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[OPINION] Onions and an economy of exclusion

[OPINION] Onions and an economy of exclusion

By Bishop Gerardo A. Alminaza

January 23, 2023

Manila, Philippines

What does it say about our society when the economy is up, but wages remain stagnant, prices are increasing, and the poor remain poor?

Last January 13, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno reported that the Philippine economy grew by 7.5% in 2022, and is expected to grow by 6.5% this 2023, a projection touted by President Marcos during the World Economic Forum just this week.

Similarly, this week, the price of a kilogram of onions reached 800 pesos. While the increase in the commodity’s price seems comical, its implications are not. Several farmers have already expressed frustration over their losses despite the increase in onion prices, with at least five farmers reportedly killing themselves because of it. The same farmers express concern over the plans to import more onions outside the country in order to decrease onion prices, even as reports of smugglers and hoarders in the onion trade have abounded.

Onions are just among the many basic commodities whose prices have soared in the past few months. Just last month, economists noted that inflation rose to more than 8%, the highest it has been for 14 years. By this week, diesel will have seen a 0.50 peso-per-liter increase while gas will also increase by 0.95 peso-per-liter. Because of this level of inflation, while economic experts from Mercer forecast an increase of 5.5% in employee salaries this year, they also admit that no real wage increase will be happening.

On paper, it seems as if the economy is doing just fine, so fine that the President – in the middle of rising prices back home – can confidently speak on it in a Forum of billionaires abroad. It is certainly the right audience, as according to Oxfam in a report released this week, the number of those worth $5 million (P278.24 million) and above has increased by almost half or 43.5% since 2012. According to the same report, some $26 trillion or 63 percent out of all new wealth worth $42 trillion was captured by the richest 1% while $16 trillion or 37% went to the rest of the world.

In the Philippines, Oxfam reported that the top nine richest Filipinos have more wealth compared to 55 million or half of the entire Philippine population. This is interesting to put side-by-side with the report by Forbes that the collective wealth of the 50 richest Filipinos decreased from $79 billion to $72 billion “amid the country’s recovery from pandemic headwinds.”

Thus, the question at the beginning of this article. What does it say about our society when we celebrate economic growth when we know that life is getting harder for our impoverished neighbors? What does it mean when the rich not only get richer, but are most profitable during times of crisis, such that their riches lessen as the rest of society recovers? The answer is simple: that Pope Francis was right. We are living in an economy of exclusion.

“It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new,” the Holy Father tells us in his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). “Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it.”

It might be that the reason we can positively describe the economy as “growing” despite the poor finding it harder and harder to afford basic necessities is that we have accepted that ultimately, the economy isn’t for them. Worker migration because of unemployment here in the Philippines is accepted as a fact of life, because – again – this is not their economy. Farmers killing themselves? Again, not their economy. In the words of Pope Francis, “human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.”

How, then, should we pursue an alternative to this economy of exclusion? Quite simply, through acts of inclusion. We include people by listening to them. We include people by respecting them. We include people by understanding their sentiments and admitting that while things may be going okay for us, it may not be as okay for them.

During the same dialogue, President Marcos praised Filipino workers for being “young” and “have few dependents” as well as “well-trained and sophisticated.” As with the previous administrations, our workforce has become quite the enticing bargaining chip for investors looking to outsource jobs or employ from overseas. But without ensuring that worker’s economic well-being, rights, and dignity in the workplace are ensured, Filipino workers still remain excluded from the actual economy except as products to be exported and exploited.

Global Rights Index, listed the Philippines as one of the 10 Worst Countries for workers, in the past six (6) years, as trade unionists and labor rights advocates have been harassed and killed to prevent them from organizing and pushing for the welfare of the workers. Moreover, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) has documented 56 victims of killings among workers, unionists and labor rights defenders, including labor leader Dandy Miguel and mass organizer Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Asuncion in March 2021. 27 unionists and labor organizers also remain in detention for trumped-up cases and planted evidence. Just last January 16, Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dahoya surfaced after being abducted and disappeared for six days. Truly, the Pope is right when he says that this economy of exclusion kills.

However, there are always opportunities for the plight of those excluded to be heard. And it is our duty as Christians to carry the cross of those excluded, as the Lord commanded us to serve “the least of our brothers” the way we would serve Him. For example, this January 23 to 26, representatives of governments, employers and workers from the International Labor Organization (ILO) will visit the Philippines “to investigate the reported alarming state of freedom of association in the country and other issues affecting our Filipino workers – no security of tenure, slave-like wages, unemployment among others.” As a response, leaders from different Christian denominations, orders, and sects came together to express solidarity with Filipino workers so that their qualms and concerns will be heard during the ILO visit in a week of prayer and unity.

While this economy of exclusion has only seemed to have worsened since the Pope described it 10 years ago, things do not seem as bleak if we all continue to uphold the humanity of society despite the inhumanity of our current economics. The Pope’s call “to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings” a decade ago was not left unheard.

Our hope is that ecumenical unity among faiths and creeds extend to more people as the ILO conducts their investigative visit, and that by lending our collective voices to the cause of workers, we can have a more inclusive economy that boasts not just of “young,” “well-trained” workers, but workers enjoying a life of dignity, sufficiency, security and justice.

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Most Rev. Gerardo Alminaza is the Bishop of the Diocese of San Carlos and chairperson of Church People-Workers Solidarity (CWS).

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