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Sin taxes, UHC to fund privatization of health services–IBON

Research group IBON said that government must allot a higher budget for public health services rather than fund private health providers through the Universal Health Care (UHC) Act.

Also known as Republic Act (RA) 11223, the UHC Act ostensibly aims to provide all Filipinos with promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative, and palliative health services “without causing financial hardship”, and prioritizes Filipinos who cannot afford such services.

The UHC would need Php257 billion in its first year of implementation.

The sin tax reform law on the other hand is allegedly intended to augment the funding gap of around Php62 billion in the first year alone.

But IBON observed that the UHC would use government funds to create supplementary coverage by private health care providers such as private health insurance and Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) as well as provide network-based licensing, contracting, and accreditation of health facilities.

This further privatizes health services, the group said.

The UHC, IBON explained, stipulates that Filipinos would automatically be enrolled in PhilHealth or the National Health Insurance Program (NHIP) either as a direct contributor who would pay premiums or as an indirect contributor.

Moreover, the NHIP would have an increase in membership rate by 0.5% annually to fund the UHC.

The group observed that this is not as socialized as it appears to be, as high-income individuals would contribute the same percentage of their salary as low-income earners.

Also, IBON noted, to ensure that basic accommodation services are met, UHC states that government hospitals would operate not less than 90% of their bed capacity as basic accommodation, not less than 70% for specialty hospitals, and not less than 10% for private hospitals.

However, IBON observed that hospital beds in the country are not enough to begin with.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 20 beds per 10,000 population.

The Philippines has never reached the recommended ratio, the group said, and this indicator even worsened from 14.4 beds per 10,000 population in 1990 to only 9.9 beds per population in 2014.

The number of government hospitals even fell from 732 in 2011 to 423 in 2015.

Moreover, said IBON, the UHC assures that a National Health Human Resource Master Plan would be formulated to ensure the provision of health programs and services through a guaranteed permanent employment and competitive salary of all health professionals and health care workers.

Yet for every 10,000 population the country had only 0.3 government physician and 0.6 public health nurse in 2017.

Despite the scarcity of government health workers, data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) show that the country has been exporting nurses for decades, which is worsening the brain drain of the health sector, observed IBON.

The Philippines deployed 19,551 nurses in 2016 or 53 nurses per day.

IBON emphasized that the UHC is the continuation of the privatization and commercialization of health services of previous administrations, from the Health Sector Reform Agenda of the Estrada administration, Fourmula One for Health of the Arroyo administration, and Aquino’s own UHC agenda.

These programs advance less government and more private role in healthcare, making provision of health services less direct and more insurance-driven thus prioritizing private profits over public health, said IBON

2019 midterm elections results: Harsher policies ahead

Administration-backed bets dominated the 2019 midterm elections especially in the Senate. The Duterte administration will certainly fast track its priority neoliberal policies as soon as the 18th Congress opens. It already used its super-majority in the 17th Congress to pass socioeconomic measures aggravating the country’s jobs crisis, poverty, and underdevelopment. More and harsher ones loom with many elected officials unlikely to favor any policy reversals from neoliberalism.

Questionable results

The electoral success of administration-backed candidates and party-list groups was controversial. The 2019 midterm elections were marred by massive vote-buying, widespread breakdown of voting machines, and suspicious delays in the transmission of results. The Duterte administration also visibly used public resources not just to support its preferred candidates but also to sabotage the campaigns of its opposition. Progressive candidates, party-list groups, and their supporters were subjected to particularly virulent attack.

Duterte-endorsed Hugpong ng Pagbabago (Faction for Change) candidates took nine of 12 senatorial slots: Cynthia Villar, richest senator and wife of the country’s richest oligarch; Taguig representative Pia Cayetano; reelectionist senator Sonny Angara, son of the late senator Ed Angara; reelectionist and former senate president Koko Pimentel, son of former senator Aquilino Pimentel; Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go; former chief of police Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa; Imee Marcos, eldest daughter of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos; jailed plunderer former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla; and former Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chief and presidential political adviser Francis Tolentino.

Many winning party-list groups are either linked with or outrightly backed by the administration: the Sara Duterte-backed Anti-Crime and Terrorism Community Involvement and Support (ACT-CIS) party-list; Duterte ally Gloria Arroyo-backed AKO Bicol Political Party (AKB); richest multi-billionaire congressman Michael Romero’s One Patriotic Coalition of Marginalized Nationals (1 PACMAN); Ilocos Norte warlord Rudy Farinas’ Probinsyano Ako; and Duterte-endorsed Marino, whose nominees are Davao-based businessmen. Election watchdog Kontra Daya described these groups as ”dubious and making a mockery of the party-list system”.

Meanwhile, the Makabayan bloc of progressive party-list groups defied systematic state-sponsored attacks and vilification to take six seats in the 18th Congress, only one less than it got in the last elections. Bayan Muna (BM) obtained over 1.1 million votes to get three seats for the first time since 2007. Gabriela Women’s Party (GWP), ACT Teachers Party, and Kabataan Party-list all won one seat each. The last member of the bloc, Anakpawis, whose farmer- and worker-dominated machinery suffered violent attacks and killings however failed to retain its seat in the House of Representatives (HOR).

The systematic state-sponsored attacks on progressive candidates and groups to prevent them from being elected into government exposes the flawed democracy of Philippine elections. Military, police and local government officials vilified Leftist candidates, sabotaged their campaigns and political alliances, and attacked their party-list machinery. This is another manifestation of government’s intolerance of activists advocating for genuine change and raising public awareness on issues and proposing genuine solutions.

Looming sell-out and repression

The overwhelming number of winning candidates are from the same political parties, political families and elite interests behind the system of anti-people and anti-development laws in the country. They are likely to reprise or keep on with more of the same to the further detriment of the economy.

Among the exclusionary measures passed by the 17th Congress under the Duterte administration is the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law, which lowered personal income, estate, and donor taxes on the rich while burdening the poorest majority with higher consumption taxes. Another measure is the Rice Tariffication Law which liberalized rice trade, making the country over-reliant on a narrow global market for its staple food, amid still merely token production support for millions of rice farmers. There is also the extension of Martial Law in Mindanao, despite the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) already noting rampant human rights violations in the region.

Senate president Vicente Sotto III said that the Senate will take up amendments to the Public Services Act (PSA) and the Human Security Act (HSA) in the closing days of the 17th Congress until June. The amendments to the PSA open critical public utilities such as power, telecommunications, and transportation to excessive foreign ownership and control. This compromises national security and civil defense, on top of making vital public services expensive and inaccessible especially for lower income families.

Amendments to the HSA meanwhile threaten to further restrict civil liberties and human rights. As it is, the Duterte administration is already coming down hard on supposed drug personalities and alleged ‘terrorists’ and supporters in gross disregard of due process and the law. Critics fear that HSA amendments will only give the government freer hand to crack down on the political opposition and other perceived threats to its rule.

The electoral results will also likely embolden the Duterte administration to push for Charter change (Cha-cha) serving its narrow political agenda. Amendments to the 1987 Philippine Constitution focusing on federalism and full economic liberalization remains priority legislation for the Duterte government.

From the time of Fidel Ramos to the current administration, various efforts for Cha-cha were consistent in seeking to lift restrictions on foreign exploitation of natural resources and on foreign ownership of land, public utilities, education institutions, and mass media and advertising . The rationale is that attracting foreign investments will supposedly be the key for economic development.

The same rationale is behind other bills considered important by Malacañang pending in Senate committees, such as the National Land Use Plan, supposed contractualization ban, and the Tax Reform for Attracting Better and Higher Quality Opportunities (TRABAHO). Aside from pushing PSA amendments, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) reportedly also plans to recommend the following to the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC): sugar industry liberalization, creating a Department of Water, and exempting government’s line-itemized projects from the election ban.

All these seek to make it easier to do business and profit from public utilities, land and natural resources, and building infrastructure. The TRABAHO bill is also a misnomer because its real focus on lowering corporate taxes and rationalizing incentives may, if anything, actually even squeeze employment and workers’ salaries. Even the supposed law ending contractualization may end up being a smoke-screen that creates the conditions for legitimizing contractual arrangements rather than ending this.

Instead of bringing development, Cha-cha and the rest of the Duterte administration’s priority bills are likely to worsen the effects of the business-biased, neoliberal policies of the past decades. The economy today is characterized by shrinking agriculture and Filipino manufacturing, dismal jobs generation, and chronic poverty. This cannot be cured by further opening up to foreign capital and without the state more actively intervening in the economy for strategic industrial development, redistributing income and wealth, and providing needed social services.

Keeping watch

The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are overpopulated by administration allies or otherwise intimidated into passivity. The manufactured results of the midterm polls strengthens the hand of the Duterte administration and its elite supporters to implement self-serving economic and political measures at the expense of the Filipino public.

More than ever, the country’s patrimony and sovereignty and the people’s rights and welfare are at stake.

Also more than ever, the steadfast resistance of organized basic sectors is critical. The decades-strong social movement is the most reliable bulwark against the distortion of the economy to serve narrow elite interests. The progressives in Congress and their allies in government, down to the local level, can help push an alternative economic agenda. Domestic agriculture and Filipino industry can be developed, the environment protected, people’s welfare upheld, and economic independence attained. – With report from Casey Salamanca

WANTED: An Independent Senate

By Jose Lorenzo Lim

Midterm elections have always been crucial for any incumbent, as results will either affirm or reject the programs and policies so far of the ruling party. The 2019 midterm elections, however, appears to be different, as it happens at the heels of the Duterte administration’s implementation of harshest neoliberal economic policies and undermining democracy. The Duterte presidency has seemingly consolidated the Executive, Lower House and even the Judiciary under its influence, and the Senate could be the last stronghold of democratic processes.

After weeks of campaigning, the 2019 midterm elections is near. Candidates vying for senatorial posts have traveled around the country seeking to convince Filipinos to vote for them. It remains to be seen whether or not we will have a truly independent senate after the May 2019 elections.

Quick voters scan

Looking at data from the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) shows that there are 61,843,750 voters in the Philippines with an additional 1,822,173 registered overseas voters for the 2019 midterm elections.

A breakdown of the voters shows that Region IV-A has the highest number of voters with 14%, followed by Region III with 11%, and the National Capital Region (NCR) with 11.4 percent. The Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) has the lowest number of voters with only 1.6% share of the total number of voters. The poorest regions also have a low number of voters. Both Region IX and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) only have 3.5% of the total number of voters.

For overseas voters, the Middle East and African regions have the highest number of voters with 48.7%, while the European region has the lowest share of voters with only 10.2 percent. 

While the huge number of voters does not automatically translate into voter turnout, in 2016 the country had an 84% voter turnout compared to 2013 with 77.3% and 2010 with 74.9 percent. Unsurprisingly, a high voter turnout can also be an indicator of dubious activities like flying voters.

Finding the right candidate

Instead of dancing around and telling rehearsed jokes repeatedly, what does IBON think candidates should stand for to deserve the Filipinos’ vote in the upcoming elections?

First, candidates should adhere to the advancement of socioeconomic strategies. Filipino industries should be protected and supported instead of allowing foreign companies to dominate the Philippine economy. An example is protecting and promoting the agriculture sector through production and price supports instead of flooding the market with imported agricultural goods, as is the rationale behind the Rice Tariffication Law, to lower inflation.

Candidates interested in genuinely effecting long-term reforms for the country’s production sectors should support genuine agrarian reform. The failure of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) to redistribute land to the tillers has only intensified landgrabbing and land use conversions for land market speculation. Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) records show that as of January 2019, there were still 549,920 hectares that need to be acquired and distributed. From 1988 to 2016, meanwhile, 98,939 hectares of land were approved for conversion while 120,381 hectares were approved for exemption from land reform coverage–but this is a conservative count as the real extent of land conversion may be underreported. After CARP, majority of so-called agrarian reform beneficiaries still do not own the land awarded to them or are in the process of being dispossessed because they are failing to amortize.

Third, candidates should be upholding people’s rights and welfare. Candidates should be firm in ending contractualization. It is still very much in place: Employment data shows that in 2018, 8.5 million workers of private companies and 985,000 workers in government agencies are still non-regular workers.

Additionally, legislating a national minimum wage of Php750 should also be a major agenda. Raising the average daily basic pay (ADBP) of Php401 nationwide to Php750 will in turn add Php7,649 to employees’ monthly income and Php99,432 to their annual income (including 13thmonth pay). This will cost the 35,835 establishments nationwide just Php465 billion or only 21.5% out of their Php2.16 trillion in profits.

Moreover, Republic Act (RA) 10963 or the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law should be repealed instead of taking out taxes especially from petroleum products which are socially sensitive. TRAIN means less money in the pockets of 8 out of 10 Filipinos as only 5.5 million Filipino families benefit from lower personal income taxes (PIT) while the remaining 17.2 million poorest households do not benefit from PIT but all pay higher consumer taxes.

Candidates should also ensure that basic social services will be accessible to every Filipino. That is why there is a need to build more public schools and public hospitals aside from allotting higher budgets to education and health. But 2019 budget for the Department of Health (DOH) for instance was cut by 8.13% compared to last year.

Lastly, candidates should promote environmental sustainability. For example, a candidate should be firm to stop destructive large-scale mining, as this causes irreparable damage not only to the country’s natural resources but to many indigenous communities. Another part of this is encouraging rational consumption. Our resources are finite – what we produce and consume must only be within our needs. Candidates should also promote an environment-friendly agriculture and industry.

The public has heard the candidates’ stances on various pertinent issues such as the TRAIN Law, Rice Tarrification Law, contractualization, and jobless growth. Now the candidates should bear in mind that whatever promises they made during the campaign period would be remembered by the people, who will hold them accountable when they take their posts this June 2019.

The last stand

The new senate should carry out the task of defending the current constitution against the Duterte administration’s push for federalism, neoliberalism, and self-serving political goals. The most consistent is the intent to fully liberalize the Philippine economy for foreign investors.

Relatedly, pending proposed amendments to the Human Security Act (HSA) aim to prevent critics, thereby putting basic human rights and civil liberties in peril. The HSA could expedite terrorist tagging and linking and subsequent surveillance, arrests, and restricting of legitimate people’s movements. The new senate should stand against this creeping authoritarianism.

The Philippine Senate could be the last democratic institution for the government’s checks and balances, independent of and not beholden to the power ambitions of the presidency and expected to side with the people and defend whatever remains of Philippine democracy, people’s rights and welfare, and the country’s sovereignty.

With all these considered, the 2019 midterm elections could be one of the Filipinos’ last stands for freedom and democracy. Depending on how their favorite candidates have explained these to them, they can now vote wisely. #

Gov’t designed Kaliwa loan to favor China

The Kaliwa Dam loan agreement is designed to unduly favor Chinese interests over that of the Philippines.

IBON Foundation raised this concern in the wake of the release, upon public pressure, of this and other loan agreements.

Metro Manila private water concessionaire Manila Water Company, Inc. and the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Systems (MWSS) have long insisted on building the Kaliwa Dam and on a Chinese loan for this.

The Department of Finance (DOF) seized on the recent disruption of water services, which IBON estimates to have affected at least 6.1 million Filipinos or 80% of the total 7.1 million population covered by the Manila Water service area, to further justify the project and the loan.

IBON executive director Sonny Africa however warned that the Kaliwa loan agreement signed last year during the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping is unduly biased for China and against the Philippines.

“Countries give official development aid (ODA) not out of charity but always to advance their foreign policy and self-interest,” Africa said.

“The Chinese loans negotiated by the Duterte administration are suspiciously disadvantageous for the Philippines,” he added.

IBON said that the practice of tied aid where loans are spent on the creditor country’s goods and services is unfortunately the norm in bilateral ODA.

In the Kaliwa loan deal, for instance, the proceeds will pay for Chinese contractors and controversially even Chinese workers. China has a record of charging relatively high interest rates and for instance charges the highest nominal interest rates among all of the Philippines’ bilateral donors.

The group however pointed out that the Kaliwa loan deal goes far beyond these and creates conditions for a debt trap.

This starts with the agreement’s Article 7 which makes it too easy for China to declare that the loan is in default and to subsequently declare “all the principal of and accrued interest… immediately due and payable”.

The loan for instance can apparently consider the Philippines in default if payment is more than thirty (30) days overdue, if the Philippines defaults even on other loans not in any way connected to the Kaliwa loan or project, or if “in the opinion of the Lender [there is] a material deterioration of the financial conditions of the Borrower”.

There are no such provisions in the other Japan and Korean loans that the DOF recently released.

Moreover, IBON said, the loan is explicitly governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of China (Article 8.4) and any disputes will be settled in the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (Article 8.5).

The arbitration rules of the HKIAC are however biased for China such as in the choice of arbiters and especially if Chinese law is made the agreement’s governing law.

IBON said the country is being set up to potentially give up natural and strategic resources.

In the agreement’s Article 8.1, the country “waives any immunity on the grounds of sovereignty or otherwise for itself or its property in connection with any arbitration proceeding” on assets within the territory of the Philippines unless prohibited by law.

IBON stressed that this provision is dangerous especially given the current administration’s predisposition to wield the law haphazardly for narrow ends.

“China rationally seeks to advance its self-interest as much as possible,” Africa said, “but it is suspicious that the Philippine government is giving so much to China and so badly failing to protect the country’s interest.”

He also pointed out: “China is not just any lender and is aggressive in asserting its global agenda even at the expense of human rights, environmental protection, and feeding corruption in debtor governments.”

The Kaliwa Dam project does not even yet have an updated feasibility study, environmental clearance, or the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the communities.

IBON pointed out that the Duterte administration is seeking as much as US$14.4 billion for 23 infrastructure projects under its Build, Build, Build program.

“China has already been implicated in a few controversial debts gone bad where governments were pressured to give up control over strategic assets like ports,” Africa said.

“As it is, China’s actions in the mineral- and marine- rich West Philippine Sea islands and destruction of the rich marine biodiversity with reclamation activities shows that it is unconcerned about Philippine sovereignty and our interests,” he added.

Africa said: “The Duterte administration made a big show of supposedly independent foreign policy at the start of its term — it can start now by taking bold measures to modify or terminate these disadvantageous agreements.” #

Govt should be transparent, release 9 signed foreign loan agreements — IBON

Research group IBON said the Duterte administration should immediately release to the public all nine foreign loan agreements it has already signed for infrastructure projects, especially for the upcoming Kaliwa Dam project with China.

The group raised concerns of government’s transparency since it has denied IBON’s previous requests for copies of the loan agreements.  

The government has an obligation to disclose these contracts as a matter of public interest and protecting the country’s sovereignty, the group said.

The nine foreign loan agreements signed by the government include the Chico River Pump Irrigation and New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam with China; Pasig-Marikina River Channel Improvement, Cavite Industrial Area Flood Management, Metro Manila Subway, and North-South Railway with Japan; Panguil Bay Bridge; and the new Cebu International Container Port with Korea.

IBON research head Rosario Bella Guzman said that there is lack of transparency of government offices to disclose loan agreements signed by the government. 

IBON wrote a letter to the Department of Finance (DOF) in June 2018 requesting copies of the loan agreement for the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project.

The DOF responded that the contract has a confidentiality clause and that the agency is not allowed to disclose details of the contract to any third party.

Loan agreements should be disclosed since the projects are public infrastructure which are supposed to be serving public interest, said Guzman.

The Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, with the provisions that could be disadvantageous to the country, may become the gold standard of other loan agreements, Guzman added.

Guzman said that the contracts for other Chinese loans such as the one for the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project would follow the template of onerous provisions found in the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project.

The loan agreement for the Kaliwa Dam which was signed in November 2018 is yet to be made public and IBON has yet to receive a copy of the loan agreement it requested from concerned offices.

Guzman added that the Php12.2-billion Kaliwa Dam will be 85 percent funded by China official development assistance (ODA), in other words, debt that will be paid for by the public in the future.

“China loans are one-sided and impose onerous conditions, which could result in the Philippines virtually giving up its sovereignty,” said Guzman.

IBON previously raised questions on the Chico River Pump Irrigation loan agreement being governed by China laws, and that any arbitration or suit shall be heard at the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Court (CIETAC).

“Natural resources, including water, are the subject of these loan agreements, which makes it more problematic if conditions are lopsided in favor of foreign governments, creditors and investors,” Guzman added.

Instead of prioritizing the attraction of one-sided foreign investments and loans for its infrastructure program, the government should put national interest and public welfare first over local and foreign big business interests.

Government can start by subjecting the loan agreements it is signing to public scrutiny and declining those that are not mutually beneficial and do not contribute to the country’s domestic economic development, IBON concluded. #

Second year of slowing growth a wake-up call – IBON

Research group IBON said that the second year of slowing growth under the Duterte administration should be enough to jolt it out of its complacency and denial. The downturn in the last two years and the poor prospects in the year to come should be a wake-up call to start to undertake the difficult but necessary reforms for genuinely inclusive growth and national development.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported a 6.2 percent annual growth in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) for 2018, lower than government’s revised growth target of 6.5-6.9 percent for the year.

Government cited slowing agriculture and high inflation as among the main factors pulling back growth, while the main drivers were growth in construction, and trade and repair of motor vehicles, motorcycles, personal and household goods.

“Growth is slowing most of all because of the economy’s unsound fundamentals in backward agriculture and shallow industry,” said Sonny Africa, IBON executive director.

The agriculture sector registered just 0.8 percent growth in 2018 from 4 percent in 2017.

This is the sector’s worst performance since its contraction in 2016.

Yet, Africa said, the administration seems to have little interest in reversing this trend.

For example, the Php49.3 billion agriculture department budget for 2019 proposed by Congress is Php1.4 billion less than the Php50.7 billion in 2018 (in equivalent cash-based terms).

Africa also noted that manufacturing growth slowed to 4.9 percent in 2018 from 8.4 percent the year before, which is the slowest since the 4.7 percent growth in 2011.

He said that this is due to weaker demand in domestic consumption and weaker exports amid the global economic slowdown. Manufacturing also remains shallow in being low value-added, foreign-dominated, and dependent on foreign capital and technology.

Africa pointed out that recent rapid growth has instead relied on external short-term factors that are fading. Yet remittances are slowing, exports are falling, and interest rates are rising. The real estate and consumer spending booms are also petering out.

Growth in overseas remittances slowed from 5.0 percent in 2016 to 4.3 percent in 2017 to just 3.1 percent in the first 10 months of 2018, said Africa.

Exports growth increased from 11.6 percent in 2016 to 19.5 percent in 2017, but then fell to 11.5 percent in 2018.

Meanwhile, the benchmark overnight reverse repurchase (RRP) rate rose steeply from 3.0 percent in 2017 to 4.8 percent by end-2018, reversing the decade-long general decline in interest rates.

Africa also said that household consumption spending markedly slowed from 7.1 percent growth in 2016 and 5.9 percent in 2017 to just 5.6 percent in 2018.

The real estate boom is also tapering with 2016 growth of 8.9 percent in real estate, renting and business activities declining to 7.4 perent in 2017 and falling further to just 4.8 percent in 2018.

“Rising government spending and its infrastructure offensive haven’t been enough to offset the reliance on waning external factors,” said Africa. “The administration’s efforts to stimulate growth to its 7-8 percent target with even more spending, are not going to be enough amid high disguised unemployment, low incomes, and the global slowdown this year.”

Global GDP growth is estimated to slow from 3.1 percent in 2018 to 3.0 percent this year.

“The Duterte administration needs to stop downplaying slowing growth and hyping that this as still among the fastest in the region and the world because the growth is becoming more jobless than ever,” Africa said.”

The number of employed only increased by 162,000 from 41 million in 2016 to 41.2 million in 2018, according to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

Average annual job creation was then only 81,000 in the period 2017-2018, which is the lowest level of job creation among post-Marcos administrations.

Africa said that government continues to ignore telltale signs of an economic downturn and deceive Filipinos with its rosy picture of the economy.

He said that the sooner the administration admits the failure of its neoliberal policies, the sooner measures that will spur domestic industries and benefit the Filipino people can be implemented. #

2018 inflation highest in 10 years amid slowing growth — IBON

Inflation for 2018 is more than double the Duterte administration’s original inflation target for the year and the highest in a decade, research group IBON said.

Along with slowing economic growth, this further points to the failure of government’s economic managers to rein in consumer prices and of its neoliberal policies, such as the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN), which continue to burden the poorest Filipino families, said the group.

The reported annual average inflation rate rose to 5.2 percent in 2018 from 2.9 percent in 2017 and 1.6 percent in 2016.

IBON noted that this is much higher than the government’s original annual inflation projection of two to four percent for 2018 and the highest since the 8.2 percent rate in 2008.

Aside from missing its inflation target, the government is also facing an economic slowdown.

The economic growth target for 2018 has already been adjusted downwards from 7-8 percent to 6.5-6.9 percent.

The gross domestic product growth rate already slowed to 6.3 percent in the first three quarters of 2018 from 6.7 percent in 2017 and 6.9 percent in 2016.

Inflation eased last December to 5.1 percent but the poorest half of the population still saw their real income erode by anywhere from Php3,300 to Php7,300 from the high inflation throughout 2018.

Rising prices always spell more difficulty for the poor especially amid low or even stagnant incomes, IBON said.

The Duterte administration should also not be too quick to take credit for the lower year-end inflation, IBON added.

The biggest factor easing inflation is not anything the government has done but rather falling global oil prices from increased supply amid a global economic downturn.

On the contrary, the Duterte administration’s insistence on TRAIN’s second tranche of fuel excise taxes adds inflationary pressure, the group said.

The economic managers will fallaciously claim that relatively slower inflation in the first few months of 2019 proves that TRAIN and the additional fuel excise taxes are not inflationary, IBON said.

Such dismissiveness of how TRAIN makes consumer goods and services more expensive however only affirms the government’s insensitivity to the plight of the Filipino people, especially the poor.

IBON said that poor Filipino families worst affected by last year’s high prices will continue to carry the burden of these into the new year if government does not take genuine measures to curb inflation and arrest a faltering economy.

The government can start with repealing TRAIN and implementing a progressive tax system. #

2018 Yearender: Are You High? The Economy Isn’t

by Sonny Africa

Executive Director, IBON Foundation

The Duterte administration’s economic managers made some odd statements as the year wound up. Economic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia said “the Philippine economy became stronger and even more resilient than ever”. Finance secretary Carlos Dominguez III insisted on “the soundness of the Duterte administration’s economic development strategy”. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) governor Nestor Espenilla meanwhile said that they “expect growth to remain solid in the years ahead”.

These are odd because the economy clearly showed signs of increasing stress in 2018. If anything, the year just passed confirmed the end of the long period of relatively rapid growth for the Philippines.

In denial

Growth has been slowing since the start of the Duterte administration. It is already its slowest in three years. Inflation reached a nine year-high and was even worse for the poorest Filipinos. The current account deficit is at its worst in 18 years. The peso is at its weakest in 13 years. International reserves are in their lowest in 10 years. The jobs crisis is disguised but really at a historic high. Overseas remittances are also slowing — this further dampens household consumption and welfare.

The government seems to think that it can just spend its way out of this. It holds its ‘Build Build Build’ infrastructure offensive as some kind of magic bullet. This will be difficult with the end of the decade of low global and local interest rates and rising borrowing costs. Accelerating government debt will also only become more unmanageable as growth continues to slow. As it is, the budget deficit is already at its worst in seven years.

All these the government’s chief economic propagandists will euphemistically call ‘headwinds’ or ‘challenges’. Yet barring a real change of economic course, there is little reason to expect that the economy will get better anytime soon. Elite business profits will likely continue to grow, but it may just be a matter of time before even these suffer.

As if being near the top of a sinking ship is a good thing, the administration will keep on claiming that the Philippines is among the fastest growing economies in the region and in the world that is caught in a protracted crisis, Still, the 6.3% growth in the first three quarters of 2018 is markedly slower than the 6.7% growth on 2017 and 6.9% in 2016.

Deteriorating

Agriculture is doing particularly badly: its 0.4% growth in the first three quarters of 2018 is approaching its worst performance since 2016. But even the hyped manufacturing resurgence is hitting a wall – the 5.7% growth in the first three quarters is much slower its 8.4% clip in 2017, and the full year results may be the slowest since 2015.

Filipino industry and domestic agriculture would have been solid foundations of domestic demand and production, if only these had really been developed these past years. This is impossible though under the government’s obsolete globalization and free trade mantra. Agriculture is still left to the vagaries of the weather and small peasant labor. Manufacturing remains shallow and foreign-dominated.

The services sector never should have been the driver of economic growth. But even this is failing. The real estate boom appears to be ending with 5.9% growth of finance and real estate in the first three quarters of 2018 continuing the trend of slowing growth from 7.5% in 2017 and 8.5% in 2016. Reflecting weakening household consumption, even trade is down – at just 6.0% in the first three quarters compared to 7.3% in 2017 and 7.6% in 2018.

The main drivers of growth in 2018 have been the intrinsically short-term boost from government spending – this increased to 13.1% growth in the first three quarters from just 7.0% in 2017. , Construction also increased to 13.3% growth in the first three quarters from just 5.3% in 2017.

Real score on jobs twisted

The worst effect of a backward economy is not creating enough decent work for the growing population.

The economic managers hailed 825,000 new jobs created in 2018 and unemployment falling by 140,000 bringing the unemployment rate down to 5.3 percent. Unfortunately, these do not tell the whole story.

The Duterte administration has actually created just an average of 81,000 jobs annually with 43.5 million jobs in 2018 compared to 43.4 million in 2016. This is because the economy lost a huge 663,000 jobs in 2017, which was the biggest contraction in employment in 20 years or since 1997.

So the largest part of the supposed job creation, or some four out of five ‘new’ jobs, was really just restoring jobs lost in 2017.

But how to explain the falling unemployment? This is a statistical quirk. According to the official methodology, jobless Filipinos have to be counted as in the labor force to be counted as unemployed.

It seems that huge numbers of Filipinos are no longer seeking work and dropping out of the labor force. This is reflected in how the labor force participation rate dropped to 60.9% in 2018 which is the lowest in 38 years or since 1980.

While employment grew by just 162,000 between 2016 and 2018, the number of workers not in the labor force grew by a huge 2.9 million over that same period. It is likely that the reported 62,000 fall in the number of unemployed between 2016 and 2018 reflects workers dropping out of the labor force because of tight labor markets rather than their finding new work (because of weak job creation).

This scenario is supported by IBON’s estimates of the real state of unemployment in the country. The government started underestimating unemployment in 2005 when it adopted a stricter definition that made subsequent estimates incomparable with previous figures.

Reverting to the previous definition to give a better idea if the employment situation really is improving or not, IBON estimates that the real unemployment rate in the decade 2008-2017 is some 10.2 percent. This maintains high unemployment in the economy since the onset of globalization policies in the 1980s. IBON does not yet have estimates for 2018, but the real number of unemployed in 2017 was 4.6 million or almost double the officially underreported estimate of just 2.4 million.

Job generation trends in 2018 are in any case worrisome as it is. The quarterly labor force survey showed drastically worsening job generation since the start of the year. Measured year-on-year, some 2.4 million jobs were reported created in January 2018 but this fell to 625,000 in April then 488,000 in July and then 218,000 jobs actually lost, rather than created, in October.

Economy needing rehab

Perhaps high on their own propaganda, the country’s neoliberal economic managers continue to confuse abstract growth figures, business profits and foreign investment with development and the conditions of the people. The reality however is of chronically backward Filipino industry and agriculture and an economy that went sideways in 2018. The real challenge is to discard failed neoliberalism and to replace this with an economics truly serving the people.#

TRAIN still inflationary with lifting of fuel excise suspension

Research group IBON said that government’s continued implementation of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) means that TRAIN’s taxes will keep raising prices next year and make inflation higher than it should be.

The group said that lifting the fuel excise tax suspension shows the Duterte administration’s insincerity and insensitivity in addressing the inflationary impact of the tax reform program, particularly on poor Filipino households.

The administration’s interagency Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) recently announced its plan to recommend that the second tranche of fuel excise tax be implemented, backpedaling on its previous suspension proposal.

The DBCC cited the lowering of Dubai crude oil prices and consideration of possible foregone revenues as reasons for its latest recommendation.

IBON however said that not going through with the suspension means new inflationary pressure next year from the second round of oil excise taxes in January 2019 on top of the now built-in additional prices from the first round in January 2018.

The liquid petroleum gas (LPG) excise tax of Php1.00 per kilogram (kg) in 2018 increases to Php2.00/kg in 2019, and Php3.00/kg in 2020. Diesel excise tax of Php2.50/liter in 2018 increases to Php4.50/liter in 2019, and Php6.00/liter in 2020.

Kerosene excise tax of Php3.00/liter in 2018 increases to Php4.00/liter in 2019 and Php5.00/liter in 2020.

The gasoline excise tax meanwhile is set to increase from Php7.00/liter in 2018 to Php9.00/liter in 2019 and Php10.00/liter in 2020.

IBON said that another fuel excise tax hike further increases costs of production. This will create a domino effect that will sustain the high prices of goods and services that many Filipinos, especially the poor, suffered this past year.

IBON estimates that the poorest 60 million Filipinos have already endured real income losses of anywhere between Php2,500 to Php6,800 due to worsening inflation since the onset of 2018.

The group added that it is premature to think that oil prices are going to stay low or that the peso will not continue to depreciate.

Oil prices remain volatile and could still increase next year with US sanctions on Iran gaining traction, possible Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) production cuts, and untoward geopolitical events.

IBON insisted that the administration can do much to moderate inflation by suspending the inflationary taxes of TRAIN package 1.

IBON said that government should stop imposing higher consumption taxes such as the fuel excise which burdens the majority of poor Filipinos who can ill afford this amid low wages and growing joblessness. 

 

Instead, the government should improve revenue collection by cracking down on tax evaders and corruption in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and Bureau of Customs (BOC). 

 

It should also build a tax system that raises revenues more from higher income, wealth and property taxes on the rich.#

Php18,855 already lost–Jeepney drivers among biggest losers from TRAIN’s oil taxes

Research group IBON said that jeepney drivers and their families have suffered huge income losses from rising pump prices on top of facing rising prices of basic goods and services.

The initial and impending fare hikes give immediate relief but only temporarily.

Fare hikes only worsen the burden on commuters and the government needs to take a broader view of the situation including taking both short and longer-term measures.

Jeepney drivers have lost a total of Php18,855 from start of the year until September because of the oil excise tax under the first package of TRAIN and rising global oil prices.

TRAIN is to blame for around Php13,104 of this amount, said IBON.

The estimated cumulative Php18,855 loss in the first nine months means an average loss in income of Php2,095 monthly, IBON explained.

Jeepney drivers and operators petitioned for a Php2 fare increase to help the sector cope with the rising prices of goods and services and the impact of TRAIN.

IBON however said that the fare hikes are still not enough to compensate for drivers’ income losses since the start of the year.

Driver’s incomes fell drastically in the first six months of the year.

The provisional Php1 jeepney fare hike in July compensated for pump price increases in July and August but was not enough in September when their incomes again fell as pump prices rose.

Even the full Php2 jeepney fare hike to be implemented this November, which includes the July Php1 fare increase, will not be enough to restore their earnings to pre-TRAIN levels.

IBON estimated the income losses of drivers assuming 200 passenger trips and 20 liters of diesel consumed daily, prevailing fares, and incorporating expenses for maintenance and other miscellaneous expenses.

Monthly incomes from January to September were compared to that in December 2017 as the baseline income.

IBON pointed out that the government’s narrow focus on fare hikes is pitting jeepney drivers against the riding public.

Both already bear the brunt of relentless price increases not just of oil but also of other commodity items including food, said the group.

The interest of both drivers and commuters is better served by giving greater attention to the drivers of inflation. “Suspending TRAIN’s oil excise taxes immediately starting with those implemented in January 2018 will give immediate relief to jeepney drivers and consumers,” IBON executive director Sonny Africa said.

“The additional oil excise taxes in January 2019 should also be suspended so as not to add to already considerable inflationary pressures,” he added.

“Further fare hikes can be prevented and a rollback may even be possible if oil firms’ overpricing is reined in,” said Africa.

 

“The long-term solution should include fuller and more responsible regulation of the oil industry,” he concluded. #