Puno on ‘rights of the poor’: Make them ‘demandable’

The country’s leading scholar on social justice is undeniably Chief Justice Reynato Puno, chairman of the Consultative Committee to Review the 1987 Constitution. He has been writing about the subject since the 1960s when he was studying law. Under his leadership (during the Macapagal-Arroyo Administration), the Supreme Court institutionalized three powerful legal instruments protecting the rights of the poor when seeking legal redress – the writ of amparo, the writ of habeas data, and the writ of kalikasan.

In 2012, the UP College of Law published Puno’s magnum opus, Equal Dignity and Respect, a 650-page treatise on social justice and equality.  The book deals with the timeless issue of equality and its opposite, inequality, and how the Philippines, through the 1935, 1973 and 1987 Constitutions grappled with these twin issues.  It is a mesmerizing scholarly review of the roots of the Constitutional provisions on the equal protection of the laws and the resulting Philippine, American and Canadian jurisprudence on this subject matter.

The book, however, raises a painful question that bedevils the nation up to the present:

“Twenty five years after the Filipino people overwhelmingly ratified the 1987 Constitution, has Philippine society bridged crushing inequalities between the nourished and famished, the schooled and unlettered, the powers that be and the lowly?” 

He posed this question because the 1987 Constitution has numerous references on the rights of the poor. For example, in Section 3, Article XIII, the charter mandates the State to provide protection to all.  It states:

“Section 3. The State shall afford full protection to labor, local and overseas, organized and unorganized, and promote full employment and equality of employment opportunities for all.”

No exception given. All workers are entitled to “full protection” – social, economic and employment.  And yet, statistics show that only 200,000 workers, out of a work force of over 42 million, enjoy the right to collective bargaining.  Unionism is unheard of in the large informal economy.  And the growing army of the precariat – casuals, project workers, agency-listed personnel, job-order government workers, etc. – are unable to exercise the right to form unions and negotiate for better terms and conditions of work.

Also, statistics and recent studies tell us that inequality is not only persistent but is even widening and deepening.  The high economic growth rates that the country has been posting since the turn of the millennium is making the 40 or so richest Filipino families happy but the fruits of growth are not trickling down to the masses.

Majority of our workers today — factory workers, service industry personnel, peasants, landless rural poor, tribal farmers, fisherfolk, transport drivers and “barkers”, ambulant vendors, home-based workers, maids at home and in foreign lands, scavengers, “unpaid family workers” and so on  — continue to face the chronic or persistent problems of unemployment, underemployment, low incomes and yes, labor precarity and informality.  This is why the claim of our economic planners that more and more people are being lifted out of poverty was met with wide disbelief. When these planners came up with the fantastically low poverty threshold – P10,000 a month as the supposedly decent standard for a family of five, Senator Chiz Escudero asked:  Saang planeta ba sila nagmumula?

So, to go back to the question raised by Justice Puno, is there hope for the ordinary, jobless or semi-jobless, impoverished and famished Juan and Juana de la Cruz?  Can the State provide them adequate, timely and guaranteed social protection?

Apparently, Justice Puno and his team in the Constitutional reform body has stumbled or has found some solutions through charter change.  Justice Puno is batting for the inclusion of the basic socio-economic rights of every citizen under the “Bill of Rights”.  This, he said, is a departure from the mechanical or rhetorical listing of these rights under the abstract State principles.  Such listing of principles is simply “aspirational”.  In contrast, political and civil rights are fully fleshed out in the Bill of Rights.

With the socio-economic rights included in the Bill of Rights, a poor and impoverished Juan or Juana can demand, as a matter of citizen right, ample social protection against any social risk such as unemployment, illness, malnutrition, lack of shelter, poor access to educational facilities and so on.  Additionally, citizens Juan and Juana can demand the right to a job or work, right to decent housing, right to health protection, right to education and skills training, and right to a clean and sustainable environment.  As Justice Puno himself explained, these rights should and must be demandable. In short, these become Constitutional writs on karapatang pangkabuhayan at pangdugtong-buhay.

Importance of macro social and economic policy coherence

But how then should the State guarantee the delivery of social protection?  Obviously, by putting these socio-economic rights under the Bill of Rights, Justice Puno and his team are not only nudging but virtually goading and telling the State to organize itself in a way that its form of economic governance will result in the guaranteed delivery of such rights.

This means the delivery of these rights should get the highest budgetary priority of the government.  However, this is not enough. A government experiencing budgetary stress, which keeps recurring in the case of the Philippines, cannot possibly allocate adequate funds to cover all the social protection needs of the poor. A robust, inclusive and sustainable economy is needed.  Hence, sound socio-economic development strategy and programs should or must be pursued.

This is why the effort of the Constitutional body to put the basic socio-economic rights under the Bill of Rights need to be further strengthened through the addition of a clause or a provision stating that there should be policy coherence in the formulation of social, economic and employment policies.  In fact, this is one of the major recommendations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) when it adopted Resolution No. 202 in 2012.  The said Resolution asks all ILO Member States to adopt a “National Social Protection Floor” based on the concept that social protection should be adequate, comprehensive and universal. The Resolution stressed that such a social protection floor requires coherence in social, economic and employment policies.  In other words, a pro-poor reform-minded government supportive of social protection for all should have a visionary and transformative pro-poor socio-economic program in place.

(The foregoing are remarks given by the author in the 1st National Forum and Public Consultation on the Review of the 1987 Constitution held at Manila Hotel, June 21, 2018.  The Author is a Co-Convenor of Dignidad, a coalition of civil society organizations pushing for adequate, comprehensive and transformative Social Protection for All.)

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