Big stimulus bill prioritizing aid more urgent than easing foreign restrictions–IBON

Research group IBON said that a real stimulus package that prioritizes emergency cash subsidies, support for small businesses and farmers, and strengthening the health system should be top of lawmakers’ legislative priorities.

This is more critical, the group said, than the bills lifting limits on full foreign ownership in certain economic sectors which the President recently certified as urgent.

IBON said that containing the pandemic, helping the sick, and helping millions of Filipinos badly affected by job losses and falling incomes need immediate attention.

Prioritizing bills to attract foreign investors now is misplaced, and legislators’ attention is much better spent on the country’s more pressing needs, the group said.

Pres. Duterte certified as urgent amendments to the Public Services Act, the Foreign Investments Act, and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act.

The amendments seek to allow full foreign participation in public services such as transportation and communications; lower the number of local hires required of foreign companies in the country; and lower the paid-up capital for foreign enterprises here, respectively.

IBON stressed that the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and modified ECQ (MECQ) in the NCR+ only added to the 12.1 million unemployed and underemployed Filipinos already as of February 2021.

The most badly affected are the majority of informal workers especially in retail trade, carinderias, transport and small businesses, and in the hotel and restaurant, transportation and storage, and manufacturing sectors.

The group also said that some 4.9 million poor and low-income families in the Greater Manila area are extremely vulnerable to any income losses from not having any savings to cushion interruptions of their livelihood.

The impact of the ECQ and MECQ will affect these distressed households the most. IBON also said that as much as 189,000 small businesses may have closed nationwide by February, with many likely being in the Greater Manila area.

The continued spread of COVID-19 shows how dismal the government’s testing and tracing efforts to track the virus are over a year since the pandemic hit.

Infected people continue to circulate and too many of those who eventually get sick are not even able to get proper treatment.

IBON blamed this on the government’s tepid response, which falls far short in dealing with the situation.

The Philippines’ fiscal response, equivalent to just 3.8% of gross domestic product (GDP), is among the weakest in Southeast Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Economic recovery is hampered by the spread of COVID-19 and the lack of fiscal stimulus.

IBON pointed out that the 11.3% increase in government spending last year was even below the average annual increase of 14.3% from 2017-2019.

There is also little aid forthcoming, which the group scored as insensitive. The Php239.3 billion allotment for COVID aid under Bayanihan 1 was reduced to just Php22.8 billion under Bayanihan 2, and even further to Php18.4 billion under the 2021 budget.

Despite tight quarantine levels being sustained beyond two weeks since end-March, the government has not spoken of any addition to the Php23 billion in aid for 22.9 million affected individuals in NCR+.

The Duterte administration’s refusal to spend what’s needed to address the pandemic crisis means that any measure that increases spending on COVID-19 response is urgent and very welcome, IBON said.

In its own recommendation for a Php1.5-trillion expansionary fiscal policy, IBON proposes Php540 billion in emergency cash subsidies for 18 million poor and low-income families (Php10,000 per month for three months); Php101 billion in wage subsidies to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to support a Php100/day wage increase for three months; Php40.5 billion for cash-for-work programs; Php220 billion in agricultural support; Php200 billion in financial assistance for MSMEs especially those that are Filipino-owned and domestically-oriented; Php78 billion in financial assistance for informal earners; Php200 billion in COVID-19 health response; and Php113 billion to fund distance education.

The group also cited the Makabayan bloc’s House Bill 7620 or the People’s Strategy for Strengthening Health, Social Protection, Economic, and Local Industrial Development (SHIELD) and House Bill 8628 or the Bayanihan to Arise as One Act (Bayanihan 3) sponsored by House of Representatives Speaker Lord Velasco and Marikina Representative Stella Quimbo.

SHIELD’s Php1.57 trillion budget includes allocations for free and intensified COVID-19 mass testing, treatment, tracing and mass hiring of healthcare and non-healthcare personnel, monthly subsidies for the unemployed, stipends for students, and strategic economic programs.

Bayanihan 3 meanwhile allocates Php420 billion for subsidies to small businesses, businesses in critically-impacted sectors, social amelioration for households, assistance to agriculture producers, and aid for the unemployed.

IBON said that the Duterte administration and lawmakers should give the greatest attention to these proposals which are most deserving of being certified as urgent.

Every additional COVID-19 response measure over the meager amounts allotted by the administration will help the country get out of this crisis faster, stressed the group, whereas bills expanding foreign businesses’ profit-making will not be of any help at all. #

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. #