Rice Crisis Makes Wage Hike More Urgent

Rice Crisis Makes Wage Hike More Urgent

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
LABOR WATCH
Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 12, April 27-May 3, 2008

Children begging in the streets at night
Knocking on cars till the morning light
People standing in line for a kilo of rice
Welcome to the Dark Ages, the era of lies…

— The Jerks, “Rage”

For Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement) chairman Elmer “Bong” Labog, the rice crisis presently plaguing the country makes a legislated P125 nationwide, across-the-board wage increase all the more urgent. The rice crisis, he said, worsens workers’ already miserable conditions.

From what used to be as low as P26/kilogram, rice prices have shot up to as high as P40/kilo in the last few weeks. The National Food Authority (NFA) continues to sell rice at P18.25/kilo, but only in limited quantities. Long queues of people waiting to get a kilo each of NFA rice have become a common sight.

“Workers, especially those living in urban poor communities, have long been trying to survive on lugaw (gruel),” Labog said in an interview with Bulatlat. “This means hunger will worsen because they can no longer afford rice at its present high prices. It is rice of a very low quality that is being sold by the NFA (National Food Authority) at P18.25, and the average worker struggles to feed a family of six daily with only a kilo of rice. The problem of workers is that their wages are not enough to buy the staple food.”

This problem, Labog says, is worsened by the present rice crisis.

Wage increase: 1999-present

The demand for a P125 wage increase was first put forward by the KMU – then under the leadership of Crispin Beltran – in 1999, nearly a year into the presidency of Joseph Estrada who won the 1998 presidential elections on an avowed populist “platform.”

Back then, the family living wage for a family of six – the average Filipino family – was P379.51 ($9.71 at the year’s average exchange rate of $1:P39.09) a day on a national average, based on data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC). In contrast, the daily minimum wage stood at a national average of P193.67 ($4.95).

A P125 wage increase at that time would have brought the national average minimum wage to P318.67 ($8.15), or P60.84 short of the national average family living wage that year.

The Estrada administration, which ascended to power on the basis of a proclaimed love for the “Filipino masses,” never paid heed to this demand of the KMU.

Estrada was ousted in 2001 through a popular uprising that was largely anti-corruption. He was succeeded by his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The demand for a P125 wage increase was among the items in the “People’s Agenda” that cause-oriented groups presented to Arroyo during her first days in office.

The required living wage for an average Filipino family was in 2001 a far cry from what it is now. That year, it stood at a national average of P445.53 ($10.89 at that year’s average exchange rate of $1:P40.89), based on data from the NWPC. The highest regional minimum wage then was in the National Capital Region (NCR), which was pegged at P250. At a national average, however, the daily minimum wage that year stood at P222.42, based on data from the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE).

Even then, a P125 across-the-board, nationwide wage increase would have been insufficient to bridge the gap between the minimum wage and the required family living wage. An additional P125 would have brought up the 2001 daily minimum wage to P347.42 – which is P98.11 short of what an average Filipino family needed to survive daily that year.

Nearly seven years after first assuming power, the Arroyo administration has yet to heed this demand of the KMU.

The national average family living wage has risen by more than P125 since 2001. Since then there have been trickles of wage increases – which were soon eaten up by runaway inflation.

Based on March 2008 data from the NWPC, the national average family living wage stands at P770 ($18.32 at the April 25 exchange rate of $1:P42.04) a day.

The highest regional minimum wage at present is P362 ($8.61) for the National Capital Region (NCR), which has a regional daily family living wage of P858 ($20.41). The region with the lowest minimum wage rate is the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), with only P200 ($4.76) even as it has a regional daily family living wage of P1,186 ($28.21).

During his three terms as representative, Beltran was able to file three bills for a legislated minimum wage hike. He first filed a wage-hike bill in 2001, as a representative of Bayan Muna (People First). It never did go beyond first reading.

The second, HB 345 – which Beltran filed as Anakpawis representative – was approved at the plenary of the House of Representatives by a vote of 151-0 on Dec. 20, 2006. Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada – son of Arroyo’s predecessor – was sponsoring a counterpart bill at that time.

The next month, however, HB 345 was recalled upon a motion filed by Cavite Rep. Crispin Remulla, purportedly to allow further debate and deliberation. Malacañang supported this move of the House of Representatives, and the younger Estrada deferred sponsorship of the counterpart Senate bill.

If HB 345 had not been recalled and its counterpart Senate bill was also passed, the national average minimum wage would have gone up to P408.67 ($7.96 at that year’s average exchange rate of $1:P51.31). But that would have still been short of what the family of six would need on a national average to survive daily, based on 2006 data from the NWPC.

“It is but just that there be an immediate wage increase,” Labog said. “This should be done at the soonest possible.”

Rice crisis

Even without more recent figures from the NWPC, it is easy to conclude that the cost of living has risen sharply since last March, given that rice prices have jumped in the last few weeks.

The socio-economic think tank IBON Foundation has blamed the present rice crisis on the government’s adherence to neoliberal economic policies, which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (IMF-WB) – two institutions organized as a result of a conference in Bretton Woods by the victors of World War II, thus the moniker Bretton Woods Twins – are imposing on Third World countries.

In particular, IBON cites the enactment of the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) in 1997 as having worsened the country’s dependence on rice imports and thus a major contributor to the country’s present rice crisis.

As of 2006, the country’s rice imports have reached 1.7 million metric tons – more than twice the 722,000 metric tons recorded for 1997.

Meanwhile, NFA rice procurement has dropped from 7.95 percent of total palay production in 1977-1983 to only 0.05 percent in 2000-2006. The NFA’s original mandate is to procure at least 12 percent of palay production. Rice procurement is increasingly being dominated by traders.

Urgency

“It is but just that there be an immediate wage increase,” Labog said. “This should be done at the soonest possible.”

Unlike in ordinary times, even some business leaders have expressed support for wage-hike demands aired by various labor groups, demonstrating the urgency of a wage increase amid the rice crisis. For instance, Makati Business Club executive director Albert Lim, interviewed recently by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has said the wage-hike demand is something they “may support” at this time.

Labog sees this as something that is but logical, considering the nature of the times.

“They can no longer deny that workers’ wages can no longer cope with rising prices of goods and services,” Labog said. “They would be put in a very defensive position if they oppose demands for a wage increase at this point. So they have articulated positions that are not opposed to wage increases. The question is by how much they are willing to increase workers’ wages.”

“We maintain our stand for a P125 wage increase,” he also said. Bulatlat

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