Slum trap for Philippine jobseekers

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MANILA, Philippines—Few things scare grandmother Maria Luisa Bernardo, who has dodged fires and fought off demolition crews in a tough Manila slum for more than half her life.

But one is the prospect of returning to her northern home province, where the 44-year-old mother-of-five and grandmother-of-six fears she and her extended family could starve to death.

“It’s beautiful in the province, there is no congestion,” said Bernardo, a high school graduate who is one of 30,000 informal settlers of North Triangle, one of Manila’s largest shantytowns.

“But without land to farm you end up going hungry. Here, at least, there’s an opportunity to earn a little money,” she told AFP while sitting on the floor of a shanty she shares with a son, his girlfriend, and their two babies.

Like moths drawn to bright lights, millions of low-skilled Filipinos are following Bernardo’s example and fleeing rural poverty to live in warrens of windowless concrete blocks that are even smaller than jail cells.

“I’ve lived here for 25 years. The only problem here is demolition, because once that happens they will transfer you to the ends of the earth,” Bernardo said.

Some 2.63 million people or 23 percent of Manila’s population now live in slums, a number that is growing 2.1 percent every year, said Reynaldo Lunas, planning officer of the government’s Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.

Some 310,000 of them live atop open sewers and under bridges, blocking the flow of water and causing recurrent flooding, he added.

“These are farm hands and those that lack the qualification for the available jobs in urban centers like Metro Manila. That causes the proliferation of informal settlements,” Lunas told AFP.

“You must arrest the root cause, which is uncompetitive rural incomes. Even if we keep relocating these people, as long as incomes do not improve we will never be able to stop more of them coming.”

Manila-based Asian Development Bank senior urban development specialist Florian Steinberg agrees the flow is unlikely to be slowed soon.

“They (Manila slum residents) are better off than in the rural areas — more chances for jobs and better chances to educate (their) children,” he said.

Just five percent of Manila’s population live in extreme poverty, Steinberg said, compared to one in four in rural areas.

“This is the historic trend. Only urbanization will be able to sustain higher growth of GDP (gross domestic product).”

Slum-dwellers they may be, but only four percent of Manila’s population earn less than a dollar a day, compared to one in two in some rural areas, according to National Statistical and Coordination Board data.

A third of the laborr force is based on farms, even though agriculture accounts for less than a fifth of the economy, a mismatch that keeps one in five Filipino adults without work or stuck in part-time employment.

A million Filipinos also go abroad every year in search of higher-paying jobs.

By their sheer numbers, the one thing going for the poor is their vote. Politicians fervently court them during general elections.

“If they cannot give us money, why should we vote for them?” asked Bernardo.

She worked as area campaign leader for a candidate for vice mayor in last year’s May elections, earning herself and her neighbors free groceries, but their candidate lost.

Four months later the neighborhood rioted to fight off demolition crews sent by the government to clear the land for a planned business center.

They blocked the city’s main avenue with burning tyres, sofas and mattresses, paralyzing the city and forcing President Benigno Aquino to suspend the redevelopment.

Bernardo also fears the recurrent mammoth fires that leave thousands of slum dwellers homeless and sometimes kill unwary residents.

Firefighting through the warrens is complicated because streets are nonexistent. In their place are alleyways that are just wide enough for pedestrians to squeeze through.

“You’d be surprised at your ability to carry all the heavy items — television, electric fan, all your belongings. You bring them out and dump them outside (the slum), by the road,” during fires, Bernardo said.

The youngest of 12 children of a bus driver, Bernardo was a teenage bride who left her husband, who allegedly beat her, and came to Manila to work at a cardboard factory.

During a short stint as a pub waitress she met a much-older, married man who installed her at a North Triangle shack in 1986.

Fond of denim shorts and gold-plated jewellery, Bernardo now sells some groceries and cooking gas, though there is never enough money for food, electricity, and water that is sold by the pail.

She has sold half her shanty to a neighbour for P52,000 ($1,203), leaving her family with a 12 square-meter (129 square-foot) hovel.

The 18-year-old son, a high-school graduate like her, struggles to hold down low-paying jobs, from construction work to restaurant waiter.

“Why should I send him to college when there’s not even enough money to buy rice?” the mother said.

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