MORE than one-fifth of those who are willing and able to work in the Philippines were unemployed in 2016, the latest survey by Social Weather Stations (SWS) said on Friday.
As has always been the case, the SWS survey results stand in stark contrast to the much rosier picture painted by the official employment statistics compiled by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), which reported that the full-year jobless rate in 2016 was 5.5 percent. That represented a significant improvement from 2015, when the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent. By contrast, the SWS result for 2016 showed the country’s employment situation had gotten slightly worse from a year earlier; the 2015 survey put the jobless rate at 21.9 percent.
Every time the SWS unemployment data is released, it fits a consistent pattern: unemployment by the SWS methodology is always three to four times greater than what is considered the official data released by the government. Those who are displeased with the contradictory figures from the private market research firm sometimes call into question its methodology, motives, and political connections, which, they say, encourages SWS to make the circumstances look worse than they really are.
By the same token, those who feel the government makes a habit of putting lipstick on a pig in reporting the country’s jobless rate draw attention to the much broader official definition of employment and much narrower definition of the active workforce, which, these critics assert, hides the true scope of joblessness in the Philippines.
Perhaps a better, less contentious way to consider employment and unemployment statistics is not to consider them as objective statistics at all, but to view the country’s situation in more qualitative terms. What is important in making a general assessment of the country’s economic health is not specifically how many people are unemployed, but whether there are very many, many, few, or very few otherwise capable and willing workers unable to find work. Statistics, particularly when they are applied to a sample population that is constantly in flux is an unavoidably imprecise business. A large number of people enter and leave the workforce every day, making every indicator any labor force survey is trying to define a moving target; that’s why any survey published comes with a margin of error.
That is the way the public considers the matter, after all, which is why, despite having its credibility constantly called into question, the SWS survey makes an impression on people. Even though the numeric results are probably not exact, they cannot be so inexact as to present a picture that is wholly inaccurate. The SWS survey, despite what its critics say, does use a scientifically appropriate sample size and distribution; in addition, it employs much broader, and therefore likely more realistic definitions of employment and unemployment, and is done on a monthly basis. The government figures, by contrast, even though they are also based on a statistically legitimate sample population, include a great many people who are not paid for their work (as do most people, we tend to believe wages are an important feature of a job), and are based on surveys conducted only four times a year.
The bottom line is, no matter how much the government or anyone else wants to debate the point, there are still far too many Filipinos who are not gainfully employed, and that should be a top priority for policymakers. Anyone who has ever been unemployed for even a short time knows that finding a job is a concern that trumps almost every other need or desire; it should be no less important a concern for the government.