Addressing an audience of highschool girls last week, President B.S. Aquino 3rd provided the cottage industry of his critics another of those priceless gems of unintentional irony he has a gift for creating, when he suggested that the country avoid electing an “ampaw” to replace him after his term ends in 2016.
“Ampaw” means “rice puff”—a sweet snack that looks appealing but is mostly made of air – and it would be a clever metaphor, if it weren’t being used by one whose administration is so perfectly described by it.
Prioritizing volume over substance has long been a habit of the Aquino Administration, and nothing epitomizes the policy better than the approaches taken towards the two most troublesome economic issues weighing down the country’s development: employment and infrastructure, or more to the point, the country’s persistent shortage of those things.
Chief Malacañang Talking Person Herminio “Sonny” Coloma Jr. took the point for the Administration last Tuesday to respond to the largely unsurprising news that the January unemployment rate increased significantly—the official peg at 7.5 percent is four-tenths of a percent higher than January 2012, and a full percentage point higher than the most recent previous Labor Force Survey conducted in October 2013. Coloma explained away the problem as an anticipated result of the country’s many calamities toward the end of 2013, particularly the devastating Typhoon Yolanda, but promptly sabotaged his own post hoc argument by also pointing out that workforce growth outpaced job growth by about 0.4 percent, which translates to 141,500 new unemployed workers.
That the figure just about precisely matches the year-on-year increase in unemployment is not a coincidence; due to the extreme difficulties in conducting the Labor Force Survey in the Yolanda-devastated areas, the National Statistics Office (NSO) excluded much of Region VIII, which omitted data that would have skewed the unemployment percentage sharply upwards. As The Times columnist Rigoberto Tiglao pointed out in his column last Friday (“Aquino government clueless over PH unemployment problem,” March 14), an impact of the typhoon that most economic observers would expect to see, a downturn in service sector employment (such as hotels and restaurants) as a result of a dip in tourism and other discretionary spending, did not happen.
The inconvenient fact is that the January unemployment rate is due to systemic rather than circumstantial causes, but that hasn’t stopped the Ampaw Administration from forging ahead with a strategy to curb unemployment based on a specious assumption to the contrary. According to Coloma, the government strategy will work in two directions: “One, [to]promote employment opportunities in places of refuge. We will take note that those mislocated (sic) were part of a migration wave from places of calamity to places of refuge, or to the towns and provinces adjacent to the disaster areas; and two, [to]facilitate employability by assisting job applicants in reconstructing pre-employment documents,” Coloma said.
In essence, the view of the Administration is that unemployment is due to “misplaced” persons adding to the jobless statistics of areas not affected by Typhoon Yolanda, and therefore job creation in those areas should be encouraged to take up the slack, but that the shortage of jobs is not as serious as it seems to be, since a considerable number of typhoon victims are only unemployed because they lost the extensive stack of personal documents an applicant is required to provide before he or she can be hired for even the most menial of jobs.
The most obvious flaw in this brilliant, multifaceted initiative is that it completely ignores the imbalance between labor force growth and job growth; outside of the typhoon-affected areas, more workers than jobs were created, meaning that “misplaced” persons are only adding pressure to labor markets where the supply of workers outstrips demand for them. “Promoting employment opportunities” (which in some respects implies the Administration believes jobs already exist) is fine, but it is not clear that the government understands the scale of the task. Just to keep the unemployment rate at its “normal” level – approximately 7 percent, the official rate at which the Philippines’ unemployment has been stuck for at least the last eight years – at least 566,000 jobs plus a number of jobs equal to the actual number of displaced workers (a figure for which there is no reliable estimate) must be created.
Another disturbing aspect of the government’s perspective is that it downplays, if not dismisses entirely, the importance of the recovery and reconstruction effort in the typhoon-affected areas. The logical solution to the problem of “misplaced” persons adding to unemployment woes in other parts of the country would be to accelerate economic recovery in the affected provinces, which would also have the added benefit of creating some jobs, at least temporarily, for unemployed workers from other parts of the country. Focusing on “providing employment opportunities” in areas where people displaced from the Leyte and Samar provinces might have gone only suggests the government has given up on the reconstruction, a suspicion that recent disturbing news stories, such as reports of tons of rotting, undistributed food aid being hastily buried, do little to dispel.
And for that matter, no confidence can be placed in the government’s ability to carry out the one relatively simple positive step outlined by Coloma, helping typhoon victims to replace their personal legal documents, in light of the incredibly stupid and potentially calamitous oversight by the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) in failing to procure a timely resupply of the all-important Seafarer’s Identification and Record Book (SIRB), or “Seaman’s Book,” putting the ability of tens of thousands of Filipino seamen to travel freely and report for work at serious risk. The Philippines’ well-deserved reputation as the world’s number-one supplier of skilled sailors is the one exceptional bright spot in the country’s labor export economy, and for the government to allow the livelihood of roughly 460,000 men and women along with the enormous contribution they make to the economy in general to be put in jeopardy, because someone in a line agency was incapable of filling out a purchase order and making a phone call to the printing shop, is beyond appalling.
Making confident sweeping generalizations about an issue, and then being incapable of doing the most basic related clerical work, is as good a definition of “ampaw” as any. President Aquino was quite right to suggest that voters should avoid that in the next election; any more like him, and the country might not be able to survive it.