No country for the ‘tambay’

The concept of all citizens being equal under the law has become the accepted principle since the turn of the 20th century in countries that have embraced liberal democracy as a system of political governance. Accordingly, each human being must be treated equally and all are subject to the same laws of justice.  This principle is called “legal egalitarianism.”  This is reflected in the political slogan adopted by former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim—“The law applies to all, otherwise none at all.”

However, the reality on the ground is starkly different. A famous quotation from a French author, Anatole France (1894), captured the supreme irony on the theory and practice of legal egalitarianism as follows:

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

In real life, the situation indeed is less than majestic from what the law says. In a society divided between a privileged few and the numerous poor, the former always get priorities in various areas of social life and get legal protection for all this.

In contrast, the poor get discriminated, socially and legally, in so many ways. A good example: housing. The financially capable can enjoy the safety and warmth of their palatial homes, while the homeless poor try to build shanty homes out of cardboards in vulnerable areas like esteros, or worse, end up sleeping on sidewalks. The law, of course, does not tolerate building houses on esteros and sleeping on sidewalks.

Now comes the campaign of the government of President Duterte to spruce up the image of the country—no more istambay, no half-naked men loitering around, no idlers occupying the street corners and so on. Does the President want these istambay to disappear? Nationwide?

There are so many tambay. How can the government make all of them disappear? Let us examine some labor force statistics.

First, it should be pointed that there are no exact numbers. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) does not gather specific data on who are and how many are the istambay. But one can deduce from the official labor force statistics where these istambay are coming from and how many Filipinos are likely to become part of the tambay army.

In the January 2018 labor force statistics released by the PSA, we find the following figures:

The population of 15 years old and over is 70.9 million.

Out of this 70.9 million, 44.1 million are considered economically active or are in the labor force. This means a huge number—26.8 million —are “not in the labor force” (NILF).

The economically active consists of two major categories—the employed persons, numbering 41.8 million, and the unemployed, totaling 2.3 million (for an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent).

The underemployed or those employed but looking for more work were estimated to be 7.5 million, or 18 percent of the employed.

From the foregoing, where are the tambay likely to come from? Commentators readily cite the unemployed, who numbered 2.3 million in January 2018. The reality, however, is that not all unemployed are loitering around because they are seriously looking for jobs, online or off, in various establishments and places.

On the other hand, a certain percentage of the unemployed are members of labor gangs or labor pools for certain industries such as construction. Members of these gangs or pools do not have regular jobs and usually wait for new “job orders” from job contractors or recruiters who visit their neighborhood. In this sense, loitering around serves some kind of a useful purpose—waiting for productive job opportunities to come in their neighborhood.

Of course, there are unemployed who simply do not know where to find jobs and have very little to do at their tiny and congested homes. They stay outside and link arms—and share thoughts and ideas—with other jobless in the neighborhood, to while away precious time and wait for job opportunities to come by.

The last two categories of jobless are joined by the “discouraged workers,” workers who are not looking for work because they failed, repeatedly, to find ones in their previous efforts and are resigned to the fact that they will not find any. Under the PSA system, the unemployed, to be so classified as unemployed, must be of working age, without work, actively looking for work and are available for work. In other countries, the labor statistical bureaus exert extra efforts to determine who are the “discouraged workers” who cannot be categorized as “unemployed” simply because they are no longer looking for work.

In the Philippines, the “discouraged workers” are likely to be part of those classified as “not in the labor force” or NILF, numbering 26.8 million in January 2018. Traditionally, the NILF population consists of full-time students, full-time housewives and the disabled. Latest figures indicate that the total number of tertiary or college enrollees does not exceed five million. On the other hand, the concept of being a full-time housewife is being rejected by more and more women. Very likely, a large number of “discouraged workers” are lumped in the NILF. They are economically idle and are likely to be part too of the tambay nation.

Also, not all who are employed or who have work spend 40 to 48 hours of the week working. In particular, about half of the underemployed are “visibly underemployed” for they are not working full time; hence, part of the time or the week they spend at home or in their neighborhood, doing loitering, too.

In addition, the PSA has some statistics on work hours. It appears that at least 15 percent of the 41.8 million employed work less than 20 hours a week, or virtually two-and-a-half days if reckoned based on the regular eight-hour work schedule. What do these workers do the rest of the week? Again, a number of them are likely to be part of the huge tambay population.

So what will the government do to make this population disappear? Round them up? You need millions of police enforcers to make this happen because there are millions in the ranks of the istambay.

What then is the realistic alternative? The quick answer: Make growth and job creation truly inclusive, decent and sustainable for all. This, of course, requires more intensive policy debates in the Cabinet and consultations with the people, including representatives of the istambay themselves.



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