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Finding Answers Travails of the working class.


Former Senator

As the country paid tribute yesterday to our men and women here and abroad who toil with their hands or with their head, and contribute immensely to the weaving of our nation's economic fabric, a sense of anguish and uneasiness prevailed in many labor fronts.

From Kuwait, where Overseas Filipino Workers have been asked by President Duterte to come home amid the diplomatic fallout over maltreatment issues of our compatriots, to Boracay were tens of thousands of workers became jobless with the island's closure to tourists, the observance of Labor Day this first of May to celebrate the dignity of the working class is hardly a time for jubilance.

Labor Day in the Philippines is almost always marked with protest actions against low wages, unfair labor practices, and many other grievances. In fact, it has been a history of struggle. The holiday was first observed on May 1, 1903 when about a thousand workers organized by the Union Obrero Democratia de Filipinas (UODF) assembled in Tondo's Plaza Moriones and marched to Malacanang, demanding better working conditions from government then under the Americans.

The UODF was founded on Feb. 2, 1902, by Herminigildo Cruz and Isabelo de los Reyes. The latter was arrested in August, 1902, for "conspiracy to raise the price of labor" and was succeeded by Dominador Gomez who led the Tondo march during which he was also arrested on the same charge brought against his predecessor.

The Philippine Assembly, on April 8, 1908, recognized the first day of May as Labor Day and declared it a holiday. Since the 1903 Tondo march by UODF, the day has been synonymous with protest actions by labor groups seeking higher pay and better working conditions to uphold the dignity of the working class.

"All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance," civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. once said. Yet the sad reality is that many workers hardly feel they are being bestowed the dignity of their painstaking efforts to uplift humanity. And with the seeming lack of sufficient rewards for such efforts, the importance of labor cannot be perceived, especially by minimum-wage earners struggling below the poverty level.

The Philippine Statistics Authority estimated in 2015 that a family of five needs to have at least P6,329 monthly to meet basic food needs, and at least P9,064 per month to meet both basic food and nonfood needs. Such amounts then could be very unrealistic now in 2018 with rising food prices, considering that the amount then for basic food needs is roughly P42.20 a day per person or P14 per meal, assuming three meals per day.

Current prices of prime commodities have made survival more challenging to many workers. While extra purchasing power was brought about by the TRAIN law to workers granted exemption in payment of income taxes because their earnings are P250,000 and less per year, the informal sector workers do not benefit from the new tax law even as they suffer from rising prices due to the increase in fuel tax..

Getting past the poverty threshold and living a life of comfort is a more daunting challenge for many wage earners. A 2016 study by the National Economic and Development Authority showed a family of four must have P120,000 in gross monthly income to live a "simple, comfortable life" aspired by 79 percent of Filipinos.

But demands for higher wages to cope with the times can hardly be met. For instance, only P15 was approved by government when a daily P136 increase was petitioned in 2015 for minimum-wage earners in Metro Manila. In 2016, a wage increase of P154 a day was sought, yet government could only approve P11.

The phenomenon is explained by economists this way: Wages cannot be raised easily, not only because many enterprises that cannot afford the pay hike would close shop, but also because such would further discourage investors who are concerned that the Philippines has the highest wage rates compared to our ASEAN neighbors. On the average, Philippine minimum wage is about $11. Indonesia is half of that, $5.30. Vietnam is only at $3.20 and Cambodia at $2.03.

Also, raising minimum wage without increase in productivity can cause inflation unnecessarily which can worsen the situation and bring more hardships to minimum-wage earners struggling to survive below the poverty level.

While workers deserve and have the right to demand better pay, most employers are at a dilemma on how to provide what are being sought, and the most that can be offered are non-wage benefits.

Over-all, the economy must grow faster so that the underemployed and unemployed can have more access to better job and livelihood opportunities. More investments, public and private, local or foreign, are needed in industry, agriculture and services. Infrastructure development and strengthening of the manufacturing sector must be intensified. Government policies and procedures must be improved to become business-friendly. Corruption must be minimized drastically, if not totally eliminated.

And taxes, national and local, must be rationalized and collected efficiently. Government revenues must be utilized with social services as top priority. Education, health, nutrition and housing urgently needed by the poor must also be prioritized and pursued relentlessly.

When the economy develops, improvement of social services must immediately follow. This is realizable if the nation is able to produce a critical number of servant leaders in the national and local levels of government who can strategize, plan and implement inclusive economic and social growth that redounds to the benefit of the working class.



Atty. Joey D. Lina Former Senator
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Title Annotation:Opinions and Editorials
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Date:May 2, 2018
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