Four years ago, we already proposed to the Aquino government to take the lead in developing and implementing a strategic program for Philippine development, one that brings together the agenda and energies of the working people, civil society, and the market to achieve real development targets for the people. We said that a reimagined Philippine economy anchored on a solid industrial and agricultural base could do this. Such an economy requires a new and progressive industrial policy where agriculture is the centerpiece of the economy. We further recommended that the new economic strategy be grounded on strong regulation, equity, ecological stability and gender justice. We made the recommendations as a strategic response to the nine-year reign of the Arroyo regime wherein the economy’s highlights were: massive export of labor, export-oriented low-value-added manufacturing, and reduced budget support for agriculture, and decimation of thousands of regular jobs.
While there were certain measures that were put into place to address poverty, largely, the Aquino government is still following the same policy paradigm of the previous regime—unequivocally pro-market, and neoliberal economic framework anchored on trade and financial liberalization, deregulation, and privatization. Thus, even as it annually showcases its high growth rate, the Aquino administration’s economy will not be felt by the many.
We believe nothing short of a quick and radical shift is needed to free the working people from poverty. We believe the current state of governance is still conducive for the implementation of essential economic reforms. The victories won by the people in the anti-corruption front and in implementing reforms inside our democratic institutions are important in creating consent and legitimacy to the government’s economic plans. However, time is running out. An unhurried and calculated shift in economic strategy, which would have been favorable four years ago, must now give way to a swift and fundamental approach.
To contribute to the overall shift, the Aquino government must quickly refocus its energies towards ensuring the rights and welfare of workers, to fulfill its commitment to the Filipino people. To do that, the administration must address the following: first, it must prioritize workers’ security of tenure and radically reduce, if not eliminate, unfair labor contractualization; and second, in terms of rural workers and the farmers, the administration must ensure the fulfillment of agrarian reform and delivery of agrarian justice, specifically the redistribution of land to the tillers, and the provision of essential support services for agrarian reform beneficiaries.
Security of tenure
The unfairness of the labor force situation is reflected by the fact that workers are forced to enter into contractual employment, enduring the periodic unemployment that comes with ENDO (End of Contract), because this is significantly better than being jobless. But we beg to ask, why is the government letting workers endure the vagaries of the market, if it can instead protect their rights and ensure their security of tenure? The rationale behind security of tenure is simple, the more stable employment is for ordinary workers, the more stable their income becomes, the larger the tax base will be, the better to pump prime the economy and the greater the chances at improving the lives of their families. It is precisely this stability in employment and income that removes the possibility of families going hungry, which ultimately spells a life with dignity.
Migrant workers’ rights and welfare
We also raise the importance of ensuring the rights and welfare of migrant workers, especially since these workers often have to choose between low-salaried or contractual employment in the Philippines or risk life and limb in conflict areas, or get tied up in the web of transnational trafficking networks. While the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs in Congress has found significant commitment from the Foreign Affairs and the Labor and Employment departments in terms of ensuring the welfare of documented workers, there continues to be massive abuse of undocumented workers that we have to act collectively to end. Moreover, as the sex-for-flight incident has exposed, there continues to be elements within the bureaucracy that are ready to sell their own kababayan in exchange for personal gain. The administration must ensure the incarceration of such abusive public officials, it must put an end to the mafia-like behavior of the bureaucracy that tends to protect its own rather than give them up to justice for abusing their position and failing to protect Filipino workers overseas.
Fulfill the promise of agrarian reform
In terms of rural workers and farmers, we call on the Aquino government to make good on its responsibility to distribute the remaining landholdings to peasants and ensure the appropriate support services that will create a solid backbone of small farmers for rural development. The snail’s pace of agrarian reform has left a massive backlog of anywhere between 790, 671 hectares and 1 million hectares, the former being claimed by the Deaprtment of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the latter being the more realistic estimate of the backlog made by the peasant movement, according to the original land distribution balance of 1.4- 1.9 million hectares in 2008-2009 minus DAR’s meager accomplishment rate of less than 400,000 hectares.
Agrarian reform spells the difference between rural poverty and rural development – multiple studies across decades have already established the increased productivity of farmers tied to their ownership of the land they till. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to combating rural poverty and ensuring social justice. The only thing the Aquino government really needs to do to forswear the legalistic excuses of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is to muster the political will to stand up to landlord maneuverings and ensure that peasants are given due rights and ownership to the land they have slaved over, and be given adequate support to ensure their productivity.
Akbayan stands with the millions of Filipinos who endure harsh working conditions and live on the border of indignity, just so they may provide a better future for their families. The Aquino government must respond to their cry, and finally put the rights of all Filipino workers, from across the cities and the countryside, and from foreign lands, in the center of the national development strategy. The Aquino government still has the chance to do great in providing the people real economic development and prosperity. However, the opportunity is getting smaller by the day. Unless it acts with urgency and determination, the people’s dream of a better economic future under this administration will remain, as it is—a dream.
Akbayan - Citizens Action Party