Activists lead a demonstration in Manila on Feb. 7 to protest against the rising cost of food and other basic necessities. (Photo by Mike Taboy)
In 2016, Filipinos weary of crushing poverty, corruption, and lawlessness saw their salvation in a feisty lawyer from the southern Philippines. A year and a half into President Rodrigo Duterte's rule, the poor find themselves once more at the tail end of government priorities.
Aside from threatening to sweep drug addicts and pushers into the sea and ridding the bureaucracy of corruption, Duterte promised cheering campaign crowds a long list of economic pledges.
He vowed to complete the government's agrarian reform program, distribute about a million hectares of land, and provide support services to farmers. Workers roared and raised their fists as he called for an end to labor-only contracting and for lower income taxes.
He sketched visions of squalid slums transformed into thriving residential havens. He swore to rehabilitate fishing grounds. He also pushed for federalism, which he explained as resource-rich regions getting their financial due.
People actually wept as they listened to Duterte, as they watched him kiss the flag.
Today, there is resignation and a simmering anger that cannot be diverted by antics and theatrics aimed at the political opposition.
Last week, thousands of students found themselves stranded as enforcers implemented Duterte's threat to take out aging jeepneys, the capital's most common mode of public transport.
Drivers showed journalists a list of requirements so draconian as to disenfranchise all but brand new vehicles with an average cost of more than US$24,000.
Duterte announced on Jan. 8 that he needed to consult economic advisers on ending labor-only contracting, which deprives workers of tenure and forces them to shoulder the cost of social welfare programs.
The World Bank calls the country the "fastest growing economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations." Yet government data also shows the largest contraction in employment since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, with unemployment in 2017 rising by 663,000 jobs from the year before.
Duterte has so far delivered only on lower income and estate taxes. But his Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law benefits only the rich and middle-classes, while adding to the tax burden of the poor.
The richest 10 percent of Filipinos, who earn more than US$2,000 monthly, now enjoy an additional US$1,800 to their monthly take-home income. Middle income and lower-middle class families, meanwhile, have tax breaks between US$156 to US$486.
More than 15.2 million families — headed by minimum wage earners or informal sector workers with erratic earnings — have long been exempted from income tax. They will now have to shoulder the new value-added tax and various excise fees, including for critical fuel and power needs.
The government promised to keep a lid on inflation but media reports in January showed a sudden rise in prices of basic commodities. Transport groups now want fare increases to offset the surge in gasoline and diesel prices. Food stalls have also jacked up prices, citing the effect of higher costs in cooking fuel.
The new energy regulator chief, Agnes Devenadera unwittingly validated opposition criticism of the new tax law's effects, telling energy firms in January to temper price hikes because Filipinos are already being battered by rising living expenses.
Duterte has also ordered the National Food Authority to import 250,000 metric tons of rice in a bid to control prices. His agriculture secretary, Emmanuel Pinol, said local commercial varieties now sell from US$.9 to US$1.2 per kilogram instead of the expected US$.8/kilogram.
"Filipino consumers are being robbed in broad daylight by rice traders who have taken advantage of the lack of government subsidized rice distributed by the National Food Authority in the market by pricing commercial rice almost beyond the reach of the poor," said the agriculture chief.
The government sold the new tax law partly as a source of funding for equitable development. Yet a map of state flagship projects show 64 percent of the US$6.8-billion target infrastructure allocation going to the top three richest regions, with poverty-saddled regions in the central and southern Philippines getting only 33 percent.
Whatever the gains in infrastructure are at the expense of social services. The 2018 budget shows a 24 percent to 40 percent cutback in the maintenance and operating expenses of state hospitals. Worse, in a country struggling with endemic infectious diseases, the Health Department lost more than half of its funding for prevention, including for programs targeted at tuberculosis, malaria and HIV infections.
Farmers and fisher folk, traditionally the poorest sectors, face the most serious betrayals. Burdened by higher consumption taxes, flailing in the control of traders who force down farm prices but now earn more at the markets, they also face long-term displacement.
Duterte's charter change initiative would also allow foreigners to own land, including vast tracts in the countryside, nudging farmers farther into the margins.
Even without charter change, he has told tribal people that he will open up their lands to plantations — and mining — and choose the investors, in contravention of the constitution and laws on ancestral domains. Communities that have long resisted the entry of these sectors now find themselves targeted as "terrorists" by the military.
Duterte has also bent backwards for China, traditionally the biggest source of maritime poachers and now which is busy reclaiming islands and building installations in rich fishing grounds. Charter change would scrap the current provision giving small fishers priority use of the seas. Foreigners grabbing coastal land would also add to the strangling of poor Filipinos marine livelihood.
The proposed charter change showcases the Duterte government's vision of economic expansion in the traditional Western sense favoring big business. The self-proclaimed pro-poor politician has emerged as the oligarchy's best friend.
Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.