April 28, 2011

MayDay distress call

No one – not even employers or the government – will dispute the sad state of Philippine labor today. The figures do not lie or dissemble. And yet year and year out, government and employers, merely raise their hands and feign helplessness over the situation.

They repeat the same old line: wage increases would result in inflation causing greater woes for workers including the threat of losing their jobs since higher wages could result in their employers going bankrupt.

What are hidden from view are the huge profits raked in by foreign and local corporations in stark contrast to workers’ starvation wages.

Preliminary results of the 2008 Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry (ASPBI) of the National Statistics Office (NSO) as cited by IBON Foundation, show that establishments in the country with total employment of 20 and over had combined profits of Php895.2 billion and 2.74 million employees.

Even more revealing, the Top 1,000 corporations in the country reaped a cumulative annual net income of Php3,788.9 billion over the period 2001-2009.

According to IBON, an across-the-board wage hike of Php125 means workers will receive an additional PhP3,802 per month. Employers will spend an additional Php49,427 per employee per year (assuming 13 months of pay). The total cost of the proposed wage hike will only be Php135.6 billion which, subtracted from total profits, will still leave establishments with Php759.6 billion in profits.

The Php125 across-the-board increase called for by the Kilusang Mayo Uno will only cut employers’ profit margins by 15%. Assuming employers will not pass on to consumers any legislated minimum wage increase, there will be no significant inflationary effect. Because their enterprises continue to be profitable, there is no reason for them to close shop.

Consider that the average daily basic pay that wage and salary workers in the country actually received – as opposed to merely mandated minimum wages that are not necessarily actually paid – increased from Php222 in 2001 to a measly Php301 in 2010 (NSO Labor Force Survey, April 2010). The minimum daily wage of Php404 in the National Capital Region is not even half of the estimated average family living wage (FLW) of Php988 as of March 2011.

A large wage hike will be beneficial not just for workers and their families but also the economy, IBON added. The transfer of money from rich to poor households will increase aggregate demand and stimulate the economy.

Mr. Aquino washes his hands and points to regional wage boards and collective bargaining agreements as the proper means to effect any wage adjustment; the former (dominated by business interests) are notoriously niggardly in providing wage increases while labor repression and the policy of labor flexibilization have decimated the ranks of organized labor and consequently their bargaining leverage.

The other demands raised by militant labor are not unreasonable and quite “doable” by a government that presents itself as committed to serving the people as its “boss”. The more pressing ones include control of runaway prices of oil, electricity, water and food; a stop to privatization and greater public subsidies for public transport, education, health and housing; and a halt to contractual and other forms of flexible work in the country that undercut labor rights and welfare.

Government should not be earning windfall taxes from the unconscionably high fuel prices. Because of the 12% VAT on oil products, the higher the prices, the more taxes collected. Why can’t government immediately suspend VAT on oil as a reprieve for everyone, especially the poor, who bear a disproportionate burden of this indirect tax.

Why doesn’t the government go hammer and thong against profiteering by the local oil cartel of Shell, Caltex, Petron? As pointed out by militant transport and consumer groups, oil companies either jack up prices or fail to roll them back even when warranted by taking undue advantage of the volatility of oil prices in the world market. It is estimated that as much as 7.50 pesos per liter is added on as sheer profiteering.

Note that we are not even talking about the mind-boggling profits of the global oil cartel and finance capitalists derived from monopoly pricing and speculation in the oil futures market.

The subsidies for public mass transport such as the LRT/MRT and the toll fees charged on vital roadways such as the SLEX could have been maintained given the critical situation of the majority of families who are at their wit’s end trying to make both ends meet.

Instead, Mr. Aquino says that government can do nothing to shield commuters but must instead protect the profits of the foreign investors who upgraded the SLEX or make the operations of LRT/MRT profitable so that government can make them attractive to private investors, in a word, reprivatize this public transport system.

Bringing home such a pittance of a wage would be somewhat bearable if government could be relied upon to give meaningful help when it comes to education, health and housing but that is like asking for the moon.

On the other hand, government has justified labor contractualization as a legitimate tool of capitalists to cut labor costs. According to the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research, the Philippines has one of the highest levels of contractualization in Southeast Asia with 7 out of 10 firms implementing combinations of flexible work arrangements.

KMU underscores that while contractual and regular workers both suffer from unjust labor policies and work agreements, the former are laboring under worse conditions-- lower incomes, lack of job and social security, no right to union organizing and extremely hazardous work conditions.

Over and above pro-labor policies and cognizant that the workers' wellbeing is inseparably linked to the wellbeing of their fellow toilers, KMU has from the beginning called for genuine land reform alongside national industrialization as the twin pillars of a sound, self-reliant, progressive and just socio-economic order.

Unfortunately under the present dispensation, economic policies are set by government officials who are beholden to multinational and domestic corporate interests as well as the landed elite. They are former CEOs of business conglomerates, bankers and fund managers, if not former IMF-WB highly-paid employees hewing to the neoliberal policy framework that has caused mayhem for the last three decades.

The country’s economic managers are appointed by politicians like President Noynoy Aquino who, despite populist rhetoric, also comes from the very same elite ruling circles.

It appears then that the interests of the entrenched local elite and their foreign backers are uppermost in Mr. Aquino’s priorities as he turns a deaf ear to the demand for a just wage, champions the privatization of government projects and programs and justifies more cutbacks in government social spending.

On the other hand, the severity and persistence of the global economic and political crisis is shaking ruling systems everywhere with mass protests, uprisings and revolutions spreading like wildfire, bringing to heel or even ousting ruling regimes and pushing more fundamental and radical reforms.

Mr. Aquino, for his own political health, should consider granting some reprieve to an agonizing people by positively responding to militant labor’s demands to be highlighted at the planned May 1st Labor Day demonstration. #

Published in Business World
29-30 April 2011

April 14, 2011

Impeachment trial: The people’s stake

The upcoming impeachment trial of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez should bestir everyone who wishes to hold Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to account for all the harm and wrongdoing that she was responsible for during her nine long years of de facto rule. It is a circuitous but necessary route since Mrs. Gutierrez has used the Ombudsman's office to fend off, sabotage and quash all suits against her benefactress, GMA, the latter’s family members and other partners-in-crime.

All other previous attempts to run after GMA and cohorts appear to have floundered and gone nowhere. President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s election promise to go after the massive graft and corruption perpetrated at the highest levels during his predecessor’s term had run aground when the much-ballyhooed Truth Commission he created was adjudged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

(Some say the Truth Commission was doomed from the start lacking the kind of political and legal mandate that only a revolutionary government with sweeping powers would have. Others say it was immediately undercut by a Supreme Court packed with Mrs. Arroyo’s political appointees. Of course it didn’t help that Mr. Aquino had appointed former Chief Justice Davide, an Arroyo man, to head the Commission nor that the president’s lawyers are reputedly not the most savvy hereabouts.)

It is only recently that Mr. Aquino has started to use the vast powers of the Executive, such as the Tax Bureau, to flush out one of the Arroyo children’s hidden wealth. We have yet to see him utilize the Justice Department to undertake case build up in some of the most notorious graft and corruption cases that hounded the Arroyo regime. We note that a complaint had already been filed by the party list Bayan Muna with the DOJ on the NBN-ZTE scam but has not been acted upon in deference to Mr. Aquino’s pronouncements regarding the Truth Commission.

This is in sense a proxy fight. People are waiting to seeing GMA get her just deserts. The fight to remove Gutierrez as an obstacle implanted by Mrs. Arroyo precisely to forestall attempts to hold her to account is one step removed from nailing the GMA cabal. It requires extra effort at information and education to rouse the people to mobilize on the Gutierrez impeachment trial.

We must all be clear on this: Ombudsman Gutierrez’ conviction should pave the way for GMA and her cohorts’ arrest, prosecution and punishment for plunder and other crimes against the people.

Herein is a question of justice, of restitution, and of serving a long overdue lesson to all abusive, corrupt and anti-people leaders who think they can get away with their crimes. Truly, it constitutes a blow against impunity of the worst type because it is impunity by persons in the highest levels of authority. They have used their powerful positions, not just to commit crimes but to cover these up and evade punishment. They in turn use their ill-gotten riches to further enrich themselves, advance their political careers, deodorize their public image and remove any social stigma that rightfully has been attached to their names.

The end goal is GMA’s comeuppance not just that of Merceditas Gutierrez even though the latter is a party to the cover-up of a long list of crimes by public officials under GMA and likely has been amply rewarded for her efforts.

If this objective is not firmly grasped and pursued, then whatever will be achieved by the successful conviction of Gutierrez will fall far short of what is needed to achieve the ends of justice, the fight against impunity, and ultimately, the fight against entrenched corruption and other forms of malgovernance.

If this objective is not conveyed to the people and constantly brought to their attention, the campaign to remove Mrs. Gutierrez and thereafter appoint a new Ombudsman who will prosecute GMA to the full extent of the law, will fail to garner the kind of strong, extensive and sustained public support required to overcome remaining obstacles.

The political complexion of the Senate and the numbers required to get a conviction (sixteen to convict; eight to absolve) are formidable considerations.

There are articulate and seasoned GMA allies, as well as those left-over from the Lakas-NUCD heyday in the Senate.

There are those who have, chameleon-like, switched sides to be pro-Aquino, but given their track record of opportunism, will go where their political nest will be feathered to the maximum.

The erstwhile anti-GMA camp is now a motley crowd: several have exhibited only a flabby commitment to pursuing GMA’s wrongdoing due to various so-called pragmatic and perhaps less than principled reasons.

Since the Liberal Party has thrown their full support behind Pres. Aquino’s campaign to impeach Gutierrez in the Lower House and then convict her in the Senate, it stands to reason that it will be the Liberal Party stalwarts such as Senators Drilon, Pangilinan and Osmeña who will be working hard to get the numbers to convict Mrs. Gutierrez.

In their minds, Mr. Aquino must not be put to shame by a defeat in the Senate. His party mates know only too well that should such a thing happen, his store of political capital can quickly be dissipated. For whatever else does he have to show for all the rhetoric about ending corruption to end poverty?

The quid-pro-quos between Malacañang and the senators for their votes against Mrs. Gutierrez will indeed undergo hard bargaining, wily maneuvering and will be impacted by the ups and downs of the trial itself and how the vested interests in mass media will work public opinion in one way or the other.

How can the people ensure that the desired outcome of the impeachment trial – Gutierrez’s conviction and removal from office, the appointment of a new Ombudsman who will straightaway file the cases that Gutierrez never did against GMA and her ilk – will indeed be achieved regardless of the inevitable horse trading and backroom deals?

We have a wealth of lessons learned from the Estrada impeachment trial more than 10 years ago. The most important of these is that the outcome of the trial cannot be left in the hands of the Senate alone. The public and private prosecutors will need all the support they can get as do the witnesses who step forward to speak the truth, emboldened by the knowledge that with the people behind them, they have no reason to fear reprisal.

People’s organizations, reform groups and other concerned citizens must exert every effort to transform the people’s cries for justice into a powerful political storm that will convince all and sundry, the Senators first of all, that there can be no other just verdict but conviction and removal from office of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. #

Published in Business World
15-16 April 2011