In the last two foreign trips I have made, I noticed that the lines in Immigration counters were quite long. About a month ago, I thought that it was just a case of several flights coming in at roughly the same time.
The second time, I knew that there were only two arrivals, but the lines were still quite long. Foreign visitors were quite fidgety because they had to stay in line for long, long minutes. Their luggage was already swirling in the carousel, but they had yet to clear Immigration.
One of the advantages of being a senior citizen is the presence of a dedicated line for seniors, the disabled and the pregnant. I did not see that dedicated counter the first time, and had to suffer the long, long line along with others.
The situation is clearly punishing, be it for foreign visitors or local residents.
Whatever is wrong?
We are told that the DBM has disallowed the payment of overtime allowances to Immigration personnel manning the airport counters beyond a certain limit. That previous to this, Immigration personnel were getting overtime payments three or four times their monthly salaries, which made them understandably happy, but when dipping into the fund sourced from fees collected from foreigners staying longer in the country was disallowed, being contrary to law, the Immigration personnel “revolted,” sort of.
They filed leaves of absence, some purportedly to seek other employment, because subsisting on their regular salaries of some 14 to 15 thousand pesos a month, plus 50 percent overtime pay limits, was unacceptably unrewarding.
What is incomprehensible is that such a blatant violation of legal pay limits has been allowed for the past several years, until DBM Secretary Ben Diokno, the eagle-eyed comptroller of the Philippine government’s spending, cried foul and ordered a halt.
Reprehensible though (even if one understands that it is extremely difficult to subsist on 15,000 monthly pay with a 50-percent overtime allowance after receiving three times more in the past) is the attitude of public servants to deliberately cause undue vexation and imperil visitor arrivals in order to protest the removal of benefits previously enjoyed because their superiors looked the other way around to conveniently give them benefits beyond what the law allows.
Dura lex, sed lex, Diokno maintains, and President Duterte approves. And a public servant is sworn to serve the public, which should be incontestable.
Meanwhile, the long, long lines continue, and no excuses are acceptable to an angry public. It’s Holy Week, and many Filipinos, the new middle class included, are traveling and they risk missing their flights unless, they get to the airport four hours before their scheduled flights.
Only in the Philippines.
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Top of the news in the past week were the sudden dismissal of the soft-spoken and unassuming Secretary Mike Sueno of the DILG, followed two days later by a relatively obscure undersecretary in the Office of the Cabinet Secretary who was delegated to represent her superior in some agencies, more particularly the National Food Authority.
Being out of the country for some time, this writer knows just about as much or as little as the news reader, of the reasons behind the President’s angry decisions. There are certain sensitive matters you would rather not know details about, especially when it involves people you personally know or agencies you have served in the past.
There are certain facts that we need to establish, insofar as the issues hounding the National Food Authority which is principally mandated to ensure that there is enough affordable rice available to the consumer at all times.
Being a GOCC, policies of the NFA are decided upon collegially by the National Food Authority Council, and the administrator is tasked to implement the same.
This is why the administrator sits as vice chairperson of the NFAC, whose chairman could either be the Secretary of Agriculture or someone designated by the Office of the President.
There will be times when the administrator disagrees with the decisions of the NFAC, but as a matter of law and a basic principle of governance, he has to follow and implement policies set collegially.
During my watch, I did not believe that rice self-sufficiency could be achieved within the timeline set by the chairman of the NFAC, then the DA secretary, but I had to go along. I appealed to the Office of the President, disputing the glowing projections the then secretary of DA told the chief executive. The numbers, I maintained, did not add up. But the president pronounced that rice self-sufficiency by 2013 was a cornerstone goal of his administration, and that was that.
Neither did I agree with the policy of giving so much import allocations to farmer cooperatives that the DA secretary wanted under the private-sector financed import policy which the economic managers maintained then (as they do now) over big government-to-government imports. I told the Council chairman that the farmer cooperatives could be used as fronts by big traders, as in the past under the Arroyo administration. But the chairman wanted a policy that was politically correct, and again, the Council deferred to him.
Still and all, we at the NFA, and I must recognize the good staff support I received, both from career employees and the few co-terminus assistants I brought in, managed to maintain stable rice prices and year-round availability, even during stressful calamities. This despite drastic reductions in import levels through G-to-G (direct government purchases) which brought down NFA’s clearly unsustainable debt levels from P178 billion to P143 billion in less than two years.
NFA will always be a difficult agency to manage because the mandate is essential to food security, and therefore national security, and worse, because it has to grapple with policy contradictions that have yet to be resolved with some degree of finality by the economic managers and the presidency itself.
The indubitable timeline faces the rice sector and food security come June 30, 2017, when the WTO waiver known as quantitative restrictions on rice importation expires. This probably explains why there is a dispute between the administrator who wants to import immediately on a G-to-G basis, as against the NFAC position weighing in favor of private sector-led imports.
Suffice it to say that data fed to the economic managers and the President should always be correct. By and large, agricultural statistics in this country have been reliable enough. It is a matter of balancing the correct projections of rice productivity versus the predictable consumer demand.
Always, always, the Office of the President and the economic managers who are represented in the NFA Council by highly knowledgeable experts, must be fed the right information. Numbers are numbers.
Once the numbers are incorrect, for whatever reasons, we will have long lines of poor people queuing for rice. That happened in several junctures in our history, most recently in 1995 (FVR) and 2008 (GMA). And prices of rice, which constitute 8.92 percent of the basket of goods and services that determine the price index, could jump up drastically, as in 2014, which prompted President Aquino to remove NFA, along with NIA and PCA from Alcala’s DA to his own office, where it remains to this date.
Long lines and long faces. Short patience and short rice supply (real or manipulated). Let us all be forewarned of the consequences of inaction or wrong actions.