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Jobless Filipinos find silver lining amid pandemic

About 3.7 million Filipinos were jobless in May, or an unemployment rate of 7.7% from 8.7% a month earlier, according to the local statistics agency. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

By Revin Mikhael D. Ochave, Reporter

PRINCE ALLAN L. CABAUATAN, 24, lost his job as a flight attendant at Air Philippines Corp. in September amid a coronavirus pandemic.

He started a business building and selling personal computers to financially keep up.

“It was the smart thing to do because the demand for computers went up as more people worked from home,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

His monthly income rose by as much as five times to P200,000 assembling PCs.

The global health crisis has left few people, if any, unaffected. The coronavirus brought many governments around the world to their knees as lockdowns forced companies to shut down.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 70% of startups have had to terminate contracts of full-time employees, according to the World Economic Forum.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises including the self-employed account for 90% of businesses globally and provide 70% of employment worldwide, according to King’s Business School in London.

The pandemic has also forced countries including the Philippines to simplify the business application process.

Business registrations in the first quarter reached 432,962, nearly half the full-year 2020 total of 916,163, according to the Trade department. Many Filipinos have adapted to the challenging times through entrepreneurship, it said.

Business registrations hit 637,580 in 2019.

The Anti-Red Tape Authority has vowed to continue reforms to ease doing business and cut red tape at all agencies. For one, it seeks to streamline processes in business registration through a Central Business Portal started early this year.

“This reduced the length of days for registering a business from 33 days and 13 steps to only three days,” it said in a statement last week.

One of those who may benefit from this is 31-year-old Kathleen D. Macabuhay, who started trading stocks and set up her own footwear business after losing her job as an event executive at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel.

“People were expecting the Makati Shangri-La Hotel to close because the hospitality industry had taken a hit due to the pandemic,” she said by telephone. “I was thinking ahead and I had to look for other means to earn.”

Ms. Macabuhay said her footwear business, which she started with co-workers at the hotel using their separation pay, is doing well. They sell women’s footwear through Facebook, Instagram and a Shopee virtual store.

“We knew our separation pay would not last long. Might as well invest it in something,” she added.

Ms. Macabuhay also works for a website based in the United States where virtual events such as promotions and tradeshows can take place.

“The salary at my new job is similar to what I was earning back when I was with Makati Shangri-La,” she said. “Now, I don’t have to spend time and money traveling to work. I just have to work from home from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. since our clients are in the US.”

About 3.7 million Filipinos were jobless in May, or an unemployment rate of 7.7% from 8.7% a month earlier, according to the local statistics agency.

About 5.49 million Filipinos were also underemployed — people already working but still looking for more work or longer working hours — or an underemployment rate of 12.3%.

Rene E. Ofreneo, former dean of the University of the Philippines School of Labor and Industrial Relations (SOLAIR), said a number of Filipinos started a business during the pandemic out of necessity.

“Despite the pandemic and massive displacement and disruption, there are others who are surviving — not only do they survive, but also live well, he said by telephone.

The government should boost business-related subjects in senior high school to drive students to become entrepreneurs instead of taking 9-5 jobs, Mr. Ofreneo said.

He said there are opportunities in agribusiness. The state should particularly help small farmers to improve productivity and profit. Local entrepreneurs could also start a business to meet community needs.

There’s also freelancing, which lets one work independently rather than for a certain company or institution, he said.

“A good thing about freelancing and the digital revolution at the grassroots is that the economic base being built is mass-based and inclusive,” Mr. Ofreneo said. “Once the situation normalizes, the country will already have a strong base.”

He also said the country can no longer go back to normal after the pandemic. “We have a digitalization phenomenon, you need to accept that,” Mr. Ofreneo said, noting that less than half of factory workers had managed to go back to work.

“We should return to the concept that employment begins with small businesses and not the big corporations. It should be at the grassroots level,” he added.

The pandemic had forced many companies including small ones to adopt digitization and go online, King’s Business School said in a study published in March.

“Our analyses of the opportunities that entrepreneurs newly recognized in the pandemic revealed digitalization — in all its facets — as a key trend,” it said. It cited an upswing in online sales and e-commerce and greater use of technology to increase their business productivity.

Entrepreneurs had also noticed the increased readiness in society to accept technology, it said.

“For the economy, accelerated digitalization has important benefits,” according to the study. “Aside from reducing cost and increasing efficiency and productivity, it has the potential to make businesses and the economy more inclusive.”

Remote jobs let more people work and live in less expensive areas, which may help bolster their well-being. Accelerated digitalization can also support the development toward a greener economy by reducing transport and pollution.

“The new behaviors produced by the pandemic will likely persist even if herd immunity is reached,” Calixto V. Chikiamco, president of the Foundation for Economic Freedom, said in a Viber message. “The high demand for health products and services are here to stay.”

The health crisis had also forced some entrepreneurs to adapt, said Jaime Noel J. Santos, president at business school Thames International in Quezon City near the Philippine capital.

One of their students converted their uniform manufacturing business into one that makes personal protective equipment to meet demand, he said in a Viber message.

“Many micro-warehouse companies got started to serve the needs of e-commerce entrepreneurs,” he said. “They know that this is not a fad but a growing requirement since e-commerce is the new business normal.”

Ms. Macabuhay, the footwear entrepreneur, said she still plans to work in the hotel industry after the pandemic because it gives her a stable income source. But only so she could earn enough to start another business.

“I can only do that if I earn enough from a regular job. Once I save up enough, then I can open another business.”

Mr. Cabauatan, the PC builder, does not plan to go back to being a worker and wants to focus on his computer business. “It was a blessing in disguise since I would not be doing this had I not lost my job. I plan to make this my long-term business.”