A People’s Green New Deal? A look at PH labor

June 15, 2021

by Rosario Guzman

(Reaction to Chapter 5 of A People’s Green New Deal by Dr. Max Ajl during the Philippine book launch sponsored by the University of the Philippines Center for International Studies, 11 June 2021)

American ‘radical legislators’ have proposed a major climate and energy initiative, the Green New Deal, essentially to transform how Americans live their lives – how they produce energy, produce food, build houses, use transportation, and manufacture goods. It is envisioned to drastically reduce carbon emissions in the next 10 years – certainly a major shift coming from the globe’s number one polluter.

Up to this point, the major criticism against the Green New Deal is its impracticality – which is a kind of a lazy argument by those who resist radical change in the face of the planetary emergency. Others may also argue that it is nothing but a platform for Left populism with the aim of winning hearts and elections.

But Dr. Max Ajl’s book A People’s Green New Deal rises above these obstacles. It presents socialist proposals, including the demand for climate debt repayments from the imperialist countries, and doables indeed, inspiring those who have always regarded socialism as a verb more than as a noun.

The key to this inspiration is putting people right there at the center. IBON has also been articulating that kind of economics we call people economics, which envisions a radically different Philippine economy from what we have now, a counterpoint to neoliberal economics that has gripped the world for the last 40 years. People economics also places people at the heart, for we believe that no amount of blueprint or roadmap is ever feasible if there is no people’s movement behind each proposal.

In Dr. Ajl’s book Chapter 5 titled The World We Wish to See, the author leaves us analytical notes on labor, urban planning, planning and construction for an eco-socialist future, transport, and industry and manufacturing. These get us into thinking, in terms of building on the notes or improving them, or in terms of problematizing our own context in order to contribute to the operationalization of a people’s green new deal. Let me prioritize our context.

A new economy will inevitably evolve out of a new labor, proposed by Dr. Ajl to be characterized by a combination of increasing wages and reduced workhours. In such a scenario, the new value therefore may be re-acquired and allocated to “carbon-free free time”, in the words of Dr. Ajl. And if we may add, that free time adds immeasurable value to human development.

The Philippine economy, however, has a massive jobs crisis, with almost one-third of the labor force either unemployed or underemployed.  This has reached its worst under the long COVID lockdown. In its latest press release, IBON has noted that informal self-employment has grown and is the kind of employment that is most prevalent in the country. There are now almost as many part-time workers plus those “with a job, but not at work” as full-time workers.

This precarious employment has set the basis for the cheapening of labor-power. The government pegs the minimum wage at an atrociously low standard of living and poverty threshold of only about US$1.50 a day. The daily minimum wage in the National Capital Region is only about 51% of the amount that IBON estimates a family of five needs to survive.

The economy’s failure to create sufficient and meaningful jobs is the product of decades-long implementation of neoliberal policies that have eroded economic production capacity, especially the creation of new values. Wage depression is the consequence of both mass unemployment and a deliberate cheap labor policy. At the end of the day, it is the domination of foreign corporations and the landlord-comprador class that has debilitated policymaking that favors genuine economic development with the working people at the heart.

The country is one of the largest migrant-sending countries in the world relative to population size. The overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are exploited three times over – by their employers, by the receiving country, and by the Philippine government. The OFWs contribute to the surplus accumulation of the receiving countries, while the Philippine society has invested in their education. For the last 40 years or so, the Philippine government has strengthened this labor export policy as a way for the import-dependent and foreign investment-driven economy to be hedged by dollars and, at the same time, to boost household consumption as a way to keep the economy afloat amid the erosion of the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

In recent years, the government has touted business process outsourcing (BPO) to be the main generator of millions of jobs for the Filipinos. The reliance on BPOs and call centers is in essence a labor export policy, where the value-added in after-sales service add to the super-profits of the foreign manufacturers and capitalists. There was a momentary growth spurt in the sector, creating jobs for old and young population alike though dead-end and in rough and unsustainable working conditions. But this growth started to slow down drastically five years ago when global interest rates picked up again and foreign investors moved elsewhere. BPO workers have been put on rotation, work-from-home arrangements, voluntary retirement, or have been retrenched, bursting the bubble of economic growth even before the pandemic struck.

The Duterte administration is obsessed with a grandiose infrastructure program, which it also claims to be the new generator as well as multiplier of millions of jobs. But the program continues to rely on foreign investors to bring in not only the finance capital but also the construction materials and technology, as the country does not have its own steel and other metals manufacturing. It caters to the needs of foreign investors as well, even if the projects are unnecessary for real economic development or irrelevant even as the country staggers to cope with the pandemic. The bottom line – the promised jobs still fail to materialize. Yet, the infrastructure ambition undoubtedly enriches not only the foreign construction corporations but also the domestic oligarchs whose sources of wealth have been real estate development and land speculation, among others. These are all in the backdrop of urban blight.

At this point, we can easily propose asset redistribution especially land reform, which the Philippines never had in the real sense, and the building of national industries, which the Philippines never did in any sense. Are these doable? Dr. Ajl explicitly qualifies that his book is not a set of political programs. But we have to admit that only by wrapping these proposals in our political programs can they be achieved.

At any rate, let me end by saying that in our people economics roundtable discussions, different sectors have presented concrete production systems that are already being implemented by their organizations. These are in the areas of rural development; transport and various industries; energy and water; and environmental protection. The practices of agroecology; organic farming, food processing and kitchens; collective land cultivation; just price from direct farmers’ marketing; multi-purpose hydro systems; renewable energy community systems; eco-friendly housing structures; traditional medicine by community doctors; establishment of Lumad and other indigenous people’s schools; workers’ cooperatives; coastal and forest community-based management systems, among others are well-documented. We have people’s scientists, agriculturists, environmental scientists, technologists, farmers and workers, and the broad sectors who rally a genuinely sustainable development. 

These are being done already. But the enormity of our problem will require comprehensive, multi-sectoral, political and organized action. As early as we get that social cohesion, we begin demanding reparations for historical climate and ecological debt and social justice.