on wage hikes and ‘math wizardry’

Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte was of course only doing her job when she once boldly dared lawmakers to pass a bill that would effectively scrap the 12-percent value-added tax on oil products. When informed that such a measure has already been filed by Bayan Muna party-list representative Teodoro Casiño in 2010, she promptly apologized the following day. “Good for you, Congressman Casiño,” she says in an interview over the radio.

One can only admire Valte’s humility and her devotion to her job description as the palace’s mouthpiece. Indeed, in her own words, Malacañang “cannot speak for Congress.” In other words, if the VAT is such an annoyance, legislators have the duty to junk it and save everyone else’s time. Why should President Aquino himself meddle with laws when there are so many other things that require his attention?

Just yesterday, in a press conference, as Valte employed basic math operations to explain why the Palace does not support the P125 wage hike proposed by Congress, we once again witnessed the lady’s astonishing capacity to effectively deliver a familiar message from the President: “My hands are tied. I cannot do anything about it.”

The P125 increase is simply not “practicable” and that employers may not be able to afford it, Valte said. According to Malacañang’s computations, the proposed wage hike would translate to a P42,250 annual increase  in salaries. Multiplied by 38 million workers in the country, the hike would result to about P1.26 trillion  in additional cost for businesses—quite a hefty chunk of the country’s economy valued currently at P8.5 to P9 trillion.

“Instead of being able to help the majority, some people may lose their jobs if the legislated wage increase will be this high,” she said, almost threateningly.

It would be easy to buy this explanation—if one ignores a few errors.

In his column at the Manila Times, Dr. Giovanni Tapang of Agham pointed out that only 54.8 percent of the country’s labor force of 38 million are wage and salary workers. Out of this percentile, 8.2 percent are government workers, 4.6 percent are private household workers, and 41.6 percent (or only 15.56 million) are workers hired by private establishments.

This means that the P125 wage hike, which shall be limited to those who work in private firms, translates, not to P1.26 trillion, but to only around P0.657 trillion.

This slight mistake is enough to make one suspicious, but doesn’t the fact remain that  businesses are hardly making any profit to afford such an increase in wages? Independent thinktank IBON says Philippine employers can handle it—but only if they would agree to a cut in their profits.

In 2009, all private firms in the country had a combined profit of P1.63 billion and 3.94 million employees, according to the 2009 Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry of the National Statistics Office. Using these figures, IBON estimates that the total cost of the proposed wage hike will only be P194.9 billion, which translates in turn to only a 12 percent cut in profits.

Beyond these oversights, though, one might forgive Valte for neglecting to do her homework more thoroughly. It must be a very taxing job, speaking for a president perceived by many as… laidback. Look at Elena Bautista-Horn who works for a former president who is currently under arrest and witness some really unfortunate things she has to say to the public.

If anything, the consistency of Malacañang’s press releases amid brewing protests against his economic policies proves something: Aquino might be cautious about bothering businessmen and their take-home money, but he certainly does not get too worked-up about what his real “bosses” want. Neither does he fear the brewing protests of angry people on the streets.

Such coolness under pressure must be admirable in a leader. ▣

hillary, heckled in manila*

A lot has been said about how a student leader disrupted Hillary Clinton’s forum at the National Museum on Wednesday. Most reactions were angry, largely condescending, and obsessed on the claim that “there are other, more civilized ways to exercise freedom of expression.”

Why did he have to be so rude, when it was an open forum, and anyone can ask questions? Surely, Hillary, so smart and so contained, could address his strong feelings against the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)?

Well. Of course, she can. As what GMA News has so amiably touted her, she is a “savvy diplomat.” She is used to events like that thing they decided to call “A Conversation in Manila.” She can deftly answer any question–however cleverly crafted, or however unimaginative. She is her country’s top ambassador to the rest of the world. It’s, like, her fifth sense, or something.

Also, the forum was organized and “packaged” by the US Embassy exactly as a venue for pleasant “conversations” with a celebrity. It was a controlled environment where, as Glenn Diaz puts it in his recent blog post, the burden of civility is yours–in exchange for the privilege to participate.

These are enough reasons why a polite question asked over the microphone was not enough to protest against the Visiting Forces Agreement and the MDT. It would be like requesting an audience with Noynoy Aquino just so you could tell him off about Hacienda Luisita.

A protest is a protest because it’s an expression of indignation, of opposition. A protest gains potency, whenever and especially if it disregards the rules which ban dissent. A protest does not demand an answer or an explanation, it asserts its right to be heard and never apologizes.

Otherwise, a candid question about music preferences would do, and Hillary can leave Manila with the happy, content feeling that Filipinos are such a nice, welcoming bunch, and that here, she can forget about growing all that rhinoceros skin. ▣

* first published as “Bien Venido” at “Chairport

on the reproductive health bill

Several weeks ago, I was talking with Marat Safran Foer when the conversation somehow managed to snare us into a trap. You know that sort which involves God and a socially relevant topic? Yes, that sort of trap. The RH Bill trap, specifically.

I know I could never have won that row because I have not read the full text of the bill and Marat knew that I was merely parroting “party-line” arguments the whole time. It embarrasses me now the way poor Krip Yuson must have felt when he admitted to petty plagiarism.

Luckily, I am not Krip Yuson and I can make up for my sheer lack of originality. I read the full text of the final consolidated House Bill 4244. Then I gave myself time to think about it and realized that the bill is truly more than just contraceptives and the word of… God.

If ever I find myself again in the middle of a blood-boiling debate about why I support the passing of the RH Bill, I think I would be ready to do better. Here’s why:

The RH Bill addresses the lack of adequate public reproductive health services. According to a 2008 survey, less than half of births in the Philippines occur in health facilities. The same survey also reveals that 36 percent of births are assisted by a traditional attendant or ‘hilot.’ (I am not terribly good at Math, but I do know 36 percent means around “1 out of 3.”)

Under the RH bill, the Department of Health will assist local government units (LGUs) in employing an adequate number of midwives to achieve a minimum ratio of at least one skilled attendant for every 150 deliveries per year (Section 5). Also, LGUs shall establish or upgrade hospitals with adequate and skilled personnel, equipment, and supplies for emergency obstetric care (Section 6).

Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that complications occur in 15 percent of pregnancies, while 11 women die of childbirth every day. The availability of more skilled medical professionals and wider public access to medical facilities and services will surely be a step toward addressing this reality.

The RH Bill upholds the sanctity of life. Pardon the religious cliché, but according to the 2008 National Demographic and Health (NDH) Survey, those who do not use contraceptives make up 68 percent of unintended pregnancies. By providing access to family planning methods, the RH Bill hopes to ultimately curb the number of abortions.

Also, family planning methods will help parents to decide the right time for them to have another child. According to the WHO, at least two years should pass between births to reduce the risk of infant deaths.

The RH Bill will educate and prepare the youth. Section 16 of the bill requires that appropriate reproductive health and sex education be integrated in all relevant subjects from Grade Five to Fourth Year High School.

I remember that when I was in Grade Five my science teacher did a little lesson on teenage pregnancies. I am sure now that it was not in the prescribed lesson plan, but she must have done the right thing, because none of my classmates then got knocked up before college. I might be grossly mistaken but an incident like that would not have escaped Facebook. You know what I mean.

The RH Bill promotes gender and social equity. According to the 2006 Family Planning Survey, 2.6 million Filipino women would like to plan their families but they lack in information and access to do so. The same survey also shows that 44 percent of births among the poor are unwanted.

In the 2006 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, the poorest families spend only 1.7 percent of the household income on medical care, while the richest families spend 4.0 percent.

Under the RH Bill, poorer couples will have a better opportunity and means to decide how many children they want and can raise. Women would also have more opportunities to advance their education and more time for productive work, since they would be able to plan when they will have children.

Finally, the RH Bill reinforces the right to know and the right to choose. Given adequate and accurate information, we can make sensible decisions that are best for us. By providing access to information and a set of viable options, the RH Bill would let us freely exercise this capacity to know the alternatives and choose wisely and—for devout Catholics—with a clear conscience.

That seems fair enough. And that definitely does not sound bad at all either, does it?

darwinism in the metro

Everyday we witness a number of proofs that people are somehow capable of kind acts to each other. But if my friend Queensfoil is to be believed, taking a train in Manila at rush hour is enough to restore the suspicion that humans are beasts.

To illustrate, notice the grim-faced yuppie (highly skilled in the art of elbowing fellow passengers), the wild-haired harpy (talented in verbally abusing men who would not give up their seats to a woman), the shadowy figure (gifted with sleight-of-hand instincts), and yourself (swallowed whole by a monster with multiple heads, arms, legs, armpits, groins).

I think about a time when I liked taking the MRT, and my mind promptly draws a blank. Then I think about how I managed the daily trips from Guadalupe to Quezon Avenue when I was a college student, and my thought process returns to Queensfoil, who recently compiled a helpful list of tips on railway survival. The list is terribly funny in Filipino, and I try my best translating some of them into English below:

1. One way to beat the crowd of waiting passengers in the platform is to feign disinterest. Act as if the next train is the last thing in your zen mind. And then surprise the hell out of everybody by your most lifelike version of a lion’s growl.

2. Your elbows and knees are your trusty weapons. If you’re with a kid or a pregnant friend, use them as a shield.

3. Survival may also be a collaborative effort. Befriend two or three fellow passengers and suggest that you create together a human chain to ensure no one is left behind.

4. Once inside, never position yourself in the middle of a train car. It is a mistake. You will find yourself transformed into a revolving door.

5. Forget about safety hand rails. The voice-over is an idiot. You wouldn’t need safety hand rails to keep standing.

6. Keep near the doors as much as you can; it would be easier to get off the train that way. Bear in mind that if your stop is Ayala, Buendia, or Shaw, you should place yourself by the doors on the left side.

7. When you are eager to get off the train and a fat person is directly in front of you, do not even attempt to compete. Let him be. He will clear the way for you. Remember to thank him afterwards.

I am quite sure that this is a short list and long experience will prove that there are other strategic techniques at our disposal. I can think of one or two, which involve the use of crutches and/or a priest’s cassock. You just have to have the right frame of mind. The strong conquers and eliminates the weak. Survival of the fittest.

Just yesterday, the news says the government has deferred train fare hikes but is still firm in its resolve to push through with implementation this year. One might think, whoa, this must redefine survival of the fittest.

If perhaps we take a minute to think about the impending fare hike, about the fact that single journey tickets would now be sold only in P15, P20, and P30 denominations, and that fares would now be measured by the kilometer, I wonder if maybe–just maybe–we would be properly aggressive and direct our madness toward a goal other than jostling each other to get toward the closing automatic train doors.

budget cut–na naman

Kung anuman ang sinasabing makakamit ni Pangulong Aquino sa panukala niyang “public-private enterprises,” walang dahilan para ipalagay na makikinabang dito ang sektor ng edukasyon.

Sa mungkahing pambansang budget pa lamang ngayong taon, madarama na ang magiging pangmatagalang dulot ng programa niyang ito, sa porma ng patuloy na pagbabawas ng pondo para sa mga state universities and colleges (SUCs).

Halimbawa, P1.39 bilyon ang kinaltas sa budget ng Unibersidad ng Pilipinas, mas maliit ng 20.11 porsiyento kaysa noong nakaraang taon. Sa iba pang mga pamantasan, gaya ng Philippine Normal University (mas mababa ng 23.59 %) at University of Southeastern Philippines (20.03%), hindi rin naiiba ang patakaran ni Aquino.

Ani Noynoy sa kanyang mensahe sa Kongreso noong isang buwan, binabawasan ang budget para sa edukasyon upang mahimok ang mga SUCs na lumikha ng sariling pondo, sa pamamagitan ng pakikipagtambal sa pribadong sektor. Sa ganitong paraan daw, hindi na aasa pa ang mga SUCs sa kaban ng bayan.

Salungat ito siyempre sa mismong karakter ng mga SUC at sa tungkulin ng pamahalaan na tustusan ang mga ito. Ayon kay Rep. Raymond Palatino, kinatawan ng partidong Kabataan sa Kongreso, lalo lamang mahihirapang makapag-aral ng kolehiyo ang mas maraming kabataan, dahil tiyak na tataas ang matrikula kung isasapribado ang mga SUC.
.
Hindi man matalino ang ganitong patakaran ng gobyerno, hindi naman na ito bago. Ang pinagkaiba lamang sa nakaraang rehimen ay may mga repormang ipinangako si Aquino. Kung mapatutunayan mang sa tubig lang niya naisulat ang mga pangakong ito, kailangan niyang maghanda ngayon pa lang sa ingay ng tiyak at malakas na protesta.

*galing ang larawan mula sa website ng Anakbayan

unang sona ni noynoy aquino

Tampok sa kauna-unahang State of the Nation Address ni bagong Pangulong Noynoy Aquino noong Lunes ang mito na kurapsyon ang pangunahing dahilan sa lugmok na kalagayan ngayon ng bansa.

Hindi na ito bago sa mga talumpati ng Pangulo. Noon pa mang nangangampanya pa lamang siya ay ito na ang kanyang pagsusuri: na maraming mahihirap na Pilipino dahil sa pangungurakot at pang-aabuso sa kapangyarihan ng mga nasa puwesto. Ngayong nailuklok nang Pangulo, ito pa rin ang lunsaran ng tangan niyang plataporma.

Hindi maitatanggi na sa kurapsyon mauugat ang marami sa mga suliraning kinakaharap ng Pilipinas. Sa tapat at makabayang pamumuno nakasalalay ang pagtiyak na nagagampanan ng maraming bahagi ng pamahalaan ang kanilang mga tungkulin sa bayan. Magandang halimbawa ang paglikom ng buwis, na hindi maayos na maisasagawa kung may mga bulsang maaaring lagyan upang makatakas sa batas.

Ngunit hindi naman garantiya na sa pagwawakas ng kurapsyon, magkakaroon ng pangmatagalang pagbabago sa kalakaran ng gubyerno. Madalas, nakagapos sa pagkabigo ang mga adhikain ng pamahalaan, hindi sa kurapsyon lamang, kundi sa mismong mga patakarang sinusunod nito at sa mismong mga programang ipinatutupad alinsunod sa mga patakarang ito. Madalas din, nagaganap ang kurapsyon dahil baluktot ang mga patakaran at programa ring ito.

Sa halimbawa pa rin ng paglikom ng buwis, pangunahing dahilan sa pagkabigo ng pamahalaan na makakalap ng sapat na pondo para sa kaban ng bayan ang regressive nitong patakaran sa pagbubuwis. Sa pagpapatupad ng VAT na lamang, walang takas ang masang Pilipino sa mga dagdag na buwis, samantalang walang mahigpit na pagtugis sa mga mayayamang negosyante na kumikita ng malaki. Tuloy, nalilikha ng ganitong sitwasyon ang pagkakataon ng kurapsyon: sa porma ng sistemang “kota-kota” at “tongpats” na parehong kinundena ng Pangulo sa kanyang talumpati. (Hiwalay pa ito sa usaping hindi matalino ang alokasyon at paggamit ng kabuuang naipong kabuwisan para sa pambansang budget. Ngayong taon lamang P276.212 bilyon ang inilaan para sa pambayad utang.)

Ipagpalagay mang tama ang Pangulo, na sa pagsupil ng kurapsyon malulunasan ang karamihan kung hindi man lahat sa mga problemang nagpapahirap sa mga Pilipino, tila wala namang konkretong planong nailahad sa SONA kung paano ito maisasakatuparan. Ito na sana ang pagkakataong maitampok niya ang bagong Freedom of Information Bill na inilunsad muli ni Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teddy Casino ng Bayan Muna. Kung maisasabatas ang FOI, magkakaroon ng pananagutan ang pamahalaan na maging bukas sa pag-uusisa ng media at ng publiko. Magiging mas malaya ang pagbabantay sa bawat kilos ng mga nasa kapangyarihan.

Mayroon din namang mga tiyak na hakbangin na inilahad ang Pangulo. Iyon lamang ay kamukha rin naman ng mga planong ito ang mga sumemplang nang plano ng mga nakaraang administrasyon. Anong kaibhan ng kanyang mga binabalak na pubic-private enterprises sa mga nakaraang privatization schemes, gaya ng sa MWSS na mas lumala pa ang kalagayan matapos itong paghatian ng dalawang pribadong kumpanya? Hindi ba’t ang NBN-ZTE deal ay nabuo rin dahil sa pagtatambal ng pamahalaan at pribadong sektor?

Mula sa mga ganitong agam-agam nagiging walang saysay ang mga pangako ng Pangulo na magiging matapat siya sa kanyang tungkulin. Magiging walang katuturan ang pagtugis niya sa kurapsyon kung hindi siya magpapatupad ng mga bago at matatalinong programa na papalit sa umiiral na sistema. Magiging baog ang inilulunsad niyang “bagong simula” kung hindi niya matutukoy ang mas malalaking pinagmumulan ng kahirapan—gaya ng sa isyung agraryo, ng monopolyo ng dayuhan sa nga industriya ng bansa, sa edukasyon—mga mahahalagang usapin na marami ang umasang mababanggit niya sa kanyang SONA.

Hindi mahirap magbigay ng tiwala sa alok na “pagbabago” ng Pangulo, lalo pa’t sa bawat pagharap niya sa publiko, katapatan at malinis na paglilingkod sa kanyang mga “amo” ang imaheng lagi niyang ipinamamalas. Ngunit katuwang ng pagtitiwalang ito sa kanyang mga hangarin ang paghamon din na masugid nating susubaybayan ang kanyang bawat hakbang. Patuloy ang ating pagtatasa sa kanyang pamumuno at sa galing ng kanyang pang-unawa sa mga tunay at mas mahahalagang suliranin ng bansa. Hindi ito ang unang SONA na ating napakinggan.

on student protest "riots"

There are people who will never fail to unwittingly mention student activism and violence in the same sentence.

Just last week, hundreds of students at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) staged a protest against a proposal to increase the school’s tuition by as much as 2,000 percent. The students threw armchairs and tables down to the ground floor where they set these on fire as a symbolic protest to represent the conditions that PUP students go through.

The protest action was branded by some, including the media, as a “riot,” a “barbaric” (sic) act that reveals a complete disregard for “order” and the peaceful means of airing grievances.

Why did they have disrupt classes just so they could denounce the proposed tuition hike? Why did they have to burn school property? Why did they not just… traipse over to the management building and request an audience with the Board of Regents? Surely they could easily settle the matter over… over a nice pot of coffee with the President and his cohorts?

From there, it would be easy to jump into a new set of questions: Why does student activism have to be violent? Aren’t students supposed to bury their noses in books and do what taxpayers tell them to do?

Quite a number of variations of these questions are flooding my Facebook newsfeed lately, and from people I otherwise call my friends. Honestly, I am a little, uh, verklempt. This brand of rhetoric against the protest action is valid only if you assume a number of things:

1. That the PUP adminsitration has tried to proactively engage the student body in a discussion of the proposal;
2. That the proposal to hike tuition fees is a wise policy, i.e.it will not void efforts to demand greater state subsidy; and
3. That student protests, even at their most truly violent, will resolve nothing.

A few days ago, Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Chairman Emmanuel Angeles categorically declared that no tuition hike willl be approved or implemented in PUP. This position by the CHED became known only during a dialogue with Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond Palatino.

We must marvel now about how the PUP administration could have come up with a proposed policy that CHED easily dismissed as rubbish. It is vastly amusing that the school’s administration could shamelessly propose a policy which, in the first place, does not have any merit.

Shamelessness, coupled with stupidity, on the part of those who should know better is a form of violence, too. And maybe, just maybe, it is ultimately worse and more dangerous than setting school armchairs on fire.