The plea for decent wages | Inquirer Opinion

The plea for decent wages

If you are “caught between a rock and a hard place,” you are in a difficult situation where you have to choose between two equally unpleasant courses of action. That is where we find ourselves today in our labor-and-wages situation, difficult and cannot be resolved in and by itself.

There is constant pressure between labor and the compensation it receives, even under the best of circumstances. As economic conditions improve, businessmen and corporations earn more profits while their compensation packages become more generous. Still, the pressure between labor and capital, or labor and the state in certain countries, remains albeit less contentious.


Unfortunately, there are no best circumstances in the Philippines and hardly any in the foreseeable future. The running total of all efforts so far has managed to keep a steep imbalance between capital and labor. It is the natural order of things, both the momentum and trajectory in Philippines society – and not only in the economy.

The pervading value system is also quite traditional, setting the elite and powerful miles apart from the mass population. What more for the lowest in the totem pole who still comprise a substantial percentage of the total Filipino population? All official and unofficial standards follow this value system where money and power rule absolutely.


There was a time when the virtue of honor stood in between the elite and the ordinary. Honor was a mediating force, also a deterrent against abuse by the rich and powerful. Today, honor is a rare commodity. It remains widely regarded as essential in law, especially as a code of conduct for public officials and employees. But laws that are wantonly violated and disregarded are not laws, just texts in books.

What is valuable to people is what they experience as real and dominating. If law-breaking dominates instead of law-abiding in daily life, that is the value that will be followed. It is twisted and perverse, but it will be emulated as the primary model of society.

Democracy remains a dream that is now more of a myth than an aspiration. It is not the collective pursuit by the mainstream Filipino, who remains by and large much more concerned about the food on the table. The need to survive simply comes first.

At the same time, the need to survive conditions the minds and hearts of the poor to be grateful that they do survive with the assistance from government, politicians, and patrons in society. Grateful to be alive has replaced dreams and aspirations for tens of millions who are still trapped in food poverty, or threatened by it.

How does this attitude become the platform of productivity, the base of industrialization and prosperity? Never, of course. So never, too, will there be productivity and prosperity in the near future. Not until a determined, comprehensive, and sustained effort by government and business leaders will invest in it for at least the medium term. Because it means bravely and intelligently re-arranging our value system in favor of people over money and power.

Senate President Miguel Zubiri cannot be faulted for appealing for higher wages for labor. His cause has more than enough basis because daily wages have not kept up with inflation. Proof is that 80% of Filipinos are locked up in food-poverty and the fear of it. If animals could only complain, they may just have a lower fear of hunger than Filipinos.

At the same time, many if not most businessmen, small and medium, could deteriorate or even go bankrupt if wages were increased to the level that Senator Zubiri wants. And they have more than enough basis as well. Considering that they may be employing more Filipinos than large corporations only aggravates the threat of business reversals to those they employ.


This is the classic “caught in between a rock and hard place” example. Wages are important but cannot resolve one problem without maybe creating more. Maybe social scientists may be able to understand and propose alternative ways to economic and political leaders as part of a national effort, because the very value system of society needs a vital and urgent transformation.

Of course, the standard solution is there and will most probably be applied again. And, again as well, the problem simply gets more complicated and continues to fester a social resentment among the majority. We stay in that flux where major players in society remain at odds until a trigger fires the fuse of social unrest. This time, too, the government cannot just increase the salaries of the military and police that it relies on to keep order because the financial costs are not sustainable anymore.

All of the above will be the most likely scenarios when Filipinos have to rely on those who control power and wealth. There is nothing but that throughout Filipino history in the last 500 years. There is no trickle-down of anything valuable when the source of power and wealth increase in their desire for more power and wealth. For as long as there is no honor and applied as the greatest values in our society, the imbalance will simply worsen.

I believe politicians like Senator Zubiri smell the undercurrent of the masses. It has been muted by government subsidies here and there, but many subsidies will contract as the mendicant population increases and corruption will reduce government income.

If ordinary but concerned Filipinos cannot hope and wait for effective government action, and more-humane-than-profit response from the business sector, then its ranks must reach out to mitigate (or reform by example) the rock and a hard place configuration. We have to raise our own productivity, our own honesty, and our own generosity. It is good for our individual and collective soul, it is good for those we can help and capacitate towards their own independence from mendicancy.

Nation-building, after all, is not the work of government and businessmen, it is all our work, including them.

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