UN report reaffirms water privatization amid MWSS rate hike controversy

Image from www.unwater.org

Image from www.unwater.org

First published as IBON Features

The World Water Day quietly passed by last March 22. It’s a United Nations (UN) event that has been observed since 1993 to highlight the issues facing global water resources. For this year, the World Water Day had as its focus the water-energy nexus and how the world’s poorest survive without access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, sufficient food and energy services. Alas, it was also an occasion used by the UN to push for the further privatization and commodification of water and energy resources.

Seriously challenged

In the Philippines, the UN’s renewed support for the corporate takeover of water and energy sectors came at a time when these policies are seriously being challenged as consumers grasp a better understanding of how oligarchic firms are squeezing them dry with impunity under privatization.

The controversial pass-on charges that private water operators Manila Water Company and Maynilad Water Services Inc. that include their corporate income tax, among others, have forced the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) Regulatory Office (RO) to reject the bid for higher water rates of the said companies. Meanwhile, the obvious price rigging at the power spot market compelled the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to order the recalculation of the electricity rate hike that the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) is seeking.

In both cases, it was the vigilant public – through people’s organizations, consumer groups and progressive political parties – that challenged the onerous rate increases. Thus, for proponents of privatization who are grappling with legitimacy issues, the UN report could not have come at a better time.

Water report

In its 2014 World Water Development Report released on the eve of World Water Day, the UN said that 768 million people do not have access to an improved source of water, 2.5 billion do not have access to improved sanitation, while 1.3 billion are not connected to an electric power grid and 2.6 billion use solid fuel – mainly biomass – to cook. It noted energy production accounts for close to 15% of water withdrawal but could increase to 20% by 2035 due to population growth, urbanization and changing consumption patterns. The UN warned that the challenge of meeting the demand for energy might well come at the expense of water resources and thus called for coordinated water and energy management policies. (You may download the full report here.)

Such coordinated policies, according to the UN, include revising pricing practices to ensure that water and energy are sold at rates that reflect their real cost and environmental impact more accurately. Furthermore, noting that the scope of investments required to developing durable alternative infrastructures, the UN underscored that the private sector should play a major role in supplementing public expenditure.

Private participation, full cost recovery

International financial institutions (IFIs) notably the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are long propagating this idea of private participation in infrastructure, or also called Public-Private Partnership (PPP), and the associated principle of full cost recovery. They in fact played a central role in bankrolling neoliberal structural reforms in the water and energy sectors in many countries, mostly in the poor, debt-ridden Third World.

Available data show that World Bank lending to the water sector from 2004 to 2011 is pegged at $34.79 billion, of which $22.14 or almost 64% are in the water supply and sanitation (WSS) subsector. Almost a quarter of WSS lending, meanwhile, went to Asia and the Pacific region. (See Chart below, click on image to enlarge)

World Bank lending to water

Reflecting the real cost of water and energy is of course a euphemism for more expensive water and electricity bills which often result from privatization and deregulation. Proponents of these neoliberal policies peddle the distorted notion that when the true economic cost of water and power is reflected through full cost recovery, its wasteful use will be addressed or even reversed, and would promote the efficient and equitable use of resources.

The Dublin Principle – a product of the 1992 International Conference on Water and Environment held in Dublin, Ireland – for instance, voiced the neoliberal assertion that “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good” and that “managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable, and of encouraging conservation”.

Full-cost recovery means that user fees paid for by consumers reflect the entire cost of investment and the guaranteed profits of private operators including differentials in factors that could affect profits such as foreign exchange, fuel prices, inflation, and in some cases even so-called regulatory risks, among others. The real intention, however, is to attract and ensure the participation in these sectors of private business, which naturally seeks profit assurances and risks protection.

PPP trends

Already, private investors have had substantial participation in developing and operating water and sanitation and energy infrastructures. Data collated by the World Bank’s Private Participation in Infrastructure (PPI) online database show that from 1990 to 2012, 111 countries reported private investments in the energy sector with a total of 2,653 projects reaching financial closure worth about $715.13 billion. Meanwhile, PPI indicators in the water sector during the same period are as follows: 63 countries; 814 projects; and $69.25 billion.

Private participation in the energy sector continues to expand both in the number of projects and cost per project. Again using the PPI database of the World Bank, the annual average of PPI investment in the energy sector has grown almost four-fold between the 1990s and the 2010s while the annual number of projects has increased almost three-fold. The average cost per energy project also grew by almost 44% during the same period.

Meanwhile, private participation in the water and sewerage sector has slowed down between the 1990s and 2010s – the annual average of PPI investment dropped by 10%; the annual average number of projects fell by 51%; and the average cost per project declined by more than 40 percent.

This may be explained by the fact that several of the biggest urban water utilities were privatized in the 1990s, particularly in the Third World, most notable of which were in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in 1993; Cancun (Mexico) and Gdansk (Poland) in 1994; Kelantan state (Malaysia) and Santa Fe province (Argentina) in 1995; Senegal, Cartagena (Colombia), and Aguascalientes (Mexico) in 1996; and Gabon, Cordoba (Argentina), La Paz–El Alto (Bolivia), Budapest (Hungary), Barranquilla (Colombia), Manila (the Philippines) and Casablanca (Morocco) in 1997.

Another reason is the widespread public opposition to water privatization sharpened by the contradiction between water as a human right and public good versus the neoliberal claim of water as an economic commodity that private firms can profit from. In recent years, there is an observable trend towards what some call remunicipalisation or the reversal of water utilities privatization such as in Paris, France; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hamilton, Canada; and in various municipalities in Malaysia.

However, it must be noted that water privatization has started to pick up again after the 2008 global financial and economic crises. From 2009 to 2012, private participation in water and sewerage has been growing by 28% per year in terms of investment cost. In 2012 alone, PPI investment in water and sewerage jumped by almost 54% although bulk of it was accounted for by Brazil’s three large projects worth nearly $2.5 billion – or almost 62% of the reported $4.04 billion. (See Chart, click on image to enlarge)

PPI in water and sewerage

Trumpeting “success”

Neoliberal apologists trumpet privatization as the solution to the lack of access to safe drinking water in the world, especially in poor countries, since state-run water utilities are supposedly too inefficient, bankrupt and oftentimes corrupt to perform its task. One major indicator that privatization champions point to is the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on water where the world has supposedly achieved the target of halving the proportion of population without access to improved sources of water five years ahead of schedule. But this obscures the reality on the ground that many poor communities are still without access to reliable potable water as “improved sources” in the MDGs could refer not only to individual household connection but also to public taps or standpipes, tube well or boreholes as well as dug wells.

Take the case of the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in Metro Manila, for example. Private concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad claim almost universal coverage of water supply in their service areas. But parts of their claim are the bulk water connections – mostly in poor communities – where the safety and quality of water and of services are often compromised. Such bulk connections include setting up a single meter for several households, reaching a hundred in some cases. The responsibility of individually connecting to the so-called “mother meter” is up to the community (through its local association or cooperative). In some instances, rubber hoses are used to connect the households to the water supply system. In other cases, a common faucet is built from where the people fetch their water.

Challenged by people’s experience, opposition

Clearly, claims of universal coverage and continuous supply of safe drinking water are bloated to give the false impression of improved services. But what is undeniable is how water rates in Metro Manila and adjacent areas have skyrocketed under privatization effectively further marginalizing those who do not have the capacity to pay. Since MWSS was privatized in 1997, the average basic tariff has already ballooned by 585% (Maynilad) to 1,120% (Manila Water).

This as the concessionaires passed on to the consumers billions of pesos in questionable charges including their corporate income tax; cost of unimplemented projects; and cost of advertising, promotion and donations on top of passed-on charges due to inflation and foreign currency fluctuations – all while collecting profits at guaranteed rates. The process of arbitration over the rejected water rate hikes between the concessionaires and regulators being conducted by design away from public scrutiny and without consumer participation is a further reason that makes privatization oppressive and unacceptable.

The policy regime perpetrated by privatization that allowed private, profit-oriented companies to take over economically strategic and socially sensitive sectors with negligible state intervention explains why water and power rates in the country are very high – in fact, among the highest in Asia. Endorsements from institutions such as the UN to continue such policies are constantly and increasingly being challenged by the people’s experience and opposition on the ground. ###

Heartless, greedy Meralco thrives under privatized, deregulated regime

meralco ganid

With the country still reeling from the devastation wrought by Yolanda, the people are facing yet another disaster – the calamity of soaring prices. People ask: Are the oil companies and Meralco (Manila Electric Co.) that heartless and greedy?

Alas, this is the cruel reality of neoliberal economics, of deregulation and privatization. The market is regarded as greater than the people, and government allows the heartless and greedy to reign.

Price hikes

Starting December, oil firms implemented a record-high increase in LPG prices. Petron hiked its LPG price by P14.30 per kilogram (kg); Liquigaz, P13; and Solane, P11. These translate to an increase of P121 to P157 for an 11-kg LPG tank commonly used by households.

Then the oil companies jacked up the price of other petroleum products. Diesel rose by P1.35 per liter; kerosene, P1.20; and gasoline, P0.35. This week, oil firms implemented another round of oil price hikes with diesel rising by 30 centavos. Prior to the latest increases, the price of diesel has already jumped by P4.08 per liter this year and gasoline by P2.04, based on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) monitoring.

And of course, Meralco said that it will implement a hefty increase in power rates this month. The distribution utility said that the hike in its generation charge could reach P3.44 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) but it will be implemented in installments to mitigate the impact.

The Energy Regulatory Commissioned (ERC) allowed Meralco to collect the increase in three tranches. That would be P2 in December, P1 in February and P0.44 in March.

But generation is just one component of the electricity bill that will rise. Also increasing is the transmission charge, which will go up by P0.04 per kWh. Taxes (value-added tax and local franchise tax), system loss charge, lifeline rate subsidy and others, which are a percentage of generation and transmission costs, will also add another P0.67 per kWh in the Meralco bill.

Thus, the actual rate hike to be felt by consumers would be P2.41 per kWh in December, P1.21 in February and P0.54 in March.

However, while the sudden impact of a one-time huge rate hike will be mitigated, consumers will end up paying more. According to the ERC, Meralco may charge its customers an interest on the entire deferred amount or the so-called carrying cost.

And even at a staggered basis, the rate hike would still be tremendous. A 200-kWh household, for instance, will see its Meralco bill jump by P482 this month.

The increase in power bill creates a domino effect on the prices of other basic goods and commodities. Contrary to propaganda of government and big business, wages are not the main driver of price hikes but electricity cost. The Employers Confederation of the Philippines (Ecop) said that power accounts for as much as 40% of production cost.  With the big Meralco rate hike, Ecop also warned of higher prices.

‘What can we do?’

The official who is supposed to be in charge over the oil and power sectors – Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla – had this to say to the restless public: “Kung nagkasabay-sabay silang lahat, hindi yan pinlano, it just happened. What can we do…? Don’t buy, kung namamahalan kayo!”

Of course, Meralco’s customers could not choose not to buy electricity from Meralco. They have no choice. Petilla’s remarks sum up government’s indifference to the plight of consumers, which the Aquino administration has repeatedly displayed in its almost four years in power.

By themselves, the record increases in petroleum prices and electricity bills are already oppressive. But what makes them doubly onerous is that the country is still recovering from Yolanda’s onslaught. Government has not even fully accounted the total number of dead, which now stands at 5,796, according to the latest official count.

Note that this is not the first time that these same companies displayed total disregard of public interest and welfare. Last year, amid the torrential, Ondoy-like rains that poured over Metro Manila, oil companies and Meralco also increased prices.

Price control

Ironically, the country is supposed to be under a state of national calamity as declared by President Benigno Aquino III through Proclamation No. 682. But the string of record price hikes shows that big business can act with impunity.

The reason is that the price control aspect of the proclamation is limited by law and the overall deregulation policy of government. Under Republic Act (RA) 10623 (which amended RA 7581 or the Price Act), the price of LPG may be controlled under a state of calamity but only for 15 days. The price of LPG and other petroleum products is deregulated under RA 8479 or the Oil Deregulation Law.

Electricity rates are also not included among the basic necessities that government may control during a state of calamity. Through RA 9136 or the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), government deregulated the setting of the generation charge of Meralco and other distribution utilities. Epira also deregulated rate-setting through the wholesale electricity spot market (Wesm).

To pave the way for the deregulation of the oil and power industries, government privatized Petron Corp. and the National Power Corp. (Napocor).

The Oil Deregulation Law and Epira trump the Price Act and any proclamation of a state of calamity. Apparently for government, not even the strongest typhoon ever recorded could change that. Both policies were imposed on the country by foreign creditors led by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Artificial tightness

The huge Meralco rate hike is a perfect example of how privatization, deregulation and lack of state control over key sectors burden the consumers. Had government not relinquished effective control over energy development to profit-oriented private business, the public would have been spared from the impending hefty increase in power rates.

The supposed tight energy supply is only artificial. It could have been prevented if the maintenance shutdown of the country’s energy sources and power plants were effectively controlled by government. But because it relies too heavily on private business, government has no handle in determining the maintenance schedule of power plants in a way that ensures energy security and public interest.

For instance, the maintenance shutdown of Malampaya started on Nov. 11, the same date that President Aquino put the country under a state of calamity. Energy officials already knew then that it will trigger a big spike in power rates. At that time, energy supply in Luzon was already tight due to a series of maintenance shutdowns of major power plants.

Plant shutdowns

Meralco, in fact, already implemented a large increase in power rates in November when it jacked up its rates by P1.24 per kWh. The utility giant said that the maintenance shutdown of several big power plants was the main factor behind the rate hike. These were Unit 2 of Malaya power plant in Rizal (Dec. 2012 to Oct.); Unit 2 of Pagbilao plant in Quezon (Aug. to Nov.); Unit 1 of Sual plant in Pangasinan (Sep. to Oct.); and Sta. Rita Module 20 (Oct. 23-28).

In addition, a number of power plants were also on forced outage. These were San Lorenzo Module 60 (May to Mar. 16, 2014); Unit 1 of Masinloc plant in Zambales (Sep. 25-28); Unit 2 of Calaca plant in Batangas (Sep. 29 to Oct. 1); Quezon Power (Oct. 5-6); and Unit 1 of Sual plant in Pangasinan (Oct. 22-26).

Monopoly and manipulation

But instead of ensuring that Malampaya will remain online, especially after Yolanda, government stood idly as the source of 40% of Luzon’s power needs was cut off. The shutdown of Malampaya and of the other power plants, said Meralco, forced its suppliers Sta. Rita and San Lorenzo power plants to use more expensive fuel.

The utility giant claimed that it was also compelled to buy more from the Wesm where electricity is being sold at a higher price. Meralco said that its exposure to Wesm will increase from less than 5% to 12% due to the Malampaya shutdown.

Note, however, that the private investors who control Meralco are the same investors that control the power plants as well as the traders in the Wesm. The 1,000-megawatt (MW) Sta. Rita and the 500-MW San Lorenzo plants are owned by the Lopez group, which also has a 3.9%-stake in Meralco. Power plants associated with the Lopez group also account for around 18% of the capacity registered at Wesm.

Illegitimacy of rate hikes

The concentration of ownership over power generation and distribution, and even over the spot market, raises a valid question on the legitimacy of the power rate hikes. The same thing can be said in the case of the oil industry wherein basically just four companies lord over more than 80% of the industry.

Thus, the move of the House of Representatives to investigate Meralco’s rate hike is a welcome development. Officials of the distribution utility, the power plants, and also the DOE should explain the circumstances behind the huge increase.

There is certainly a need to closely look at the shutdown of Malampaya and the power plants as well to determine if the big power investors are abusing the public through their unhampered control over the energy sector.

But more importantly, policy makers must reconsider government’s energy development program that is hinged on deregulation and privatization. Even without a super-calamity like Yolanda, neoliberal policies like Epira and the Oil Deregulation Law are already greatly oppressing the public. ###

Read more about Epira and the Philippine power industry here and Oil Deregulation Law here

 

‘Padz’

Fr. Joe Dizon was an activist who was devoted to his vocation, and a priest who was committed to his activism (Photo from bulatlat.com)

Fr. Joe Dizon was an activist who was devoted to his vocation, and a priest who was committed to his activism (Photo from bulatlat.com)

One regret I have was not asking Fr. Joe Dizon to be our wedding priest. So when my wife gave birth to our second child last September, we talked about asking ‘Padz’ to officiate her christening. But that will happen no more. Last November 4, Padz passed away. He was 65 years old.

(“Fr. Joe Dizon asked for poor man’s burial”)

I best remember Padz as pilyo. And his priestly kapilyuhan endeared him to me, and I guess to many others as well who have known him and worked with him. One time he told me how a former congresswoman from a party-list group made ‘mano’ to him when he was at the House of Representatives. “Kinilabutan ako. Parang gusto kong batukan.” The former congresswoman was then parroting the red baiting propaganda of the military, which had victimized many of Padz’s colleagues and friends. Padz still did his priestly task and gave his hand, while the batukan happened only in his mind, he said, grinning.

Like a regular buddy, Padz was game. He doesn’t mind when we tease him every time he uses a magnifying glass when reading a text message. At one press conference which he attended despite being on a wheelchair, we jokingly asked him to stand up for the photo op. As always, he responded with a boyish grin.

I first met Padz about 12 years ago in a conference in Bangkok about workers and globalization. It was my first time abroad and was excited to see around and buy pasalubong. He volunteered to accompany me; he was still able to walk briskly back then. When we were buying some souvenir stuff, he asked the vendor for more than half the price of the item. “Nakakahiya namang tumawad itong paring ito,” I said to myself. But to my amazement, Padz eventually got it at a 50% discount! “Ganito dito,” he simply said. That was the first lesson I learned from him.

In the next couple of years I would see him occasionally; when we were both invited as speakers in some forums or when he asked Ibon to give inputs on current issues at the Workers’ Assistance Center (WAC) in Imus, Cavite. When I moved to Bayan, I saw him more often. Almost always, he would remind me of my smoking. “Tigilan mo na yan,” he would say. The last time I saw Padz was just after the Sona last July. There was a small ‘seminar’ on detox diet which we both attended. “Mas masarap pa rin ang crispy pata kesa singkamas,” he whispered to me at one point during the seminar. Padz loved food.

His genuine warmth and affection are matched only by his firmness in his advocacies and resolve to fight for social justice and genuine change. Padz was the face of poll watchdog Kontra Daya and in the past two elections was a fixture at protest actions in front of the Comelec main office in Manila. At one of the rallies, Comelec security personnel prevented Padz and other Kontra Daya leaders from entering the building to deliver a letter to the Commissioners. There were shoving and pushing and Padz was at the frontline. I was worried for him, being aware of his health condition. But there he was — a copy of the Kontra Daya letter in his hand, undeterred by the Comelec security people and his own physical limitations.

To be sure, that was a minor incident. Those who had known him since the Martial Law years certainly have much better stories of how Padz displayed courage in the face of far greater adversity. But it was an occasion that allowed me to have a glimpse of and see up close the priest and the activist, deteriorating health and all. I admired him even more.

Padz was an activist who was devoted to his vocation, and a priest who was committed to his activism. This made him effective in building alliances to advance the interest of the poor and oppressed people – the workers, farmers, fisherfolk, urban poor and others – that he has faithfully served in the past 40 years as a priest. I’ve seen him preside over meetings of disparate groups that would otherwise not sit together in a table to discuss common activities. And he did it very well and very effectively. He patiently hammered out unities while being firm in the political position he represents. No wonder that Padz, and the national democratic movement to which he belongs, figured prominently in many of the broadest and most important political alliances in the country.

His sudden demise hasn’t sunk yet to me, not even after attending the tribute for him by the people’s organizations he worked with and hearing the eulogies that honored his life as a priest of the people and as an activist of the national democratic movement. I wanted to feel the grief and pain but only his youthful grin and dry humor remain. Maybe because the meaningful way he lived his life and selflessly shared it to the poor and oppressed have filled me up to the brim that I could hardly feel the loss even now when Padz is already gone.

Padz may not have a statue or image like the Saints of his Church. But his is firmly built in the hearts of the people who will wage on the fight to build a society that is truly just and free.

US-PH “Partnership for Growth”: Greater economic intervention

While much of the discussion about the pivot and renewed PH-US relations centers on the military aspect, there is also the equally crucial, if not even more far-reaching, economic dimension of the pivot (Photo from bulatlat.com)

While much of the discussion about the pivot and renewed PH-US relations centers on the military aspect, there is also the equally crucial, if not even more far-reaching, economic dimension of the pivot (Photo from bulatlat.com)

Despite US President Barack Obama’s absence, State Secretary John Kerry’s visit still underlines the increased bilateral engagement between the Philippines and the US. It comes at a time when US foreign policy is increasingly focused on the region under its so-called pivot to Asia Pacific. The visit, which follows a series of high-profile exchange of visits between top Filipino and American Executive and Defense officials since 2010, is controversial amid ongoing talks between Manila and Washington to increase rotational presence of American troops in the country or basing privileges and the still ongoing territorial spat with China.

While much of the discussion about the pivot and renewed PH-US relations centers on the military aspect, there is also the equally crucial, if not even more far-reaching, economic dimension of the pivot. Under the Obama and Aquino presidencies, mechanisms to facilitate further reforms in the economy that promotes US economic interests are steadily being set up through US foreign assistance programs such as the comprehensive, multi-donor Partnership for Growth (PFG) initiative. Silently, the PFG and other US efforts are setting the stage for an even more wide-ranging and systematic US intervention in the country’s internal policy making.

PH dependence on US economy

The US has been able to perpetuate Philippine dependence on the US economy. American investors remain the biggest source of net foreign direct investments (FDI) in the Philippines. From 1999 to 2012, net FDI from the US reached $4.52 billion, accounting for 19.8% of the total during the said period. Last year, US net FDI was pegged at $784.74 billion or 38.6% of the total, and 248.9% higher than the figure in 2011, at a time when investments from Japan, the European Union (EU), Asean and others have sharply declined.

Similarly, the US continues to be the number one buyer of Philippine exports and biggest supplier of its imports. Direct Philippine-US trade for the period 1999-2012 was $218.64 billion or 17.5% of the total. During the same period, the US accounted for 19.4% of Philippine exports and 15.8% of imports. Certainly, the figures are much higher when one considers that a portion of Philippine trade with Asean and East Asia actually ends up with the US.

Finally, the US also accounts for the largest source of remittances from overseas Filipinos (OFs), including overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). From 1989 to 2012, total OF remittances reached $205.71 billion, of which $108.30 billion or an overwhelming 52.6%, come from US-based migrant workers. Preliminary data for 2013 covering the months of January to July show that remittances from the US reached $5.54 billion or 43.9% of the total during the said period. Since the 1980s, OF remittances have become the largest source of foreign earnings for the Philippines and practically keeping the backward economy somehow afloat. The figures from the US are bloated a bit by the practice of remittance centers in various cities abroad to course remittances through correspondent banks that are mostly US-based. But consider also that based on the latest (2009) stock estimate of OFs, US-based OFs account for 2.88 million of the 8.58 million Filipinos abroad, or 33.6% of the total.

Through the decades, the US has spent substantial amounts to sustain and deepen its clout. Disbursements of bilateral official development assistance (ODA) from the US for the Philippines from 1999 to 2011 reached $1.12 billion, 20.9% of total disbursements during the said period and the second largest behind Japan. However, while ODA disbursements from Japan have been considerably falling since the 2008 global financial and economic crisis, bilateral US aid during the same period has steadily increased, growing by an annual 18.5% from 2009 to 2011. Under the Obama administration and its announced pivot to Asia Pacific, disbursements of bilateral US economic aid have substantially increased. From an annual average of $108.12 million and a yearly growth of 4.6% from 2001 to 2008, US bilateral economic aid to the Philippines jumped to an annual average of $152.23 million and a yearly expansion of more than 18% from 2009 to 2011.

More US intervention, neoliberal reforms

While already expanding, US assistance to the Philippines is anticipated to further increase with the introduction by the Obama administration of new initiatives that facilitate greater US intervention in the country. Requested US aid for the Philippines for fiscal year 2014 is pegged at $188 million, 17.1% higher than the base appropriation for fiscal year 2013.

One such new initiative is the Partnership for Growth (PFG), a signature inter-agency effort of Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, which claims to “elevate economic growth in countries committed to good governance as a core priority for US development efforts”. The PFG supposedly aligns with policy reform areas outlined by President Aquino in the Philippine Development Plan (PDP). The PFG is defined by the active participation and coordination of more than a dozen US government agencies led by the State Department, USAID and the MCC as well as multilateral donors like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations (UN) agencies and even non-government organizations (NGOs) and private corporations.

A Statement of Principles was signed by both countries during the November 2011 Manila visit of then State Secretary Hillary Clinton. The document reflects the two governments’ supposed mutual goal to place the Philippines on a path to sustained, more inclusive economic growth, and elevate it to the ranks of high-performing emerging economies. For the US, the PFG will better position the Philippines in its objective of joining the TPP in the future.

Under the PFG, the US intends to deepen its role in national policy making such as through the five-year Joint Country Action Plan (JCAP) which identified priority areas for policy reforms in the Philippines, including trade and investment liberalization, deregulation, effective enforcement of contracts with private business (such as those engaging in PPP) as well as fiscal and judicial reforms. (See Box)

box - pfg action plan

An example of how US steers internal policy making is the PFG’s centerpiece program in the Philippines, which is the $433.91-million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). The MCC is a highly conditional aid and requires the Philippines to, among others, maintain so-called “economic freedom” to continue receiving the grant. For instance, one of the indicators of economic freedom, as designed by the MCC, is the Trade Policy Indicator which measures the country’s openness to international trade based on average tariff rates and non-tariff barriers (e.g. trade quotas, production subsidies, government procurement procedures, anti-dumping, local content requirements, etc.) to trade. The “Compact” or agreement between the Philippine government and MCC is that the latter may suspend or terminate the grant if the country fails to reverse its policies that are inconsistent with the Trade Policy Indicator and other indicators designed by the MCC.

Also, the MCC grant does not only facilitate further liberalization of the economy but serves as a tool as well for US intervention in counterinsurgency. Aside from the the $214.4-million Samar Road project, which targets communities in Samar that are considered strongholds of the New People’s Army (NPA), the MCC grant also includes the $120-million Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan – Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services (Kalahi-CIDSS). Kalahi is essentially the “social development” component of the military’s counterinsurgency campaign in Mindanao and in areas considered as stronghold of the NPA. Another project funded by the MCC grant is the $54.3-million Revenue Administration Reform Project (RARP) which aims to raise tax revenues, reduce tax evasion and revenue agent-related corruption. The rest of the grant is allocated to program administration and oversight.

“Arangkada”

Early this year, USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) launched the The Arangkada Philippines Project (TAPP) as part of the implementation of the PFG. Through the USAID-funded TAPP, AmCham will push for the implementation of the policy proposals contained in the comprehensive advocacy paper “Arangkada Philippines 2010: A business perspective” prepared by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines (JFC), of which AmCham is a key member.

The JFC paper listed 471 specific recommendations that promote the interest of foreign corporations in the country through greater liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization while intensifying the attack to the rights and welfare of the people.

Among others, their proposals are to: amend the Labor Code to allow subcontracting and easier termination of employees; promote IT-BPO curriculum in colleges and education reform, adopt K+12 model; lift restrictions on foreign ownership in media and advertising; promote tie-ups with foreign firms; protect PPP investors from political (i.e. regulatory) risks including TROs from courts; scrap ‘unwarranted’ taxes on foreign carriers; lift restrictions on foreign equity in power projects; privatize Agus and Pulangi dams; build more transport infrastructure through PPP; review policy disallowing “take-or-pay” and sovereign guarantees; promote PPP in the water sector; establish an export development fund to promote exports and investment; allow manufacturing industry to operate with less government interference such as price controls; liberalize importation of capital equipment; liberalize shipping industry; fully implement Mining Act; allow foreign ownership of land and retail facilities; allow relief from minimum wages; review the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL); apply ‘creative solutions’ to the 60-40 foreign ownership restriction pending Charter change (Cha-cha); privatize or close down government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCCs) to reduce fiscal burden, among others; use advisers (amicus curiae) when Supreme Court (SC) is ruling on issues that adversely affect the investment climate; promote labor flexibilization schemes; reduce corporate income tax and raise the value-added tax (VAT) and fuel excise taxes; and expand the conditional cash transfer (CCT) and Kalahi-CIDSS programs; encourage PPP in healthcare-related services.

With assistance from the TAPP, the JCF started producing Legislation Policy Brief, which identifies broad recommendations for Congress and the Executive. Among the many proposals of the JFC is the lifting of constitutional restrictions on foreign investments, which the AmCham has long been openly advocating. Thus, while Charter change (Cha-cha) is not explicitly identified in the PFG, its implementing components such as the TAPP provides pressure on the Philippine government to liberalize the Constitution.

Meanwhile, just recently, the USAID announced a $24-million Philippine-American (Phil-Am) Fund, another component of PFG implementation in the country, intended for civil society organizations (CSOs) working on projects in the areas of entrepreneurship and promotion of new businesses, governance, fighting human trafficking, technology-driven adult literacy and biodiversity conservation.

“Powerhouse” lobby group

Complementing and reinforcing the PFG is the establishment of lobby group US-Philippine Society (USPS), a private sector initiative which claims to broaden and expand interaction and understanding between the two countries in the areas of security, trade, investments, tourism, the environment, history, education and culture. The group intends to create a new and timely mechanism to elevate the Philippines’ profile in the US by bringing its longstanding historical ties fully into the 21st century when American policy interests are increasingly focused on East Asia. It was officially launched on 7 June 2012 during President Aquino’s official visit to Washington.

Its leadership includes John D. Negroponte, a former US Ambassador to the Philippines (1993-1996), first Director of National Intelligence (2005-2007) and former Deputy State Secretary (2007-2009), as co-chairman with Filipino business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan. Honorary chairmen are Maurice Greenberg, former chair and CEO of insurance and financial giant American International Group (AIG), and Washington Z. Sycip, founder of the Philippines’ largest multidisciplinary professional services firm SGV & Co. Current Ambassador to the US Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. is an ex-officio Board member.

Aside from them, the Board of Directors of USPS is also comprised of the top executives from some of the largest American corporations, namely: Citigroup, General Electric, Procter and Gamble, JP Morgan, Chevron and Coca Cola, among others. Prominent Filipino businessmen like Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, Ramon del Rosario and Enrique Razon are also members of the Board. The group’s current president is John F. Maisto, a former Political Officer of the US Embassy in Manila (1978-1982) and Director of Philippine Affairs at the State Department (1982-1986). The executive director, meanwhile, is Hank Hendrickson, a retired US Navy officer and former Foreign Service Officer at the US Embassy in Manila. On 21 January 2013, Negroponte led a so-called “powerhouse” delegation of the USPS in visiting the country, bringing with him officials of the American corporations belonging to the lobby group and held discussions with Aquino and top economic and defense officials as well as SC Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno to update on key economic and judicial reforms, including those under the PFG.

Defending PH sovereignty

The US pivot and Aquino’s subservience to US interests are creating conditions for increased US intervention in the country not only militarily but also in terms of economic policy making and governance. A new era in the more than a century old colonial and neocolonial relations between the Philippines and the US is indeed being ushered in by the Aquino and Obama regimes.

The serious implications on national sovereignty, human rights, regional peace and stability and even on the environment of greater US military presence and intervention are well-documented and widely discussed. However, there is a big challenge for advocates of national sovereignty and patrimony to deepen and widen the public discourse on US intervention and the Asia Pacific pivot to equally underscore how the US, in its desperate efforts to abate its latest economic crisis, is increasingly and systematically laying the groundwork to further steer the national economy towards serving its monopoly capitalist interests.

There is a need to draw and highlight how Philippine-US colonial and neocolonial ties and decades of neoliberal restructuring and reforms have stunted national development and destroyed industries and livelihood, perpetuating chronic poverty and the permanent economic crisis in the country.

Water arbitration: issues and implications

It's not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. The long-term solution is to reverse MWSS privatization. (Photo from the Water for the People Network)

Arbitration shows that it’s not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. The long-term solution is to reverse MWSS privatization. (Photo from the Water for the People Network)

Updated, first published as IBON Features

Last 24 September, Manila Water Co. Inc. officially filed a dispute notice before the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) questioning the decision of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) – Regulatory Office (RO) to reduce water rates. Maynilad Water Services Inc., meanwhile, will also file soon its own dispute notice that shall set off arbitration proceedings.

(Download a PowerPoint presentation on the arbitration process here)

What does this mean and what are the implications?

One is that aside from paying the costs of arbitration, consumers may have to wait as much as three months (90 days) or possibly even longer to enjoy the lower water rates ordered by regulators. That, of course, optimistically assumes that the lower rates will be implemented at all. There is the possibility that the lower rates could even be reversed after arbitration.

Another is that even when the lower rates are finally upheld, there is no guarantee that the money amassed by the water firms during the delay in its implementation and charging more than what they should have will still be returned to the consumers. The new rates are supposed to have taken effect beginning January 1, 2013 but there is still no mechanism for how to treat the overcharging at current higher rates by water firms since the start of the year.

Consider further that arbitration of a Rate Rebasing dispute should be decided by not later than September 30 of the year in which the dispute is referred to the panel per the Concession Agreements (CA) between the private concessionaires and the MWSS. A decision in so short a time is unlikely to happen though.

(Download a copy of the Concession Agreement and related documents here)

Already greatly exposed as being contrary to public interest, the privatization of Metro Manila’s water system is further being bared as exceedingly anti-people with the concessionaires’ push for arbitration.

It also belies claims that privatization can benefit the public if only strict regulation is applied. In contrast, the current controversy shows that there can be no effective regulation under privatization. In the case of MWSS, the privatization contract or CA was designed to undermine government regulation as decisions are ultimately made by an Appeals Panel where the concessionaire and a representative of foreign business interests have a say.

Appeals Panel

Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism provided under Section 12.2 of the CA. It is the last resort for concessionaires and the MWSS to settle disagreements, which could no longer be resolved through negotiation, on the interpretation and implementation of the CA. Arbitration proceedings under the CA are in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Commission on International Trade Law.

An Appeals Panel handles the arbitration proceedings. According to Section 12.3 of the CA, its members include one representative each designated by the concessionaire and the MWSS-RO. A third member acts as the Chairman of the Appeals Panel and his or her appointment depends on the nature of the dispute.

For major disputes such as the ongoing controversy arising from the Rate Rebasing exercise, the President of the ICC will appoint the Chairman. For minor disputes, the representative of the concessionaire and the RO in the Appeals Panel will designate the Chairman. Foreigners can be appointed as members of the Appeals Panel, including as Chairman.

Among those being eyed to represent the RO in the Appeals Panel are former Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Reynato Puno, former SC Associate Justice Jose Vitug, and University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law Dean Danilo Concepcion.

But the RO representative is easily outnumbered by the two representatives from the private sector, i.e. the concessionaire and the Chairman appointed by the ICC. Being from the business sector, the ICC representative could be presumed to be more partial to the interest of the concessionaires than of the public. Decisions by the Appeals Panel need not be through consensus but by a simple majority vote.

Moreover, consumers are not represented in the Appeals Panel. They also do not have access to the proceedings which are done behind closed doors.

Also, under Section 12.5 of the CA, government regulators and the concessionaires agreed to waive their right to appeal the decision of the Appeals Panel through any court, judicial or regulatory body. This illustrates how, under MWSS privatization, government has abdicated its sovereign power to regulate and set policies to protect the public interest.

RO resolution

To recall, the RO denied the rate hike applications of Maynilad (Php8.58 per cubic meter) and Manila Water (Php5.83 per cu. m.). Instead, the regulators ordered the concessionaires to reduce their basic charge by Php0.29 (Maynilad) to Php1.45 (Manila Water) per cu. m. every year until 2017.

(Download a copy of the RO resolutions: Maynilad, Manila Water)

The concessionaires’ rate hike proposals and the subsequent RO decision form part of Rate Rebasing. It is an exercise to determine water rates that will allow the concessionaires to recover their expenses and assures them of a profit rate. Rate Rebasing is done every five years throughout the 40-year lifespan of the CA.

While still falling short of correcting and reversing the 16 years of abuse and oppression of consumers under MWSS privatization, the RO’s decision is still a welcome development and would not have been possible without strong public pressure. It affirmed many of the issues long being raised by anti-MWSS privatization advocates. Aside from the highly controversial income taxes (additional data and discussion here), the RO resolution also covered other questionable items being charged to consumers such as the cost of unimplemented projects, donations and advertising, and bloated costs of projects, among others.

On top of these disallowed items, the RO also ordered the concessionaires to stop charging the Php1 per cu. m. Currency Exchange Rate Adjustment (CERA). Thus, the immediate impact of the RO resolution on water bills by October should be a reduction of Php1.29 per cu. m. for Maynilad customers and Php2.45 for Manila Water’s.

Derailing the rate cuts

But such rate cuts will only become effective if the RO resolutions are not derailed by the arbitration proceedings. The concessionaires argue that arbitration means that the lower rates will not be implemented yet. And worse, it may even be reversed in case the Appeals Panel decides in favor of Maynilad and Manila Water.

In a paid ad (see image below), Maynilad cited Section 7.1 of the CA. This section pertains to MWSS’s obligation to “cooperate with the concessionaire” on, among others, the implementation of changes to standard rates as instructed by the RO or by the Appeals Panel. According to Maynilad, the said provision means that the Appeals Panel will have the final say on the new rate in case the RO-determined rate is brought to arbitration. Thus, current rates will continue to apply until the Appeals Panel has made a decision.

maynilad paid ad - 16 sep

Regulators are questioning such interpretation of the CA. But if the concessionaires were right, consumers will continue to pay water bills bloated by the income taxes of and other onerous charges imposed by the water firms. Section 12.4 (vi) of the CA says that unless stated otherwise the Appeals Panel has 90 days to make a decision from receipt of a dispute notice. But it can also opt to extend the proceedings if mutually agreed by the disputing parties although a decision should be made not later than September 30 of the year in which the rebasing dispute is referred to.

On top of all these is the issue of arbitration costs which under Section 12.6 of the CA shall be all shouldered by the public sector – i.e. government through the MWSS and the consumers through the pass-on charges that can be imposed by the concessionaires. Arbitration costs include the fees and expenses of panel members and legal, economic or technical consultants retained by the Appeals Panel. In its 16-year history, arbitration proceedings have been conducted thrice with the total cost reaching P140.04 million.

Clearly, it is not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. By design, MWSS privatization was meant to protect the interests of the private investors, making effective regulation practically impossible. As water advocacy groups like the Water for the People Network (WPN) assert, lower water rates can only be realized through effective state control. IBON Features

Sona 2013: Silent on water tax, all-out on LRT/MRT fare hike

Two things stood out in the State of the Nation Address (Sona) that reaffirmed the big business and neoliberal bias of President Benigno Aquino III. First, which stood out because of its conspicuous absence in the Sona, is the issue of passed on income taxes and other expenses by Manila Water and Maynilad. Second is the all-out push by Aquino to hike the fares in LRT and MRT, which is tied to the regime’s public-private partnership (PPP) or privatization program.

Incidentally, both involve two influential business interests that are widely seen to have close ties with the Aquino administration – the Ayala family and the group of Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP). The Ayalas control Manila Water while the MVP group controls Maynilad. These big business interests have also set up the Light Rail Manila Consortium, one of the bidders in the scheduled privatization of LRT 1 this month.

Double standards

Aquino’s evasion of the water income tax issue underscores the double standards of his daang matuwid and anti-corruption rhetoric, which as usual was again prominent in his speech. In his Sona, the President praised the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) for instituting reforms in the agency. It will be recalled that in his first Sona, Aquino hit the water agency for hefty bonuses enjoyed by its officials. Such anomaly has already been addressed, said Aquino, citing the almost P2-billion income of MWSS last year from a P34-million deficit in 2010. He also praised Sec. Rogelio Singson, who used to be president and CEO of Maynilad, for addressing corruption in the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

But while extolling the MWSS and Singson for the supposed good governance reforms in their agencies, Aquino did not mention the onerous Concession Agreement that involved MWSS and Singson and made consumers pay for the income taxes, corporate donations, advertisements and other expenses of Maynilad and Manila Water. More importantly, the President said nothing on what he intends to do with the said anomalous PPP contract. Did Sec. Rene Almendras, who as former Manila Water president was also involved in implementing the controversial Concession Agreement had a hand in determining the content of the Sona in his capacity as Secretary to the Cabinet?

The presence of former top executives of the Ayalas and MVP in key Cabinet positions and the PPP as centerpiece economic program of the Aquino administration explain the deliberate silence of the President on the controversy hounding Manila Water and Maynilad. While the MWSS-Regulatory Office is disputing the private water concessionaires on the issue of income taxes and other pass-on charges, it is still Malacañang that will be decisive ultimately.

Through their paid ads weeks before the Sona, Manila Water and Maynilad have warned not only the regulators but Malacañang itself on the supposed sanctity of privatization contracts. They know that the privatization of MWSS is regarded as the barometer of PPP in the Philippines and a decision detrimental to the water concessionaires (and favorable to the consumers) will seriously undermine the PPP initiatives of Aquino. Aquino’s refusal to issue a categorical statement backing the widespread public clamor against the questionable charges of Manila Water and Maynilad in his Sona speaks volumes about where the President’s loyalty lies. Malacañang apparently does not want to upset the Ayalas and the MVP group which have been among the most aggressive in securing PPP contracts from government.

Fare hike and privatization

While Aquino was silent on the abusive pricing of Manila Water and Maynilad and the oppressiveness of the Concession Agreement, the President was clear in his relentless push to increase the fares in LRT and MRT. Like the MWSS, the LRT and MRT fare hike was also among the controversial issues raised by Aquino in his first Sona.

Reiterating his position in 2010, Aquino claimed that increasing the LRT and MRT fares to approximate air conditioned bus fares is justified. He raised the argument repeatedly pointed out by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) officials – that government is supposedly subsidizing P25 (LRT) to P45 (MRT). Freeing up such subsidies means more funds for social services that will benefit the entire country and not only the Metro Manila commuters, argued the President. The DOTC has earlier announced that it will implement a P10-fare hike to be implemented in two tranches.

But it has been pointed out that the supposed subsidies, in the case of MRT, actually go to service debts arising from the guaranteed profits and sovereign guarantees given by government to the train system’s former private operators. LRT lines, on the other hand, are generating enough revenues to cover its maintenance and operation, although debts also bloat the total costs. Debts, however, should not be passed on to commuters as mass transportation is a public investment that generates economic and social gains.

Aquino and his transportation officials are not saying it, but the real reason behind the persistent drive to raise LRT and MRT fares is the government’s grand PPP program for Metro Manila’s light rail system. It will start with the P60.63-billion LRT 1 extension and privatization, the biggest PPP project so far of the administration. Increasing the fares would demonstrate government’s resolve and ability to regularly adjust fares, despite its unpopularity, to make the system profitable as planned in the draft 35-year Concession Agreement for LRT 1.

The said LRT 1 Concession Agreement is as onerous as the MWSS Concession Agreement. Its latest draft (as of June 27) still contains the so-called regulatory risk guarantee. Section 20.4.a of the draft agreement allows the private LRT 1 operator to secure “deficit payment” from government (i.e., taxpayers) when the approved fare is lower than the “notional fare”. The notional fare is a pre-determined fare level set out in the Concession Agreement that will ensure the commercial viability of LRT 1 and the profits of its private operator. This effectively deregulates the setting of fares and renders meaningless any intervention from Congress, the courts and other regulatory agencies.

Aside from the Ayala-MVP group, other LRT 1 bidders are presidential Uncle Danding Cojuangco’s SMC Infra Resources Inc.; the Consunjis’ DMCI Holdings Inc., which also lists Japanese giant Marubeni Corp. as one of its partners; and the MTD Samsung Consortium of Malaysia and South Korea.

Aquino packaged his Sona as the Sona of the people. He claimed that inclusive growth is behind every initiative of his administration. The past three years say otherwise. His silence on the Manila Water and Maynilad controversy, his all-out push for LRT and MRT fare hike, his rabid promotion of neoliberal privatization, all say otherwise. (END)

Prices, profits and poverty: Three years of the Aquino presidency

gutom at dukhang pilipino

Two weeks before the fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Benigno Aquino III, the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) revealed that the income gap between the rich and poor in the country continues to widen. The high-income class saw their income grow much faster (10.4% between 2010 and 2011) than those of the middle (4.3%) and low-income (8.2%) groups. To be sure, the NSCB’s “revelation” is nothing new, but nonetheless, it affirmed widespread criticisms that the economic growth being hyped by the three-year old Aquino administration merely benefited the rich and has been meaningless to the poor.

But as always, Malacañang was quick to dismiss any claim that challenges the illusion of economic prosperity it is trying to sell, even if it comes from an official government body like the NSCB. The gap is not widening, said the Palace’s chief spokesman, because all income classes have posted growth. Never mind if simple math says that a 10%-increase in a company executive’s monthly salary of P200,000 and an 8%-increase in an ordinary employee’s monthly income of P10,000 means that their income gap has widened by P19,200 a month. There is a serious problem when government readily distorts basic facts and logic to suit its propaganda.

Indeed, the glaring reality in the first three years of the Aquino administration is that the number of poor and hungry families and jobless workers has been constantly rising while a handful of super-rich amass wealth at unprecedented levels. All the publicity about high gross domestic product (GDP) growth, unparalleled trading in the stock market and historic investment grade rating merely points to how profitable the economy has become for the country’s elite and their foreign patrons.

This phenomenon can only be adequately explained by examining the political and economic structures of Philippine society. For starters, Aquino did not re-orient the economy and created conditions that will dismantle its semi-colonial (i.e., export-oriented, import-dependent economy) and semi-feudal (i.e., vast countryside with backward production and intense land monopoly) character. Industries remain stunted and vast haciendas remain intact depriving millions of Filipinos of long-term, gainful and productive employment and livelihood. Infrastructure development, which has become the favorite investment destination of big compradors and foreign banks and corporations under Aquino’s public-private partnership (PPP), is being pursued not for national industrialization but to facilitate the plunder of the economy by big local and foreign business interests. This also explains why Aquino’s “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (without corruption, there is no poverty) is fundamentally flawed and deceptive.

Such underlying reality is being aggravated by the neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation that result to ever rising prices, with big business groups and families that control privatized and deregulated sectors of the economy massively accumulating wealth while the people are oppressed and impoverished by soaring cost of living. This has been one of the easily discernible trends in the first three years of the Aquino presidency.

Prices

The prices of basic goods and services have sustained their steep rise due to the continued implementation by Aquino of neoliberal privatization and deregulation programs. This has been most felt in the sectors of water, electricity, petroleum and education. The average inflation rate (i.e., the pace of change of prices) of water, electricity, gas and other fuels (plus housing) from July 2010 to June 2013 is 4.3 percent. The inflation rate of education during the same period is 4.6 percent. Both are higher than the overall inflation rate of 3.6 percent. Only alcoholic beverages and tobacco posted a higher inflation rate with10.4% mainly due to the Sin Tax Law, also a neoliberal reform, which took effect this year. (See Chart 1)

inflation rate, by commodity

Note that the costs of water, power and oil products are rising at a much quicker pace today. The mentioned 4.3% inflation rate of utilities and fuels posted in the first three years of Aquino is faster than the 3.4% recorded in the last three years of Arroyo. It does not mean, however, that Arroyo was better than her successor at keeping prices in check. They both adhere to the same neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation that let prices spiral. It’s just that Aquino is a more ardent implementor of neoliberalism than his former Economics teacher at the Ateneo.

Prices have soared as government ditched its regulatory duties like in the case of oil, and turned over to profit-oriented private firms many of its key functions like in the case of water and electricity. These paved the way for the profiteering of huge private monopolies. Among the first challenges to Aquino when he assumed power was to reverse these neoliberal prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank that his mother Cory first implemented in the late 1980s.

Alas, when pump prices escalated in 2011, Aquino immediately defended the Oil Deregulation Law amid mounting calls for price control. He also rejected demands to scrap or at least reduce the 12% value-added tax (VAT) on petroleum products as an immediate relief. For Aquino’s inaction on skyrocketing oil prices, youth activists popularized Noynoying or lazing around. (Read more on oil deregulation here) Under Aquino, the pump price of diesel has increased by 24%; gasoline, 17%; and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), 7-14 percent.

When Mindanao faced a power crisis in 2012, Aquino pushed for the full implementation of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira). The solution, said Aquino, is to privatize the region’s hydropower plants and for Mindanaons to pay more for electricity. His administration also started imposing this year Epira’s universal charge on stranded costs to pay for the post-privatization residual debts of the National Power Corp. (Napocor). These debts arose from the sweetheart deals of Napocor with independent power producers. (Read more on Napocor privatization here)

Since Aquino became President, the distribution charge of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) has already jumped by 43 percent. The transmission charge of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) has already increased by 28 percent. Due to the imposition of the universal charge on stranded costs, the universal charge being imposed by Meralco has ballooned by 213 percent.

Meanwhile, Malacañang has remained silent on the raging controversy surrounding the privatization contract of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS). But it is noteworthy that the Aquino administration has been showcasing the privatization of MWSS to lure investors to its public-private partnership (PPP) program. The public now understands why MWSS is such an appealing model to PPP investors. In their Concession Agreement with MWSS, Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Manila Water Co. Inc. have been allowed to pass on to consumers billions of pesos in past and future income taxes, corporate donations, advertisements, projects, etc. and earn guaranteed profits from such onerous charges. This is on top of automatic adjustments in the basic rates as well as the collection of questionable items. (Read more on MWSS privatization here) The all-in water tariff being charged by Manila Water has already gone up by 24% and Maynilad by 41% since Aquino took over.

Table 1 below sums up the movement in prices of oil products and water and electricity rates in the first three years of the Aquino presidency.

oil prices, power & water

Tuition’s steady increase resulted in the high inflation rate of education. In the past three years, the Aquino administration approved almost nine out of every 10 applications for tuition hikes by tertiary schools. For this school year, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) approved the tuition hike application of 354 tertiary schools and of at least 903 private elementary and high schools. In 2011 and 2012, CHED allowed 281 and 267 tertiary schools, respectively to increase tuition.

Profits

Big business has been cashing in huge amounts of profits due to the ever increasing prices of basic goods and services (and continued depression of wages). Due to rising electricity rates, for instance, the net income of Meralco has been growing by 42% or P3.67 billion annually from 2010 to 2012 and that of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP), by 17% or P2.91 billion (from 2010 to 2011).

Meanwhile, oil companies’ net income during the period has been weighed down by relatively lower prices in 2012. Petron’s net income, for instance, grew by 46% a year from 2010 to 2011 but declined by 73% last year, pulling down its annual net income expansion to just 7% in the last three years. Nonetheless, it still averaged an annual net income of P6.23 billion during the period. As an industry, electricity and oil and gas firms that belong to the top 1,000 corporations posted a collective 48% or P42.64 billion yearly net income growth from 2010 to 2011.

Similarly, because of rising water rates, Maynilad’s net income has been increasing by 36% or P1.33 billion every year and Manila Water by 19% or P737 million from 2010 to 2012.

Another indicator of the robust financial health of these firms is the gross profit margin. Among all industries in the top 1,000 corporations, electricity, oil and water companies registered some of the largest gross profit margins. In 2010 and 2011, the average annual gross profit margin of electricity and oil firms reached 32%, higher than the 27% they registered in 2008 and 2009. On the other hand, water firms posted a gross profit margin of 36.1% in 2010 and 2011, slightly lower than the 36.7% it recorded in 2008 and 2009. Other profitable industries include mining (50% profit margin in 2010 and 2011), banking and other financial activities (47%), information and communication technology (42%), and real estate (36%).

All in all, the average gross profit margin of the top 1,000 corporations improved from 21% to 23% in the periods being covered.  Also, their total net income grew from P755.97 billion in 2009 to P804.07 billion in 2010 to P868.08 billion in 2011, or an annual expansion rate of more than 7 percent.

Richest

Not surprisingly, a small group of super-rich families, which together with their foreign partners and financiers, control the country’s utilities, energy and oil companies, banks, mining firms, and real estate and infrastructure development among others, are amassing unimaginable wealth.

Forbes’ annual list of the world’s richest people shows a steadily and immensely growing wealth of the super-rich in the Philippines, who control the country’s largest companies, in the first three years of the Aquino administration. From $16.4 billion in 2009, the combined wealth of the 40 richest Filipinos has ballooned to $47.4 billion in 2012, or a 189%-increase. (See Chart 2 and Table 2) Forbes listed only 11 richest Filipinos for 2013 but their combined wealth has already reached a whopping $39.9 billion.

forbes richest filipinos 2009-2012

Table 2

Richest Filipinos as listed by Forbes Magazine ($ billion)

Name

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Henry Sy

4.00

1.70

3.10

3.50

5.00

7.20

9.10

13.20

Lucio Tan

2.30

1.60

1.50

1.70

2.10

2.80

4.50

5.00

Enrique Razon Jr.

0.29

0.82

0.53

0.62

0.98

1.60

3.60

4.90

John Gokongwei

0.70

0.43

0.68

0.72

1.50

2.40

3.20

David Consunji

0.15

0.21

0.11

0.30

0.72

1.90

2.70

2.80

Andrew Tan

0.48

1.10

0.70

0.85

1.20

2.00

2.30

3.95

Jaime Zobel de Ayala

2.00

2.00

1.20

1.20

1.40

1.70

2.20

George Ty

0.83

0.87

0.44

0.52

0.81

1.10

1.70

2.60

Roberto Ongpin

3.00

1.30

1.50

1.20

Danding Cojuangco

0.84

0.54

0.61

0.66

0.76

1.40

1.40

Roberto Coyiuto Jr.

0.29

0.31

0.40

1.30

1.60

Tony Tan Caktiong

0.58

0.79

0.69

0.71

0.98

1.00

1.25

1.40

Lucio & Susan Co

1.20

2.00

Inigo & Mercedes Zobel

0.66

0.43

0.44

0.73

0.98

1.15

Emilio Yap

0.35

0.45

0.42

0.51

0.67

0.93

1.10

Jon Ramon Aboitiz

0.13

0.13

0.36

0.76

0.96

Andrew Gotianun

0.28

0.86

0.24

0.31

0.50

0.80

0.83

1.20

Manny Villar

0.11

0.94

0.43

0.53

0.38

0.62

0.72

Beatrice Campos

0.16

0.22

0.33

0.41

0.84

0.69

0.70

Vivian Que Azcona

0.08

0.67

0.36

0.39

0.45

0.56

0.69

Alfonso Yuchengco

0.23

0.37

0.20

0.23

0.26

0.37

0.57

Mariano Tan

0.10

0.14

0.20

0.18

0.33

0.38

0.42

Enrique Aboitiz

0.28

0.38

0.05

0.15

0.31

0.40

Eric Recto

0.20

0.37

Jose Antonio

0.25

0.30

Glibert Duavit

0.21

0.19

0.13

0.16

0.15

0.19

0.27

Menardo Jimenez

0.21

0.19

0.13

0.16

0.14

0.19

0.27

Frederic Dy

0.07

0.07

0.04

0.07

0.11

0.26

Manuel Zamora

0.08

0.11

0.13

0.11

0.12

0.15

0.26

Alfredo Ramos

0.13

0.12

0.12

0.18

0.25

Oscar Lopez

0.28

0.25

Felipe Gozon

0.16

0.24

Betty Ang

0.17

0.24

Wilfred Uytengsu Sr.

0.15

0.23

Juliette Romualdez

0.16

0.20

Bienvenido Tantoco Sr.

0.10

0.20

Jacinto Ng Sr.

0.12

0.19

Tomas Alcantara

0.16

0.16

Michael Cosiquien

0.15

Edgar Sia II

0.09

0.14

2006-2012 data as compiled by Rappler
2013 figures as reported by The Philippine Star

Cojuangco

Among the country’s richest based on the Forbes list is presidential uncle Danding Cojuangco, whose San Miguel Corporation (SMC) has stakes in Petron and Meralco as well Jaime Zobel de Ayala, whose many business interests include Manila Water. Cojuangco has a declared wealth of $1.4 billion in 2012, or 112% higher than his recorded wealth in 2009. Manned by his right-hand man Ramon S. Ang, Cojuangco’s San Miguel Corp. (SMC) registered a 61%-increase in its net income between 2010 and 2012. Originally a food and beverages company, the conglomerate has aggressively expanded into oil and energy (Petron, SMC Global Power Holdings, and San Miguel Energy Corp. and Meralco) as well as infrastructure. Taking advantage of Epira, SMC now holds the largest share, about 20%, in the country’s power generation capacity. SMC is also investing in mining through a stake in the Sagittarius Mines Inc., operator of the controversial $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold project in South Cotabato.

Ayala

Meanwhile, Ayala’s total wealth was pegged at $2.2 billion in 2012, 83% higher than his wealth in 2009. Aside from Manila Water (which is also lists as investors the World Bank’s International Finance Corp., UK’s United Utilities, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp., as well as American and European investment firms), the Ayala group has interests in banking (Bank of the Philippine Islands), real estate (Ayala Land) and telecommunications (Globe).

Pangilinan

While conspicuously absent in the Forbes list, Manny V. Pangilinan is widely considered as among the richest billionaires in the country due to his various business interests including Maynilad and Meralco. Aside from utilities, Pangilinan also has interests in telecommunications (PLDT, Smart), infrastructure and tollways (Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. which operates SCTEX and NLEX), media (TV5 and various newspapers), mining (Philex Mining Corp.) and a growing number of hospitals (Makati Medical Center, Cardinal Santos Medical Center and Asian Hospital, among others). However, it must also be noted that these business interests are under the Hong Kong-based First Pacific Company Ltd., which is part of the corporate empire of Indonesia’s largest conglomerate, the Salim Group.

Top 5

The richest Filipino, based on the Forbes list, is Henry Sy, known for his chain of SM malls (the Philippines’ largest retail business) with a declared wealth of $13.2 billion in 2013. His wealth has increased by 277% since 2009, boosted by his expansion in the power industry through the NGCP, which because of Epira now has a monopoly over the country’s transmission system. His holding company, SM Investments Corp., saw its profits grow by 34% between 2010 and 2012. Sy’s BDO Unibank Inc., the largest bank in the country, posted a 61%-increase in its net income during the same period while SM Prime Holdings, which handles the SM malls, had a 29%-increase.

Following Sy is Lucio Tan, whose wealth jumped by 194% to $5 billion during the same period. Tan’s Fortune Tobacco and American giant Philip Morris have partnered under the PMFTC Inc. to monopolize the local cigarette market. Between 2010 and 2012, PMFTC Inc. saw its net income swell by 3,189 percent. Tan also controls Tanduay, Asia Brewery, Eton Properties (notorious for occupational hazards), the recently merged Philippine National Bank (PNB) and Allied Bank, as well as the University of the East (one of the educational institutions included in the top 1,000 corporations). Enrique Razon came in a close third with $4.9 billion, an enormous 690% expansion from his wealth in 2009. Razon is known for his International Container Port Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI), which makes its fortune from privatized ports here and abroad, but is also expanding into casino operation through Bloomberry Resorts and Hotels Inc., which operates the recently opened Solaire Resort and Casino.

The fourth richest Filipino based on the Forbes list is Andrew Tan ($3.95 billion, 365% higher than 2009). He lists among his business interests the Alliance Global, which controls property developer Megaworld and the local franchise of US-based global food chain giant McDonalds. Like Razon, Andrew Tan will soon build and operate hotel and casino facilities at the so-called Pagcor Entertainment City in Manila. Completing the five richest Filipinos is David Consunji whose $2.8-billion wealth in 2013 an enormous 833% increase from his reported wealth in 2010. His main business interest is construction giant DMCI Holdings, which has also expanded to mining (Semirara Mining Corp.), energy (DMCI Power Corp.) and water (Maynilad). The Consunji group is among the most active in the privatization of power plants and IPP (independent power producer) contracts under Epira.

Poverty

Wages and incomes could barely cope with the ever rising prices of basic goods and services. In Aquino’s first three years, the daily minimum wage in NCR has increased by just P52 – from P404 (June 2010) to P456 today. The family living wage, which approximates the cost of living or the amount needed by a family to meet daily basic food and non-food needs, was pegged at P983 in end-2010 and at P1,034 in end-2012, using think tank IBON Foundation’s estimates, or an increase of P51. This means that the wage hikes have just been wiped out by the increase in the cost of living. Thus, the minimum wage remained way below the amount needed for a family to live decently, pegged at 44% of the cost of living today.

Based on SWS surveys, the number of poor families (annual average) climbed from 8.9 million in 2010 to 9.9 million in 2011 and further to 10.5 million last year. In the first quarter of 2013, the SWS reported that 10.6 million families consider themselves poor. This means that under Aquino, the number of poor families has increased by 1.7 million, or about 8.5 million Filipinos. Even official statistics indicate that poverty, at best, did not improve under Aquino. The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) reported that poverty incidence among families stood at 22.3% in the first semester of 2012, which it described as practically unchanged from 2006 (23.4%) and 2009 (22.9%) figures.  (See Chart 3)

sws poverty 2010 - 2013 q1

SWS surveys also show that the number of families experiencing hunger has increased as well under Aquino. From 3.6 million families in 2010 (annual average), the number rose to 4 million in 2011 and further to 4.1 million last year. The first quarter 2013 SWS report indicates that hunger has not tempered, with 3.9 million families reporting that they experience involuntary hunger. In Aquino’s first three years in office, about half a million families or some 2.5 million Filipinos were added to those who go hungry. NSCB data, on the other hand, indicate that the incidence of food poor families (i.e., those who live in extreme poverty, with incomes not enough to buy even basic food needs) remains unchanged as well. In the first semester of 2012, it stood at 10% of families, identical with 2011’s 10% and just a bit lower than 2010’s 10.8 percent. (See Chart 4)

sws hunger 2010 - 2013 q1

The supposed economic growth is not creating jobs. SWS survey shows that the number of unemployed workers remained at 9.5 million in 2010 and 2011 (annual average), then jumped to 11.6 million in 2012. In the first quarter of 2013, SWS reported that there were 11.1 million jobless workers. This trend is being affirmed by government’s official unemployment data. Based on figures from the National Statistics Office (NSO), unemployment rate increased from 7.1% when Aquino took over (July and October 2010 average) to 7.3% this year (January and April 2013 average).  (See Chart 5)

sws unemployment 2010 - 2013 q1

Worst is yet to come

Aquino, in a recent speech, confidently declared that “the best is yet to come”. He promised that services will gain more speed in the second half of his term. Claiming to have realized that so many things still need to be done, the President said that his SONA will reflect the true state of the nation.

But if Aquino will stick to the same neoliberal policies that further impoverish the poor, the people should expect the worst. After the SONA, those who live in Metro Manila face the prospects of higher water rates and fares in LRT and MRT. Maynilad and Manila Water are seeking basic rate hikes of P8.58 and P5.83 per cubic meter, respectively. The planned increases are part of the so-called rate rebasing under the privatization of MWSS, which has been further exposed as a highly onerous PPP deal. Consumers in other parts of the country like Bacolod and Davao are also confronted with higher fees due to privatization efforts aimed at their water districts.

Meanwhile, LRT and MRT commuters will shoulder an initial P5 average fare hike that officials reportedly want to implement by August. Another P5-increase is set for next year. The fare hikes are part of Aquino’s plan to privatize the light rail system. LRT 1 is already slated for bidding this July with the groups of Pangilinan, Ayala, Cojuangco and Consunji as well as South Korean and Malaysian investors participating. The draft LRT 1 privatization contract provides for a regulatory risk guarantee wherein taxpayers will shoulder the cost in case the private operator could not implement a fare hike due to intervention by the courts or Congress.

Power rates, on the other hand, will again rise as another round of increase in the universal charge is expected soon to recover Napocor’s stranded debts as mandated under Epira. This is on top of the regular increases in the generation, distribution, transmission and other charges. Oil prices will remain artificially high and volatile due to foreign monopoly control and deregulation. Even the price of rice is starting to climb up, increasing by as much as P2 a kilo last week due to the continued operation of rice cartels and privatization of the functions of the National Food Authority (NFA).

The second half of Aquino’s term is shaping up to be three more years of increasing prosperity for the elite and worsening economic exclusion of the poor. Thus, while the Aquino clique savors the illusion of having consolidated its power after the midterm elections, in reality, social contradictions will surely further intensify and challenge the regime. (End)