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STREETWISE: Digging deeper into the SSS pension hike by Carol Pagaduan-Araullo

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Streetwise

Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr. justified the abrupt adjournment of Congress last Wednesday by saying he didn’t want to embarrass President Benigno S. C. Aquino III with the prospect of a move to override the presidential veto on the SSS pension hike. Not that Rep. Neri J. Colmenares, who was leading the effort to get two thirds of the House of Representatives to sign his override resolution, already had the numbers. But Mr. Belmonte apparently was not confident he could muster the vote to defeat the resolution either.

The hurried adjournment in order to prevent even a debate and much more a vote was totally unjustified. There was a quorum, there was time. Not a few of the affected citizens were present to witness their representatives’ action in their behalf. But the house leadership went to the extent of turning off the microphone while Rep. Colmenares was in the middle of arguing for a discussion and vote.

These “people’s representatives” were caught in a dilemma.

To vote to override Aquino’s veto would likely mean reduced access to Malacanang’s largesse for the coming 2016 elections. To vote against the override, in effect to vote against the pension increase, would expose them as uncaring for the plight of SSS pensioners, spineless in the face of Malacanang pressure, and as the unprincipled, opportunist, and elitist bunch of bureaucrat capitalists they really were.

That is the rotten politics of it.

But what of the economics?

Is it true that the SSS pension bill was not well thought out, that the bill sponsors and the entire Congress merely wanted to pander to what is popular in the season of elections, that they took little regard of its supposed dire effect on the SSS fund life?

For the record, Colmenares filed the bill in 2011 and it passed through the gauntlet of the congressional mill until approved in 2015. SSS top brass had all the time and the opportunity to argue their opposition to the pension increase but they failed to convince Congress. Malacanang had the time, opportunity and clout over its congressional allies to kill the bill but it didn’t.

A 4-billion deficit per year was projected with a 56-billion peso additional cost to the fund. Fund life would be reduced to 13 years from 2015 if — a big if — nothing was done to improve collections, plug leaks, raise income on idle assets, and improve the performance of investible funds.

Worse comes to worst, the national government could appropriate the necessary funds to subsidize SSS expenses in accordance with the SSS Act of 1997. Even increasing member contributions could be considered once it has been demonstrated that SSS significantly improved its services and benefits.

The long and short of it is that the SSS can actually afford the pension hike. It is a matter of priorities; a matter of political will. Clearly the Aquino administration does not consider throwing a lifeline to 2.2 million elderly SSS members a priority. Neither does it have the political will to cut corruption, bureaucratic wastage and inefficiency in the SSS itself.

Talk about inclusive growth under the Aquino administration is a lot of hot air when SSS executives are given “performance” bonuses but its members cannot partake of the gains in its investment portfolio.

The good thing about the heated debate on the P2000-peso SSS pension hike is that many people, not just senior citizens, have begun to ask questions about what ails the country’s social security system, not just the SSS but also the GSIS, and what deep-going reforms are in order.

Progressive think-tank IBON Foundation has come up with very strong arguments backed by hard data to convince us that “social insecurity” actually hounds majority of Filipinos up until their twilight years.

For one, out of 7.8 million senior citizens, IBON estimates that at least two-thirds or over 5.1 million are poor. (IBON uses a poverty threshold of Php125 per day or Php3,800 monthly whereas the Philippine Statistics Authority officially uses an unrealistic poverty threshold of just Php52 per day or some Php1,582 monthly.)

Moreover, six out of ten (57%) elderly Filipinos, or some 4.5 million, don’t receive any pension at all.

If we include those who receive pensions below a reasonable poverty threshold, this would mean almost 97% of elderly Filipinos, or around 7.5 million, cannot afford to live decently much less be able to buy costly maintenance medicines for their various illnesses.

According to IBON, “Coverage is poor because the country’s main pension schemes are designed as an individualistic mechanism more than real social security. The SSS and GSIS are contributory schemes that only cover their members, whose membership depends on member contributions, and whose level of benefit depends on the level of member contributions…But the problems of basing pensions on regular work-based contributions in the Philippine context of so much joblessness and pervasive irregular and low-paying employment are clear.”

The unemployed will certainly not be able to make any significant contributions. But not even those employed are assured of becoming active and qualified SSS members. IBON estimates six out of ten of total employed (58%) are non-regular workers, agency-hired workers, or in the informal sector with at best erratic ability to pay contributions. The problem gets worse with the rising practice of contractualization wherein workers have no security of tenure and are simply hired and rehired every six months.

IBON concludes that the only way forward is for government “to confront Philippine underdevelopment realities head-on and aim for a non-contributory tax-financed universal social security system…(S)ociety, through the government, should be assuming primary responsibility for the security of its most vulnerable citizens including the elderly. Contributory member-financed schemes such as SSS and GSIS should just be complementary measures to a central scheme designed to reach the majority of Filipinos.”

Unfortunately, so long as the neoliberal economic doctrine has a stranglehold over the mindset of our country’s political leaders, government economic policies will continue to eschew this approach to overhauling the social security system.

The so-called “free market” means every man for himself; government intervention to promote social equity and social justice are anathema; even social safety nets for the most vulnerable in society are considered burdensome and unsustainable.

The struggles of senior citizens and their families for a meaningful increase in SSS pensions are giving them valuable lessons in life. Who are with them and who are against them and why. The nature of reactionary politics in an elite-dominated society such as Philippine society. And most important of all, that meaningful changes can only take place when the exploited and oppressed unite and take matters into their own hands.

Senior citizen power is also “people power”; once unleashed, it will find its mark. #

Published in Business World
8 February 2016

TitoSen, Isko, Digong and Neri on land reform


The Philippine Land Reform Movement (PLRM) and Pagkakaisa para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (Patria) posed a “Peasant Challenge” for the 2016 elections. Davao City Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte (running for President) and senatorial candidates Tito Sotto, Isko Moreno and Neri Colmenares took the challenge. Held at the Balay Kalinaw, UP Diliman, QC on February 3, 2016.

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STREETWISE: SSS pension hike — it’s a class thing by Carol Pagaduan-Araullo

Streetwise

I waited to hear the views of a friend, a former SSS top executive who sought a meeting with Rep. Neri Colmenares, original sponsor of the bill that seeks to raise the Social Security System (SSS) monthly pension for more than 2 million retirees by P2000. I wanted to balance out my thinking on the issue even though I had read and heard almost all there was to hear on both sides of the argument.

I wanted to give this person the benefit of the doubt since I know him to be an upright person, hardworking, a top professional in the private sector before being recruited into government service, and having come from humble beginnings. Unfortunately the more he expounded on the basic position of current SSS executives, on which basis Pres. BS Aquino vetoed the bill, the more I became unconvinced of the merit, nay soundness, of the presidential veto.

While acknowledging that the SSS fund is a social fund meant to serve the needs of its members, the former official tried to convince us that people expected too much from the fund, that the contributions were way too small while the services it was giving out were costing a lot. Ergo the basic solution is to increase the members’ contributions. In the meantime, there could be no increases in benefits that would only shorten the life of the fund.

He acknowledged, however that increasing contributions is easier said than done. The convincing would have to come in the form of more efficient and substantial services.

Now when one considers that the SSS was listed recently by the Civil Service Commission as one of the top three government agencies that they received complaints about in terms of services, doesn’t the SSS indeed have a lot of convincing to do?

Wouldn’t a reasonable increase in pensions serve as a strong signal that the agency was willing to work hard to be able to give members a decent pension when they retire?

When asked about plugging the leaks in the system like the billions of contributions collected but unremitted by employers, the former official lamented how difficult it is to do this, that SSS lacks personnel and resources.

So how can SSS convince its members that they need to give more when what they are already contributing is not collected properly by SSS. (Or as one struggling entrepreneur counter-lamented, it takes SSS forever to officially tally contributions in their data base from the time the payments are deposited in receiving banks. In the meantime their employees cannot take out any loans and vent their ire on their employers!)

About the touted sterling performance of the SSS in terms of fund management under the stewardship of SSS President De Quiros, my friend intimated that there were SSS properties that were not sold during earlier administrations in order to have higher returns with the property boom in certain areas of Metro Manila. This certainly didn’t seem to take such a financial genius to figure out; that it was quite a matter of waiting for a better price.

In the meantime, .isn’t it unconscionable for SSS executives to give themselves such fat bonuses on the ground that they made the fund grow through their supposedly astute handling of SSS investible funds when they refuse to let the ordinary members share in some of that purported growth. On this point my friend couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

Rep. Colmenares came quite prepared for the one-on-one discussion bringing with him documents that the SSS had submitted to congressional hearings. He had the facts and figures at his finger tips. He questioned the sudden jump in the projected fund deficit to 16-26 billion pesos when SSS officials had stated under oath in congressional hearings this would amount to only 4 billion pesos.

Congress had passed Colmenares’ bill unanimously having taken into account the 4 billion deficit and the ways by which the SSS could cover this by introducing needed reforms within the next five years, including improvement in collections and lessening administrative inefficiencies and costs. And if, despite all these internal reform measures the deficit remained, government is mandated to shore up the fund by means of a direct subsidy.

Indeed, if government can subsidize a dole-out program such as the Conditional Cash Transfer worth 62 billion pesos, why can’t it provide a safety net for working people who are doing their share not only in contributing to the economy but to their own social security fund .

It has also been pointed out by various quarters that with the Aquino administration’s boast of a 268 billion peso reduction in the government’s budget deficit, it has more than enough leeway to back up the P56B for the pension hike plus the alleged projected P16-26B SSS deficit.

How convenient — or deceptive as the case may be — for SSS executives to belatedly come up with such a humongous figure of 16-26 billion pesos in fund deficit that would purportedly run the SSS fund to the ground in 13 years.

This report apparently stunned and scared Pres. Aquino — during the four years the bill was being deliberated apparently he took no notice of it and its supposed dire implications — into action. He obviously took the SSS executives’ word hook, line and sinker, enough for him to issue the politically unpalatable veto

Thereupon the entire Malacanang propaganda machinery was made to work overtime to spread the scare to the rest of the public, most especially to SSS non-pensioners who the Aquino administration wants to dupe into believing that there will be nothing left for them when it is their turn to retire.

Big business honchos, top-caliber professionals in the financial sector and neoliberal academics and pundits who think government subsidy is anathema to the “free market” have swallowed the bankruptcy scare hook, line and sinker too. One wonders why they have chosen to suspend their usual sharp analytical abilities in this instance.

The reason is not hard to fathom. They regard the SSS not as a social fund but as a huge capital fund that one necessarily subjects to actuarial studies regarding its projected life.
Thus the point is reduced to how to ensure that more comes in than what goes out.

Yes, even as hundreds of billions of the SSS fund are a plump source of income for a train of fund managers, stock brokers, investment bankers, accounting firms and the like.

In the final analysis, the two sides to this issue amounts to a class divide. The less in life can’t understand the reason for the presidential veto. Those who can nonchalantly spend 2000 pesos and more on dinner-for-two at a fancy restaurant can’t appreciate the clamor for a pension increase in their lifetime.

Published in Business World
1 February 2016

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How to break the heart of SSS pensioners


Pres. Aquino should have seen them before he vetoed the P2,000 pension increase passed by both Houses of Congress. Pensioners protested at Mendiola leading towards the Presidential Palace on January 15, 2016.

BAYAN MUNA: MEDIA ATTACKS SHOW AQUINO ADMIN’S INUTILITY

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Bayan Muna Reps.Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate condemn the inutility of the Aquino administration in the midst of continuing attacks and threats against the media.

The solons issued the statement in reaction to the ambush by unidentified armed group on an ABS-CBN crew in Marawi, Lanao del Sur last Saturday.

“The sheer inutility of the Aquino government in stopping attacks and threats on journalists and critics of the government in the past five years is the very culprit of this continuing state of impunity in our country,”Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said.

The ambush occurred after a military-backed paramilitary group Magahat-Bagani also openly vowed to ambush journalists covering the anniversary of communist rebels in Surigao del Sur.

“This worsening state of impunity and lawlessness is now becoming a hallmark of the exiting Aquino administration,” said Rep. Zarate, himself a former journalist based in Mindanao.

“In particular, the Magahat-Bagani group are no different from the terrorist group Abu Sayaff by openly uploading a video in social media directly threatening members of the press. Even more dangerous, they also emulate the dreaded Jovito Palparan’s definition of who are their enemies and who are not,” Rep. Zarate said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Colmenares said that “like the case of the infamous 2009 Ampatuan Massacre in Maguindanao, the ambush on the ABS-CBN crew and the threats issued by the Magahat-Bagani group is “emblematic of the dangers posed by private armies, militias, and paramilitaries.”

“This lends credence to the existence of government’s policy, tacit or otherwise, of allowing the burgeoning of private armies as pawns of the military and police in the government’s counter-insurgency campaigns,”added Colmenares.

“As a result, human rights abuses – particularly those directed to opposition members or critics of government and its policies – have apparently become part of the political environment because of the failure of the government to bring those responsible to justice. The Aquino administration, he said, is not serious in addressing the problem posed by paramilitary or private armed groups,” said the Makabayan senatorial candidate.

Rep. Zarate added that “contrary to his campaign promise, Pres. Aquino reneged on the revocation of Executive Order 546, issued in 2006 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which allows the arming of paramilitary groups,”

“It was the same EO cited by the Ampatuans to justify the existence of its “private army” to consolidate its dynastic hold of Maguindanao and the ARMM but in the guise of supposedly fighting the Moro rebels,” said Zarate.

“As it is now, Executive Order 546 is still an available tool for warlords, powerful politicians and the military to justify arming these militias for political and economic ends.The Philippines is now ranked as the fourth worst spot where journalists have been murdered without a single perpetrator being convicted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2015 Global Impunity Index,” he added.

“Since September 2005, at least 44 journalists were murdered with complete impunity, including seven (7) under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III,” ended Zarate. ###

News Release
December 28, 2015
References: Bayan Muna Reps. Neri Colmenares, Carlos Isagani Zarate

Makabayan endorses Poe-Chiz tandem

Led by its candidate for the Senate Rep. Neri Colmenares, the Makabayan bloc formally endorsed Grace Poe and Chiz Escudero as
their presidential and vice presidential candidates, respectively, in the coming 2016 national elections.

The endorsement came after the ongoing Makabayan National Council meeting decided on Poe and Escudero as their official bets.

Here are excerpts of the official announcement at the Quezon City
Sports Club last November 5.

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MUSIKA: Sayang pag sinayang mo by Gary Granada

Quezon City Sports Club, Quezon City
September 1, 2015

Big rally set for Aquino’s final SONA


Various groups and critics of the regime are preparing to mount another big rally on the sixth and final State of the Nation Address of President Benigno Aquino III on July 27. Carrying different issues and grievances, this year’s SONA rally will sum-up the more than five years of the Aquino regime.

“For Aquino, the SONA will be his way of trumpeting his so-called achievements to justify the continuation of the already discredited daang matuwid. It will be his last time to use the annual platform in an attempt to fool the public. For the people, Aquino’s final SONA is an event to raise the most pressing issues and hold the regime accountable,” said Bayan secretary general Renato M. Reyes, Jr.

“The President now seems to be more concerned with maneuvering for 2016 than in addressing the problems of the people. Aquino wants the people to forget his many crimes of corruption, puppetry, human rights violations, and all-around neglect of the poor. Aquino is busy finding ways for his party’s presidential bet to win in 2016 and thus protect him from prosecution when his term expires. For example, what kind of a president calls for a meeting on politics and 2016 in the middle of a storm?” Reyes added.

more articles and news at www.bayan.ph

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P1NAS: Hands off Philippines, independence day twin rally

A twin rally was held last June 12, 2015, independence day in front of China embassy at Makati City and US embassy at Manila, to calls on the Filipino people to stand in defense of national sovereignty and territorial integrity against the foreign powers that seek to tear the Philippines apart.

Chinese Consulate to US Embassy
June 12, 2015