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Where are the labourers?

Publication Date : 01-05-2014


Something new happens today—in Indonesia. Our biggest Southeast Asian neighbor marks May 1 as Labor Day for the first time in

its history. According to the Jakarta Post, some 100,000 workers are expected to take to the streets of Jakarta. But to countries like Malaysia and the Philippines,

the celebration of Labor Day presents, not an exciting development, but an old, even dull, ritual.

That is our loss, because the dignity of labor has deep roots in those Christian traditions many Filipinos are only too familiar with, and labor’s contribution to Philippine history itself is crucial. Indeed, our pantheon of national heroes was constructed in large part by labour unions early in the 20th century recognising the heroism of Andres Bonifacio and others like him.

But today, labour unions are not growing in strength. The ability of organised labour to mobilise major political support for the policies or causes it advocates is diminished; the very possibility that organised labour can speak for all workers everywhere is in doubt.

A pity, because if there is any time that organised labour should speak up for the country’s workers, it is today—when there aren’t enough of them.

The distinguishing mark of the continuous growth in the Philippine economy, from the time Gloria Arroyo assumed the presidency in 2001 to the rapid expansion under President Aquino, has been jobless growth.

Last year, despite the devastation wrought by calamities like Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and its immediate aftermath, the economy continued to grow at a fast clip; GDP rose at an annual rate of 7.2 per cent.

And yet, despite the impressive succession of quarters where GDP grew by 6 or 7 per cent, the official unemployment rate in the first four years of the Aquino administration remained above 7 per cent.

As former senator Ernesto Herrera of the politically moderate Trade Union Congress of the Philippines pointed out with uncharacteristic sharpness: “When the President began his term, the official national unemployment rate was 7.0 per cent in July 2010. Now, the unemployment rate stands at 7.5 per cent, as of January 2014.” He added: “We are deeply disappointed that up to now, the administration has not offered—not even in broad strokes—clear-cut strategies as to how it intends to forcefully create new jobs.”

Part of the reason is the kind of growth we have been experiencing: There is a lot of activity in the service sector (for instance, the continuing boom in call centers), but growth in the industrial sector, where what economists call the multiplier effect is highest, continues to lag. Another reason: The economy still cannot generate enough jobs per year to accommodate the newest members of the labour force. (This is partially a function of population growth.) The seasonality of many of the jobs available in agriculture is a third reason. A fourth reason: The bane of contractualisation means many workers lose their jobs every six months. And so on, to the inevitable end.

The result is high growth that is not being felt by many Filipinos. In this light, then, when we look at today’s sparsely attended Labour Day rallies and wonder where are the labourers, the question acquires a second, more significant, meaning.


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