“Growth” for big business, at the people’s expense

growth under aquino - ayala-pangilinan-ppp.gov.ph

The Ayala and Pangilinan groups team up in a bid to bag the ₱60-billion LRT 1 privatization project, so far the biggest PPP initiative of the Aquino administration. San Miguel Corp. of presidential uncle Danding Cojuangco is also bidding for the contract. These groups, which enjoy close ties with Aquino, have made a fortune by cornering privatization deals that burden the people with high user fees. (Photo from www.ppp.gov.ph)

Read first part

Structural issues

With the rapid and steady decline of the domestic labor market, labor export has further intensified under Aquino who deploys an average of 1.58 million OFWs a year, a significant jump from the 1 million during Arroyo’s term. If you stretch the comparison to the 1980s, the country is exporting about 3-4 times more OFWs today. In addition, OFW deployment relative to the number of domestically employed workers has steadily increased through the years – from just 2.9% in 2001 to 4.5% in 2011 – indicating the deepening reliance on labor export of the Philippines.

Their remittances (which for the first time breached the $20-billion mark in 2011 and as of September 2012 is reported at $15.57 billion but expected by the World Bank to reach a new record high of $24 billion for the full year) have been keeping the economy afloat in the past three decades by providing means for domestic consumption and payments for our import-dependent production (trade deficit stood at $6.8 billion as of October) and massive foreign debt (pegged at $61.72 billion as of September, which is also the quick and straight answer to one of the favorite 2012 highlights of the administration – the Philippines supposedly being a creditor nation).

In fact, while exports and FDI inflows have increased this year, OFW remittances, the third largest in the world behind remittances from Chinese and Mexican migrant workers, remained the single largest source of dollars for the economy. In the past 10 years, annual OFW remittances are almost 90 times the size of net FDI while the trade balance, as in previous decades, remained perennially in the red, meaning that the neocolonial import-export sector continues to take out invaluable resources from the country, while others in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore are posting trade surplus of between $25 to $43 billion. Like neocolonial trade, labor export actually takes away more from the economy than the remittances it brings as highly-skilled and trained Filipino workers render their productivity to foreign economies instead of ours. The social costs of labor export such as disintegrating families, issues left unmeasured by statistics, should not be ignored as well.

While actually symptomatic of the permanent and structural crisis that forever besets the Philippines, labor export and remittances drive “growth” as measured by the GDP. This is perhaps one of the biggest anomalies of our maldevelopment. The surprising third quarter expansion, for instance, was mainly driven among others by the 24.3% growth in construction gross value-added (GVA) and 24.8% growth in construction expenditure as record-breaking inflows of remittances fuel demand for residential property. The so-called real estate boom is also being pushed by the BPO sector that according to industry insiders has been driving up demand for new office space which is expected to hit a record 400,000 to half a million square meters this year, or an increase of as much as 25% from 2011.

Like labor export, growth stimulated by BPO is an aberration because its predominance in economic production is actually indicative of the country’s continuing failure to develop and industrialize. Both are the results of the domestic economy’s longstanding structural inability to generate sustainable and productive jobs from vibrant local industries including the manufacture of consumer and industrial goods and modernized agriculture. Without a national industrialization plan, we are forced to rely on what the US and other rich countries require us to do for their advanced economies, whether as production workers in their global assembly lines and factories or as call center agents to service the various needs of their clients. Certainly, they do create some (low-paying, insecure) jobs but just enough to meet their needs while the jobs generated are totally detached from our own development needs.

Furthermore, the so-called resilience amid the global crisis is not because the economy is internally-driven by sustainable, job-generating domestic industries but because our main drivers of growth – BPO and labor export – are precisely useful cost-cutting schemes for the crisis-hit economies of the First World to cope with the economic crunch. In other words, we may continue to “grow” amid the global crisis, but at the great expense of our workers who will be forced to accept further exploitative arrangements in the form of more depressed wages and lack of social protection whether as an irregular call center agent here or an undocumented migrant worker in the US.

At our expense

“Growth” indeed has been at our expense. Not only is the supposed growth not creating enough jobs, it is also being pushed by skyrocketing costs of basic needs and vital economic services. At current prices, electricity, gas and water grew the second fastest in the third quarter among all major industries, just behind construction as the year as usual saw the regular rate increases in privatized electricity and water. While this meant additional burden for the public, it meant more profits for the private corporations that control them.

The nine-month profits of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), for instance, increased by 7.9% to ₱12.89 billion, which the company expects to hit ₱16 billion for the full-year. Similarly, In the first nine months of 2012, Maynilad Water Services Inc. has amassed more than ₱5 billion in profits (13% higher than last year) while Manila Water Co. has raked in ₱3.9 billion in profits (26% higher than last year). Due to the never-ending surges in user fees, Manila already has the most expensive electricity rates and the fifth most expensive water rates among major Asian cities.

These utilities are controlled by the country’s richest clans and individuals who are closely associated with Aquino such as presidential uncle Danding Cojuangco and political supporters Manny Pangilinan and the Ayala family. Aside from electricity and water utilities, they also control other key infrastructure such as toll roads, telecoms and power generation. Together with other close Aquino allies like the Lopezes, Aboitizes and Consunjis, among others, these groups have positioned themselves to further expand their business empire through Aquino’s PPP scheme.

growth under aquino - table

The Ayalas have already bagged the ₱1.96-billion Daang Hari – Slex Link Road project earlier this year; Pangilinan/Ayalas, Cojuangco’s San Miguel Corp. and the Consunjis are all vying for the ₱60-billion LRT 1 extension and privatization project, which is also tied to government’s adamant plan to raise LRT/MRT fares by next year; even hospitals are not spared such as the ₱5.6-billion privatization of the Philippine Orthopedic Center which Pangilinan is eyeing to add to his growing list of hospitals.

The much ballyhooed credit rating upgrades are also being achieved at the people’s expense. Credit rating agencies cite the fiscal reforms being undertaken by Aquino that tame the national budget deficit. This includes, among others, raising government fees and imposing new charges through Administrative Order (AO) No. 31 and imposing more taxes like the newly-signed Sin Tax Law to generate additional revenues. Most of these revenues, however, will go to debt servicing as Aquino needs to gain favorable reviews from creditors and credit rating agencies.

Since Aquino took over up to September this year, government has already shelled out ₱1.59 trillion for debt servicing, equivalent to 70.2% of total revenues and 53.3% of total expenditures plus principal amortization. For comparison, debt servicing under Arroyo was equivalent to 65.8% of revenues and 41.5% of expenditures. These belie claims that the national budget under the Aquino administration is now being redirected towards social services to empower and benefit the poor. The expenditure program from 2011 to the recently signed ₱2-trillion 2013 national budget shows that the budget for debt servicing (including principal amortization) is equivalent to an average of 2.5 times that of the budget for education; 6.4 times, health; and 11.2 times, housing.

For elite interests

While the Aquino administration is harping on good governance as being behind the supposed drastic economic turnaround, much of the so-called reforms it is undertaking – with substantial backing from the US government and multilateral institutions like the World Bank – have been more about protecting elite and big business interests and less about curbing big-time systemic corruption or democratizing government. The reforms are all about creating a more conducive atmosphere for investors, i.e. stable and predictable policy environment, less business risks and reduced costs, etc. to reinforce liberalization, deregulation and privatization. The false assumption is that when business is thriving, the people will ultimately benefit through more jobs and income opportunities and improved living conditions. But clearly, this is not happening as the gains from a supposedly expanding economy have remained monopolized by a handful of big local businessmen and their foreign partners and funders.

On top of promoting the interests of big business, the good governance rhetoric is also being used to advance the agenda of the Aquino clique of the political elite. The successful ouster of Renato Corona as Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice and the appointment of Ma. Lourdes Sereneo, for instance, were more about the consolidation of the political power of the ruling Liberal Party (LP) than making Mrs. Arroyo accountable. Executive hegemony over government branches that formulate policies (Congress) and review the legality of such policies (Judiciary) makes an even more ideal political setting to push for retrogressive economic programs that promote certain big business interests.

In the run-up to the 2013 midterm polls, the LP further heightened their political consolidation under the guise of daang matuwid. Aquino appointed Grace Padaca to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) while LP President and 2016 presidential wannabe Mar Roxas is leading the campaign to unseat non-LP governors in the vote-rich provinces of Cebu and Pangasinan through his powerful post as Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). The LP is obviously laying the groundwork for their prolonged rule and continued imposition of their brand of elite governance and economics beyond the 2016 term of Aquino.

However, contradictions will surely heighten as the crisis gripping the great majority of Filipinos intensifies. The deception of good governance is good economics and the popularity of Aquino will certainly reach their threshold if joblessness, poverty and hunger continued to deteriorate. The significant 12-point drop in Aquino’s latest satisfaction rating despite the scorching speed of GDP growth could be a portent of things to come. ###

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