In the Miserable Depths of Poverty

As 2008 nears its end, many Filipinos conclude that their dire plight got unbearably worse this year. More and more urban poor families speak with anguish about their impoverished state while adamantly stressing the need for “radical change”.



A new year is commencing. Looking back at the year almost gone by, the urban poor see the bleak path they struggled to travel on. The year 2008 is just the same as the past years, only worse, they say. They have been constantly pushed beyond the margins of humane living, always in danger of losing their homes and livelihood. Politically, they have been further silenced as cases of “repression” among their ranks remain. Neglected by the state, they demand the abolition of the prevailing system.

The urban poor population of the country has now hit 30 million based on data from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB). A considerable percentage of them reside in the slums of Metro Manila. The number of urban poor families is significant considering that the population of the country is 89 million.

According to the document Lagutin ang Tanikala ng Kahirapan (Break the Chain of Poverty) prepared by the Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay or Mutual Help Association of the Poor), workers and “semi-proletarians” (workers doing seasonal odd jobs) comprise the urban poor population. They “suffer from extreme poverty” caused by the lack of gainful employment. They make a living out of their dismal wages and meager earnings, which fall way too short compared to the soaring cost of living in and outside Metro Manila.

Based on the study of the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), a family of six (the size of the average Filipino family) needs, at the very least, P858 ($17.96 at the Dec. 12 exchange rate of $1:P47.78) everyday for food and other expenses. In the National Capital Region, an average worker earns only P345.00-P382.00 ($7.22-7.99) while workers in other regions earn less.

Children collect garbage in a slum area in Tondo Manila. (Photo by Aubrey Makilan)

Worse is the case of vendors, drivers of pedicabs, tricycles and other modes of transportation, workers in dumpsites and other semi-proletarians. For instance, scavengers in the dumpsite of Payatas who collect garbage which can still be of use like pet bottles, iron and papers, earn only P150 ($3.14) or less a day after working for nine hours. Aling Julieta, an ambulant vendor along España Street in Sampaloc, Manila, earns the same amount for working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren in urban poor communities comprise a significant number in the alarming number of drop-outs in primary and secondary schools. Most of them have to stop going to school to work and help their parents augment their meager family income.

While most of the urban poor reside in far-off relocation sites, tenement houses and communities around industrial areas, some end up living in “dangerous areas” like dumpsites, bridges, along railroad tracks and river banks where social services are beyond their reach. Diseases like dengue, hepatitis and tuberculosis are prevalent among the urban poor as health and sanitation conditions in these areas are bad.

They experience extreme hunger and destitution, which drive some of them into committing anti-social activities, from petty to more serious crimes.

Most of them came from different provinces during the latter part of the 1940s. Their farmlands were grabbed and they were forced to evacuate to the cities in search of employment. During the second half of the 1940s, thousands of people from the countryside occupied the shorelines of Tondo, riverside of Pasig and areas of Intramuros.

The urban poor numbered less than 100,000 in 1956, 2.5 million in 1996 and now they number 30 million.

Hunger and destitution

This year, multitudes of Filipinos experienced “extreme hunger” based on the studies of various groups. According to the research conducted by the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), an alarming number of Filipino families had to skip meals simply because they cannot afford to eat three times a day. Conchita Orande, a resident of Payatas, lamentably confesses that in her lifetime, her family had never skipped a meal until the past few months when they often had to miss dinner because they had no money. Some prolong their sleep and wake up late so they can combine their breakfast and lunch, said the group.

Meanwhile, according to the Third Quarter 2008 Survey of the Social Weather Station (SWS), an estimated 3.3 million families experienced “involuntary hunger” in the period August-October this year.

Likewise, the survey conducted by IBON Foundation last April showed that more and more Filipinos find it difficult to buy food and other basic commodities.

Health is at the bottom of the urban poor’s list of priorities, says Dr. Geneve Rivera of the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD). Since the purchasing power of the peso is low and inflation is high, they put food and other immediate expenses first on their list. Their nutritional needs are neglected since what their earnings can afford are unhealthy foods like noodles and cheap canned and dried goods, Rivera further said. Some even resort to eating “pagpag” (leftovers recycled though boiling and re-cooking) as is done in the slum areas of Tondo and Payatas.

Diseases that can be easily cured are rampant among the urban poor since they are unable to address their health needs, according to HEAD.

The meager budget that the health sector receives annually makes it difficult for the Department of Health (DoH) and public medical institutions like the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to extend medical assistance to the urban poor.

Homes and livelihood in danger

Demolitions of homes and areas of livelihood of the urban poor were also rampant throughout 2008.

Kadamay and other local urban poor groups hold the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) responsible for these. With operations deemed as “illegal demolitions”, often involving violence, congressmen have been compelled to question the MMDA’s authority to conduct demolitions. Several congressmen have supported House Resolution No. 487, seeking an inquiry on the legality of demolitions conducted by the MMDA.

HR 708, meanwhile, seeks an investigation on the human rights violations allegedly committed by the MMDA during their operations.

In the past few years, clashes between sidewalk vendors and the MMDA in different areas in Metro Manila have become rather common. In the first half of the year, demolitions at the Philcoa Wet and Dry Market, Culiat Bridge and Balintawak Market in Quezon City, Levi Mariano Avenue in Taguig City, and at the Quinta Market were carried out by the MMDA. The MMDA allegedly carried out these operations without notices of demolition. More demolitions of the urban poor’s areas of livelihood happened throughout the second half of the year.

The urban poor’s homes also face actual demolitions or threats of demolitions throughout the country.

In Cagayan de Oro City, at least 15,000 families will be affected when the plan to turn the Cagayan de Oro River into a tourist attraction is implemented. In Kawit, Cavite, 50 houses of urban poor families were demolished while those in the coastlines of Bacoor, Noveleta and Cavite cities face threats of demolition because of the planned extension of the R-1 Expressway. In Davao City, the city government plans to demolish several structures including homes of the urban poor.

In Metro Manila, there are reported cases of demolition of urban poor homes along the Pasig River and in Project 4 in Quezon City. Threats of demolition in Sitio San Roque, San Isidro, Brgy. Central at Pinyahan District in Quezon City also abound as the implementation of the plan for a Quezon City Central Business District (QC-CBD) progresses. The expansion of University of the Philippines (UP)-Ayala Corporation Techno Hub also threatens the homes in surrounding barangays such as the Old Capitol Site and San Vicente.

Urban militarization

Meanwhile, residents of urban poor communities see urban militarization as a problem rather than a blessing. Elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reportedly have been seen in different areas of Metro Manila such as Baseco and Delpan in Tondo, Manila, Dagat-Dagatan in Caloocan City, and in Old Balara and Pansol in Quezon City.

The AFP reasons out that the military deployment is meant to lessen the crimes and “maintain peace and order” within these areas. Kadamay, however, argues that this move by the AFP may be a ploy to put community-based progressive organizations, which fight for the rights of the urban poor for shelter and livelihood, under surveillance. This, as seen by the group, is an assault on the democratic right of the urban poor to freely organize themselves.

Worse is the case in the provinces, according to Kadamay, where their members have become victims of “brazen political persecution.” The vice-chaiperson of the group’s chapter in Tacloban City, Charlie Solayao, was shot dead by a masked assassin riding a motorcycle in 2007. Meanwhile, another member of the group in Southern Tagalog was included in the list of 72 activists in the region who were slapped with trumped-up multiple murder and multiple frustrated murder cases last October.

Urban poor shanties in Baseco, Tondo, Manila. (Photo by Dabet Castañeda)

“Radical change”

According to Carmen Deunida, former spokesperson of Kadamay, what the country needs now is “radical change in the time of worsening crisis and hunger among the urban poor.” She further stated that “it is not enough to depend on legal processes to acquire social justice and development (for) the urban poor.”

The group, along with other urban poor organizations in different parts of Metro Manila, people’s organization and progressive partylist groups, held the Lakbayan ng Maralita para sa Radikal na Pagbabago (Caravan of the Poor for Radical Change) last Dec. 1 and 2 to collectively defend their rights and call for the ouster of President Arroyo.

The Arroyo administration, while claiming that the country’s economy is progressing under the “strong republic”, has done nothing to resolve the issue of worsening poverty, they said.

“Radical change” of society, to Kadamay, means “replacing the old system with a new one that would implement national industrialization and genuine agrarian reform.”

Kadamay said that the suffering of the urban poor would continue under the system wherein “a few benefit from the people’s labor.”

The lives of the urban poor worsened in 2008. But they still look forward to better years to come when the impoverished people finally free themselves from the miserable depths of poverty.

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