Electric Highwaymen

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Jumping the meter wall in Phase 3

 During my trips to Payatas I learned a lot about something which is at best a sideline in my research, but which goes far deeper than it superficially appears. Illegal electricity abstraction is fairly common in certain areas of Payatas, particularly closest to the dumpsite, and in Phase 3. ‘Jumpers’ who connect wires to the grid cables to extract electricity run the risk of electrocution, house fires and death – the month before we were there someone died from fixing a dodgy connection. The need to connect to an electricity supply in order to be a part of the modern world is just that – a need, albeit produced by globalisation (which is extremely visible in the Philippines). It is not exactly like the appliances people use are decadent – a single light bulb to illuminate what are often dark houses because they are all built so close together; an electric fan to move the sweltering air and keep the mosquitoes away; a TV to feed the desire to consume and reinforce the inequality that is already so huge; a fridge to reduce the drudgery of living literally hour-to-hour, day-by-day. All of this of course if they can afford it. The electric company that supplies Payatas, Meralco, already has most expensive rates in the country, and there are no alternatives in the area except home-generation, which precious few people can afford in the city, let alone in Payatas. Furthermore, they have specific conditions about what type of buildings they will connect to the grid; namely that a dwelling must have a discernible kitchen and C.R. (bathroom). However, the poorest people often live in poor-quality housing that does not satisfy these conditions, making them ineligible for a legal, metered electricity supply. To access the modern world in even the most minor of ways these people must therefore obtain their electricity via a profiteering intermediary, who charges extra for an illegal sub-metered connection to a legal mother-meter, held under a Meralco account. Of course these intermediaries may also be victims of the system of poverty themselves – not racketeering but merely scraping a subsistence wage – but their existence simultaneously perpetuates the system whereby the poorest are charged the most for electricity, and is a symptom of it. It is a clear expression of what Oscar Wilde and Robert Tressell called “altruism” and “philanthropy”, respectively, describing the wage-slavery of the British working classes at the turn of the last century. The poorest people are charged the most money for energy, their money lining the pockets of fossil fuel magnates and corporations in a country that still has an ongoing problem with corruption. This, while the richest ex-pats and elites in their gated sub-divisions and third homes avoid fully paying taxes and electricity rates via creative accounting, reporting and golden hand-shaking. The system that allows companies to enforce poverty by only providing energy to those who are considered to be living in ‘proper’ dwellings, while depriving those very people of such decent housing is itself corrupt, and moribund. The ‘jumpers’ and the middlemen may be doing something illegal in ‘stealing’ electricity in the eyes of the legislature that upholds the status quo, but they are truly victims of an immoral and deformed system; a system that is stealing from them.

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About shakkka

Londoner, climate scientist, extremist. All views are my own.

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