SOCIAL PROTECTION FOR WORKERS IN THE INFORMAL ECONOMY AND THE ENHANCED COMMUNITY QUARANTINE
By: Dr. Rosalinda Pineda Ofreneo, March 25, 2020
These are dangerous times so everyone is enjoined to please be careful and observe quarantine measures/health guidelines. Our situation in the Philippines is truly worrisome under the Luzon-wide lockdown and the nationwide state of national emergency. The following is a short summary of conditions and trends:
- Steep rise in the number of cases, now more than 600; deaths at 35, including five doctors and one university professor who died a few days after being admitted in a government hospital without benefit of getting the results of her covid 19 test (six days to process). Donations of test kits have just arrived from China, Korea, etc. so confirmed cases are expected to rise even more. However, these kits are not for all; they will be used only for those who have severe symptoms. WHO predicts that if no decisive interventions are put in place, the number of cases can go up to 75,000 in five weeks. The lockdown is being implemented to slow the rise in cases, and ‘flatten the curve’ over time.
- Health care system under severe stress — health personnel under threat because of lack of masks and other personal protective equipment, also due to lack of information and transparency from patients (A famous cardiologist who is also a dear friend died yesterday morning of covid 19 after being exposed to an infected patient without his knowledge; other doctors and nurses in the Philippine Heart Center where he worked and died are now under quarantine. Other exposed health workers in big hospitals are similarly on quarantine and therefore cannot render service. The acute lack of health care personnel(many of them are working abroad), already felt even before covid 19, has become a severe problem .
Big private hospitals have already announced they are no longer accepting patients. A few government hospitals have been designated as referral hospitals for Covid patients but their isolation rooms are limited. Many potential patients and “persons under investigation” with mild symptoms are being turned away to be accommodated in hotels and tents provided by local governments. Only those with spacious multi-room homes can afford self-isolation if they have symptoms as most people, especially those in poverty, live in crowded places.
- Employment and economic crises are unfolding rapidly due to the enhanced community quarantine (actually a lockdown). More than 100,000 workers in the formal sector cannot work. Contractual workers who are employed on a no-work/no pay basis have no daily income. Workers in the informal economy — homebased workers, vendors, drivers, construction workers, micro-entrepreneurs- cannot go out of their homes and barangays, The plight of the working poor has become painfully obvious, and efforts to address their plight, from both government and private sectors, have acquired urgency. An aggravating factor is the return of almost a thousand overseas Filipino workers from infected cruise ships, and the impending displacement of 30,000 from the cruise industry.
- Hunger and social crises loom in the horizon. Local government efforts to provide food packs are too slow, too small, and will not last long. This is the height of summer, and a water crisis just like what happened last year is possible. The heat is making home quarantine unbearable for many poor and crowded households living in virtual ovens. If covid 19 spreads in crowded areas, hospitals and health personnel cannot handle sudden surges in the numbers of those who will be infected. Social unrest, raiding supermarkets and warehouses (which happened after Typhoon Haiyan) can erupt. Such instances will most likely be quelled by more authoritarianism, if not martial law.
It is against this backdrop that a comprehensive social protection and economic recovery program needs to be advocated especially to address the plight of informal and other vulnerable workers. Let me quote from Rene Ofreneo’s latest article in the Business Mirror:
Containing the virus is, of course, not that simple, as outlined above. The reality is that a lockdown triggers social and economic problems that do not only subvert success in the implementation of the containment strategy but also add new and equally difficult challenges on other fronts. Foremost among these is the massive job and income displacement that naturally arises from a virtual stoppage of work and commerce. A lockdown is a strike against the economy and the working people.
In the Luzon lockdown, the plight of the following workers immediately became visible to the mass media – the informal self-employed (vendors, freelancers, micro entrepreneurs, waste pickers, tricycle-jeepney-taxi drivers, etc.), informal wage workers (viajeros, construction workers, etc.) and the “endo” workers in the formal private sector and the “job order” workers in the government. These informals and non-regular paid workers constitute the overwhelming majority of the labor market. They cannot afford prolonged idleness. No work-no pay means no food-no life for their impoverished families. They can easily be found: in the slum colonies snaking around the archipelago, and in the various tenement and public housing projects of the government.
It is now abundantly clear that a lockdown will not work if it is not accompanied by a comprehensive program of social protection for the many, including those in the middle-level income range such as those operating small and medium enterprises. Social protection means insurance against hunger, homelessness, illness and non-enjoyment of basic necessities in life. The problem is that the informals and the precariat (endos and job-order workers) do not have such insurance. Many are not even enrolled in the SSS and GSIS, both of which are focused mainly in providing limited pension benefits to registered members, not long-term unemployment insurance in a lockdown situation.
Let me also quote from a proposal from progressive economists (Cielo Magno, Emmanuel de Dios, et al.) based in our university for a comprehensive social protection and economic recovery plan:
The pandemic has thrust into the limelight the woeful state of our social insurance system, which was already insufficient even without the extraordinary demand on resources today. Community quarantine, which is the policy measure of choice to control the spread of the virus, has made it impossible for millions of people to make a living and who will now go hungry if the government does not act. The dire situation could transition into a rapid and total dismantling of social cohesion if radical actions are not taken swiftly and decisively.
Secure supply chains and ensure that essential services remain open. The supply chains for food and essential nonfood items, such as water, electricity, medicines, packaging materials, soap and disinfectants, etc., must be secured. Essential services provided by financial institutions, food and beverage outlets (groceries, supermarkets, and public markets), pharmacies, public utilities, logistics, and obviously, medical institutions like hospitals and clinics should continue to be provided. Restaurants and fast-food chains can continue to operate with take-out and delivery options only. Online and network delivery services that cater for households’ food and nonfood needs should be encouraged to operate and given full rein. Emergency services should continue to function, as well as fire and police departments. The government can continue to provide its essential services with a reduced workforce. Public transportation — at least along arterial roads — should be available, but with enhanced enforcement of social distancing to the extent possible. Local governments, which have superior local knowledge, should be given the flexibility to manage their transportation requirements within reasonable bounds.
Immediately distribute emergency financial and non-financial aid to the most vulnerable. An increase in payments to poor households already identified in the government’s conditional cash-transfer program (4Ps, PantawidPamilyang Pilipino Program) should be easy to administer. The government, however, must now quickly identify new households that have been thrust into poverty by the pandemic so that cash can be distributed to them too. Mobilize the disaster-relief infrastructure to distribute noncash benefits, especially food, water, and medicine. Immediately distribute food and nonfood vouchers to poor communities to be claimed at any supermarket or grocery. Special attention must be paid to the nutritional needs of young children, whose deprivation now can have consequences for their physical and mental development. TulongPanghanapbuhaysaAting Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) is another existing community-based program that the government should fully administer now. It can cover both the formal and informal sectors. Currently, the maximum assistance under this program is 30 days. It should be made flexible to cover the unemployed if quarantine goes beyond 30 days. The goal is to ensure that no one goes hungry. People assured of their survival will be more likely to adhere to the extraordinary regulations meant to protect their and the community’s health.
Provide vulnerable households with financial relief. The extension of the tax-filing deadline is a good first step, but more can be done. A moratorium on foreclosures and utility payments during the quarantine period is essential for households earning below a certain income threshold and only for primary residences. These payments can be collected over an extended period at a later date at 0% interest. Rolled over credit-card debt should not incur any interest if the credit limit is below a certain amount. Individuals should be allowed to withdraw their contributions from the Social Security System (SSS), Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), and Pag-IBIG up to ₱50,000 to be repaid over an extended period at 0% interest. Conditional on businesses not laying off their workers, employees who are furloughed because of the pandemic should continue to receive their salary in full for the first two weeks, and then 80% of their pay thereafter. The government and the employer can share this burden, with the employer taking a larger share in the beginning and the government increasing its share moving forward. Work-related expenses for those who work from home should be deductible from taxable income, with rules to be liberally applied for one fiscal year. The government can provide subsidies to affected workers, including those whose wages are paid on a daily basis and own-account workers whose monthly income are below the food threshold. We estimate the two-month subsidy to reach ₱25.55 billion in Metro Manila and ₱310.23 billion for the whole country (although these are subject to revisions given changing conditions).
Protect the health of individuals. That Philhealth commitment to cover all testing and treatment related to COVID-19 is a good step. Employers should find ways to allow their employees to work from home as much as possible. Paid sick leave should be extended to a minimum of 14 days for the duration of the crisis, with the government covering 80% of the salary for the first seven days and 100% thereafter. Tariffs and nontariff barriers that apply to personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential medical equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic should be suspended with immediate effect. Occupational licensing restrictions should be relaxed to allow nursing and medical students close to finishing their degree to assist in the efforts to combat the disease. National and local governments must stand ready to take over hotels, motels, and other accommodation services to use their beds should the health crisis require it. The military must be locked and loaded to rapidly build temporary treatment facilities and to provide medical assistance via their trained engineers and medical personnel.
The government must continue to pay its obligation to contractors of institutional Contract-of-Service (COS) workers. Institutional COS workers include janitorial and other support services of government agencies. The government must ensure their salary throughout the quarantine period even if they do not report for work.
Enforce anti-price gouging and anti-hoarding laws. The government must enforce anti-price gouging and anti-hoarding policies for essential products including personal protective equipment, alcohol, medicine and vitamins during the quarantine period.
Provide support to agriculture and ensure its supply chains are unimpeded. Luzon produces 47% of agricultural value added in the country. Therefore, the lockdown of the island can disrupt agriculture and its related activities. Moreover, Filipinos in rural areas are the poorest and therefore more vulnerable to income shocks. The government should provide support to farmers, either through input subsidies or access to markets, so that they will continue to produce during this crucial time. In addition, agricultural supply chains should be unimpeded by checkpoints due to the lockdown. As and when shortfalls become inevitable, the government should be ready to import more or incentivize the private sector to do the same.
Mobilize local governments. Local governments must be tapped to ensure regular sanitation of public places. They should ensure support for vulnerable constituents including senior citizens and persons with disabilities (PWDs) who may have limited access to essential resources including food and medicine during the quarantine period. They can create short supply chains of goods in their communities or be the main procurer of goods of small farmers. This can contribute to food supply resilience within their communities. They can provide transportation to essential workers. They can establish mobile markets and mobile kitchens. They can also be the main partner of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) in implementing TUPAD and tap the TUPAD beneficiaries to provide essential services (e.g., sanitation, food/grocery delivery to elderly and PWDs, transportation for frontliners). They should provide decent isolation centers for persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs) especially for those coming from urban poor communities. Local governments can apply the Local Government Code provisions on emergency purchases (Secs. 366 and 368) to procure necessary supplies including testing kits for their constituencies. This will enable them to conduct mass testing pursuant to the World Health Organization (WHO) directions. Provincial governments should consider regulating the flow of people in and out of their territorial boundaries without hampering the flow of essential goods and services.
Put in place a coherent, comprehensive, and compassionate containment plan for Metro Manila and its vicinities. Due to its high density, Metro Manila as the epicenter of the COVID-19 spread comes as no surprise. Therefore, under the leadership of the National Government, we suggest that there must be close coordination between the Metro Manila Council and neighboring spillover cities and municipalities in order to enact a coherent, comprehensive and compassionate containment plan. This will ensure that supply chains will not be disrupted, transport of essential medical personnel will not be hampered, contact tracing will be more efficient, transboundary movement of workers will not be blocked, and information will be shared seamlessly, among others.
Anticipate the spread. All efforts are now focused on Metro Manila but within a short period, we are bound to see an increase in the number of infected individuals in the provinces. While this has not happened yet, the national government should allocate funds to improve the capability of provincial hospitals to respond and treat the most vulnerable patients. Local governments should exert efforts to identify the most vulnerable in their communities, particularly the elderly and those with comorbidities, and state universities with laboratories that are capable of handling COVID-19 testing should be tapped. Mass testing should be done, with priority given to those at the highest risk and showing symptoms.
A Philippine Social Protection and Economic Recovery Plan By Alfredo R. Paloyo, Cielo D. Magno, Karl L. Jandoc, Laarni C. Escresa, Ma. Christina F. Epetia, Maria Socorro Gochoco-Bautista, Emmanuel S. de Dios. March 22, 2020: PHILIPPINE STAR/
Department of Labor DEPARTMENT ORDER 210 Series of 2020 Guidelines for the Implementation of the TULONG PANGHANAPBUHAY SA ATING DISPLACED/DISADVATAGED WORKERS PROGRAM (TUPAD) #BARANGAY KO/BAHAY KO (TUPAD #BKBK) DISENFECTING/SANITATION PROJECT)
People-centered mobilization central in containing Covid 19 by Rene E. Ofreneo. Business Mirror, Mach 26, 2020