Three Worlds

This blog is an amateur attempt to introduce the Philippines to those that do not know it but have some kind of interest in getting to know it better and therefore understand a little clearer. It is only my account. When I write articles like this one, I have to cast my mind back to how I perceived it in my early days here. I put myself in the shoes of new arrivals and imagine how they may view it when they step off the plane and go and greet Metro Manila.

The Tapestry and Confusion of Metro Manila

Many fall into the trap of judging the whole country on what they see in the capital. The Philippines is a hugely diverse country with many less obvious aspects to it. It takes years to begin to understand but it is important that you know that Metro Manila is not representative of the whole of the Philippines, even though the media often thinks that it is.

Many things you experience and observe in Metro Manila are due to the wider Philippines coming to the capital. People are there from every corner of the Archipelago and it creates a fusion along with confusion. It’s quite difficult to explain it to anyone who hasn’t glimpsed this collection of cities but as you get about the country from North to South, it makes more sense. Metro Manila is crammed full of people many of whom have spent their whole life in the capital and an equally large amount from everywhere else.

Class Division

The massive difference between rich and poor becomes obvious. You observe it in every corner of the Philippines but it’s very apparent as you go around Metro Manila. You only need to visit any of the shopping malls that are in abundance. If you stand at the entrance, you will observe people with their own full time drivers dropping them at the entrance with yayas (nannies) coming along for the ride to take care of the children whilst their employers shop or eat in the best restaurants.

There is a huge amount of wealth in all too few a people’s hands. Check the stats. Put simply, I know but I think true.

The first super rich group is not too obvious but still you will see them. They are easily detectable without having to search for them.

Much of the wealth of the Philippines is with this small group of very wealthy or even the super rich. Often, its money that has been in the family forever or at least a few generations, what some call “old money”. Whether it is a simple matter of saying that the large amount of wealth in a few people’s hands is responsible for all the woes here would also be debatable and would not really be giving you the complete picture.

Some of the problems here are directly due to huge class divisions for sure but it’s too simple to say that that is the reason for all the problems. The Philippines has positives that should not be overlooked and it’s too easy to judge all based on an obvious gap between rich and poor.

The political, social, historical and cultural make up of the Philippines is very complex and many outsiders are quick to make judgments but they are often missing much. A lot of things are negative due to some misinformed mindsets many of the people have here as well as poor education for many and a society where business regards the people here as mere fodder for profit. It would be aimless of me to go too much into details but this is an attempt to encourage the first time visitor to slow down and not to assume too much. Many things reveal themselves to you over time and your early impressions of the visible problems you see are possibly not all down to what you think they are as regards the negatives at least. Class division is an obvious wrong which you quickly pick up on but the Philippines is not the only country with such a divide between rich and poor. It may be said by some though that it is one of the biggest gaps between the haves and the have not’s anywhere in the world and they could well be right.

It’s very easy to make a surface assessment but it’s likely that you only have an outline; the real picture is far more complicated and you need to give yourself several years observing and learning before you can claim to have any real understanding of how the Philippines clicks and why it has so many seemingly unsolvable problems.

Wealth Equals Power

The wealthier classes are not starved of a good education. It is likely this group are very aware of the problems and many among them can be caring and mindful whilst others simply wouldn’t care. It would be wrong to assume the wealthy are all heartless. Some only care about themselves as is the case in many societies all over the world. My experience has taught me that there are good people within this class of people too. I was one who jumped on the backs of the elite and put most of the blame on them for everything. That was an early unfair assessment of mine. However, it is a contributing factor but only in conjunction with many other things far too complex to fully explain in an article like this.

The political control that this rich and powerful group has upon the policies of government however is a critical factor. Wealthy families can place themselves into the political circus ring and from within can nurture the country to their own best advantage. I am sure the Philippines is not alone when it comes to political dynasties and influential family influence within politics but here it is done to excess. They can stand directly for political positions as they have the money to finance their own campaigns. They can also back politicians of their own choosing that they can rely upon to do there will in their own best interests. This also extends into placing other family members into power and if you make a study of Filipino politics you will very quickly learn that there are many representatives from the same families.

The Predominant Working Classes

It is also worth noting that much of the working classes get by OK in general although as is often the case anywhere in the world, it can be a struggle sometimes. Working class in the Philippines can mean anything from poor to comfortable but most probably fit into the bracket of fairly poor but managing. The large family structure of many Filipino households can actually work for you or against you depending on the situation. Often more kids means more mouths to feed and education can be expensive. Jobs are hard to come by for even college graduates so there could well be a high dependency factor in many working class households.

Many families here comprise of bread winners and dependents within the household. Like much of the working classes throughout the world they live probably in debt but they get by. No real surprises there I know but being a country where families tend to be on the larger side it complicates matters further making understanding all the more difficult. We outsiders usually come from demography of around 2.2 children per household. In the Philippines, families are often much larger. Having maybe six kids, some of school age puts a greater strain on many households. Father may well be working and even bringing in a reasonable salary but he could be the only one bringing in any money.

The 7% Myth

Getting on the career ladder in the Philippines is something you need to do young as once you’re past around 23, many doors start closing on you. We westerners come from a culture which is against age, race and sex discrimination but here none of those things seem to be happening much. There are millions desperate for opportunities and few of them exist.

In the west, we are spoilt by legislation that ensures equal rights and opportunity for all regardless of race, age, handicap or physical appearance. There is little such protection here in that department.

It very much appears to me at least that unemployment is far higher than the figures of around 7%, which government agencies speak of. These figures are based on a survey which could be deemed unreliable but that is another discussion for another day.

Asking people in shopping malls if they are working could mean some debatable stats. Some may be on 150 peso a day and even less in the provinces but still the survey would count them as being in work. Some will be on part time or casual occasional positions yet still if they answer the question as doing any kind of work, then they would be counted as employed.

I doubt the surveys go to the poorest districts such as Tondo as if they did; the results would be very different. It is a bit like asking people outside a factory gate if they have a job. I may be wrong but I suspect they are not asking these questions in the right places hence very misleading unemployment stats.

The working classes though are without doubt the largest group as they are in all societies and probably the least noticed by visitors. It’s not all gloom and doom for sure but in my opinion and in my opinion only, I find 7% extremely hard to believe in real terms.

The Shock of Poverty

When foreigners write about the Philippines, the focus is often on the poverty, but there is another side of life here too. The extreme poverty that is abundantly clear for all to see gives the less travelled types a jolt when they see it and subsequently start making rash judgments. Maybe if you have been to India or other poorer Asian countries before, then it would not give you the same shock, as its true, the Philippines is not the only country in the world with major problems.

What I think shocks many visitors is the sheer gap between those that have an abundance of wealth and those that have virtually nothing, sometimes not even food. It’s visible and time introduces you too much of it. It’s definitely something which rightly we see as very wrong and we react but there is a lot more to it than uneven distribution of wealth.

You do not have to look hard to see that the Philippines have some desperately poor people. Once you are out of the mall and walking round side streets you will observe one hell of a lot of people that spend their whole day collecting plastic bottles and the wage for their efforts is probably just enough to feed themselves and nothing more. Nothing different from many third world countries I guess, but to westerners unused to it, it’s one of the first things that you notice.

I think the over indulgence with poverty which many foreign observers dwell upon is forgivable because it is stark and in your face, and it is bound to mould early impressions, but it is only fair to talk about some pluses too. The majority are probably on the poor side for sure but poor also has a wide spread between desperate and having difficulties.

The Unnoticed Classes

It would seem that for many commentators, it’s all about rich and poor. These are the things that catch a visitor’s eye and it can sometimes take the focus away from the fact that for many live a life that is not so bad or that great. I’m talking about those that are doing fine without having a huge bank account and not living in desperate poverty either.

I notice that many students are congesting fast food outlets on the way home from school and many brandish tablets and some even laptops.

I do not really know what this means but it does suggest that there is money around. There is an abundance of very decent motor vehicles driven on the roads, probably on credit, but they are out there. Unfortunately, not being an economist, I cannot really say what it means, other than to say that poverty or extreme wealth is not everything. Many live perfectly normal lives but they are the unnoticed. It could be true to say that instead of only commenting on the extremes, some attention should be given to the very many who get by just fine.

I know of many who are doing just fine but nobody writes a blog about their situation as it does not catch the same attention as the poverty or the wealth. Perhaps we should be paying a little more attention to the ordinary people who carry on their lives relatively unnoticed and its possible that by watching this group, we can get a fairer and clearer assessment of how life is in the Philippines. I guess ordinary isn’t news worthy and makes for boring blogging.

The Struggling Classes

The have not’s are not a small minority. Many live on less than 2 dollars a day at the extreme end. Everywhere you go, you will see people, young and old, living on the scraps of this messy city. Every plastic bottle, tin can and glass bottle is picked out of rubbish bins outside malls or generally left around the city and collected by a huge army of what I can only call survivors who then cash in their treasure in one of the many junk shops around the capital. They usually start early, finish late and they go hungry sometimes, but mostly they do get to eat and just go on day-to-day hand to mouth.

This is the bottom end of society and just above them is a massive amount that is working for a fraction of the legal minimum wage. The likes of maids (despite recent legislation), stall and sometimes shop sellers and waiters/waitresses earn enough for food and a shelter. It is not unusual to come across pedicabs, which are not just a work tool, but also a home. Life is very hard for all too many and it’s clearly visible to a visitor.

Many live in dorms or small rooms often shared to keep down costs or sometimes with a family member such as cousin, aunt, sister or brother. This is often the case mainly with those that have low paid jobs or studying and its all they can afford in the harsher property climate of Metro Manila.

I have learnt that life is very much day to day and with few prospects for them to plan a future other than getting through the day and the next day. Of the three worlds here, that is a group that is simply too big. I am hopeful for the future, but right now, it hasn’t gone away and shows little signs of ever going away.

The working classes are a wide range of people. Someone on minimum salary would be bringing home around 10,000 to 11,000 pesos a month. There is a minimum wage policy in the Philippines but far too many are still below it for varying reasons. With such mass unemployment as there is here then they are not likely to complain as complaining or reporting an illegal salary would probably result in you having no job at all.

In many cases, a visitor will simply bypass the poorest group. They interact mainly with the middle group, the majority group of the working classes. They encounter them as hotel staff where they are staying or in the stores and restaurants they visit. Not many in this group are above minimum wage.

Welcome to the Third World

I make no attempt here to explain it any deeper than that but only to say that there are many layers and much of it gets missed because we are too busy focusing on the extremities which are clearly visible to the eye. Subsequently we don’t notice the large group that are doing better as they simply seem to blend in unnoticed. None of this is meant as any kind of apology for a deeply unequal society. I am saying though that it’s not something many outsiders are used to so therefore it’s easy to simply say that everything that is wrong is because of that. It most definitely takes a lot of time and observation to work anything out.

Don’t make the mistake of many who come here and oversimplify the reasons why. I’m not offering any informed reasoning to any of it. I’m just saying learn a lot more before you make any assessment.

This country has so many complexities and defining it is not easy on any level. Travelling around the archipelago is the best way to learn. Taking in the various ways of life and understanding the history gives you a far more complete picture and then it starts to make a little more sense but you probably still wont understand it anything like enough.

There are 3 worlds in the Philippines: the haves, the have not’s, and them that have the most. In some ways, mindsets and even cultural values hold back development too.

This article is quite mixed up and confusing I know. As I read it back, I wanted to try and make it neat and tidy and give the piece easy definitions for the reader to understand.

Put simply though, that’s not really possible. It’s confusing for an outsider to work out what they are seeing. I have not tried to make this neat, tidy or concise. I’ve left it as it rolled. I think that’s the fairest way as nothing rolls simply or concisely here. It’s a collage which you have to put together yourself, this is just a rough guide to what you’re seeing.

Yes, the huge gap between rich and poor is an obvious reason as to why so many have hard lives here. As you go deeper, you soon realise that there are so many other issues apart from class division that keeps these people down. The saddest thing is that poor distribution of wealth is only part of it.


1 Comment

Filed under Impressions, Philippines

One response to “Three Worlds

  1. Tony

    Many of those belonging to your “unnoticed classes” in my experience come from those families who have mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, sisters or brothers that are working overseas to support the rest of the family. With a smaller number supported by foreigners like myself who have put a few family members through education.
    These OFW also tend to be the ones that buy the cars on credit (while the family members here are the ones to drive them).
    The OFW will likely have only a small disposable income in the countries in which they work but a few hundred dollars sent home can often be more than anyone else in the family could earn by being employed here.


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