The Explainer: May Day

The rituals are as tried-and-true, as predictable, and boring, as a noontime variety show or what’s passed off by our film industry as entertainment. Every May 1, the red flags are unfurled; the same old slogans are chanted; the same people make speeches against the government, and whoever happens to be in the government contradicts whatever it is the labor movement claims.

Today is labor day. Where did this holiday come from? And what, really do we know about labor? All these, and more, tonight.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. The East is Red


A few years ago, I was sitting in a meeting with a close associate of the President, and his cellphone rang. It played a tune familiar to his generation but perhaps little known to anyone younger.

Debout les damnés de la terre

Debout les forçats de la faim

La raison tonne en son cratère

C’est l’éruption de la fin

Du passe faisons table rase

Foules, esclaves, debout, debout

Le monde va changer de base

Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout


C’est la lutte finale

Groupons-nous, et demain (bis)


Sera le genre humain


That song, of course, is the Internationale, originally composed in France to commemorate the Paris Commune of 1871. It is a song that Communists cherish, too. For over a decade it was the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

Now let me ask you. Why would an official working in a highly anti-communist government, be using the world anthem of not just socialism, but communism, as his ring tone?

The answer lies in the Internationale being a song sung by militant students in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Here’s the version they sang during the First Quarter Storm:

Bangon sa pagkakabusabos

Bangon alipin ng gutom

Katarungáy bulkang sasabog

Sa huling paghuhukom

Gapos ng kahapóy lagutin

Tayong api ay babalikwas

Tayo ngayóy inaalipin

Subalit atin ang bukas


Itóy huling paglalaban

Magkaisa nang masaklaw

Ng Internasyunal

Ang buong daigdigan

Itóy huling paglalaban

Magkaisa nang masaklaw

Ng Internasyunal


All these sentiments, poetic and inspiring though they may be too many still, have been questioned as our economy changes and the world globalizes.

For example, what do we see, and hear, when labor day rolls around?  Basically, this: some people step forward, they say they represent the workers, and they tell government that life is bad, it’s getting worse, and the workers don’t like it.

The politicians look at these labor leaders, and start doing calculations in their minds:

Who are they?

Who do they represent?

How many votes do they have?

A calculation, incidentally, the labor leaders are making, too.


In the old days, when labor leaders yelled, politicians jumped. We all grew up with every labor day being marked by some sort of government decree. Presidents would tell the labor leaders, we love you, and we love you so much, that we hereby proclaim the minimum wage will be raised. Workers would grumble that the raise wasn’t enough, politicians would plead for patience, businessmen would complain, but everyone would go home having justified their leadership roles to their constituents.

In recent years, however, the laboring class has found itself hard-put to get results from its noise. Presidents no longer instantly grant salary increases. More and more people –particularly those from the working classes the labor leaders claim to represent- tune out, and the only grumbling you hear, boils down to why the President didn’t proclaim Monday a holiday, if Tuesday’s a holiday anyway.

Which I think you’d agree, is miles and miles apart from the slogans in Liawasang Bonifacio this afternoon.

The commentary you see on your screen, came out the other day, and asks if what we’re told is our economic salvation –the fact so many of us have left, and will leave, that this station, for example- is the right strategy. But try questioning that strategy in a place like Pozzorubio, Pangasinan, for example, which is OFW country.

Or take the column of Dan Mariano yesterday. He points out that labor-only contracting is a new kind of slavery. Explainee, can you read what Dan Mariano wrote?

As “a new shade of slavery,” labor-only contracting has become the most convenient tool used by employers to circumvent the constitutional right of workers to security of tenure, to prevent workers from forming unions for their own welfare and protection as well as for collective bargaining, to deny workers accumulated benefits arising from long years of service and to peg wages to the barest minimum, which all too often is also violated by labor-only contractors.


Mariano was describing the central ideas of a book titled “Labor-Only Contracting in a Cabo Economy”, by Rod P. Kapunan and Rhodora DG Kapunan. In Liawasang Bonifacio, labor leaders, who also happen to head labor unions, consider contractual work a great evil. Not least because companies have figured out if you have contractual labor, you can avoid labor unions altogether by making them irrelevant. And Filipinos, too, who work abroad, often don’t benefit from labor unions, and so don’t see the point either.

And so, the cycle breaks down: a labor boss got clout, by forcing employers to deal with them, or suffer strikes; presidents kowtowed to labor unions, because the number of laborer votes would always outnumber the votes of the bosses. But today, companies have found ways to avoid having unions, and there are too many people fighting for too few jobs: so why tie your fate to a labor leader? And so, the unions lose clout, and presidents realize they can ignore them. Because the public ignores them, too.

But let’s step back from the politics of it, and look at we, the people. On labor day, what is the face of our working population?

To be of working age, you have to be 15 years old or above. Based on that age, the working-age population of our country numbers about 56.1 million people.


20 years ago: we had 20.8 million workers.

Now: we have 33.5 million workers.


For every 100 Filipinos who have a job in 2007, and if you compare them to people who held jobs in 1997 here’s what Habito sees-

53 are earning wages and salaries

35 are self-employed,

12 are unpaid family workers.


Ten years ago, the breakdown was 49, 38 and 13, respectively.

63 work full time

37 work only part-time (less than 40 hours a week).


Ten years ago, 65 would have had full time jobs.

Half (50) are services sector workers

35 are in agriculture

the remaining 15 in industrial jobs.


Twenty years ago, the composition was 38, 47 and 15 respectively.

32 (the single largest group) are unskilled laborers

18 are farmers

fishermen or forest workers

12 are managers in government or a private firm

10 are service workers, including sales

8 are in trade and related work

8 are equipment operators

5 are clerks

7 are professionals and technicians.


Twenty years ago, there would have been:

20 laborers, production workers and equipment operators

47 farmers, fishermen and forest workers

13 sales workers

9 service workers

6 professionals

4 clerks

1 manager


What does this mean? Habito says the kind of economy we have has changed.

In 1987, we were an agricultural economy. Almost half of our workers were in the farming sector. Unskilled laborers composed 20% of the work force. Managers were 1%. We deployed 449,000 OFWs.

In 2007, half of our workers are in service. We don’t primarly grow things today, we do things for other people. Only 35% of our work force is in agriculture. Unskilled laborers now compose 32% of the work force. In 1987, laborers and transport workers were lumped together, comprising 20%; a comparable figure now is 40%. Managers today, 12%. And we deploy a million OFW’s today.

What has not changed: percentage in industry, at 15%. Which means industry has not grown and is a smaller part of our economy than it was two decades ago.

When it comes to jobs, 1.515 million new jobs were created between January 2006 and January 2007.

Of these, 1.47 million or 97 percent were services sector jobs.

482,000 of these service sector jobs came from wholesale and retail trade. Habito says these jobs range from work in giant shopping malls to working as street vendors.

The next biggest group, or 309,000 of the new service jobs is what Habito says are tagged as “private household employment” –in other words, domestic services like housekeepers, family drivers, gardeners and so on.

100,000 new jobs were created in real estate and business services;

100,000 new jobs in hotels and restaurants;

100,000 new jobs were created in public administration or bluntly speaking, government jobs;

and another

100,000 in “other services.”


Plus, the industry sector gained 96,000 jobs.


But, Habito points out, agriculture actually lost 51,000 jobs. Habito says that since the rural sector accounts for 70 percent of the country’s poor, this statistic is a cause for concern. You can imagine why: think of the boost to your morale, if you live in urban areas, which, today, most Filipinos do; but then imagine that if you’re poor, you’re likely to be a rural dweller, and involved in a line of work that’s losing jobs. And you wonder why we have rebellion in the hills?

Looking at how domestic employment’s grown in 20 years, domestic job generation grew by 60%. That’s about 3% a year –about the same as the growth of our population, year-on-year.

In the same twenty years, our OFW deployments have grown 122%. Habito says this means we leave for abroad twice as fast as the domestic economy’s been growing.

When we return: we’ve looked at those with jobs. What about those who are unemployed?


II. Labor snapshot

So far, we’ve been looking at Filipinos with jobs. What about Filipinos who don’t have jobs? Or who work, but either want to, or need to, work more?

According to government statistics, the unemployment as of January 2007 was 7.8 percent. In January 2006, the rate was 8.1 percent. This sounds like an improvement: lower unemployment rate, fewer people without jobs.

But Habito saysNational Statistics Office Administrator Bobby Ericta made a very important but largely overlooked statement when he released these latest statistics. Explainee, can you read what the NSO administrator said?

 “The unemployment rate recorded in January 2007, which is 7.8 percent, is not significantly different (from) last year’s estimate of 8.1 percent.”


What on earth did he mean? Explainee, would you like to read how Habito explained it?

“Statisticians know what it means when they say that the difference between two numbers is not statistically significant. For the rest of us, what this means is that the latest unemployment rate could have just as well been a higher 8.4 percent, and it wouldn’t have been significantly different from last year’s 8.1 percent either.”


Habito says the number of jobless workers actually rose from 2.837 million last year, to 2.85 million this year. He says, there are 13,000 more jobless people this year compared to a year ago. The highest jobless rate, 12.7 percent, is in Metro Manila, while the Cagayan Valley has the best job record with only 3.1-percent unemployment.

How did he figure out there are 13,000 more jobless people today?

Habito says that over the past year, 1.515 million net new jobs were created. That’s great news, specially if you compare it with the year before: from January 2005 to January 2006, the new jobs that were created totaled 750,000. So from January 2006 to January 2007, more than twice as many new jobs were created.

The thing is, if 1.515 million new jobs were created, a total of 1.528 million people entered the labor force in the same period. So that’s why there are 13,000 Filipinos who became new workers but don’t have jobs to enter. Now Habito points out something interesting about the gap in these two numbers.

He says 1.528 million people entered the labor force, not because of a faster increase in the working population, but because more people decided to actually go look for a job. He says that  the labor force participation rate rose from 63.6 to 64.8 percent. That’s an additional 1.2 percent of the working age population or about 675,000 people, decided to enter the job market.

The picture, he says, is even worse for underemployment, i.e. those who have jobs but need more work. Underemployed workers rose from 6.774 million in January 2006 to 7.216 million in January 2007, or an increase of 442,000 workers, mostly coming from the farm sector.

Habito breaks it down. He says that for every 10 Filipino workers who can’t find jobs:


5 are 15-24 years of age

3 are 25-34 years old

2  are 35 or older


Looking at the same group,

5 have had at most high school education

3 have gone to college

2 have only reached elementary school.


And for every 10 workers who are unemployed, which Habito says means they need to work more:

5 are farm workers

4 are service sector workers

1 is an industrial worker.

6 are working part-time

4 are working full time (40 hours a week).


Having looked at these snapshots, what’s the big picture?

Habito said the basic problem, from his point of view, is this. Explainee, would you like to read?

A general mismatch between the sectors and regions where most of our economic growth is happening, and where the jobs are needed most.

Let’s look at how Habito illustrated his point. We saw how Habito said, 36.7 of our workers, or a third of working Filipinos, are in agriculture. How much did our farmer and fisherfolk fellow citizens contribute  to the economy? Habito says, 8.2 percent of the growth in the economy in the last quarter, or a mere 0.4 percentage point out of the 4.8 percent total growth posted by the economy, was due to farm workers.

In contrast, manufacturing and trading –and trading includes wholesale and retail- each accounted for 1.1 percentage points, or a whopping 22.8 percent of the total growth of our economy.

But if you break down the two, manufacturing and trading, there’s a big gap between the two, too: manufacturing, Habito says, accounts for 9.2 percent of the jobs in our economy; while 18.8 percent of jobs come from trading.

Now all these numbers must be making you dizzy by now. I know they made me very, very dizzy, But here’s Habito’s point:

In other words, the two sectors that account for close to half (45 percent) of the economy’s growth employ only about one-fourth (28 percent) of our workers. If we add transport, communication and storage (0.7 percentage points or 14.5 percent of the growth, 7.4 percent of labor force), then 60 percent of the growth is coming from sectors that provide only 35.4 percent of jobs.


So the disjoint is there: we all want jobs; but the jobs aren’t being created by the industries that are doing very well right now. So if the economic numbers look nice, and in many cases, they’re genuinely nice numbers, the reason people can say they don’t feel the growth, is because the growth is taking place in businesses that don’t need to employ many more people.

Remember the earlier statistics about agriculture? That the number of jobs is actually going down, but those who tend to be in agriculture also tend to be from the ranks of the poor, and in areas, rural areas, in which the new jobs are being created? A final point Habito makes also involves where, in our country, growth is taking place.

Metro Manila, accounts for 44.7 percent of our growth, or 2.3 percentage points out of the 4.8 percent GDP growth rate.

A far second is Region 6 (Western Visayas). It accounts for 8.6 percent of our growth.

Region 7 (Central Visayas), is next, contributing 8.5 percent.

Put together, these three regions account for the lion’s share, or 61.8 percent of our economy’s growth -and yet account for only 29.2 percent of the jobs. Habito says that if we look at Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces of Regions 3 and 4, they account for 61.2 percent of the growth, but only 38.7 percent of the jobs.

With these realities in mind, let’s take a look beyond our shores, and the economic currents there. Our labor and globalization, when we return.


My view


In this election year, the conflicting messages the various sides scream at each other and at us: there is growth, we’re told. But why aren’t there jobs, others might ask? No, there are jobs, some will reply; but where and what kind, the reply will come –we don’t see them!

As we’ve seen tonight, things aren’t as bad as they seem –but they’re also not as good as what we’re told they are.

Labor Day commemorates a particular frame of mind: that those who work, need to organize themselves, and celebrate themselves, because no one else will –certainly not their bosses. At the heart of this attitude was that a worker was entitled to certain things, like security of tenure, benefits, and raises. You made a commitment to a company, and in turn, the company ought to make certain commitments to you.

Not just here, but elsewhere, this attitude’s been challenged, and in many ways, this attitude’s been discarded. For some, it doesn’t matter: governments and labor unions and bosses don’t matter as much, because you can find a job anywhere and you’ll keep that job only as long as you want it. But for others, the old expectations endure.

In the end, you have to decide who, to your mind, reflects your priorities. Those waving red flags? Those ordering the police to point water cannon at those waving those flogs? Your bosses, their human resources departments, your recruitment agency? All of the above? Or none of the above?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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