Whatever happens to the RH Law, our leaders in the next five to 10 years must make sure that no program to aggressively promote a contraceptive mentality among the poor will be part of the implementing rules and regulations. We cannot make the same mistakes of China and Thailand, which are now on an irreversible road to demographic suicide because of the birth control programs their governments pursued just 20 to 30 years ago.
Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in the Philippines was six babies per fertile woman in 1975. Without any aggressive program for birth control over the last 30 years, that rate has fallen to 3.1 babies today through such natural trends as later marriages, education of women, urbanization and industrialization. In another 30 years, that rate will fall below replacement of 2.1 babies per fertile woman. The birth controllers say that there is nothing to worry about because even at below replacement, the population will continue to grow because of a “growth momentum” that can last for decades. What the RH proponents do not tell us is that any growth in population that occurs after the TFR drops below fertility rate will be in the number of those over 65—i.e., people will be living longer and longer. The labor force, however, will start to shrink, with the consequent financial burden on an economy that has to support more and more retired people with less and less productive workers.
The cases of Thailand and China are very instructive. Both countries still have growing populations but are already suffering from serious labor shortages because of aging. Both are far from being developed countries but are undergoing the demographic pains of such highly developed countries as Japan and Singapore. A recent report from Digital Media (May 25, 2013) estimates that Thailand is already lacking 1.6 million workers despite having a population of 65 million. The following was datelined Bangkok: “Thailand’s current labor shortage will become more severe with two government mega projects needing at least 530,000 more workers, a senior Thai official said today. Pravit Khingpol, Department of Employment director general, said the country will be short by 1.6 million persons in the labor force and foreign workers will have to be hired. The planned Bt 2 trillion in infrastructure development projects will need at least 450,00 workers and the Bt 350 billion water management project another 80,000 laborers, he said.”
In over just one generation of aggressive birth control programs, Thailand is suffering from labor shortages. It is clear that the so-called growth momentum does not exist, and it would be against sustainable development for the Philippines to aggressively promote birth control, especially among the low-income households who are the only ones still not affected by a contraceptive mentality. The same thing can be affirmed of China, which implemented, sometimes brutally, a one-child policy. In no time at all (again no growth momentum), China’s youth labor supply has started to decline.
A report published by Silk Road Associates, titled “The End of Made in China,” describes the labor shortage in that country: “It was once popular to talk of China’s endless supply of cheap labor. Not anymore. Labor supply has shrunk dramatically over the past decade. China’s youth demographic is expected to decline by 44 million over the next 10 years, according to the United Nations’ population projection division. Indeed, the average Chinese national is 35 years old, compared to the average Cambodian (23 years) and average Bangladeshi (24 years). [The equivalent figure in the Philippines is 23 years.] The result is massive labor shortages. Officials in the southern Pearl River Delta, for instance, estimate the region suffers a shortfall of 600,000 workers.”
Needless to say these labor shortages in Thailand and China have pushed their wages upward. Average monthly wages in China, according to the International Labor Organization (March 2012), are now at $656, while those in Thailand are at $489, as compared to $279 in the Philippines and $295 in India. No wonder there is an upsurge of Japanese and Korean manufacturing enterprises moving to the Philippines, as reported by Director General Lilia de Lima of the Philippine Export Processing Zone. China is no longer the preferred site of labor-intensive manufacturing operations. These trends should be a warning to our government to either repeal the RH Law or at least slow down its aggressive implementation.
The Philippine Constitution refers again and again to sustainable development. Obviously, the RH Law will not promote sustainable development. In that sense, it is unconstitutional. There is no need to push the TFR below replacement level at too rapid a pace. We cannot solve the problems of today by harming the economic welfare of future generations who will surely suffer labor shortages if we follow the examples of China and Thailand. There are numerous positive ways of addressing the problem of mass poverty without endangering future generations, as the Chinese and the Thais have already done.
Bernardo M. Villegas ([email protected]) is senior vice president of the University of Asia and the Pacific.