CASH IN TRASH | A resident fishes plastic bottles and packaging in a river in Tondo, Manila, so these can be sold later to junk shops. The pandemic-induced economic slowdown has forced many Filipinos out of jobs, resulting in more poor families, according to latest government data. (Photo by LYN RILLON / Philippine Daily Inquirer)
MANILA, Philippines — Rosalyn (not her real name) is a 34-year-old mother of three who works as a domestic helper in Parañaque City. She has been with her current employer since 2005 and has seen her monthly wage increase from P3,500 to P12,000 a month. Still, Rosalyn complains that her earnings are never enough.
Her common-law husband Jerry (not his real name) works as a night watchman in a public school in Pangasinan, but is paid by the local government “only when there are surplus funds from the municipal budget.”
For months when most of Luzon was on lockdown, Jerry did not get paid as the school he worked in was closed, forcing Rosalyn to advance portions of her future wages to send to her partner who is caring for their three children—now age 10 to 14.
Rosalyn said that a few days ago, Jerry called to tell her to borrow P12,000 from her employer as their kids still did not have school uniforms, books and other supplies.
An argument ensued, Rosalyn recalled, saying she was already tired of borrowing money and blamed Jerry for being unable to make ends meet with the cash she sends every month.
“But deep inside, I know he tells the truth. The price of everything has gone up. And because he has lost his job during the pandemic, Jerry stays at home to take care of the children. I know he feels ashamed. But my borrowings are now at P40,000. And I can never send enough back home,” Rosalyn said, her voice breaking.
Rosalyn and her family are among the 2.3 million Filipinos who joined the ranks of the poor because of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
Preliminary results of the family income and expenditure survey for 2021 released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) on Monday showed that the poverty rate had worsened to 18.8 percent from 16.7 percent in 2018.
This translates to 19.99 million Filipinos who are living below the poverty line, or those making less than P12,030 a month for a family of five. In 2018, the last time the survey was made, there were 17.67 million Filipinos living below the poverty threshold of P10,481 a month. The poverty rate was worse in 2015 at 23.5 percent, or the equivalent of 23.68 million poor Filipinos.
The poverty threshold is the minimum income needed to meet the basic food and nonfood needs such as clothing, fuel, light and water, housing, transportation and communication, and health and education expenses.
“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including income and employment losses, caused the poverty incidence to rise. Restrictions on mobility and low earning capacity of poor households due to limited access to regular and productive jobs made the lives of Filipinos difficult,” said Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan, who heads the state planning agency National Economic and Development Authority (Neda).
“We do know that we have a tough road ahead, but we are already prepared to face these challenges head-on. Our poverty reduction efforts will focus on three main areas: full reopening of the economy; more investments in human capital, social development, and social protection, and transformation of the production sectors to generate more and quality jobs and competitive products,” Balisacan said.
“Social protection programs and services must effectively reach and empower them,” Sen. Grace Poe added on Monday.
The senator said improving employment opportunities for Filipinos would be critical, particularly in the agriculture sector, as the pandemic forced many companies to close down.
She said the passage of the Public Service Act, which allowed foreign ownership of companies in telecommunication, airlines and railways, would definitely help in generating jobs.
She also noted that the government should let drivers of public utility vehicles return to their routes “as they have waited for too long without income.”
“The commuters need them, especially the millions of students who will return to schools next week,” she stressed.
Despite recent employment gains due to the reopening of more economic sectors, the Philippines’ latest jobless rate in June of 6 percent, equivalent to 2.99 million Filipinos, was still the second-worst in emerging Asia.
“The unemployment rate in the Philippines remains one of the highest among major Asian economies, though much lower than that of India,” Neda noted in a report issued on Monday. India’s jobless rate in June was 7.8 percent.
The unemployment rate in Vietnam was 2.5 percent in June; Malaysia, 3.9 percent in May; China, 5.6 percent in March; and Indonesia, 5.8 percent in February, Neda’s report showed.
Among families, poverty incidence inched up to 13.2 percent of households in 2021 from 12.1 percent in 2018, although still below the 18 percent in 2015. This meant the number of poor Filipino households increased to 3.5 million last year from 2018’s three million.
While the PSA has yet to release sectoral poverty statistics, National Statistician Dennis Mapa told a press briefing that farmers and fisherfolk were historically among the poorest of the poor in the country.
Mapa said it did not help that entrepreneurial activities and cash receipts from abroad—among the top sources of Filipino families’ incomes—were the most badly hit by the hard times caused by the pandemic.
Thousands of small local businesses had been shuttered by the most stringent lockdowns at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The COVID-19 crisis also temporarily stopped the deployment of overseas Filipino workers, while hundreds of thousands of them lost their jobs and returned home due to a global recession.
Mapa nonetheless said domestic cash remittances—mostly dole-outs from the government—kept many households afloat last year.
He said the government would now monitor poverty statistics every two years, with the next survey slated in 2023, unlike before when it was conducted every three years.
For Neda, “the full reopening of the economy needs to be prioritized to steer the economy back to its high-growth path and reinvigorate job creation.”
—WITH A REPORT FROM MARLON RAMOS