Living with price hikes: the faces of coping
By Gina Mission

ristina Balamad, 33, a mother of three children, recalls how in the last quarter of 1998, the prices of basic commodities soared. "From sugar to cooking oil to rice to soy sauce, everything increased in prices," she narrates in Tagalog.

___She attributes the rise in the prices of commodities to the peso’s devaluation. "The dollar was around P40 that time and every time you buy something and complain why the goods are very expensive, people would tell you it’s because of the dollar," she continues.

___A veteran fish vendor in one of the wet markets of Kalookan City for 12 years now, Cristina has been able to send her eldest child to a private high school. The second child is enrolled in a private elementary school. Her youngest, just eight months old, is taken care of by a yaya. Her husband works as a family driver in Manila. Cristina herself earns a minimum of P500 per day.

___Now that the dollar is down to an average value of P38, prices of commodities, at least for Cristina, are "back to normal" again. In fact, she even observes a decrease in the prices of goods. "Sugar is cheaper than it was last December," she says.

___As a fish vendor, she doesn’t have a problem bargaining for a good price of fish and other livestock products. For one, fish and meat vendors, just exchange each other’s wares. "All a vendor does is say that she wants bangus today, and she’ll be given some," she explains. "Everybody does the same with the other vendors," she adds. "If you want to eat something, just ask," she announces.

___All in all, Cristina finds life not too hard, despite the fact that neither she nor her husband had finished higher education. And despite the recent oil price hikes. "As long as the dollar doesn’t get expensive again, I think my family will be okay," she says, adding that her family live a simple lifestyle.

___Romy and Adoracio Baņa, however, are not in the same boat as Cristina.

___For sharing the same minimally-skilled, minimally-educated family background, Adoracion seems not as fortunate as Cristina. Her husband, Romy Baņa, a jeepney driver, has been earning less and less.

___"Until this March, Romy has been earning a daily average of P300-P350," she reveals. But now, Adoracion says that he can hardly give her P200 per day. The culprit? "Oil price hikes," husband and wife say in unison.

___Romy reveals that since February, prices of petroleum products have increased by almost a peso. Since he doesn’t own the jeepney he drives, P400 of his gross earning goes to the jeepney operator. On the average, he consumes 20 liters of gasoline per day. "This is almost P600 off my monthly income," he complains.

___Compounding the issue is the domino effect of oil price hike on prices of other products. Prices of all transported goods rise soon after. And as fuel for generating electricity becomes more costly, electric rates also rise, thereby increasing the prices of products produced by factories. Naturally, workers would demand wage increases. The company either complies, increasing its production costs, which in turn forces it to increase the prices of its products. Or the company collapses, and everybody suffers.

___To top it all, the oil price hikes happened at a time when schools are on vacation, further worsening its effects on jeepney drivers. "There just aren’t that many passengers these days," Romy laments.

___Being self-employed, Romy doesn’t run the risk of being jobless. But as a driver, he and his family still feel the effects of oil price increases.

___The National Statistics Office has pegged the daily cost of living for a family of six in Metro Manila at P438. Romy’s present earning is not even half of that. And while he knows that jeepney drivers and operators can just follow everyone else and increase their fares, he doesn’t believe that would solve the problem.

___"If we increase the fare as a way of getting back the money we lose to the additional oil prices, it would just be like passing on to other people the government’s responsibility," Romy says. "And as we know very well, most jeepney commuters are poor people like us," he adds. "It won’t be fair passing the burdens on to them when we know that their minimum wage has not increased, and is even lower than the daily cost of living."

___The way to do it, according to Romy, is for the government to demand a rollback in the prices of petroleum products. "The government should assert itself. It should regulate the oil industry again. It should listen to its people," he says.

___As the militant PISTON, an association of jeepney drivers and operators say: "The oil companies have no right increasing their prices as they purchased their raw materials at a lower price."

___On April 23, PISTON has submitted its position paper to the Energy Regulatory Board (ERB), Malacaņang, and Caltex, Shell, and Petron. The way PISTON sees it, the oil companies responded by further increasing their prices. ERB seems to have lived to its present role of a decorative government agency. Malacaņang is giving PISTON the silent treatment.

___As Malacaņang, ERB and the oil companies are taking their time doing what their usual business and ignoring people’s pleas, Romy’s family is living on a daily rice-and-dried fish subsistence. Today, he has another worry looming: his rent is due tomorrow and he has not been able to raise the P3,000 rent money yet.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.06.03