Coronavirus

For Single Mothers in the Philippines, Unemployment Is COVID-19’s Biggest Threat

Many are stuck in limbo awaiting government support.
02 April 2020, 6:42am
single mothers philippines coronavirus lockdown
A mother living in one of the Philippines' slum areas. For illustrative purposes only. All photos by the writer. 

On March 16, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the entire island of Luzon and its population of 58 million under lockdown to contain its outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The country has seen an increasing number of COVID-19 cases over the past month, from just three on February 2 to 2,311 as of writing. A further 850 suspected cases are awaiting test results. The numbers could be much higher, as a shortage of testing kits means under-reporting is rampant. As of March 31, only 3,938 individuals from a population of an estimated 109 million had been tested.

The strict quarantine came with a suspension of transportation services, an 8 PM to 5 AM curfew, travel restrictions, and the closure of all businesses except those involving food and essential services.

This left thousands of jobs and incomes at risk. Almost 500,000 workers have been displaced by the coronavirus crisis, Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III said on March 29. Another 117,890 informal sector workers were also affected. This has been particularly hard for the Philippines’ single mothers.

Women represent 95 percent of the roughly 15 million single parents in the Philippines, according to the World Health Organisation. In terms of working mothers, a recent publication released by state think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies revealed 8 in 20 women are in vulnerable employment.

Call centres, which employ over 1 million Filipinos — the majority of which are women — is just one industry forced to make cuts amidst the current crisis. Joy Demafiles, 28, is one of a growing number of single mothers left with no income. She was working as a call centre agent in Metro Manila and, while her company has continued operations under the lockdown through a work from home policy, her personal circumstances have held her back.

“I don’t have a PC at home and I don’t have a reliable internet connection so remote work is not possible. Right now I am just using up my leave credits while I can't go to work,” she told VICE.

“The company assured full-time or regular employees that we will not lose our job as long as the business is still running and there are agents doing work from home. Some agents can also live in the office during the quarantine.”

Joy thinks that the worst financial toll will come after the pandemic. “After this quarantine, the bills that I have to pay will be doubled and since I'm still not earning any salary for the next month, soon I will no longer have any leave credits left to use. It’s a ‘No work, No pay Policy.’”

“Most of the single mothers I know at the company would rather stay in the office for a month and work far from their homes and children just to make sure they can get paid and can still provide for them.”

For daily wage earners, the economic hardship of this pandemic could be disastrous.

Iris Natividad works as a street vendor in Navotas, a city in Metro Manila, selling drinks, snacks and cigarettes. “I have had this stall for eight years but the police came last week and told me to close it down under the enhanced community quarantine rules.”

Iris is a single mother to three children, the youngest is 1 year old. She is not a regular employee of any company, has no guaranteed paycheck, and gets no time off or sick days — she has zero job security.

“I walked to the village office to ask for help but it was closed. The government has forgotten the slums. They forgot us before this virus but now, we need help more than ever and they don’t care,” said Iris.

“They [the government] share information on the internet but I don’t have a phone with internet, so I try to follow the advice that the neighbours share. We just try to stay clean.”

"The government has forgotten the slums. They forgot us before this virus but now, we need help more than ever and they don’t care.”

Iris reopened the stall in a new area. Schools have been closed under lockdown and she is now accompanied by her three young children. “People need the stall, and I need it for work,” she said.

Authorities later closed the store and fined Iris PHP 5,000 ($98). She is now in debt and at a loss. There is no way to earn money to pay the fine. The fallout could see her unable to pay her bills and leave her and her children on the street.

single mothers philippines coronavirus lockdown

Iris' youngest child.

“I used to earn maybe PHP200 ($4) per day, and even that wasn’t enough to feed my family. Now, I have no way to earn an income.”

Authorities have downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, despite growing criticism over Duterte and the health department's slow response to the outbreak. On February 4, the president assured the nation that there's "nothing really to be extra scared of."

Labour groups have slammed what they called inadequate government measures to cushion the outbreak's impact on workers' livelihood and income. Particularly criticised is the Labour Department’s recommendation to reduce work hours and workdays through the enforcement of a rotational workforce.

The Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP) or “Solidarity of Filipino Workers” — comprising 200 local unions nationwide with a mass membership of over 100,000 labourers — said this move would hurt no-work-no-pay workers the most.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said that workers who live outside the region should just rent a place in Metro Manila, a suggestion the BMP called "inconsiderate, grossly anti-poor, and arithmetically improbable."

The Department of Social Welfare and Development has assured cash assistance to 18 million low-income households in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cash aid between PHP5,000 ($98) to PHP8,000 ($157) will be given to vulnerable sectors of society, such as persons with disabilities, senior citizens, the homeless, and workers in informal sectors.

“They said we have to fill out the form and provide all necessary information. Then, this will be reviewed by the village and they will base it on what was written on the form if they are the most needed to receive the cash assistance,” Iris said, unsure if her application to secure cash assistance will make the cut.

single mothers philippines coronavirus lockdown

A part of the community where Iris lives.

Among the programs being administered by the Labour Department, are the COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP), Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Displaced/Disadvantaged Workers program (TUPAD), and Barangay Ko, Bahay Ko (BKBK). The Social Security System also provides a one-off unemployment insurance benefit that's equivalent to a workers average monthly salary.

Joy has little faith in CAMP, “As far as I know our company is working on it right now, but there is no assurance yet, if any of us are eligible and will get it.”

And she fears that the unemployment offers on the table may lead Filipinos in a desperate situation to find themselves falling into debt.

“Even if the government is trying to do their best to support workers we all know it is not enough. They offered … loans, but it's just sad that, we will still have to pay the interest on these. It is the interest that we cannot afford.”

An initial PHP2 billion ($39.4 million) has been made available for the programs, the Labour chief said on March 29, while another PHP5 billion ($98.4 million) is eyed for the remainder of the national health emergency period.

“We can only hope the government fulfil their promise to provide financial assistance to people who can no longer work under lockdown,” Iris said.

While dialogue for the government to come up with beneficial policies continues, breadwinners like Joy and Iris are left playing a waiting game with a pandemic that threatens both their livelihoods and their children’s futures.

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