Will there be a golden age for Philippine labor?

PERCEPTIONS - Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

The role of labor in the factors of production has been historically valued as the most crucial. This is because the generation of goods and services is paramount along with land, capital and entrepreneurship. This is not because of any Marxist paradigm, but this is essentially due to the fact that labor is humanity.

Will labor, therefore, in the Philippines experience a golden age soon?

We are a country which prides itself on having closely-knit families. A nation that is supposed to treat our workers as members of an extended family where everyone is regarded as an important part of a big clan. But we are aware that in most instances, this claim is farthest from the truth. Our workers, especially in the blue-collar category, hardly enjoy the full benefits of the wealth that they help create.

Construction workers of our modern highways and bridges could not afford to acquire and drive their own vehicles. Even the cost of commuting through public utility vehicles devours a big portion of their wages. Those who participate in building condominiums and other mixed developments of lush villages could not aspire to live in any of these units. In fact, many of them are informal settlers who struggle daily and could only hope that their children, perhaps through the leveraged power of education, could someday uplift their plight. Servers in plush restaurants have to deal with daily hunger pangs hidden in the extravagance around them and the need to sneak in the nearby jollijeeps.

This is the paradox amidst our society. And every 1st of May, we celebrate labor. Or, more importantly, we recognize their sacrifices and renew our commitment for an inclusive growth where almost everyone will benefit from a robust economy.

Labor is trapped in a vicious cycle of near poverty. To become laborers basically means that you have to tirelessly endure the idiom of making both ends meet. To many, this is a skill. To some, it’s almost a curse.

According to official reports in 2022, our service sector is the largest at 59.6 percent of our labor force. They are the nurses, teachers, tourism workers, food servers, kitchen crew, drivers, hotel staff, delivery guys and millions more who are oftentimes faceless in the huge world that struggles for survival.

The agricultural sector has 24.1 percent of the more than 50 million Filipinos in the labor force. In our country, working in the farms is almost synonymous to being perpetually unsecured, despite the patriotic role of providing food for almost everyone. Farmers have the lowest income at less than P10,000 monthly. No wonder the poverty-stricken rural areas are the bastion of restlessness and rebellion in our modern history. Their children could hardly finish their education, and their chance of a better future dims by the day because of the continuing decline in agricultural productivity and competitiveness. To worsen their situation, their homes and communities are the most susceptible to the onslaught of natural calamities such as tropical typhoons and floods.

Meanwhile, the 16.3 percent industrial workers have to endure a similar dilemma of being content or not, because they are physically experiencing the trappings and tastes of modern manufacturing in the metropolis, yet they don’t have enough to fully capture the complete benefits that those in the higher ladder of the enterprises enjoy. They are the most vulnerable to problems on childcare, lack of pay and incentives, poor access to good education, fertility issues, discrimination, pension reforms and other legitimate concerns that overwhelm the entire system.

The whole labor sector is regularly challenged also by global recession, high interest rates and, in several cases, the financial crisis in other parts of the globe. Such external challenges aggravate the conditions of labor.

Roadmap for possible collective success for labor. The issues hounding our labor force will not be resolved if the conditions that fundamentally define our economy are basically the same. Meaning, we must ensure the needed structural solutions that will boost our business enterprises, bring in more capital especially from foreign direct investments, create more jobs that will actually pay more also, attract modern technologies and encourage visitors who will see the potential of our country to host a vibrant business environment.

Again, this will mean revisiting the prohibitive provisions of our Constitution and regulations on foreign capital, establishing a permanent ease of doing business in the Philippines office, making the cost of electricity lower and stable, controlling the abuses in many local government units who prey on legitimate businesses, providing a strong sense of security and provide no room for criminality, digitalize and further modernize our processes in government and maintain education as the best bridge of labor in crossing to a much better world.

So, will there be a golden age for Philippine labor? As the economists would answer, it depends. Meaning, this will depend on external dynamics outside of labor itself.

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