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Battle of the Ballot Box Part II

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Issue: 49 Section: International News Geography: Pacific Philippines Topics: migration, economics

August 27, 2007

Battle of the Ballot Box Part II

Economics, Migration & Social Change in the Philippines

by Stefan Christoff

A child from Smokey Mountain, a major urban poor community in Manila situated in a massive garbage dump. Photo: Stefan Christoff

This is the second in a series of three articles Part I | Part III

Violence surrounding the Philippine elections, including multiple assassinations and targeted bombings, has raised concerns internationally. Controversy over the mid-term elections of 2007, however, remains but one element of a broader political crisis facing the poverty-stricken island nation.

"At a time of immense political tension, of continuing economic unevenness and of widening social inequality, one thing has become clear: the country direly needs a new plan," Jeffery Roden wrote in Philippine Collegian, an independent student newspaper distributed at the University of the Philippines.

"For even if we elect the most intelligent leaders, if the hearts of the people are fixated with dreams of going to distant lands we will still not attain progress," Filipino student Roden wrote in an editorial published just prior to the May 2007 mid-term elections.

Government statistics from the Philippines indicate that hundreds of thousands of Filipinos depart each year to work abroad, often in substandard conditions in the Middle East, Asia and North America. Indeed, government policy actively encourages the export of Filipino workers.

In Canada, thousands of overseas workers arrive each year from the Philippines through the Live-In Caregiver Program, a joint program between the governments of Canada and the Philippines. In cities across Canada, labourers from the Philippines, mainly women, toil without permanent legal status in Canada, in many cases for years at a time. Multiple cases of physical and psychological abuse of Filipino workers in Canada under the Live-In Caregiver Program have been documented and publicized by the Immigrant Workers Center in Montreal.

In 2007, the Canadian government announced an expansion of international labour agreements with the government in Manila. "To make matters worse, Canada, as part of extending its temporary workers program, is making deals with the Philippines to contract hundreds of Filipino migrant labourers to work in the oil sands of Alberta," Joey Calugay of the Centre for Philippine Concerns told a Montreal community forum in August 2007.

A transport motorcycle rushing down a Tondo, Manila road. Photo: Stefan Christoff

Today, it is commonly estimated that thousands of Filipinos leave the Philippines on a daily basis, an exodus that has been linked to the country's ongoing socio-economic crisis. According to the Philippine Central Bank, remittances from overseas Filipino labourers amounted to $12 billion US in 2006. "This global trade in people is the highest income-generating business of the Philippine government," Calugay added. "[It is] keeping its economy afloat and helping to pay for the more than $55 billion in foreign debt."

People of all stripes in the Philippines openly discuss the need for profound political change in the country; change that extends beyond the government and elections. "The problem with the country's politics is that it remains fundamentally elite-dominated and so overwhelmingly about governance for and by the elite," wrote Sonny Africa in a post-election editorial. Africa is with the IBON Foundation, a progressive social research organization based in Manila.

"This is a problem that dates back from the birth of the Philippine Republic at the turn of the century, continued through the US colonial period, and has alarmingly persisted under post-war neocolonialism until today," he wrote.

The economic crisis continues to plague the majority of the population--estimated at slightly below 90 million --creating severe political unrest and fueling support for leftist political parties and guerrilla movements. According to a 2007 World Bank study, more than 15 million Filipinos survive on less than one US dollar a day, while it is estimated by the UN that 40 per cent of Filipinos live on less than two US dollars per day.

"In the Philippines, we have an economic and political system which ensures that when Filipinos are working, whether in the fields, or in the offices, or in factories, that their labour doesn't benefit them directly because the majority doesn't control the national economic resources, including land, economic capital or industrial machinery," Africa explained in an interview in Manila.

Since taking office in 2001, President Arroyo has vigorously pursued an economic program centred on foreign investment, privatization of state institutions and World Bank-backed economic reforms.

"The Philippines is fashioning a development agenda based on an economy competitive in the 21st century," Arroyo said in a 2002 address at a Manila-based symposium on the Free Trade Area (AFTA) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes 10 East-Asian nations. "Our reforms aim to create a domestic environment that will enable us to reap the benefit of global economic integration," said Arroyo.

In the Philippine president's July 2007 State of the Nation address, Arroyo said that current governmental economic policies would lead "the Philippines to become a developed country in 20 years." But a recent report from Manila's IBON Foundation stated that "the situation of Filipinos is actually sinking deeper into Third World status, deteriorating in a way that hits the poorest majority the most."

The shaky national economy is rooted in extraordinary foreign investment laws, which allow certain economic sectors to be 100 per cent internationally owned while simultaneously allowing 100 per cent of corporate profits from foreign-owned industries or companies to be channeled outside of the country. A succession of US-backed governments constructed current national economic policy, a polar-opposite to the nationalist economic programs proposed by Philippine progressive movements.

"Today, when the majority of Filipinos work, the profits of their labour go to local economic elites," said Africa, "including factory owners and feudal landlords or in the worst scenario, foreign business based in the Philippines."

"The majority of Filipinos continue to suffer in poverty."

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