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Bacolod City, Philippines Friday, July 1, 2016

George, the sikad driver

The Way We Live
By Casiano Mayor Jr

He is a regular fixture in front of our store. His name is George, a trisikad driver. Aside from taking passengers, he does errands for neighbors who seek his services, like buying water from refilling stations and fetching a child from school.

I first tapped his services when he once told me a few months after my family had settled in Bacolod that he used to do errands for my late brother. Because I could not lift heavy things owing to my eye surgery for cataract and glaucoma several years ago, I told him that he could fetch water for us from a filling station.

“How do I call you?” I asked when I wanted to get his cellphone number that I could call when I needed his services. “George,” he quipped. “George, what? I mean what's your family name?” I followed up. “Just make it George sikad.” And so I named him “George sikad” in my list of contacts.

George is among the many trisikad drivers plying their trade on Gatuslao Extension. He waits for passengers in front of our store on the corner of 13 th  Street and usually comes at 8 a.m. or a little earlier. At 5 p.m., you could no longer find him there. He seems to be observing regular office hours.

Just like most people, he had wanted to take a regular job but having finished only high school, he could not find one to his liking. That's what made him decide to settle as a sikad driver even if he earns only between P150 and P200 a day.

I thought of George when I read last Monday an article on the idea of providing universal basic income for ordinary people to alleviate poverty across the world. The idea is to give them monthly wages without requiring them to work. In a nutshell, it's a dole out.

James Surowiecki, an economic columnist for The New Yorker, has said that the idea was tried in the Canadian province of Manitoba in the mid-1970s. He specifically cited the town of Dauphin where the government sent checks to thousands of residents every month.

It was an experiment to see what would happen if people are given a specific amount of free money every month. Would the recipients stop working? Would the poor spend the money foolishly and stay in poverty?

Although the Conservative government stopped the project in 1979, Surowiecki said an economist at the University of Manitoba, Evelyn Forget, made a study of its impact a decade later and found that life in Dauphin had improved markedly - hospitalization rates dropped while more teenagers stayed in school. Researchers also discovered that the number of workers who had stopped working after receiving the dole out was negligible at about one percent.

Online reports said a growing number of countries and institutions are mulling the idea of providing their citizens or employees a universal basic income to help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. Finland, for instance, is going to run an experiment next year.

Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator firm, is said to be sponsoring a similar test in Oakland.

In the United States, a growing anxiety about the prospect of workers losing their jobs due to automation has fueled a new interest in introducing the universal basic income. Although concerns about robots taking over people's jobs are overstated in the short run, proponents said there are other good reasons for adopting a universal basic income as a kind of social security for everyone.

Some economists say that a universal basic income, which was primarily thought of as a tool for fighting poverty, has other important benefits. For one, it could increase a jobseeker's bargaining power to choose a job that he or she wants. This, in effect, will potentially drive up wages and improve working conditions.

We know that almost all – if not all - companies in the Philippines and other countries are exploiting workers. And, of course, we know that this is because oversupply of workers has given them the leverage to dictate wage rates and working conditions. But if jobseekers have guaranteed incomes, the lever could tilt in favor of the workers.

Exploitation of workers is intrinsic in capitalism or capitalist economy which feeds the greed of people. Capitalists exploit not only the workers but also the environment. Not satisfied with the wealth they already have, they cut down trees and mine lands to amass more riches.

We know that in a capitalist economy, the land, the factories and the mines are owned by a few rich people. The great majority, not possessing the instruments of production, must sell their own labor to make a living. This creates a servant-master relationship between the masses and a handful of people. Jobseekers may be able to choose the company where they want to work but the company of their choice will not be much different from the others. They also exploit workers to maximize their profit.

Thus, with the ever-increasing supply of workers, it is common to see college graduates working as salesmen or saleswomen in large department stores, which exploit them to the hilt. As a former employee, I know that even those who may have found better–paying jobs would feel the pinch of exploitation: more workloads owing to company streamlining to maximize profit. 

I'm sure George will not see the day when the universal basic income could be introduced – if ever that would happen - in our country. But when I think of how employers exploit their workers, I surmise that George is, in a way, lucky to have no employer. He may not be living the life we want to live, but at least nobody could tell him what to do and not what to do.

My wife had told me that she once called George by cellphone after sundown to do an errand for her but George had told her that he did not want to work after 5 p.m.

(The author can be reach through his cellphone 09066742685 or his email casianomayor@yahoo.com)*


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