This article is commentary. It does not pretend an academic or statistical foundation. It is a westerner’s impressions of Philippine society gleaned by living in this beautiful, vibrant country. Joe's aim is to understand the Philippines and contribute to the pool of ideas that encourages continued progressive development.
There are classist societies and there are classy societies. The trick is to get from one to the other by making sure there is an upward drive so that people gain by helping their nation gain. Helping it to be more productive, safer and wealthier.
As I observe the Philippines, it seems to me there are clear class distinctions defined by a person’s wealth, geography, education and power. Some are large, others small. There are walls between some of the classes and that is troublesome. It means people have a hard time moving up and the nation's character comes to lack the drive that is needed to progress with determination.
Going from bottom to top, hidden to visible, non-influential to influential, we have:
- The Tribal Class: The mountain or island tribes. Almost no wealth, geographically isolated (a blessing and a penalty), limited education, and no influence outside the local community. This is the invisible class of Philippine society. Members have few roads and limited utility infrastructure, weak law enforcement, and no health care. They are the families washed away by mudslides and poisoned by mine effluents. And the rest of the nation forgets about them until there is another disaster that thrusts them onto the front pages of the newspapers.
- The Subsistence Class: The agrarian and laboring workers. This is the vast, sweaty core of a thin but broad Philippine economy. These are the people who work for P200 or less a day, with no future job promised. Career is an unknown word. Forget social security and health care. They work the rice fields, fish the seas, dig the foundations, haul the cement, climb the coconut trees, whack the weeds on the side of the road, drive the Jeepneys , staff the local stores, provide household services, and pedal tricycles. They are the Philippines, in its most honest, hardworking, fun loving and sustaining self. They don't have enough money to be corrupt but they have so little money they will sometimes "innovate" to get some more. They have lots of kids and send them to the fields early to help put rice on the table. They are the worker bees of Philippine society, locked into poverty by an overabundance of mouths to feed and almost no way out. That needs to end.
- Low-End Skill Workers: Masons, carpenters, call center workers, store department managers, small store owners, shop foremen, bus drivers, military men, policemen. People in this class can support a family and send their kids to public school. They are the entry point to ambitious self-improvement, and could succeed if the points of progression were not all blocked. And if aspiration, like career, were a prized concept in Philippine society. It is not. But kids born to these parents do have a small chance to break out. They would have more of a chance if the public schools weren't such a mess of overcrowded, under thinking pools of obedience. Low-end skill workers cluster around large towns and urban centers. TESDA is crucial to their success and growth.
- The Rational Climbers: The class of Rational Climbers encompasses overseas workers and Filipinas who marry foreigners. Climbers boldly seek exit from three other classes: (1) The Subsistence Class, (2) Low-End Skill Workers, and (3) Professionals. They are rational because they intuitively do the math and decide the reward is worth the risk to embark upon a radically different lifestyle, and they are climbers because they have the clear aim of improving their lives. The motivation that drives them is best summed up in the statement: "Enough of this!" For professionals, the second part of the statement might be: "I have skills and am tired of struggling along on this measly income." For a young, single woman, it might be: "It is a choice of security and money, or babies, and I want security and money." For a worker, it might be: "Canada may be a giant ice cube, but businesses there pay real money", or : "The Middle East is strange, but they have oil and gobs of cash; I'm going to go get some." How do we bring them home? Bring families back together? That would also contribute to the character of the nation.
- Professionals: Teachers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, tech workers, call center managers, government officials, higher ranked military and police officers, engineers, journalists, bank managers. They have college degrees and generally must know somebody to make the leap from sluggish career to meaningful career. Their family ties help in many ways. Funding their schooling. Opening doors. Establishing an ideal of a higher standard of living. They form a sound middle class with potential to move up. They look down on a lot of people for they know they have power over their clients, and a better education. Their professional skill levels are often, ummm rudimentary, but the country does not demand more. The professionals need to be challenged by competent competitors. They should not be able to get rich and be lazy just because they have a diploma.
- The Priests, Imams and Assorted Other Men of Cloth: This is a small, isolated class of faith-based leaders. Each faith claims to have the sole ticket to heaven, and each condemns people who won't buy that ticket. It arches over the Professional class, from priests to archbishops. The ever essential problem is, as near as I can tell, there is only one God, indivisible. So someone has to be blowing smoke. Religion is a big deal in the Philippines, even if Superstition is the master religion that overlays all other faiths. Catholic priests, Muslim imams, Protestant pastors. They have such influence in the Philippines, but I know of none that claims any responsibility for the outcome. For the condition of the land. For the poverty. For upside down values that find cheating acceptable. This class can take care of itself, for it has institutions behind it. It is best ignored.
- The Entertainers: This is another isolated class, pretenders (not meant in a disparaging sense) who are held in extraordinarily high esteem by the masses. A boxer, singers, actors. They are rich and live well. Their kids can attend the best schools and many move easily into the Connected class, spreading their wealth amongst their family and favorites. They live a life as far removed from the subsistence class as Neverland is from London. They pretend to be one of the people, for they must do this to succeed. But they are not. They are on pedestals. It is fantasy for them and it is often fantasy for their audience, a dream that people of little opportunity might also become rich and famous. Entertainment shows and advertisers leverage this dream for profit. Poor people remain poor.
- The Connected: These are the movers and shakers of the Philippines. Legislators, business owners, media executives, judges, governors, mayors, generals. They thrive on favors and somehow get rich even if their salaries are not rich. They are all well schooled and well traveled. Their kids will be, too. Some have the same names as the streets in Manila. The Connected people make sure the Philippines does not change because they would be threatened by a system that demanded capability over favor as the basis for reward. It is important to open pipelines into this group, break down the country club atmosphere and mediocrity that thrives.
- The Oligarchs: These are the parallels to the kings, queens, princes, earls, dukes, duchesses of the British monarchy. Their wealth is enormous. They are an amalgamation of historically powerful landed families and big business moguls. They own the television stations, the telephone companies, the financial institutions, the shopping malls, the beer company, and the housing subdivisions. The oligarchs fund the politicians and, under the system of favors granted and received, get laws favorable to their continued enrichment. And the public, and the well-being of the Philippines, remain stuck in place, static, years behind the rest of the world. We should do a parade for the oligarchs and ask them to wear bejeweled crowns, they are so anachronistic. Then ban nepotism.
So now the question becomes, okay, we see the different classes, what are we going to do about it? How can we build a dynamic that allows people and families to work upward based on aspiration, skill and effort? How do we get to production based on aspiration, and wealth based on production?
- Minimum wage. This is a classic two-edged sword. If you raise the minimum wage, businesses cut jobs. Much of the Subsistence Class works at unofficial wages, unreported, untaxed, below minimum. A constructive approach is to move in small steps to implement and enforce employee welfare laws. Edge toward formal wage practices nationwide. Establish government unions for certain laboring classes such as farm workers. The goal should be substantial reduction of the underpaid subsistence class in 20 year by pushing in small steps toward formality and a higher minimum wage that can be supported by the nation's growing wealth.
- Education is fundamentally important to give young citizens the knowledge they can build on in order to move up the ladder. Broad-based schools, disciplined, with good teachers and fewer than 45 kids per classroom. The framework is there, and the budgets are generous under President Aquino. But the schools can't keep up with the birth rate. Plus, the curriculum is stale and argued anew every year. Here's the secret. RH Bill or executive order promoting rational birthing levels. And the internet as a teaching pipeline. It can be the way pressures is released from facilities and teachers to focus on knowledge.
- TESDA is critically important to teach skills and to open an avenue up for the subsistence class and for low-skill workers to become high skill. Fund the department generously and hold the leadership accountable for certain standards and results. Don't ignore this "applied" piece of the educational pie. It is hugely important as a migratory path bridging classes.
- If education is a constructive plank, it is also important to do some deconstruction. The Philippines is too much a closed society of good old boys and girls plugging up opportunity and ensuring mediocrity; you see this in the family names plastered on Manila street signs and in the legislature. A Fair Employment Act that discourages hiring "friends, family and favorites" and focuses solely on capability can fix this. Anti-dynasty laws in governance can help. Anti-trust laws in business. Break the barriers to entry to the Connected Class and rebuild the commerce of the nation on the energy of capable, ambitious people. Let the oligarchs die off in favor of a new breed of honestly competitive managers.