In 2022, crisis in incomes and jobs pummeled labor sector

labor crisis
Militant workers demand wage increase. —PHOTO FROM PARTIDO MANGGAGAWA WEBSITE

Despite the economy’s recovery from the recession induced by the pandemic, workers faced a worsening crisis in incomes and jobs in 2022. Thus, while businesses were slowly recuperating, formal and informal workers continued bleeding from wage and income erosion, job losses, and a fall in employment quality.

Inflation climbed steadily for the whole year, from 3.0% in January to 8.0% in November—the highest recorded since December 2008, which was the onset of the global financial crisis. Prices rose even more in December. The P570 minimum wage in the National Capital Region (NCR) was worth just P494 by October. Before the P33 minimum wage hike in June, the minimum wage was P537. The P76 shaved off the real value of the minimum salary means that not only was the P33 effectively wiped out by inflation, workers’ wages were also pushed back further. 

Inflation was even worse outside Metro Manila. By the last quarter of 2022, there was a clamor from the labor movement for a new salary increase.

The Partido Manggagawa, the workers’ party, called for a nationwide across-the-board legislated increase of P100. Early in December, the alliance Kapatiran ng mga Unyon at Samahang Manggagawa filed a petition at the NCR wage board for a P100 minimum wage hike. This demand was just for the recovery of lost purchasing power and not even an increase in real wages. 

But the Employers Confederation of the Philippines opposed a wage hike using the disingenuous argument that MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises) cannot afford it. Meanwhile, the government played deaf to the demand and stuck to the myth that there was no supervening condition to warrant a round of wage increases within a year’s time.

Workers are not yet claiming a just share of the fruits of their labor. From 2001 to 2016, real wages stagnated but labor productivity increased by 50% and the GDP doubled. Employers are crying that they are suffering from the economic crisis even if they have monopolized the gains of the decade and the half-lon business boom. It is not only the government that owes workers due to unabated inflation; employers are also obligated to share the wealth created by the labor of the working class.

Declining job quality

The government trumpeted the return of employment figures to prepandemic levels. By October 2022, unemployment was at 4.5%, exactly as it was in October 2019 before Covid-19 struck. But while the quantity of jobs may have returned, the quality of jobs worsened. More people were in part-time, instead of full-time, jobs.

Underemployment—measuring the number of people wanting more hours of work—jumped from 13.0% in October 2019 (or 5.62 million Filipinos) to 14.2% in October 2022 (or 6.67 million Filipinos). This translates to more than a million Filipinos working as casual, contractual or informal workers in 2022, or a rise of 19% compared to prepandemic levels of underemployment. Those who worked less than 40 hours per week comprised 60.5% of the underemployed in October 2019. In comparison, that cohort had risen to 63.3% of underemployed Filipinos by October 2022. 

More Filipinos are back to work, but in bad jobs.

The plight of delivery riders reflects this phenomenon. Doubtless, there were more of them as essential workers during the pandemic. An upsurge of protests starting in late 2020 among delivery riders showed the decent-work deficits of Filipinos working as independent contractors rather than as full-time regular employees. Almost all the protests emanated from grievances over steep declines in incomes as apps arbitrarily cut “commissions” while the cost of fuel rose continuously. 

This contradiction exposed the unfair nature of the app-based business model: Part of the operating costs is passed on to so-called freelancers, while platforms continue to exercise control over their misclassified workers. In 2022, Grab riders in the cities of General Santos and Cebu and the province of Pampanga, together with those in Metro Manila, held mass actions to highlight their demands. In a pioneering initiative, the Iloilo Grab Riders Union was formed in November; it will be a litmus test of the employee-employment relationship between workers and the apps.

But while the unemployment rate returned to normal—which is not saying much—the hemorrhage of jobs continued. In September, some 4,000 workers in the five factories of the Sports City group of companies in the Mactan Economic Zone were laid off, arguably the biggest mass termination in 2022. That the mother of all layoffs at Sports City was not a one-time, big-time event was confirmed by the Confederation of Wearable Exporters of the Philippines, which said in October that up to 4% of the 270,000 workers in the apparel industry—or more than 10,000—were laid off in 2022.

Deaf to ‘Labor Agenda’

Many Filipino workers voted for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president in the May 2022 national elections. The second half of last year was a test of whether that mandate could translate into better policies and better outcomes for those working-class voters. 

Organized labor crafted a “Labor Agenda” as a basis for engaging with the government. In response to soaring prices, deteriorating quality of jobs, and chronic unemployment problems, the Nagkaisa labor coalition called for a wage increase, a public employment program, an end to contractualization, affordable and quality public services, and mechanisms for a continuing policy dialogue on structural reforms. 

To protect labor rights, Nagkaisa demanded a renunciation of the Duterte administration’s apparent policy on extrajudicial killings, as well as the abolition of state agencies involved in Red-tagging, like the NTF-Elcac (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) and the AIPPO (Alliance for Industrial Peace and Programs Office) of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority.

Unfortunately, no relief was forthcoming from the administration. The State of the Nation Address (Sona) in July was the occasion for President Marcos Jr. to finally reveal his platform of governance, as some sort of belated miting de avance. But while he pronounced the state of the nation as sound, his Sona was deafeningly quiet on wages, contractualization (or “endo”), and full employment. 

Militant workers gave the President a grade of “F1” for his Sona, in reference to his infamous trip to Singapore to watch the Formula 1 car race. On Nov. 30, Bonifacio Day, protesting workers held a “blank paper protest” to convey the message that the administration lacks a labor agenda. 

Nobody can say if workers’ illusions concerning the administration will start to fade in 2023. With the threat of the government dipping its fingers into their pension funds and soaring prospects of a global recession, Filipino workers should brace for bad rather than good tidings in the new year.

Rene Magtubo is national chair of the Partido Manggagawa and a councilor of Marikina City. —Ed.

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