Aquino rebuffs unions’ Labor Day wage demands
Filipinos joined the rest of the world in celebrating Labor Day on May 1, overshadowed by a report of the International Labor Organization showing that the Philippines has the highest unemployment rate among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
There was not much for the country’s working class to celebrate in the ILO Global Employment Trends report published in January. It showed that the Philippines, which posted an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, considered relatively high compared with the rest of the region, was not a worker’s paradise.
In most of Southeast Asia, the unemployment rate showed a downward trend, from an average of 6 percent between 2000 and 2008 to a projected 4.5 percent in the succeeding years.
According to the ILO report, it was not a consolation that Indonesia ranked second to the Philippines with a rate of 6 percent. Brunei posted 3.5 percent; Burma (Myanmar), 3.5 percent; Malaysia, 3.2 percent; and Singapore, 3.1 percent. The countries with the lowest unemployment rates last year were Vietnam, 1.9 percent; Laos, 1.4 percent; Thailand, 0.8 percent; and Cambodia, 0.3 percent. The ILO said global unemployment for 2013 reached 202 million—an increase of almost 5 million compared with that in 2012.
Obviously, ILO Director General Guy Ryder is no great fan of the Philippines’ economic performance relative to that of other Asean members. He has a dim view of the prospects of the job-creation capacity of the Philippine economy in the remaining years of the Aquino administration. The Philippines’ high unemployment rate will persist as it has failed to translate the significant improvement in its gross domestic product in the past two years to employment opportunities for its workers, Ryder said. “Despite robust economic growth in excess of 6.8 percent in the last two years, job growth has been subdued and the unemployment rate has remained at around 7 percent throughout 2012 and 2013.” He also noted other downsides in the employment performance of the Aquino administration.
“In 2013, the number of workers in extreme poverty—living on less than $1.25 a day—declined by only 2.7 percent globally, one of the lowest rates over the past decade, with the exception of the immediate crisis years,” Ryder said.
He urged developing countries including the Philippines to implement reforms to generate more jobs, particularly for the youth sector, which accounts for most of the world’s unemployed workers. An estimated 74.5 million workers under the age of 25 are now unemployed. He attributed this discrepancy to restrictive policies in these countries, such as reductions in public spending and rise in income and consumption taxes that continue to hamper job creation.
Against this bleak outlook, the Philippine government dashed workers’ hopes for wage increases.
On the eve of May 1, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz brutally told workers in a press briefing: “Workers will get neither wage increase nor nonwage benefits on Labor Day.” But she infuriated workers by telling them that there are many job opportunities in the country and abroad. “We’re not expecting any wage increase announcement,” she said, explaining that minimum wage adjustments were decided by regional wage and productivity boards. She said the law prohibited the wage boards from issuing successive wage orders within a year unless there were “supervening conditions” that would warrant abrupt and sustained increases in the prices of oil, food and other essential necessities. “As of now, we don’t see any supervening conditions that would warrant a wage adjustment,” she said.
Baldoz also slammed the door on the prospects of nonwage benefits. “Noncash benefits can come from the Government Service Insurance System, Social Security System, Philippine Health Insurance, or Pag-Ibig. [Workers] could avail themselves of that,” she said, implying that the national government would not intervene to deliver these benefits on a silver platter. It was like telling workers to do their thing because the government was not concerned with the matter.
No nonwage benefits were considered during Mr. Aquino’s dialogue with labor leaders on Labor Day. Labor leaders complained that he failed to respond to the demands raised by the trade unions in the dialogue. One union leader said the President had ignored for four years “the issues that we believe would help relieve the plight of workers, who are feeling deprived of the benefits due them despite their contribution to improving the economy.”
Since assuming the presidency in 2010, Mr. Aquino has always been remembered by workers at every Labor Day memorial as a leader “who abandoned and failed them at the critical moment when they needed his leadership in view of growing joblessness, rising cost of living, rampant and precarious work arrangements, and high cost of electricity rates,” the union leader said.
On Labor Day, hundreds of workers marched on Mendiola near Malacañang to demonstrate their “extreme disappointment” with the Aquino administration over its “lack of concern for workers and its failure to protect jobs and to reduce power rates.”
The disgruntled trade unions denounced the administration’s “elitist economic policies” and “empty promises to labor.” They said that while the President had been willing to hold dialogues with the unions, the talks were leading to a dead end after two years of negotiations. “It cannot be all talk,” they said.
At some point of the protest actions, some radical union groups burned an effigy of the President.
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