The Duterte administration is embarking on a proposed $180-billion (Bt5.7 trillion) infrastructure programme to usher in a “golden age of infrastructure” by raising annual spending from 3 per cent to 7 per cent of the gross domestic product for construction projects in 2016-2022.
The planned huge spending for infrastructure will doubtless contribute to the Philippines’ continuous economic growth. The World Bank has projected the country’s GDP to grow 6.7 per cent in 2018 and 2019, and 6.5 per cent in 2020. But a fundamental question needs to be asked about the promised economic prospects: Who are really poised to gain and benefit much from the “Build, build, build” programme and the continuous expansion of the economy?
A huge army of working poor has not experienced substantial improvement in the quality of their lives even with GDP growth averaging 6.4 per cent in the last six years.
Millions of Filipino workers worked harder and longer, but they remained poor. Why is that? Because much of the fruits of production and corporate profits went into the pockets of too small a number of people.
According to Credit Suisse, economic inequality in the Philippines as computed using the Gini coefficient continues to grow from a very high 83.5 per cent in 2016 to 83.9 per cent in 2017. It also shows that only 0.1 per cent of the adult population in the Philippines have wealth of more than $1 million, and that 86.6 per cent of the adult population have wealth of less than $10,000. Only 12 persons in the country have wealth of more than $1 billion.
Without drastic and pro-labour reforms such as a real Security of Tenure Act, the “golden age of infrastructure”, just like before, will benefit only the big foreign and local contractors, real-estate moguls, giant developers, labour contractors and suppliers, and their backers and supporters in the government. “Build, build, build” will maintain the present “exclusive development”, and will not lead to the “inclusive development” that the administration wishes to achieve. Inequality will continue to worsen and poverty reduction will become at best palliative.
The most immediate intervention that can make “build, build, build” actually beneficial to workers is a substantial increase in the wages and benefits of all workers in construction and related areas. If the local construction industry will also provide the salary levels and bigger benefits being received by overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East and other countries, then the problem of the working poor in the construction industry will be solved; it will also benefit other industries and economic sectors due to higher incomes and spending resulting in the further expansion of the economy while decreasing poverty and inequality.
The late US president Franklin Roosevelt once said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” And certainly, the Philippine working poor have too little.
The Duterte administration must fully implement a decent work agenda as part of its pledge to protect the “helpless, hopeless and powerless” sectors of our society. The policy regime governing labour relations must be changed in the workers’ favour, with the end in view of strengthening their fundamental rights at work to security of tenure, self-organisation, collective bargaining, peaceful concerted actions, and participation in decision-making processes with full protection of the law.
Today, fewer and fewer families and individuals get a bigger and bigger share of the national income and wealth as the economy continues to expand, and the bottom 50 per cent of the population are being left farther and farther behind.
This is one of the biggest political problems of our time. The “Ambisyon Natin 2040”, which is our vision of no more poverty in the Philippines by 2040, will be just another pipe dream if the government will not deliberately address the problem of mass poverty and rising inequality in the country.