Sherillyn Raga (ODI) |Halted economic transformation as a consequence of coronavirus: evidence and implications from employment data in the Philippines

Sherillyn Raga (Senior Research Officer, ODI)

8 July 2020

The lockdown in the Philippines not only led to the loss of millions of jobs but also pushed those who remained employed towards lower-productivity agriculture and informal sector work. To preserve the existing skills necessary for economic transformation, the government and its partners need to make a conscious effort to ensure that those who have been laid off in high-productivity sectors such as manufacturing can return to previous or similar employment. Moving forward, it is continued public investment in higher-level education that will increase job security, ensuring the economy is more resilient in similar crises in the future.

As of April 2020, the unemployment rate in the Philippines was at a record high of 17.7%, accounting for 7.3 million Filipinos. Labour force participation among those aged 15 years and older had declined to a historic low of 55.6%, and average hours per week had dropped to 35 hours from 41.8 in April 2019. Among those employed, more than a third (38%) were not at work, and a third (32%) were in part-time employment. This negative impact on aggregate employment indicators highlights the consequences of the economic and labour market shutdown following the lockdown implemented from 13 March to 15 May 2020.

This blog examines disaggregated sectoral employment data in the Philippines through the lens of economic transformation, which has implications for the Philippines’ medium- to long-term economic growth, and which may be of relevance to other low- and middle-income countries. The IMF and World Bank Development Committee defines economic transformation as a ‘shifting from lower to higher productivity activities, within and across firms, from rural to urban areas, and from self- to wage-employment’. The impact of the coronavirus on the Philippines’ economic transformation is now evident in the shift in the employment share towards agriculture, the informal sector, less skilled occupations and rural employment.

The latest employment data from the Philippines show that a larger share of workers has been pushed towards agriculture and the informal sector. The agriculture sector’s share in total employment had increased by more than 4 percentage points to 26% in April 2020 from 22% in April 2019, while the shares of industry and services had declined by 2 percentage points, to 17% and 57%, respectively. Within the industry sector, the combined share of employment in manufacturing and construction in total employment had fallen by more than 2 percentage points, with 2.3 million fewer workers in these sectors during the month compared with pre-COVID-19 April 2019.

The share of relatively high-skilled professions has declined. While the lockdown has negatively affected the number of employees in all types of occupation, the share in total employment of those employed as managers, technicians,  associate professionals (e.g., bookkeepers, interior designers, medical  representatives, human resource and marketing assistants), plant and machine operators and assemblers, and services and sales workers has declined compared with April 2019. Meanwhile, the share of workers engaged in relatively low-productivity jobs such as elementary occupations and skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery work has increased by 1.5 and 2.6 percentage points, respectively.

Wage and salary workers in the private sector have been more affected during the lockdown. By class of worker, the share in total employment of jobs with a relatively stable income in the private sector had fallen by 2.4 percentage points to 47.9% in April 2020 from 50.2%, indicating a decline of 4.8 million workers in private establishments during the month compared with April 2019. Meanwhile, the share of wage workers in households and self-employed and unpaid family workers in total employment had gone up by 2 percentage points in April 2020 compared to same month last year.

Most of the unemployed during the lockdown are those without or with a low level of educational attainment, highlighting the need for upskilling to increase job security in times of crisis. The share in total unemployment during the lockdown in April of those with no educational grade completed or who have obtained only elementary and junior high school education had risen by 12 percentage points to 64% compared with April 2019. Notably, those who have obtained senior high school to graduate education have witnessed a fall in unemployment in terms of share and absolute number.

Unemployment has been more prevalent in rural areas during the pandemic, reflecting fragility of rural employment. The national unemployment rate as of April 2020 is 17.7%, but the rate is lower in Metro Manila (capital), at 12%, and higher outside the capital (average across regions), at 19%. In contrast, last April 2019, Metro Manila had a relatively higher share of unemployment (6.3%) than did the non-capital regions (4.8%).

The developments above suggest three policy implications:

First, in times of pandemic and imposed lockdown, private sector employees suffer the most and workers are pushed towards lower-productivity jobs and the informal sector. It is of the utmost urgency to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on the poorest segment of the country. However, it is likewise critical that the government, in cooperation with the private sector and potentially development banks, assist businesses to bounce back and ensure that those who have been laid off in high-productivity sectors who already possess the necessary job skills can return to previous or similar employment.

Second, while we are witnessing a shift in employment from a decreased share in high-skilled professions towards an increased share in relatively less skilled occupations, it seems that those with a higher level of education are less likely to be unemployed in pandemic crisis times. This emphasises the importance of continued public investment in higher education to increase job security at the individual level and to sustain the contribution of this (e.g. through continued income tax if more educated workers are retained even under a lockdown period) to national revenues, making the economy as a whole more resilient in similar crises in the future. This is especially relevant for the currently weak educational quality in the country, as indicated by its bottom ranking in terms of 15-year-old students’ reading comprehension and expenditure per student relative to other 79 countries.

Third, higher unemployment outside the capital reflects the twin problem of concentrated opportunities in the capital and low and/or fragile job opportunities outside Metro Manila. Urbanisation is generally associated with faster economic transformation as resources (labour and capital) move from lower-productivity farm to higher-productivity non-farm activities, as well as with agglomeration benefits. Thus, the government’s Balik Probinsya, Balik Pag-asa (‘Return to Provinces, Return Hope’) programme, which aims to decongest cities and encourage people to relocate to their provinces during this pandemic, may work against the country’s economic transformation, given that the provinces are largely agricultural and do not have the infrastructure, high-productivity sectors and job opportunities (yet) to absorb labour supply from the city.

Photo: Farmer scattering rice grains in a rice field in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, Philippine. Danilo Pinzon / World Bank. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0