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Migrant workers out of sight and mind in the state of this nation

HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : Another year, another State of the Nation Address (SONA) and another reminder to the major suppliers of foreign income to the Republic of The Philippines that they really are not part of the current administration’s development plans.

In stark contrast to his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who overplayed her hand when she touted migrant workers as heroes, the current president, Noynoy Aquino, takes the opposite approach, treating them as out of sight and out of mind.

However, in his sixth and probably last sun-down-run-down on the state of the nation of which he is the president, delivered on July 27 at the House of Representatives in the Congress Building in Quezon City, Aquino had other priorities.

In a more than two-hour address, which at best can be described as rarified domestic political posturing, he did look at shoring up possible candidates as his successor and played to the powerful figures in Philippine politics and finance, who are not the workers, either migrant or domestic.

In fact, neither group of workers contributes significantly to the much touted economic model of growth in the country.

However, Aquino made much of the big winners in his economic boon, which is dominated by outsourcing and financial services, real estate, construction and retail, which have been the driving forces behind what is hailed as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

This augurs well for a president who will host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in November and for the most elite of Philippine families, whose wealth, according to the social research organisation, IBON, has risen by some 250 per cent since Aquino came to power.

In addition, exchange listed companies that have seen a 33 per cent increase in value.

However, it does not look so rosy to the workers who managed a mere three to four per cent effective increase in salaries during the same period and suffered from further job insecurity.

Despite his rhetoric, creating widespread employment has not been an evident priority in Aquino’s economic plan.

Domestic labour is the big loser in the current set up and enterprises that do employ locally are mostly involved in providing non-productive services and shedding staff.

Sol Pillas, the secretary general of Migrante International, says in a press release, “Despite Aquino’s posturing and promises, The Philippines continues to suffer from worsening unemployment and landlessness that have aggravated forced migration and cast Filipino migrants and their families in the direst straits.”

Pillas points out that during the Aquino administration new records in the labour exodus from the country have been set.

But economic elitism is considered the norm in Philippine governance and although Aquino admits that progress has not been inclusive, local commentators say that the current growth rate will have to be sustained for decades to ensure that the wealth trickles down.

This line of thinking is built on the outdated and oft disproven theory that poverty is normal and people must wait until things get really good for those at the top, so they can pick up the crumbs that slop from their tables.

But without the solid progress in local production-based industries like agriculture and manufacturing, which can provide employment and produce the real income that saw a promising Philippine economy rated as second in Asia only to Japan during the 1960s, an improvement in the job market is not going to occur.

However, migrant workers do not contribute much to progress in this area either, as remittance-driven consumer spending does little towards promoting local production or job growth.

In fact, no country has ever made real economic progress on the back of migrant worker remittances.

Successive generations of business entrepreneurs have mostly killed off local manufacture and IBON says that it has fallen even further, by around 11 per cent, since the current president came into office in 2010.

In an economy where importing is a far more profitable enterprise than exporting, a former manager of a money exchange business in Hong Kong, Alex Aquino, says that American dollars are the most profitable import.

Migrant workers provide plenty of these for the kings of finance to exploit, without taking the risks or doing the hard work involved in investing in local manufacture or productive industry.

Amidst the glitter of the overdressed Who’s Who of the Pearl of the Orient Seas, the president reeled off a litany of his own achievements, allocated blame to others for what he has not done and avoided completely what he figures he probably cannot fulfill before he steps down at the end of his term next year.

But there is a basic disconnect in the Philippine economy, which IBON attributes to an administration that opts for what is immediately profitable for big domestic and foreign corporations, rather than what the majority of the people need in terms of stable jobs and higher incomes over the long term.

However, the disconnect is not only economic, but also political, as many people have little comprehension of the dynamics of government, and officials often have little understanding of what is happening to the people.

Meanwhile, the number of Filipinos who consider themselves to be living in poverty continues to grow and latest figures available do not include the area hit by Typhoon Yolanda, where unemployment and underemployment, as well as poverty have increased substantially.

But the signature piece of legislation Aquino really wants to bequeath to the nation is the Bangsamoro Basic Law and he encouraged the members of the congress to pass the legislation and the public to support it.

In addition, he promised to complete the distribution of land under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme, which his mother introduced during her presidency in the 1980s.

Although he seems unlikely to succeed, as the president is not always the most influential force in political life, it is one of the pieces of legislation that really could make a disconnected economy more inclusive.

Two basic questions that need to be asked about any economic boon is who gains and who gets left out, and as Nicaraguan poet and government administrator, Father Ernesto Cardinal, notes, a Hilton Hotel surrounded by slums does not equal an economic miracle.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo commented, “I was hoping that the SONA would be about the state of the nation.” However, that would be another story.


“But that’s not the purpose of the SONA,” the auxiliary bishop of Manila mused.