Today is Labor Day, when government traditionally offers Filipino workers something to be happy about by way of higher wages, more benefits and louder praises. And President Noynoy Aquino did just that yesterday, when he met with leaders of organized labor groups in Malacañang Palace to listen to them and offer them “non-wage benefits”—which the labor leaders quickly denounced as severely lacking after their meeting with the Chief Executive.
But if the various workers’ organizations have always viewed Aquino as anti-labor and anti-poor, they cannot be blamed. Beyond the usual empty platitudes that presidents past have routinely mouthed in praise of laborers, there is nothing this current leader has said or done that will give the impression that he truly cares for those who toil for wages and whose taxes also keep the economy afloat.
On the other hand, it appears that what this administration loves most are those people who can only wait for government to support them with cash doles. That’s why fully P100 billion has been allocated and given out in the past three years (a lot of it from taxes paid by workers) to the so-called poorest of the poor, who receive P500 to P1,400 a month so that they will not have to work even if they can.
In the past, governments have found a way to temporarily employ people during economic doldrums and jobless periods through make-work schemes that also build or rehabilitate public infrastructure. The forerunner of such programs was the one implemented by the pre-war Works Progress Administration of the New Deal-era in the United States, which employed millions of mostly unskilled Americans for needed public works projects.
But over the years, the WPA and other make-work schemes went out of fashion in favor of the Brazil-type direct-dole program, on which the current and greatly expanded Conditional Cash Transfer project is based. In the process, people who would otherwise have worked for their pay in dignity and helped build many public works projects like highways and roads that the Philippines needs have been reduced to wards of the state, needing only to go for neo-natal care and to enroll their children in public schools to qualify for the handouts.
And yet, as the official statistics show, no headway is being made in reducing poverty, despite the dole. And you have to wonder how many roads and bridges would have been built—and how much real economic activity would have been generated —if all those billions were spent on WPA-style projects instead.
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More important than the usual platitudes and imaginary benefits that will be proclaimed by Aquino and his officials today is the commemoration of the first anniversary last week of the landmark Supreme Court decision to distribute the Hacienda Luisita plantation of the family of the President. And yes, one year after that important ruling, which led directly to the impeachment and removal of Chief Justice Renato Corona, the 6,000 or so farmers of the hacienda still don’t own the land that they have tilled for decades.
A small group of Luisita farmers marched on the President’s home on Times Street to mark the event and to call for the immediate distribution of the 4,915 hectares of sugarcane land in Tarlac, something that was largely ignored by the pro-Aquino media. But more than all the promises made by this administration to the workingman, the dilly-dallying on the distribution of land secured by the Cojuangco clan using borrowed state funds shows just how anti-poor and anti-worker Aquino really is.
Indeed, halfway into the current Aquino regime and more than a quarter of a century since the first one took over the government, Luisita remains firmly in the hands of the clan. And despite the ruling of the Corona Court, there is still no guarantee when the land will be finally given out to the intended beneficiaries.
On the anniversary of the April 24 ruling, Corona issued this rare statement from his forced retirement: “When God asks me someday to point to one specific act which will prove that I did something for the least of His brethren, I can humbly cite our Hacienda Luisita decision. That was, I think, a great moment in history and something all of us in the Corona Court, the Office of the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court as an institution that protected the rights of the downtrodden, and all Filipinos imbued with a sense of justice and patriotism will always consider with deep pride to be one of our finest moments.”
Not many people will remember —or will want to remember—how Aquino punished Corona for forcing the distribution of his family’s hacienda. But the workers who will denounce Aquino today would be wise to remember how foolhardy it is to expect this President to be pro-labor and pro-poor, given his defense of his own family’s status as part of the economic and landowning elite that has ruled this country for more than a century.
It is in Aquino’s interest to keep the poor in poverty and just barely alive to gratefully keep him in power. To expect Aquino to change this late is delusional.