Thousands of workers fidgeted in the streets under a blazing sun as the Philippines eased quarantine protocols on June 1 into a “new normal” under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
As businesses reopened and school enrolment began, religious leaders, rights groups, and economists warned of state policies that could cement inequities in the country of 110 million people.
Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, said the poor, who depend on daily earnings to survive, are facing a very big challenge.
The dearth in public transportation makes it difficult for workers to get to places of employment. Those involved in micro-businesses have problems replenishing inventories.
The bishop, however, said the bigger problem is a consumer base with badly depleted purchasing power and the government reneging on a promised second wave of financial aid.
As President Rodrigo Duterte’s government scrambles to offer all kinds of incentives for investors, it has also scotched the pledged help for middle-class workers affected by the lockdown.
Among the latter are 50,000 part-time lecturers in colleges and universities under a “no teach, no pay” policy.
Prospero de Vera, chairman of the Commission on Higher Education, said these teachers “will have no money for their children who will enroll in August” for the new school year.
Lines at the re-opened train routes in the capital extended for hundreds of meters into sidewalks with physical distancing rules slashing commuter capacity by more than half.
Nineteen fast trains restarted operations early in the morning of June 1, but only at 13 percent capacity each.
The trains and point-to-point buses are middle-class conveyances. The working poor usually take buses and jeepneys and motorcycle and bicycle cabs.
But physical distancing means only one passenger per cab. Buses can only take half of their normal load, presenting headaches for the poor who have to commute daily from urban poor communities on the outskirts of the capital.
Even spouses are no longer allowed to ride together on motorcycles.
The militant May One Movement labor federation slammed Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade’s statement that begged for public understanding because there would not be enough rides for all workers.
The government wants Congress to pass the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act, which gives Duterte the “superpower” to grant huge fiscal and non-tax perks to prospective foreign investors.
Africa of IBON said the proposed measure provides “the biggest corporate tax breaks in Philippine history, extending redundant incentives for even longer.”
“For uncertain investment gains, it will drastically reduce government revenues for COVID-19 response and other development needs,” he warned.
Economist Arsenio Balicasan said “a stimulus program that is highly biased on big enterprises and conglomerates, at the expense of micro, small and medium enterprises, is unlikely to deliver pro-poor recovery, resilient economy, and a fairer society.”
No more aid, jobs still scarce
The cancellation of the government’s second aid tranche for the poor shows that downgrading quarantine levels simply aims to shift the onus of health and economic woes to the private sector and citizens reeling from the loss of jobs and livelihood.
The Department of Trade said 70 percent of businesses are expected to open this month. That doesn’t mean 70 percent of workers will be returning to jobs.
Some 75,000 drivers of the capital’s jeepney transport fleet also face a third straight month of zero income.
Labor Secretary Silvestro Bello said close to three million workers temporarily lost their jobs during the lockdown.
Contractual workers are at the tail-end of any rehiring or return-to-work scheme. Small and medium-scale businesses have trimmed workforces and imposed pay cuts.
Bello told a Senate hearing that the number could grow to five million even with the transition to “general community quarantine” as many small and medium businesses have gone bankrupt.
The House of Representatives, meanwhile, warned that about 10 million workers could be jobless by yearend.
At a food industry webinar last week, a big restaurant chain owner said that with operations limited to deliveries and take-out, staff pay has dropped by 30 percent to 60 percent per day of work, with schedules rotated “to ensure that as many continue to get some income.”
The Business Process Outsourcing sector, with 1.4 million workers, continue operations as an essential industry during the lockdown, with many personnel working from home, bused in or given lodgings near their offices.
Even the once-thriving sector feels the pinch as overseas clients struggle with the economic fallout of a pandemic that has infected 6.1 million people and killed at least 371,000 worldwide.
The disruptions in transportation and logistics, for example, forced many companies to chop down marketing budgets.
“The economic downturn has gravely affected purchasing power globally and that hurts companies,” said a supervisor at a BPO firm.
“The best workers used to accept offers left and right, with companies trying to pirate each other’s staff. But many of us have taken pay cuts or are working only a few days a week now,” he added.
A staff member of a print magazine in the capital will be receiving income equivalent to only a fourth of their normal pay. Marketing and advertising professionals in various media platforms have been laid off or seen commissions disappear under the lockdown.
“I don’t need a degree to see that if so many people lose their jobs, that means a big loss in my customer base,” said Rosa Sta. Maria, owner of a small grocery in Rizal province east of the capital Manila.
Sales in her store since the lockdown, which forced closure for two weeks, has been only 40 percent of pre-lockdown levels. She has had to lay off three employees and rotate work for six others.
“No more cash aid for poor but the Finance department wants higher taxes on their sweetened drinks and snacks, and on middle-class internet viewing and online shopping,” said Sonny Africa, executive director of the economic think tank IBON.
The last two are now considered necessities in families that try to avoid going to areas where people congregate.
More than 18,000 people in the Philippines have been infected by the new coronavirus disease as of May 31, with 957 patients dying, according to the Health department.