooms, or shortage of teachers, but the educational materials and the curriculum, too. Textbooks, if you’re lucky enough to have one, are riddled with errors. And the curriculum is not matched with what business needs.

Fortunately, the Aquino administration has recognized much of this. The K-to-12 program is a major step forward, and there is a much bigger budget of P293 billion, up from just P186 billion five years ago. But that’s just 14.6 percent of the total national budget, still far from the World Bank-recommended 20 percent.

Also, it’s a mere 2.8 percent of GDP, while other major Asian countries allot 5-6 percent.

President Aquino has three more years to reverse this. He can start by convincing legislators to use their pork barrel only for projects related to education. He also needs to hire more teachers and pay them well—and properly train them. And he should strengthen the counterpart-funding program by local government units so that 50 percent of the cost of building classrooms comes from them.

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