On Human Rights Day: 25 Million Filipinos Denied Right To Work

As International Human Rights Day is observed this week, millions of Filipinos are deprived of the right to decent work, one of the most basic economic rights.

According to research group IBON, decent work is a vital starting point for human development. However a job in itself is not enough: workers have a right to decent wages, salaries, benefits and working conditions. If all these are considered, this means that some 25.2 million Filipinos are either jobless or in poor quality work – the unemployed, unpaid family workers, own-account workers and non-regular wage and salary workers combined.

Even before the global crisis that erupted late last year, the Philippines was already facing the worst joblessness in its history. The final quarterly Labor Force Survey (LFS) results for 2009 will be released on December 15: these will likely show that things have gotten even worse.

In 2008, there were some 4.4 million unemployed with a true unemployment rate of around 11.5%, the most number of jobless Filipinos in the country’s history. These estimates try to correct for the government’s change in definition of “unemployed” in April 2005 which reduces the number of unemployed by around 1.5 million and the unemployment rate by around 3.5 percentage points.

The average unemployment rate for the period 2001-2008 is 11.3% which is the worst eight-year period of sustained high joblessness since 1956 or as far back as records go back to. Unemployment rates were much lower in 1956-1960 (8%), 1961-1970 (7.3%), 1971-1980 (5.4%), 1981-1990 (10.2%) and 1991-2000 (9.8%).

This trend is unchanged even if we consider two major changes in methodology: the change in labor force coverage in 1976 (when the threshold age for being considered part of the labor force was raised from ten years old to 15 years old) and the change in the reference period in 1976-1987 (when the past quarter was used, instead of the past week reference period used before 1976 and from 1987 until today). The current crisis of joblessness would probably be even more pronounced without these two changes.

The figure of 4.4 million unemployed however still grossly understates the seriousness of the country’s jobs crisis. There is also the poor quality of so many jobs created with millions more in insecure, unprotected, and poorly or non-earning work. In 2008 among those considered employed were 4.2 million “unpaid family workers” and 12.1 million “own-account workers” stereotypically covering those in informal sector work.

To this can also be added 4.5 million non-regular wage and salary workers or those with casual, contractual, probationary, apprentice or seasonal status. This is estimated by extrapolating the finding of the 2007/2008 BLES Integrated Survey (BITS) of the Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics (BLES) that some one in four workers in non-agricultural establishments with 20 or more workers had non-regular status.

This poor quality of much work is already partly reflected in the underemployment figure in 2008 of 6.6 million which covers those employed but nonetheless still looking for more work and income. Also, in 2008 around 11.9 million or over one in three jobs (35.5%) were in just part-time work.

The 25.2 million Filipinos denied of decent work is equivalent to 65.4% of the country’s labor force of some 38.5 million in 2008 (the labor force figure also adjusting for the April 2005 change in definition).

The domestic jobs crisis goes far in explaining the unprecedented forced migration happening. The latest official estimate of the stock of overseas Filipinos is 8.73 million as of end-2007 consisting of 5.03 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and 3.69 million permanent residents or immigrants. In 2008 1.24 million Filipinos were deployed abroad or almost 3,400 leaving per day.

While the economy is reported to be expanding with gross domestic product (GDP) growing on an average of 4.9% during the Arroyo administration, the deteriorating domestic jobs situation and record OFWs underscore that growth is distorted and the economy is failing to deliver decent work opportunities for Filipinos. These underpin the rising poverty in the country and IBON’s latest October 2009 national survey already had 71% of Filipinos rating themselves as poor.

Economic policy has to be radically reoriented to building the solid and more genuinely job-creating foundations of the domestic economy. Immediate welfare improvements can also be achieved by increasing wages and benefits and intervening to ensure job security. The gross imbalance between employers and their workers also needs to be remedied by, among others, giving greater room for organizing labor and strengthening unions, which are also among of the basic rights of Filipinos.

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