The Philippines through blue eyes: Philippine Class Structure

By Joe America


My thanks to journalist and blogger manuelbuencamino for the title of this series of articles, “The Philippines through Blue Eyes”. The title is perfect because: (a) my eyes are blue, (b) it suggests there is a limit to what my eyes see; further enlightenment requires that they remain open, and (c) Filipinos may gain new perspectives by looking at themselves through the eyes of an American.


Please bear in mind this article is commentary. It is opinion with a literary bent. It does not pretend an academic or statistical foundation. It is a westerner’s impressions of Philippine society gleaned by living in this beautiful, vibrant country. The writer’s aim is to understand the Philippines and contribute to its progressive development.

As I observe the Philippines, it seems to me there are clear class distinctions defined by a person’s wealth, geography, education and power. Going from bottom to top, hidden to visible, non-influential to influential, we have:


  • The Tribal Class: The mountain or island tribes. Almost no wealth, geographically isolated (a blessing and a penalty), limited education, and no influence outside the local community. This is the invisible class of Philippine society. Members have few roads and limited utility infrastructure, weak law enforcement, and no health care. They are the families washed away by mudslides and poisoned by mine effluents. And the rest of the nation forgets about them until there is another disaster that thrusts them onto the front pages of the newspapers.


  • The Subsistence Class: The agrarian and laboring workers. This is the vast, sweaty core of a thin but broad Philippine economy. These are the people who work for P200 or less a day, with no future job promised. Career is an unknown word. Forget social security and health care. They work the rice fields, fish the seas, dig the foundations, haul the cement, climb the coconut trees, whack the weeds on the side of the road, drive the Jeepneys , staff the local stores, provide household services, and pedal tricycles. They are the Philippines, in its most honest, hardworking, fun loving and sustaining self. They don’t have enough money to be corrupt but they have so little money they will sometimes “innovate” to get some more. They have lots of kids and send them to the fields early to help put rice on the table. They are the worker bees of Philippine society, locked into poverty by an overabundance of mouths to feed and almost no way out.


  • Low-End Skill Workers: Masons, carpenters, call center workers, store department managers, small store owners, shop foremen, bus drivers, military men, policemen. People in this class can support a family and send their kids to public school. They are the entry point to ambitious self-improvement, and could succeed if the points of progression were not all blocked. And if aspiration, like career, were a prized concept in Philippine society. It is not. But kids born to these parents do have a small chance to break out. They would have more of a chance if the public schools weren’t such a mess of overcrowded, under thinking pools of obedience. Low-end skill workers cluster around large towns and urban centers.


  • Professionals: Teachers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, tech workers, government officials, higher ranked military and police officers, engineers, journalists, bank managers. They have college degrees and generally must know somebody to make the leap from sluggish career to meaningful career. Their family ties help in many ways. Funding their schooling. Opening doors. Establishing an ideal of a higher standard of living. They form a sound middle class with potential to move up. They look down on a lot of people for they know they have power over their clients, and a better education. Their professional skill levels are often, ummm rudimentary at best, but the country does not demand more.


  • The Rational Climbers: The class of Rational Climbers encompasses overseas workers and Filipinas who marry foreigners. They boldly seek exit from three other classes: (1) The Subsistence Class, (2) Low-End Skill Workers, and (3) Professionals. They are rational because they intuitively do the math and decide the reward is worth the risk to embark upon a radically different lifestyle, and they are climbers because they have the clear aim of improving their lives. The motivation that drives them is best summed up in the statement: “Enough of this!” For professionals, the second part of the statement might be: “I have skills and am tired of struggling along on this measly income.” For a young, single woman, it might be: “It is a choice of security and money, or babies, and I want security and money.” For a worker, it might be: “Canada may be a giant ice cube, but businesses there pay real money”, or : “The Middle East is strange, but they have oil and gobs of cash; I’m going to go get some.”


  • The Priests, Imams and Assorted Other Men of Cloth: This is an isolated class of faith-based leaders, with each faith claiming to have the sole ticket to heaven, and each condemning people who won’t buy that ticket. But as near as I can tell, there is only one God, indivisible. So someone has to be blowing smoke.Religion is a big deal in the Philippines, even if Superstition is the master religion that overlays all other faiths. Catholic priests, Muslim imams, Protestant pastors. They have such influence in the Philippines, but I know of none that claims any responsibility for the outcome. For the condition of the land. For the poverty. For upside down values that find cheating acceptable


  • The Entertainers: This is another isolated class, pretenders who are held in extraordinarily high esteem by the masses. A boxer, singers, actors. They are rich and live well. Their kids can attend the best schools and many move easily into the Connected class, spreading their wealth amongst their family and favorites. They live a life as far removed from the subsistence class as Neverland is from London. They pretend to be one of the people, for they must do this to succeed. But they are not. They are on pedestals. It is fantasy for them and it is often fantasy for their audience, a dream that people of little opportunity might also become rich and famous. Entertainment shows and advertisers leverage this dream for profit. Poor people remain poor.


  • The Connected: These are the movers and shakers of the Philippines. Legislators, business owners, media executives, judges, governors, mayors, generals. They thrive on favors and somehow get rich even if their salaries are not rich. They are all well schooled and well traveled. Their kids will be, too. Some have the same names as the streets in Manila. The Connected people make sure the Philippines does not change because they would be threatened by a system that demanded capability over favor as the basis for reward.


  • The Oligarchs: These are the parallels to the kings, queens, princes, earls, dukes, duchesses of the British monarchy. Their wealth is enormous. They are an amalgamation of historically powerful landed families and big business moguls. They own the television stations, the telephone companies, the financial institutions, the shopping malls, the beer company, and the housing subdivisions. The oligarchs fund the politicians and, under the system of favors granted and received, get laws favorable to their continued enrichment. And the public, and the well-being of the Philippines, remain stuck in place, static, years behind the rest of the world. We should do a parade for the oligarchs and ask them to wear bejeweled crowns, they are so anachronistic.


You might ask: “Now that the class structure of the Philippines is understood, what am I supposed to do with the information?”


  1. Decide if Joe America is right or wrong.
  2. If he is right, decide if you like the class system the way it is.
  3. If you do like it, do nothing.
  4. If you don’t like it, look for ways to break down the class system, for example:


  1. Advocate for stronger birth control education for adults.
  2. Argue for better public education of children.
  3. Push for fair employment laws that require the government and larger businesses to hire and promote solely on the basis of capability.
  4. Identify the power brokers who have taken citizen well-being out of Nation’s conscience and get them to put it back.


The next “Blue Eyes” article will examine power in the Philippines. No, not electricity. It is a currency of exchange more commonly used than the peso or dollar.