A sad day for pensioners
A grandmother in Pasig City was saddened by President Benigno Aquino III’s decision to veto a bill that would grant more than 2 million retirees and survivors a P2,000 across-the-board increase in their monthly pensions.
“It’s the news I always waited for on TV,” Luisa Calauor said, referring to the proposed pension increase.
“But now that it will not push through, I feel sad. The additional pension could have been enough to buy my medicines (for hypertension and heart ailment),” said Calauor, 79, who gets a P2,000 monthly pension from the Social Security System (SSS) as a widow of a bus inspector who died in 1981.
Inquirer columnist Ramon Farolan said that offhand, the President’s veto of the bill could make senior citizens enjoying SSS pensions feel discriminated against.
“Since [the veto] does not favor the increase in their pensions, the senior citizens will certainly feel that they have been discriminated against because other sectors have been given increases in their compensation packages,” said Farolan, who has written about senior citizens’ issues.
Farolan, a retired Air Force general and former Bureau of Customs chief, said the decision to thumb down the SSS pension increase might have implications on the request to increase the pensions of retired military personnel.
“If the increase for SSS pensioners has been vetoed, it’s very possible the pensioners of the Armed Forces of the Philippines would not be getting any increase,” he said.
The Federation of Free Workers (FFW) assailed the Aquino administration for vetoing the SSS pension hike bill.
FFW vice president Julius Cainglet said in a statement “it shows how inconsiderate and heartless the administration is.”
“They bark about the Philippines’ unprecedented growth and yet, they cannot put their money where their mouth is,” he said.
“This is basic social protection that retired workers (in the private sector) and their families look forward to, which government is depriving them of,” he added.
Eduardo R. Alicias Jr., a pensioner, said it was a sad day for millions of impoverished SSS pensioners.
Alicias said the President’s veto of the SSS pension increase on the basis that the SSS would be rendered unsustainable “appears unfounded.”
“He justifies his veto on his imagined fear that the proposed increase will result in an SSS deficit; in other words that it will go bankrupt. No, it will never go bankrupt,” he said.
“With due respect, P-Noy needs to be reminded that the SSS’ reason for being is to protect and benefit member-beneficiaries, especially in old age. It was created ‘to establish, develop, promote and perfect a sound and viable tax-exempt social security system xxx which shall promote social justice and provide meaningful protection to members and their beneficiaries xxx (Sec 2, SSS Act of 1997),” he said.
Alicias, a former associate professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, said Republic Act No. 8282 guaranteed the viability of the pension fund.
Section 20 reads: “xxx Congress shall annually appropriate out of any funds in the National Treasury not otherwise appropriated, the necessary sum or sums to meet the estimated expenses of the SSS for each ensuing year. In addition to this contribution, Congress shall appropriate from time to time such sum or sums as may be needed to assure the maintenance of an adequate working balance of the funds of the SSS xxx.”
Moreover, Section 21 provides: “The benefits prescribed in this Act shall not be diminished and to guarantee said benefits the Government of the Republic of the Philippines accepts general responsibility for the solvency of the SSS.”
Clearly, in view of this sovereign guarantee, Alicias said “nobody should fear, let alone President Aquino, that in the future the SSS will go bankrupt because of the proposed P2,000 pension increase.
He called on Congress to override his veto.
Before Alicias even made his call, Sen. Francis Escudero had urged lawmakers to override the President’s veto, which would require a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“It may be difficult but we will try for the sake of our SSS pensioners,” Escudero said in a statement.
He said the veto was saddening as the pensioners had waited so long for the increase.
“There is no better time than now to have the SSS pension hike bill enacted into law, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate and members of the House of Representatives to do the right thing and vote to override the President’s ill-advised veto of this bill,” said Escudero, a vice presidential candidate.
Like Escudero, Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares called on the House and Senate to side with the people and override the Aquino veto. “The battle is not yet over,” he said.
Colmenares, principal author of the House bill granting the monthly across-the-board pension increase to retirees, survivors and disabled SSS members, described the veto of the pension increase as “heartless.”
“The P2,000 hike is very reasonable and is badly needed by pensioners and their dependents. President Aquino’s concern that SSS will be bankrupt is a phantom fear because it’s not true,” said Colmenares, a senatorial candidate.
2/3 vote needed
The Liberal Party-dominated House doubted whether lawmakers could muster the two-thirds vote to overturn the presidential veto.
Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III noted that Congress had so far not gathered enough votes to overturn a presidential veto.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. defended the veto claiming the President had no choice because the SSS simply could not afford the pension hike from an actuarial point of view.
“The House passed a sister bill giving the SSS board powers similar to that of the GSIS board to increase premiums, but it was not yet approved by the Senate. P-Noy chose to be a fiscally responsible leader, and not just one driven by current politics,” Belmonte said.
Lack of compassion
Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, a senatorial candidate, said the President showed a lack of compassion for SSS retirees who would have to make do with a paltry pension.
“The beneficiaries represent the real working class during their time who may not be benefiting from government’s dole-out program. This is a pro-poor policy that gives social justice. Surely, this could have dire consequences or a serious backlash on the ability of his candidates to woo the support of the electorate in the coming polls. This (SSS) could have been a good legacy of his administration had he not vetoed the law,” Romualdez said.
Colmenares said the minimum P1,200 monthly pension (for members who made 120 months of contributions) had not been changed since 1997.
He described the amount as “subhuman” as it was worth less than half or P514.86 based on 2014 prices, as inflation has increased more than 200 percent since 1997.
A fifth of living wage
He said the P2,400 monthly pension (for those who made 240 monthly contributions) was worth P1,037.72, less than a fifth of the minimum living wage of P5,333 a month for a single person.
Colmenares dismissed as a “scare tactic” Malacañang’s claim that the increase would result in massive liabilities and shorten the fund life.
The SSS management said its fund would be used up in 14 years or by 2029 with the implementation of the P2,000 increase but Colmenares noted that more advanced countries have shorter pension funds with shorter life spans—12 years in the United States and seven years in Canada.
Colmenares also noted that it was only 14 years ago that SSS declared its fund life was only five years and yet it didn’t see it much of a threat to institute widespread reforms.
He said that the P1.9-trillion funding gap declared by the SSS was not unique to the Philippines because all government pension schemes have unfunded liabilities much larger than the Philippines (such as Ireland which has $320 billion in funding gaps against the Philippines $22.92 billion) and yet none of them ever went belly up.
Colmenares said that the SSS would never go bankrupt with the pension hike because the government was under obligation to replenish the projected deficit from the pension hike.
“Unfunded liability is manageable if only the SSS institutes reforms in the next 14 years to expand its reserve and investment fund,” said Colmenares.
In the Senate, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a vice presidential candidate, criticized Mr. Aquino for the veto.
“It seems that the President has chosen to look the other side, instead of being sensitive and looking at the realistic conditions of the pensioners who dedicated their active and healthy years to labor,” the senator said in a statement.
He said governance was about caring for the people, especially those incapable or less capable of looking after themselves.
“I hope the government has other plans to uplift the living conditions of SSS pensioners,” he said. With a report from Jerry Esplanada/ TVJ