Church labor group say admin’s 2021 budget ‘anti poor’

A Catholic Church labor group has accused administration lawmakers of ignoring the poor as well as the health and labor sectors in passing the 2021 budget of national government by not allocating a “sufficient amount” to cushion the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on our hard-hit countrymen.

The Church People-Solidarity Group (CPDG), an organization composed of clergymen and churchgoers advocating for the protection of workers’ rights, disclosed that several members of the House Representatives allied with President Rodrigo Duterte in approving the 2021 budget promoted social exclusion instead of social justice.

“The budget approved by Congress fails to address the needs of those who are affected by the coronavirus pandemic, especially the workers. There was very little reserved for social amelioration of retrenched workers and the poor. A huge chunk of the budget was for infrastructure, which we think, is non-priority given the pandemic,” the group said in a statement.

Duterte congressmen had ‘hurriedly’ approved on October 6 the 4.5 trillion-peso (US$93.75 billion) budget for the following year. Under Philippine law, Congress has the “power of the purse” or the authority to approve and allocate the country’s annual budget.

CPSG chairman Bishop Gerardo Alminaza revealed that Congress had intensified inequality by being anti-poor for its meager allocation to the health and labor departments.

“The 2021 national budget intensifies social exclusion because it would show that the poor who cannot afford to go to hospitals or take swab tests would die due to lack of money in the health sector,” Bishop Alminaza stressed.

The prelate branded the budget’s approval as a dire example of the Duterte administration’s ‘indifference’ to the predicaments of the poor.

“It (the 2021 budget) does not guarantee health care, especially to the poorest of the poor and those severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Alminaza pointed out.

“The budget speaks of so many things as it is an indicator of the priorities of the government or administration. It also confirms that health measures to control the coronavirus were not a priority under this administration, while only a fraction was allocated to the labor sector,” he added.

Lawmakers had allotted US$100 million each for social and health protection and for micro and small enterprises.

On the other hand, infrastructure and the military got whopping amounts US$22.91 billion and US$15.42 billion, respectively.

“There is a burgeoning budget on infrastructure amid the worst health crisis and economic decline in the country’s history,” Bishop Alminaza enthused.

He urged lawmakers to reconsider amending the budget to prioritize the more urgent needs of the people, concluding that “amid economic hardships and massive unemployment, the poor needed not only charity but also justice.”

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FARMERS LAMENT DELAY OF GOV’T’S STIMULUS PACKAGE

The country’s farmers have become numb with the delays in the vaunted PhP24 billion stimulus package that should have been released as promised by President Rodrigo Duterte during the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic that has brought the Philippine economy to its knees.

Farmers lamented the delay saying that the much-needed funds should have been given already if the government really wanted them to have a chance at recovering from the impact of the ongoing health crisis.

“Dapat sana’y naibigay na ito dahil kailangan na talaga ng aming sektor na maisaayos ang aming kalagayan at maibigay ang nararapat para sa sambayanan; kaso sa nangyayari sa halip na mapasigla ang agrikultura sa pamamagitan ng stimulus package ay namanhid na kami sa kakahintay nito,” a farmer from Nueva Ecija pointed out.

With only two months left in the validity of Bayanihan 2, none of the P24 billion in the stimulus package earmarked for the recovery of the farming sector has been released to the Department of Agriculture (DA), the agency’s officials disclosed at a Senate hearing by the Senate’s Finance Subcommittee on Agriculture Department’s 2021 budget.

“We have not received anything although we have submitted requirements to the DBM (Department of Budget and Management),” Agriculture Undersecretary Rodolfo Vicerra said in reply to senator Ralph Recto’s query over the delay.

Corollary to this, senator Francis Pangilinan asked the DBM for an explanation regarding the bottleneck in the release of funds.

In reply, DBM director Cristina Clasara said that her department had already “acknowledged” the DA’s request for the PhP24 billion but the problem was that “some of those projects were not properly supported.”

“We have a process and it’s still subject for review by the higher-ups,” she told the subcommittee.

Lady Senator Cynthia Villar then asked Clasara “how much is properly documented and how much is not,” and to this, the DBM official answered that “of the PhP24 billion, what has been clearly processed but still subject to review is PhP11.6 billion.

“Of this, PhP4.5 billion is in financial assistance for farmers. For the rest, we’re still waiting for documentation,” Clasara said.

HelperChoice: Average domestic workers’ salary in Hong Kong maintains positive trend for the past four years

For the fourth consecutive year, HelperChoice’s annual salary survey in Hong Kong shows an encouraging trend in the average salary offered by employers. For the first time in history, the average salary of foreign domestic workers exceeds HK$5,000.

According to HelperChoice data, this year, foreign domestic workers have been earning HK$5,012 on average, equalling a 1.35% increase compared to the previous study in 2019, and a 14% increase since 2016.

Despite the slight increase of 1.35% of the average salary, the platform highlights that the increase rate is slower this year than during the previous ones (+3.05% between 2018 and 2019). 

Regarding the districts, HelperChoice identifies clear disparities in the domestic helpers’ salaries according to their employment location. Following the trends of their previous years’ observations, families living in areas considered as more wealthy offer a higher salary to their helpers.

In 2020, the top five Hong Kong districts with the highest wages are: the Wanchai, Southern, North, Central & Western and Sai Kung. Foreign domestic workers in these districts might expect an average salary of HK$5,257 in these areas, with several employers offering up to HK$10,000 per month. 

While the Outlying Islands are absent from the highest paid districts this year, surprisingly, North district enters in the Top 5 districts’ with the highest paid salary for foreign domestic helpers, with an average salary of, that is to say a 8.7% increase compared to 2019. 

On the other hand, the five districts offering the lowest salaries this year are: Kwun Tong, Sha Tin, Sham Shui Po, Wong Tai Sin and Kwai Tsing. Employers in these areas offer an average salary of HK$4,726, which is only HK$96 above the Minimum Allowable Salary (MAW) at the time of HK$4,630. 

Despite this encouraging trend, the average salary offered, HK$5,012, does not yet meet the average salary expected by foreign domestic workers. According to HelperChoice data, on average, domestic helpers request a salary of HK$5,259, that is to say HK$247 more than what employers offer at the moment. 

If we go back in time, we can observe that the Minimum Allowable Salary (MAW) increases, on average, by 2.4% every year and follows the Consumer Price Index (CPI) trend, which evolves at an average rate of 2% each year (but suffered a 0.4% decrease between 2020 and 2019).

Covid-19 has unfortunately deeply impacted a lot of Filipino overseas workers, including domestic workers. It is estimated that so far more than 345,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have lost their jobs worldwide, and many more struggle to find a new position abroad due to travel bans. A huge loss for the Philippines citizens and Economy as a whole, as around 10% of the Philippines’ GDP relies on OFWs remittances. 

While the Hong Kong government provided help to most residents, including HK$10,000 to all permanent residents under the Cash Payout Scheme, it was decided to not raise the minimum allowable wage of foreign domestic workers this year. 

This decision stresses even more the financial burden, as well as the difference in status and working conditions made between foreign domestic workers and other workers in the city. Despite representing 400,000 people in the Hong Kong working force, foreign domestic workers are the only workers who cannot access permanent residency in Hong Kong after 7 years of employment in the city. 

In 2020, the HelperChoice registered a 6% increase in foreign domestic workers looking for a new job due to termination of their previous contract, mostly because of their employer’s relocation. 

“This situation is increasing the dependence of Filipino families to foreign domestic workers still employed, or already abroad and looking for a new job. It is even more important to help foreign domestic workers who are currently in Hong Kong finishing their contracts or the ones who have seen their contracts being terminated (mostly due to financial reasons or relocations of their employer) to find another position before they have to go back to the Philippines unemployed.” Mahee Leclerc, Managing Director of HelperChoice said.

To face this, HelperChoice has set a new process in 2020 for all foreign domestic workers looking for a job, who are already in Hong Kong, helping them improve their CVs in order to find a new employer as quickly as possible. 

Apart from the increase in contracts’ terminations, most of the domestic workers surveyed by HelperChoice mentioned deterioration of their working conditions: 

A majority denouncing an increase in the workload (31%), and longer working hours (25%). Unfortunately, due to the difficult social and economic situation, 21% of the domestic workers surveyed also mention being in constant fear of termination of their contract, affecting their mental well-being. 

With the implementation of social distancing amid Covid-19, HelperChoice witnessed a strong increase of its traffic, increasing by 150% new users between late March and early April. 

Hong Kong residents have been limiting unnecessary travels as much as possible during the peak of the epidemic, most of them working from home, so it’s only logical that they switched to an online solution to hire their domestic helper instead of going to an agency. 

HelperChoice has the largest database of finished contracts domestic helpers in the city, and these contract statuses are the easiest to hire in the current situation. 

“This phenomenon is not a temporary trend, but more like a structural change in the industry. After months of political unrest and now, sanitary crisis, Hong Kongers and foreign domestic workers, who were favouring traditional employment agencies before, are now turning to online services for good,” Leclerc added.

In Hong Kong it is mandatory for domestic helpers to live with their employers. Considering the housing costs in Hong Kong, this has of course a huge impact on the domestic helpers’ budget and the money they can save or send back home. 

However, the comfort of the living arrangements plays a significant part in domestic workers’ working conditions. 20% of the domestic workers surveyed would prefer to live-out, and 75% to have a private room. Earlier this month, a domestic helper lost a Court of Appeal challenging the ‘live-in’ rule in the city, saying tat the live-in requirement was part of the wider systemic discrimination faced by foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. 

As the employers can specify the type of accommodation they offer to their domestic workers, HelperChoice also investigated which types of living arrangements are the most common. The survey exposed that a large majority (66%) of job offers included a private room, whereas 22% offered a room shared with a child, 9% a room shared with another domestic worker and 3% a room shared with an adult. It is important to note that domestic helpers cannot sleep in the same room as another adult of the opposite sex. 

 

Senate OKs bill granting San Miguel Corp. 10-year tax exemption for Bulacan airport project

The Senate has approved on third and final reading the bill granting San Miguel Aerocity, Inc. a 50-year franchise to operate an airport in Bulacan with 22-0 votes and no objections.

The bill just now awaits the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte in case the House of Representatives adopts the Senate version.

Several groups have raised concerns about SMC’s Bulacan airport project, particularly the provision of the bill that grants SMC tax exemptions.

Under the said bill, SMC would be exempted from taxes during the 10-year construction, development, establishment, and operation of the airport.

Beyond the said period, the company will remain exempted from paying income and real property taxes until it has fully recovered its investment cost.

Advocacy group Action for Economic Reforms (AER) had earlier insisted that the tax exemption granted to SMC contradicts the pronouncement of the executive branch of the government that public funds shouldn’t be utilized in such projects.

The said airport will be built on a 2,500-hectare area in Bulacan town and is set to serve as another main entry to the Philippines besides the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Duterte’s lack of regulatory reform blamed for poor internet service

WITH everyday Filipino life moving online and the coronavirus pandemic magnifying the country’s internet connectivity problems, government critics underscored the urgent need for the Duterte administration to institute policy and regulatory reform in the country’s broadband sector to accommodate digital transition amidst the ongoing health crisis.

In a forum hosted by the Covid-19 Action Network (CAN), experts emphasized how the internet connectivity has become ‘indispensable tool’ in the country’s response to the virus and its move to the so-called ‘new normal’, where life is forced to move online.

CAN is a network of civil society organizations, individuals, and stakeholders from the government and the private sector working to fight the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 or SARS-CoV-2.

Experts noted for many places in the archipelago, including much of the countryside, internet connection is either poor or entirely absent.

“Internet service in the Philippines is among the poorest in the world, and President Duterte will not be able to address and improve it by merely ranting,” CAN stated.

According to their data, over 40 percent of Filipinos, 52 percent of public schools, and 57 percent of households nationwide still have no access to the internet.

They attribute this problem to the lack of competition among service providers in the country, which is said to be caused by high barriers to enter in the market.

One of the arguably biggest barriers for players is the franchise system, said Wilson Chua of Project Bass, a non-profit app that monitors the performance of telecommunications companies.

For these players to operate and conduct business in the country, they must first secure a congressional franchise. Chua thinks removing this requirement can lower the cost and speed-up the deployment of broadband networks in places that need them, resulting in a surge of investments.

Having more players in the market also brings more infrastructure, helping meet the growing demand by different sectors for fast, stable, and affordable internet connection. Unfortunately, this has continued to be an obstacle face by government despite efforts to address the growing concern, which not only adversely affects business activity but the educational system as well.

To lower the barriers to entry, CAN is proposing for several policy and regulatory reforms.

Experts suggest adopting an open access network, which will allow different players to enter different segments in the market to compete and interconnect with each other.

An Open Access bill has already been drafted, urging the government to use this framework to aid in rolling-out broadband networks across the country. However, there’s no movement as of yet and apparently, the move has not been prioritized by the President Rodrigo Duterte’s pool of think tanks.

Experts also propose the signing of a new executive order that grants internet service providers access to satellites and allow them to build networks using that technology to serve areas that do not yet have internet connection.

The group also recommends a passive infrastructure sharing policy that lets network providers coordinate with different departments of government in the installation of fiber optic cables, cellular towers, and other infrastructures.

Lastly, they advise the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) to review the licensing and permitting requirements of local government units (LGUs) and national government agencies (NGAs) that obviously hamper the deployment of internet facilities. These requirements, CAN said, are sometimes the cause of unnecessary delay.

PRRD Hit Over ‘Blacklisted’ Chinese Firm in Sangley Airport Project

BLAME it on (President Rodrigo Duterte’s) apparent infatuation with China, critics of the chief executive remarked on the alleged failure of the Department of Transportation (DoTr) to raise the red flag on the ‘blacklisted’ Chinese engineering and construction company involved in the PhP500-million Sangley Point Airport project in Cavite City, Cavite.

Duterte’s critics based their outlook on the developments in the Sangley airport deal involving the China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC) in the joint venture construction of the soon-to-rise international airport in Sangley Point with local business tycoon’s MacroAsia Corporation.

During a Senate hearing on the proposed PhP143.1-billion budget of the DoTr for 2021, lady Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares quizzed transport officials over the said airport project, pointing out that not only was CCCC blacklisted by the World Bank in 2009 for alleged fraudulent practices but is also among several Chinese firms blacklisted by the United States because of its “illegal reclamation activities” in the South China Sea, where the People’s Republic has been pushing for its expansive claims in the disputed area, including parts of the West Philippine Sea.

“Tuloy-tuloy pa rin ba iyong ating kasunduan dito sa CCCC na ito? Na-banned na tapos reclamation pa sa West Philippine Sea. Kalaban natin ‘to,” Poe asked.

In response, transportation assistant secretary Giovanni Lopez replied that the Sangley project earlier handled by the DoTr is different from the one involving CCCC.

He clarified that the project involving the Chinese firm seeks to expand and upgrade the existing Sangley airport, which was funded by the DoTr and constructed by a Filipino contractor.

According to Lopez, the provincial government is allowed to undertake its own bidding for any project.

“Kinikilala rin po kasi ng ating batas ang kapangyarihan ng local government po na sumali at saka magkaroon ng ganitong proyekto,” he disclosed.

But the lady senator insisted that the DoTr should have at least sounded the alarm over the Chinese firm, stressing that “if the DoTr can look into which bus routes approve or not, it should also be involved in scrutinizing contractors for national projects.”

“Department of Transportation kayo e. Mga pinapagawa na rota nga ng mga bus, kayo pa rin iyong ano n’yan. National project itong Sangley . . . You should have a say on that . . . vetting kung sino iyong mga ka-partners nila kung talagang mayroong capability or mayroong tamang reputasyon,” she said.

“Even if you don’t have the power to object, you can definitely raise your concerns,” she added in conclusion.

Tax perks outweigh benefits of San Miguel Corporation’s Bulacan airport project

Granting tax exemptions to the San Miguel Corporation (SMC) for its airport project in Bulacan would mean an added burden to taxpayers, something that shouldn’t happen, according to the group Action for Economic Reforms (AER).

The AER noted that while SMC has the freedom to build an airport that would compete with the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and Clark International Airport, “like any business or entrepreneurial activity, it must fully bear the risk.”

The group pointed out that the executive branch of the government is clear in its stance that public funds shouldn’t shoulder the tax exemption of SMC’s airport project.

It added that even Department of Finance (DOF) Secretary Carlos Dominguez “will not agree to the government and taxpayers being burdened by the costs, including tax expenditure, of this unsolicited private undertaking.”

Despite the rejection of Dominguez, the Congress approved the tax exemption provision of the airport measure on the third and final reading in September.

This means that SMC is not obliged to pay business taxes, franchise taxes, and supervision fees, unlike other infrastructure projects.

With this, House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Joey Sarte sounded the alarm that the government may lose around P1.5 billion to P2 billion in taxes annually, in addition to around P38 billion of national revenue losses once the construction of the said airport starts.

The AER also noted that with the tax exemptions granted to the SMC, it “sets a dangerous precedent” that individual corporations can just approach the Congress to get tax perks, rather than going through the systematic fiscal incentives criteria that CREATE offers.

CREATE or the Corporate Recovery Tax and Incentives for Enterprises Bill seeks to “rationalize the system of providing fiscal incentives and improve the country’s competitiveness,” which is not aligned with how Congress gave SMC tax incentives.

Dennis Uy’s Udenna Corporation eyes to acquire entire Malampaya gas field

Davao-based businessman and a known friend and ally of President Rodrigo Duterte, Dennis Uy is looking to own more of the Malampaya gas-to-power project as Udenna Corporation has expressed interest in buying Shell’s 45% stake.

Uy already has 45% of Malampaya after his company bought the 45% stake of Chevron Corporation before it left the Philippines.

In a statement, Udenna Spokesperson Raymond Zorilla said that Shell’s exit from the Malampaya project “needs to be resolved as soon as possible” for the stable operations of the local workforce, stakeholders, and customers.

Zorilla added that it’s ideal for Shell not to sell its stake to another company that’s not included in the consortium as it might lead to “complicated issues.”

He also noted that Udenna and the state-owned PNOC Exploration Corporation are “free of any conflicts of interest associated with ownership of downstream gas and electricity business.”

This recent development in the Malampaya consortium adds to Uy’s current expanding ventures in gas field and oil exploration.

The businessman also eyes to have exploration rights in Recto Bank, a part of the West Philippine Sea where Philippines and China have territorial disputes.

Multinational energy firms leave PH after divesting stakes from Dennis Uy’s Malampaya

Multinational energy firms are leaving the Philippines one by one after unloading their respective stake in the Malampaya consortium which is now 45%-owned by Davao-based businessman and presidential friend Dennis Uy.

Earlier this year, it was American energy giant Chevron Corporation which exited the country. Reports from the Petroleum Association of the Philippines also noted the departure of other deep-pocketed investors in the country’s oil and gas sector, namely Exxon Mobil, BHP Billiton, Occidental Petroleum, and Japan Petroleum Exploration Company Ltd. (JAPEX).

Royal Dutch Shell PLC is set to follow suit and is expected to unload its 45% majority stake in the Malampaya field. Shell Philippines Exploration BV (SPEX) Managing Director Don Paulino said that the move is “part of an ongoing rationalization to simplify and increase the resilience of (Shell’s) business.”

With Shell’s subsidiary leaving, experts observed that the remaining operators of the Malampaya field such as Uy’s Udenna Corporation and state-run Philippine National Oil Company-Exploration Corporation (PNOC-EC) are both inexperienced in running a gas-producing field.

The scenario is concerning since gas plants are vital in ensuring that there’s enough power supply for the country and Filipino consumers could be spared from rotating brownouts.

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Alfonso Cusi said that the Philippines is indeed in need of huge oil investors to be able to build another Malampaya field.

Cusi, however, mentioned that “the country’s petroleum prospectivity is low compared with our Southeast Asian neighbors which are oil producers.”

Amid these concerns, the government is currently moving to end the oil exploration ban in the West Philippine Sea.

Uy is also among the businessmen who have expressed their interest in exploring the said area, which is a subject of the long-standing territorial dispute between the Philippines and China for oil deposits.

Group urges lawyers to stand up vs possible Chinese espionage via DITO Telecommunity

Lawyers should voice out and exercise all the needed preventive measures they can raise in their capacity against the looming intrusions from China through third telco player DITO Telecommunity, according to lawyers group Tagapagtanggol ng Watawat (TNW).

In a recent webinar hosted by the Philippine Bar Association (PBA), TNW founding member Atty. Marlon Anthony Tonson reacted to the statement of Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana saying that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has assured that all needed precautions are in place to combat potential security breaches such as radio frequency eavesdropping, interception, jamming, and data farming.

Lorenzana’s remark came in response to criticisms after he signed the agreement between the AFP and DITO that allows the telco to build cell sites inside military camps.

Tonson pointed out that the Duterte administration should explain “in detail” why the Philippines isn’t mirroring the move of developed nations like Australia, Japan, and the US, all of which prohibit the entry of Chinese technologies into their countries due to cybersecurity and espionage concerns.

He cited a report by US-Israeli cybersecurity firm Cybereason stating that Chinese hackers had attempted to penetrate the systems of more than a dozen global telco firms in about 30 countries and harvest large amounts of personal and corporate data.

The lawyer stressed that the country should be extra careful and “acknowledge the apparent vulnerabilities of our digital system,” especially during the current times when all activities and transactions have shifted to digital due to the pandemic.

Another issue raised during the webinar is whether the Philippines should allow 100% foreign ownership of telcos, which the Congress is pushing for under the proposed House Bill No. 78.

Tonson agreed with what former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said, stating that the measure is unconstitutional and the Constitution cannot be changed by mere act of Congress. Both Carpio and Tonson maintained that the 60% Filipino – 40% foreign ownership rule should be strictly recognized.