Told to stay home, Filipino poor go out to work absent government aid

Prinz Magtulis - Philstar.com
Told to stay home, Filipino poor go out to work absent government aid
Karen Maravilla prepares remaining food for safekeeping after selling breakfast in Makati City. Her daily earnings from business plummeted by more than half on the first day of lockdown.

MANILA, Philippines — Karen Maravilla, 41, was up 5:30 a.m. on the first day of the Metro Manila lockdown on Sunday. While others would rather follow government advice to stay home, she said she is left with no choice but to go out and work.

“If we will not work, we will also suffer. As it is, our business is already suffering because of the coronavirus,” she said in Filipino.

From P1,200 a day, Maravilla’s daily earnings from selling breakfast food behind a small stall in Brgy. South Cembo, Makati City already plummeted more than half to P500. With her husband working as a casual in the construction sector only from time to time, she said she hopes the government “helped us first before they imposed the lockdown.”

Maravilla is one of the millions of informal workers in the capital, whose family depends on meager daily earnings to get by, a situation that appeared left out of government planning when President Rodrigo Duterte shut down the borders to the National Capital Region for a month-long quarantine.

Small-scale businesses are suffering the most from the lockdown, losing customers who were likewise told by the government to stay home and practice social distancing. As if that was not enough, taxpayer money they are looking for to assistance have not been deployed, stuck in bureaucratic red tape a week after the declaration of a public health emergency.

Karen Maravilla, 41

The problem appears to emanate from lack of planning. When the lockdown was imposed, Duterte’s economic team led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III was in self-quarantine for possible exposure to the coronavirus. While he and the rest tested negative later on and voiced out support for the lockdown, a complete assessment of the outbreak’s economic impact is yet to be made, leaving funds sitting idly in state coffers.

Most of the bureaucracy are also working on skeletal force, while a supposed meeting of economic officials to assess the damage of coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19), has also been pushed back by a week. “Each department are still collating their data and information," Budget Secretary Wendell Avisado told Philstar.com.

“We'll be through by next week, God willing," he added.

No assistance

Nearly 35% of Filipino workers nationwide are employed by the informal sector as of January, government data showed. This includes jobs in sari-sari stores, barber shops, as well as jeepney drivers and other small- and medium- enterprises (SMEs). SMEs themselves account for nearly 98% of local firms in the Philippines, most of which are located in Metro Manila, and a key driver of the economy.

Informal workers are among the Filipino poor, which in the NCR account for 2.3% of its 12 million population so the lockdown, and its effect of lowering their daily income, can have a devastating impact on their living conditions. This essentially drives people like Diosdado Colina, 52, to continue accepting tricycle passengers despite the risk of infection.

“It’s also hard for us. We may not die because of the virus but we will die of hunger if we do not work,” said Calina, who sends money to his wife and four kids in Nueva Ecija every week. His earnings have gone down by half to P200 a day on just the first day of the lockdown.

Diosdado Calina, 52, continues accepting passengers despite the risk of coronavirus infection.

When the announcement of a community quarantine was made last Thursday, Duterte made no mention of its economic implications, including job losses, and how the government intends to address them.

Now, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III admitted his department is just starting to look on the data and devising an offsetting program. “Everything is still under evaluation,” he said in a phone interview over the weekend.

At the onset, the department has P140 million on standby to provide “emergency employment” for those who would lose jobs. The program allows the government to employ people losing their jobs involuntarily for a month, and be paid the minimum wage which in NCR amounts to P537 a day.

But Bello admitted that is not enough and plans to request additional funding from the Office of the President. But without proper economic appraisal of COVID-19’s impact, when are funds going to be released remains to be seen.

Act now, plan later

Even people employed in bigger firms appear to be at the losing end. A day after the NCR quarantine was announced, Metro Manila mayors said they would ask shopping malls in the area to close down indefinitely, a move meant to ensure less people gathering and to promote social distancing.

Malls like Ayala Malls were not prepared. When the closure was finally implemented two days after, Tin Enriquez-Yabao, consumer engagement marketing manager, only said about support to workers: “We are in constant talks with all our stakeholders and partners. The benefit of employees will be considered.”

That said, on Monday, the trade department issued a memorandum asking malls to shoulder their tenants’ rental fees for now, although there was no mention of assistance to their employees.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, in a televised briefing, also announced that a financial package is being crafted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development for the poor. “There are a lot of suggestions, which we intend to submit to the economic managers,” he said.

While all the contingency planning happens, Maravilla said she would continue selling breakfast on the road. “We just wear mask. We have no choice anyway,” she said. — Photos by Philstar.com/Prinz Magtulis

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