In April 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte unveiled that at the heart of his economic blueprint is the ambitious “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program. We were told to expect the continuation of New Clark City that houses the Clark International Airport, and the new smart business district. The Mega Manila Subway and the Mindanao Railway were also promised as transport initiatives to solve the mobility problems in our cities. These are but a few of the examples among the many infrastructure projects set to start during his administration. Hence, it is just rightful to dub President Duterte’s administration as the second golden age of infrastructure in the country, succeeding the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The Duterte administration would need about P8.4 trillion to finance these projects. With that, several tax packages were passed by the government, one of which has already been implemented at the start of 2018. The Tax Reform for Acceleration (TRAIN) Law, the first of the five expected tax packages, reduced personal income taxes but increased excise taxes on tobacco, fuel, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Its implementation was met with a huge backlash, especially on the sweetened beverage tax. There were comments that it is anti-poor because the tax will only burden the middle to lower class. The prices of drinks with sugar or artificial sweeteners like the ready-to-drink juices have increased by P6 per liter, while those with high fructose corn syrup such as carbonated soft drinks have increased by P12 per liter. These are commonly sold in small-scale enterprises such as sari-sari stores and it is taking a toll on them.
However, this consumer backlash also has a concrete effect on the local manufacturers as their sales decline and their input costs rise. Zest-O Corporation and Nestlé Philippines are examples of companies that are thinking about closing their local factories. The closure of these two companies alone would directly affect at least 14,000 workers. One could argue that they could increase their prices to maintain their margins but that may even drive sales down further. Nielsen Retail Index’s Kamusta si Juan at Aling Nena research shows that sales of these sweetened beverages declined faster by 8.7% in February this year from only 4.4% in February last year. The research firm’s managing director John Patrick Cua told Rappler that “this reaction from consumers is a normal and expected behavior immediately following a price increase. Over time, some consumers may go back to old buying habits, while some will adopt their new buying patterns.”
It is in adopting new buying patterns that De La Salle University-Manila Socio-Political Philosophy, and Citizenship and Governance Professor Arcadio Malbarosa sees where the small-scale enterprises and the local farms can thrive. Being well-traveled and being greatly touched by E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973), he shares, “I was amazed at the strong link or value chain between small store owners and their local farms and manufacturers. The emphasis here is local and small. In Bangkok, I drank fresh orange juice squeezed right before me. In Taipei, I drank sugar cane juice extracted from the cane right where I drank it. In a village in Ikeda City, I ate bread baked where it’s sold using flour made in the neighborhood with raw materials harvested in the outskirts. I can go on about milk, beer, and sake.” Since the law excludes milk, natural fruit juices, and vegetable juices, this is just the perfect time to strengthen such link in the Philippines. Or to put it in its more realistic context, it is about time to create this link.
Creating this link, however, means less dependence on “the Big Ten,” which include Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelez, Coca-Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods, General Mills, and Kellogg’s. A startling and overwhelming infographic map on the ten corporations who control almost all of our food and beverage consumption has been circulating online. This infographic has been released by Oxfam for us, consumers, to be able to hold the Big Ten accountable for the significant impact their policies and food supply chains have in community-empowerment and environmental welfare. This campaign called Behind the Brands aims to alleviate hunger in the world where, despite having enough food for everyone to consume, hunger remains a universal problem.
To make this matter even more shameful, part of the food hungry population are in fact those working for the very food supply chain the Big Ten created. It also challenges the Big Ten to commit to sustainable use of Mother Earth’s resources since we are still working on the mentality of what Freegan Organizer-NYC Janet Kalish calls the “wasteful, destructive, violent, unsustainable economic system that supposes that we have infinite resources when the opposite is clearly true.”
In light of women’s rights, creating this link would empower women even more for two reasons. First, although women are generally free to work and to earn on their own, there are still a significant population of women who prefer to be caregivers of their respective households. Hence, small-scale enterprises, especially sari-sari stores, have become a platform of empowerment. Second, the Big Ten scored from poorly to fairly in addressing women’s labor issues. Only four—Coca-Cola, Kellog’s, Mondelēz, and Unilever—scored 6 out of 10. Mars and Nestlé scored half of 10. PepsiCo scored 4. Associated British Foods and General Mills scored 3. Danone scored the lowest with only 2.
In the “clash of titans”, as how Professor Malbarosa calls it—between the government through its taxation reforms and the Big Ten and other giant corporations—yes, it is the small-scale enterprises that serve as the clash’s casualties. But, as he provokes, “…titans are mythical figures. They’re not real. They are real because we believe in them.” This is not to reject the obvious decline in sales in sari-sari stores; rather, this is to provoke that there is, in fact, a solution which could benefit even more—from the small-scale entrepreneurs to local manufactures, and even to local farmers. Also, only if we believe how powerful this link could be, there will no more be tens of tons of tomatoes to be thrown in landfills. ■