A just and living wage
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - June 16, 2019 - 12:00am

I have been thinking of writing on this topic since three months ago when I heard Dr. Rong Qian of the World Bank give an economic briefing where she said that the high economic growth had not resulted in any meaningful reduction in poverty rate. She said that while the Philippines had one of the world’s highest GDP growth rates, the beneficiaries were predominantly the wealthy elite. In other words high GDPs are only making the rich richer while the poor remain poor.

I have also been reading about the rise of populist leaders all over the world attributed to the fact that the masses now believe that their interests are now being threatened by the elite who are not interested in the general interest of the masses; but, in increasing their wealth and power. I read this book WINNERS TAKE ALL: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.  

The secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – a research and policy organization that works on behalf of the world’s richest countries – Angel Gurria was quoted as saying that among the issues being sidelined are ”...rising inequality of income, wealth, and opportunities; the growing disconnect between finance and the real economy; mounting divergence in productivity levels between workers, firms and regions; winner-take-most dynamics in many markets; limited progressivity of our tax systems; corruption and capture of politics and institutions by vested interests; lack of transparency and participation by ordinary citizens in decision-making; the soundness of the education and the values we transmit to future generations.”

Gurria writes that elites have found myriad ways to “...change things on the surface so that nothing in practice changes at all.” In essence “...the people with the most to lose from genuine social  change have placed themselves in charge of social change..” 

Among the many applicable topics in this controversy, I chose the idea of a “ just and living’ wage” since that has been constantly in the news. I have listened to businessmen defend low wages in order for the Philippines to remain competitive. These low wages are supposed to provide low wage jobs which somehow, someday will lead to more prosperous lives for everyone. I have been listening to this argument for several decades. So we have kept wages low; but, when are we going to see the rewards of asking  labor to continue sacrificing while their employers reap the gains? First, do we really want to compete against low wage countries like Bangladesh? Do we really want to be another Bangladesh? Second, I notice that even in Southeast Asia, the most prosperous countries – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore – are those countries with the highest wages in the region.

I decided to examine the concept of a “living wage” defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. The goal of a “living wage” is to allow a family to afford the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing, utilities, health care, education.

As a Catholic, I am also aware that the Church has always advocated the concept of a “ just wage.” In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI wrote that “...the wage paid to the workingman should be sufficient for the support of himself and his family.” Pope Francis was even more emphatic when he said that “...cheating people of their just wages and benefits is a mortal sin.”

What is a living wage? According to the Asian Development Bank, the living wage is the “benchmark wage level” that allows a worker to support the family’s basic needs such as shelter, food and other necessities. Their study was made in 2011; but, their conclusion may still be relevant and in many ways surprising. The authors of the study said: “Our estimates show that 87 percent of the workers in Thailand are earning at least the living wage rate. In Vietnam and Sri Lanka, it is 71 percent and 56 percent respectively. However, less than half of workers in India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines reach the living wage rate.”

I was surprised to discover that a higher percentage of  workers in Vietnam and Sri Lanka were earning a living wage compared to the Philippines.

There does not seem to be enough studies to compute a living wage in the Philippines. The only legitimate one I have read is based on a media interview with NEDA Secretary Pernia who stated that a family of five to survive would actually need an aggregate income of P42,000 to live above the poverty line. This sounds like a reasonable amount. It is also the amount that is being considered as the minimum salary for teachers. 

By the way, I do not accept the argument that public school teachers should not be paid higher than private school teachers. If private school teachers move to public schools due to higher salaries then this would be beneficial for the teaching profession and for the educational system.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it states: “Everyone who works has the right to a just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself an existence worthy of human dignity.”

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 22 and for adults, Writing with Humor & Satire with Jack Wigley, June 29 at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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