Measures to ease joblessness
The Philippine Statistics Authority reported last week that the unemployment rate stood at 6.4 percent in February this year, the same as the previous month’s and the lowest since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. In absolute terms, however, this translates to more than three million Filipinos who are jobless. The ranks of unemployed Filipinos actually rose by 201,000 on a monthly basis to 3.13 million in February as some 2.46 million Filipinos joined the labor force. In addition, there were 6.38 million underemployed persons in February, or those desiring to have additional hours of work in their present job or an additional or new job with longer hours to earn more.
On a positive note, the overall employment picture was an improvement from a year ago. The total number of Filipinos with work increased by 2.46 million from 43.02 million in February last year. Of this, those in the services sector rose by 1.28 million people, while 480,000 were added to those in industries, and 543,000 to the number of Filipinos working in agriculture. Meanwhile, of the four subsectors that reported a decline in the number of employed persons from a year ago, education accounted for 124,000, mainly due to the fact that many schools have yet to return to face-to-face classes.
Commenting on the latest labor force survey, the Department of Labor and Employment said the year-on-year improvement resulted from the easing of the alert level classification in February, the lifting of travel restrictions for foreign travelers, and the start of the election campaign on Feb. 8, triggering an increase in labor demand from election spending. The National Economic and Development Authority agreed that increased mobility and relaxed restrictions have led to significant job creation since the economy reopened in February.
What is evident is that the answer to generating more jobs is the opening of more economic sectors. This, in turn, is dependent on ensuring the safety of everyone from COVID-19 mainly through vaccination. Here lies the problem: While vaccination has accelerated in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, as well as in major urban centers, the case is the opposite in some regions where vaccination rates are less than a third of their target population. Even in Metro Manila, the country’s economic center where the vaccination rate has risen to 73.02 percent as of March 28, there is a problem in the administration of booster shots, which health experts have said are necessary to increase protection against COVID-19.
Presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion earlier expressed concern over the low uptake of booster shots, saying less than a third of the population in Metro Manila have received their booster dose, while other regions had a lower rate of only 10 percent. “People have become complacent and no longer feel that they need to be boosted,” Concepcion lamented. The Department of Health expects the pace of inoculation nationwide for the primary and booster shots to reach 75 percent and a low 15 percent, respectively, by the end of this month. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III noted last week that a number of Filipinos still refuse to get vaccinated, and the government has done all it could to encourage people to get jabbed, including setting up drive-thru vaccination sites, tapping pharmacies and doctors’ clinics as inoculation centers, and bringing the vaccines to people’s houses.
Extra effort should be done to rapidly raise the vaccination rate, especially with the heightened risk of new COVID-19 transmissions as the protection from previous doses wanes. Duque, disheartened by the refusal of many Filipinos to get booster shots or even get vaccinated, said it would be a welcome move if Congress “can muster that political will to make vaccination and booster mandatory” in the country, similar to what other nations have done. However, it should not come to this. The government needs to think of more creative ways such as incentive-laden vaccination campaigns instead of forcing people to be jabbed by law.
With a more successful vaccination drive, the problem about the 3.13 million Filipinos without jobs as of February this year can be addressed with other easily doable measures. Moving to alert level 1 for the entire country to allow more business establishments to reopen, expanding face-to-face classes to address unemployment in the education sector, and removing or harmonizing domestic travel restrictions to revive local tourism will all help to open up more job opportunities. Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua estimated that the full resumption of face-to-face classes “will allow one-fourth of the parents who stay at home supporting their children during online classes to work.” These are immediately actionable measures that the Duterte administration can do in its remaining days before a new leadership is elected in May.
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