April is the cruelest month

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April is the cruelest month
-TS Eliot

March and April are the cruelest months in these parts. The “summer” they signal is not the relief from winter it’s known in milder climes, but its opposite: the onset of days of stupefying heat that for those in the lowlands who can’t escape it (or who don’t have air conditioning) means sweating even as they’ve just bathed.

The very use of the word — no doubt devised in this country by ad men who hype it as the season for trips to the beach and vacations in Tagaytay and Baguio — is misleading. What begins in March is not summer but a season of dryness and fires (it’s not called the dry season for nothing).

The term “summer” in the Philippines is falsely derived from those countries with four seasons, where spring comes in late March and lasts until June, when the real summer begins, to be followed by fall and winter.

For the poor in this tropical land, March doesn’t mean the rebirth spring brings, but the start of a season of fires, during which the wretched accumulations of a lifetime usually go up in smoke, condemned by low water pressure and crooked firemen. But what comes next is even more dreaded: the season of rains, floods, landslides and typhoons, appropriately called “wet”. The wretchedness of the dry season is only a prelude to the worse miseries of the wet.

Forget the ills of an intemperate climate, however, because there’s worse news. It’s also in March and April when the labor force gets a huge boost in number from those out of high school, college or vocational school as well as those who’ve simply come of age. These — some of them, anyway — are the young and the eager, the people graduation speakers and priest try to inspire with advice to look at this country and life positively and with hope, but who within weeks crash head on into the adobe walls of the country’s unemployment statistics.

In January this year, says the National Statistics Office, the country’s jobless rate increased to 7.4 percent, up from 6.3 percent in October 2007, or about the same as it was in October 2006.

Although other groups like the Makati Business Club say the unemployment rate is actually ten percent, the official government rate means that some three million persons out of a labor force estimated at about 37 million are currently unemployed. The underemployed — those who work only part of the time, less than 40 hours a week — amounted to about 18.9 percent, or about six million, say the same government statistics.

Add these up, and you get a total of about nine million unemployed and underemployed — a hefty number that doesn’t even consider how much less than 40 hours a week the underemployed work (it could be an hour or two, for example).

Every job hunter knows what this means. Hundreds, even thousands, regularly apply for a few job openings. But it also means vast opportunities for employer abuse. With labor being a buyer’s market, who needs to provide job security, or even the wages mandated by law? An unhappy worker can always be replaced, with literally hundreds waiting to take his place.

The fact is that the economy has not generated enough jobs to keep pace with the growth of the labor force. Unemployment is a key factor in the poverty rate, there being no incomes without jobs. Without an income there’s little or no access to such necessities of life as food, clothing and a roof over one’s head, and those in these straits end up in the government poverty statistics, which now admit that 32.9 percent of the population, or 27.6 million Filipinos, are poor.

As disconcerting as these numbers may be, the number of poor people may actually be even more than the official statistics say.

The official poverty threshold defines the state of poverty as the inability to meet “minimum basic needs” like food and shelter. And yet even those able to provide themselves these needs, but who can’t get medical care when they’re sick, or whose children can’t stay in school the year round, are definitely “poor”. Seven out of ten Filipinos thus describe themselves as poor — which raises the disturbing possibility that the poverty rate may actually be 70 percent of the population.

So what’s the eager, wide-eyed, most recent entry into the labor force to do if he or she’s to either help get the family out of the pit of poverty or prevent it from falling into it ?

Why, get a job “abroad,” of course, so he or she can send home those lovely remittances than can keep his family here in food, clothing and shelter, and quite possibly in medical care and school.

That is the path of choice nowadays, with about 20 percent of the population eager to leave for foreign parts, or preparing to do so. Among this month’s and next’s graduates are those who’re going into caregiving, for example.

But note that going to school so one can leave for a job in another country presumes the capacity to pay the fees required and for the meals and transportation costs going to school entails. That means shutting the door to this option to the poor, who in the first place don’t even have the means to put food on the table regularly, let alone the extra cash to send anyone to school. The families that benefit from the remittances of Overseas Filipino Workers are usually not poor and certainly not the poorest, but those who have some means, in the first place.

For the poor and the poorest, then, the only options, such as they are, are here, where one ends up as either a poorly paid unskilled laborer without job security (31 percent of the labor force is in this category) — or in the streets wondering where the next meal’s coming from. The only upside to this is that few of the truly poor have had to listen to those graduation speeches that uniformly preached hope while eking out a living in this earthly paradise.

(BusinessWorld)

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