Asia-Europe People’s Forum: ‘Put back the public in services’

February 13, 2018 - 7:01 AM
Doctor on a medical mission at the De Los Santos Medical Center checks up an indigent patient. Photographed by Bernard Testa, InterAksyon.

MANILA – Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) is seeking to “put back the public in services” which will ensure “a life of dignity” for citizens, particularly the impoverished and the jobless.

AEPF, an inter-regional movement led by citizens’ groups, aims to reclaim public services and is holding a conference on assuring affordable, accessible, and quality public services for all from February 12 to 15 at Balay Kalinaw, University of the Philippines Diliman.

There, 20 local and foreign speakers will cite successful examples of reversing privatization and returning these essential services to government control.

“This is really a fight for people reclaiming control of their lives. And claiming and regaining control over government,” said WomanHealth Philippines national coordinator and DIGNIDAD lead convenor Ana Maria Nemenzo during a media briefing on the event last week.

It is the government’s duty to provide the basic services that people need to live a decent life, such as transportation, healthcare, education, housing, water, and electricity. However, governments across the globe have shifted to privatization of public utilities, which at times has led to a drop in quality and a spike in prices, AEPF added.

Nemenzo cited international institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank as promoting private sector participation because they thought that the private sector can deliver better.

“But from experience, I was with FDC (Freedom from Debt Coalition) when the water system in Manila was privatized and it was divided into two areas, Manila Water and the Maynilad. Maynilad had a very, very bad record at that time. Very bad services, unserved areas, very high costs which they all made consumers pay for,” Nemenzo recalled. At the time, FDC was already pushing for the deprivatization of the water system, “but the government chose to bail it out and gave it lease of life.”

Citizens must be active in pushing for legislation of decent public services such as universal healthcare, free education up to the tertiary level, decent housing for every family, modern power, and reliable public transportation. These are fundamental rights, said AEPF coordinator Tina Ebro.

“I hope that these crucial public services, we can see that in our lifetime,” she said.

Nemenzo added, “Rights have to be claimed. They’re not given. And they have to be fought for.”

WomanHealth Philippines and DIGNIDAD member Mercy Fabros cited reports that 11 district hospitals operated by the provincial government of Negros Occidental could be closed if it failed to hire enough medical personnel. Data cited by The Manila Times showed that the hospitals lacked 163 doctors, 373 nurses, 252 nursing attendants and midwives, 74 medical technologists, 52 pharmacists, and 39 radiologic technicians, making it difficult to operate.

“There’s really a crisis in health human resource,” Fabros said. Funding was not the issue, based on reports. It was difficulty in the hiring process that was the problem.

Ironically, Fabros noted, the Philippines is the number one exporter of physicians in the world, and the number two exporter of nurses. At the same time, 300,000 Filipino nurses remain unemployed, and 200,000 others are “mis-employed” or underemployed. She added that government hospitals often employed nurses on a contractual basis.

Referring to the Department of Health, Fabros said, “May mga line items na hindi nagagamit ang pera. Kasi karamihan din ng ating mga ospital, ng ating mga centers, 70 percent ay nasa private. Halos 30 percent lang… ang hawak ng gobyerno. At may policy tayo sa gobyerno na lahat ng government hospitals, 90 percent ay dapat nasa citizens, only ten percent lang ang dapat binibigay sa private at paying. And yet ‘pag titignan mo ngayon, nag-survey ka sa mga government hospitals, less than 90 percent ang nasa citizens. Karamihan ng mga pasyente sa mga hospitals, lalo’t higit itong mga hospitals dito around the [Quezon Memorial] Circle, ay mga paying (There are some line items where the money isn’t being used. Because most of our hospitals, most of our centers, 70 percent of them are in private hands. Only about 30 percent of them are held by the government. And we have policies in the government where of all government hospitals, 90 percent should be for the citizens and only ten percent should be given to the private and paying clients. And yet if you look at it today and do a survey of the government hospitals, less than 90 percent are in the hands of the citizens. Most of the patients in the hospitals, especially the ones around the Quezon Memorial Circle, are for paying clients).”

Government hospitals are being forced to generate funds for their personnel and their other needs. Meanwhile, Fabros’ organization is advocating for the government to give them bigger budgets, instead.

For his part, SANLAKAS secretary-general Atty. Aaron Pedrosa lamented that the Philippines has dislodged Japan in terms of having the most expensive power rates in Asia, with the industry being consolidated in the hands of less than ten families who deteremine the source of this power.

Back in 2013, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies reported that 16 million people lacked access to electricity.

The country also sources its energy from coal-fired powerplants, “things that we don’t really need for a climate-battered country like the Philippines,” Pedrosa stressed.

“Ours should be a preoccupation for how to best enhance our adaptive capacity to climate-induced disasters. But right now you have 26 coal-fired powerplants constructed and operating, 35 more in the pipeline, and the government is just acting as a paper-pusher for the private corporations. Why? Because it is basically the private corporations who are now determining the fate of the power industry… Under a privatized setup, they can say this is what we can offer you, despite your actual demand,” he explained.

With seven power supply agreements between Meralco and its sister generation companies pending before the Energy Regulatory Commission, said Pedrosa, “You can just imagine the kind of relationship where power will be bought from its own corporations and the prices determined by its own corporations, and you have their advisories saying the generation charge is increasing, wala kaming magagawa (we cannot do anything). But in fact, they have shareholding and equity in those corporations. At the end of the day you have more taxes, you have more expensive electricity rates being slapped to our electric consumers.”

He added, “Without the participation of the government, the promise of efficient delivery of services has remained a promise. It has not happened… With the government divesting of its essential role which is delivery of public services, what should be commons, what should be enjoyed by all as a matter of right, ano na ang silbi ng gobyerno (what else is the government there for)?”

Sustainability and Participation through Education and Lifelong Learning (SPELL) lead convenor Raquel Castillo also raised questions regarding the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which states that the tuition and miscellaneous fees of students will be free. For one, it will not really be universal because not all students will be covered by it, she said.

She also asked whether the promise of the K-12 education reform would be fulfilled come graduation for senior high school students this year: would they truly be qualified to hold jobs after Grade 12?