The Credible Hulk: Episode 1, Squatters

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The beast awakens. In what will hopefully be a long running series in getting intellectually mad at things, I’m beginning with a discussion on squatters. I got tired at so many ignorant and nonsensical “articles” about how evil squatters are, demonising millions of people, or even more academic work which looks to study squatters… without ever going to a slum and speaking to a squatter. This is why I’ve decided to write about that now… because I’m tired of seeing such horribly misinformed people getting a say on this matter – whether on TV, online, or in person.

I got angry… CREDIBLE HULK angry.

So let me start off by saying it isn’t bad to know little about a socio-economic issue like this. For many reasons it is hidden from public view as we’ll discuss later. It is bad, however, to make horrible judgements about millions of people without ever bothering to get to know them or what’s really going on, then publishing that online, in the newspaper, or on TV. Calling squatters ‘arrogant’, ‘foul’, dirty, inhuman, etc. typically ends up in a comments section where people declare how much of a burden they are to good, honest tax payers. And like the inevitability of an online argument leading to someone comparing the situation to the Nazis, it seems inevitable in discussions like this that someone will eventually say martial law was a good idea after all.

In a University study of one squatter area, 50% of the people were under the age of 18 years old.
In a University study of one squatter area, 50% of the people were under the age of 18 years old. This is consistent with other studies of slum areas.

Putting a Face to the Issue

If you’re going to talk about squatters, illegal settlers, or any of the other terms used to describe this group of people, first get to know them. A quick search on Google about squatters in the Philippines reveals that practically the only way they are talked about is as a ‘problem’. This is the first reason why people write blaming the squatters for a whole host of complex, social issues. The whole thing is framed as a problem, with an entire group of people labelled as illegal from the very start. It’s a simple matter of psychology, typically whatever you call someone and however you treat them is how they turn out. So the first thing is recognise there is a human face to this whole debate. In calling people illegal, in calling people a problem, in refusing to acknowledge their individuality, we are condemning millions of children at birth to a cycle of condemnation and poverty.

That’s because the average face of a squatter is not the violent and stubborn, dirty, faces portrayed on the media whenever this issue is brought up…  it’s a child. The average squatter is a child who was born into the slums, will go to an underfunded public school several times a week, engages in child labour to help support a poverty stricken family, and will grow up to simply replace their parents so harbours few dreams or hopes of their own.

“There but for the grace of God, go I”

One of FFA's staff teaching the brilliantly enthusiastic kids - who happen to be squatters
One of FFA’s staff teaching the brilliantly enthusiastic kids – who happen to be squatters

So when we rage about squatters, we’re actually more often raging about kids. We’re talking about people who were born and raised in the slums, who inherited the situation, and inherited the stigma. When we saw kick squatters out, we’re mostly saying kick these children out. Yet for the piece of luck of where we were born, we would be in the same situation. While some people inherited opportunity and wealth, the majority of people (throughout the world not only in the Philippines) inherited social prejudice, stigma, and poverty. The only thing which decided where on this divide we fell was a matter we had absolutely no say in.

That does not mean we should feel guilty and by no means am I trying to bash the wealthy. I’m lucky to know some lovely wealthy families who are kind and caring in so many ways, and relatively speaking I’m wealthy. Just like it is no-one’s fault they were born poor, it is no-one’s fault they were born rich. We didn’t choose our starting position in this rat race, but we do choose how we run; whether we push others out of the way in trying to get to the front, whether we stand on top of the bodies of those who have fallen to take a short-cut, or whether we help others who started in a bad position to cross the finish line. Unlike a marathon, however, we can be very successful and help many others through the race… we can have it all.

It’s probably a good time here to note for those who don’t subscribe to my blog that I’ve lived in a squatter area for the last three years. Technically I’m a squatter too; we don’t own the land we’re living on, only the rights to the home. It’s a complex legal situation because many squatters own the rights to their house but not the land it’s on. They’re half-recognised. Not allowing the land titles to be bought or sold is more often down to a cruel political game, keeping certain people insecure and in poverty to exploit their cheap labour, than because people moved there to just build a house regardless of whose land it is.

Yet whenever anyone talks about squatters it is typically in a range of bashing them as arrogant criminals who should be kicked out from their homes to those who are trying to place them within the official economic picture to see if they are actually poor and could afford to pay rent (not realising they actually do). Sure there are where some people move onto some family’s private land and squat refusing to move, and for sure I’m not siding with them here. What I’m trying to get across is the real face of squatters: for every person you hear squatting on private land of a middle-class family like this, there are tens of thousands of others born into slums. When you realise the true numbers and the true stories for the majority of squatters, we’re really talking about a huge group of people mostly hidden away in backstreets and left to their poverty. This is the true face of the squatter, not the “violent, arrogant criminals” they are generally portrayed as by the media, who oddly enough are often sponsored by those companies who want to build business centres. There are indeed a few squatters who moved onto private land and refuse to move, and may even violently defend their home. But in terms of numbers they are a drop in the ocean to what’s really going on.

For the  majority of this discussion there is a common theme: those who talk about the issue haven’t actually spoken to the people they are talking about. They haven’t actually gone into a squatter area or interviewed anyone – they are treating squatters as ‘subjects’ without even observing them. The result is that they end up perpetuating the myths about squatters and even the best articles done without any collaboration with squatters may produce nice pieces of logic and analysis, but because they’re based on false data they are entirely useless, if not dangerous.

In a majority Catholic country, then, it seems odd that many people have forgotten the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you“. At it’s simplest it is simply put yourself in another person’s shoes. Before judging them, condemning them, and lobbying others to kick them out their homes, it would actually be good to talk to and understand someone in that situation. Yet so many people writing or saying such hurtful things about millions of people … and then head off to mass on Sunday.

Debunking Myths About Squatters

A woman washes plastic in Payatas, nearby the home she rents
A woman washes plastic in Payatas, nearby the shack she rents for her family

There is a great article discussing more generally debunking myths about squatters. You can read that here.

To summarise, squatters typically pay rent on their houses, they pay taxes on what they consume, hold legitimate jobs, and benefit the economy immensely. One of the surprising parts for many people is realising how many people are actuallysquatters. While the FIES claimed in 2009 that 3% of the population are living as squatters, the 2007 study oddly claims roughly 10% of families in the NCR were. Apparently  after two years 140,000 of those near 200,000 families from 2007 just vanished. And this all assumes that in squatter areas families are of the national average of 5 per household, when in reality family size is much larger in poorer communities. Now estimating the number of squatters is a difficult task, and will always come down to a rough estimate, but the “official” numbers are clearly way off.

The FIES, however, is used as the official survey for the nation and so whichever administration is in power gains from manipulating those figures and presenting a good image of the nation and of the economy. Simply put, if you underestimate poverty in the most densely populated areas then poverty across the country appears to have fallen. So to do this, the 2012 study has had to say that 2.6% of families in the National Capital Region are living in poverty, an absurd underestimation for many reasons. Researchers and census takers do not typically go to the poorest areas and count the people there; those people do not officially exist. For example, the 2010 Census says there are almost 120,000 people living in Payatas. I’ve recently said that this is horribly underestimated and the figure is really closer to 500,000. Other research also notes that the Census didn’t count squatters, who are 30-80% of the population, providing a range of 171,000-600,000 people in Payatas, 50%-500% more than the official number (Pecson, 2000; Bernardo, 2004).

One orphaned child in a squatter area scavenging inside a truck through the garbage we threw away
One orphaned child in a squatter area scavenging inside a truck through the garbage we threw away

It is no surprise, then, that when you remove the poor from the study, you get a lower poverty rate. The correlation between the underestimation of squatters and the underestimation of poverty is quite clear: squatters tend to come from poor communities, by not including the vast majority of squatters in the studies it lowers the official poverty rate and it looks like your administration is boosting the economy. As further evidence of this, a 2010 study by the MMDA suggests that 25% of people in Metro Manila are squatters. From 3% to 25% is a large gap between government institutions, but perhaps that’s the gap when one is an official survey that will be the face of the administration, and one which won’t be.

A different study from 2002 estimates that there were roughly 2.5 million squatters in the NCR. This also lines up closer to Homeless International‘s research that 44% of people in urban areas of the Philippines live in slums, the vast majority of course being squatters. So taking the more competent estimates, we can suggest a range of 25% to 40% of people within the NCR are squatters; in other words of roughly 10 million people in the NCR, 2.5 to 4 million are squatters.

Why People Live in Slums

Those living in illegal settlement areas are not typically living there because they want to. They are living there because what we pay them as a society, for the jobs they do to service us, is not enough to afford to live anywhere else. More often than not squatter areas are made up of families who were born into poverty either in that area or from the provinces. They have no skills for employment (the failure of an elitist education system throughout the world, not just in the Philippines), and were pushed into informal labour, self-employment, or short-term contracts with huge corporations who hire new people every six months to avoid paying basic benefits to employees.

Some families in this area we work in have 12 kids due to a lack of sex ed and health care
Some families in this area we work in have 12 kids due to a lack of sex ed and health care

As the economy in the Philippines booms, with 7.2% growth in 2013, we’ve left behind a huge portion of society – and usually the ones doing the actual physical work. The poor have seen their wages effectively drop as jobs sometimes even pay less than last year and they have to deal with high inflation year after year. Again this is across the world, not only in the Philippines (Pogge, 2010). Such families cannot afford to rent or buy anywhere outside of what they rent or buy in the slums. This is the poverty trap… and somehow people think it’s OK to blame the victim and not the abuser.

Why it Benefits Corporations and Governments

My Master’s Thesis will be a case study in this, and so I’ll publish that online and provide links later. But for the purposes of this blog, corporations and the government have not just allowed slums to develop to accommodate this cheap labour, they have actively encouraged it. Slums present a fantastic opportunity for large corporations and even the government: they are largely self-regulating areas which can rarely develop due to legal problems, and therefore perpetually supply a cheap source of labour you can exploit.

Yet this was a demand from the economy, a demand from the richest sector of society. And those at the end of that demand have done a great job of making people angry at the supply. It is a similar mentality to those who blame victims of abuse: “well, look at what she was wearing”, somehow overlooking the abuser.

In Payatas, for example, many of the people moved here encouraged by the government and the businesses who benefit from their scavenging of trash. One study shows that scavengers prevent up to 15% of trash reaching the dumpsite in the first place (Gonzales, 2003, p.9) while the amount of trash they pick off the garbage dump has likely halved Payatas dumpsite over time. As Manila spends over P4 billion (and growing) every year on garbage disposal and maintenance, these squatters have saved taxpayers billions of pesos. Added to that, scavengers save companies huge amounts of money on their garbage license fees, for example one fast food restaurant in Metro Manila was paying P17 a day to deal with their trash (ADB, 2004), and for the same reason they save wealthy residents money on their residential garbage licenses every year too. The poor are subsidising the rich.

A Great Irony

Economically our entire society relies on squatters. Not because they are squatters but because they are people. It’s a great irony that those bemoaning how squatters are a burden for the tax payer do not understand that the poverty of the slums subsidises their wealthy lifestyle. Whatever you think of the situation, whether you judge it right or wrong or, more correctly somewhere in between, the first thing to do is to acknowledge that right now we entirely rely on such people to keep our society going. And it is quite likely that most of them deserve so much better.

It is a great irony that those who demonise squatters so generally and say they should be relocated don’t realise they are often talking about everyone they rely on in their day to day lives. If you really want to kick squatters out, or relocate them, then it is probably best to realise you are most often talking about kicking out your maids, drivers, security guards, the staff at your favourite shops, those who collect our garbage, build and maintain your internet, water, electricity, collect your garbage, basically everything that we want or need. Every sector of society relies on a workforce from slums. If you truly wanted to demolish squatter areas, or throw them all out of their homes, or relocate them to other areas, then there no-one would be left to serve you.

The irony would be amusing, if it did not condemn millions of people to poverty.


This article is aimed at providing an understanding of the importance of squatters as people and in society. This article is not aimed at providing a solution to the framed ‘problem’, such as discussing the debate about relocation, it is meant as an introduction of some basic facts we need to know before the discussion. Depending on the reception I may follow up this article with potential solutions, but please therefore read this article in the context it is meant to be applied. Questions, constructive criticism, and genuine debates are certainly welcome.


11 thoughts on “The Credible Hulk: Episode 1, Squatters

  1. David Garcia May 23, 2014 / 10:37

    The situation is a class war, sir; we have some members of an educated cyber class waging war on what they think as the enemy of their system and sensibilities.

    It’s an irony that while such people who ridicule the ISFs (Informal Settler Families) type away their complaints to fix our current urban systems yet fail
    to understand and question the systems that produce the inequalities.

    If we can only help transform how the educated think and frame the situation on poverty and settlement, then imagine the possibilities.

    It is therefore our task to win this cyber and educated class to help us do what Oscar Wilde taught us: restructure society in such a way that poverty would be impossible.

    I hope you can finish your thesis soon. A lot of us in the urban planning profession would need it. 🙂

    • Roy May 26, 2014 / 13:32

      Thanks for your comment David.

      While this article isn’t intended to offer any solutions, it is meant to be a piece about what people should know before talking about the issue, particularly, as you’ve called them, the educated cyber class. Indeed this group of people have great power to help change the wrongs in society.

  2. Moe Mallillin Albano-Campos June 1, 2014 / 16:24

    If there are approximately 10 million squatters in the NCR (National Capital region) how can the government provide jobs, housing, education and healthcare to alleviate the sufferings of these people?

    • Roy June 2, 2014 / 00:44

      Hi Moe, thanks for your comment.

      Your question is certainly valid. Firstly, though, there are not 10 million squatters, the data is saying there are between 2.5 to 4 million squatters out of a population of 10 million in the NCR. Either way the numbers are certainly huge and I understand that’s your point.

      This article, as written in it, is meant to be a starting place, what we should know before we talk about squatters and the “squatter problem”. However the key issue to your question is in the way it is framed. It is not that the government should provide jobs for the people, for example, it is that they have jobs in the vast majority of cases. They hold legitimate and vital jobs already. The point is if they were paid a decent wage, a salary that is justifiable especially given huge economic growth in the country, then they would be able to afford to rent or buy somewhere outside. They could afford housing, education, healthcare, and anything else… as it is, because of this injustice and exploitation, they cannot afford it. And are therefore forced to squat in a slum.

  3. jojo June 1, 2014 / 21:54

    In our neighborhood, there is plot of land occupied by squattters. It is government land. Their electricity is free coz they use jumper. Even their water supply is tapped. Even the non squatters benefit in this situation. Everybody knows its illegal to use jumper but nobody squeals. The system loss in generation is paid for by those who legally pay their electricity and water bills. There may be rich o middle class individuals who use jumpers but squatters, I think, are mostly the culprit of this practice.

    • Roy June 2, 2014 / 00:48

      Thanks for your comment Jojo. I think the most important thing with anything like this is to know the situation and research before we describe the situation of squatters or talk about this “squatter problem”. An example would be that you think they are the culprits but do not know for sure, and so are assuming they are to blame. The difference of course is that you’re not writing articles or talking on TV about this issue and so it’s great we can have that discussion 🙂

      Certainly there are cases where people are squatting on land and it’s simply not justifiable, certainly there are cases of some violent squatters, and what the media project. However these cases are anecdotal and do not represent the literally millions of squatters there are. The vast majority are trying to provide for their family the best way they can.

  4. jacknorthrup June 11, 2014 / 07:22

    What an extremely well written, unbiased, article on the squatting situation. I am an American living in the Philippines and was specifically searched for information to understand the the squatting situation better. My first judgment was not too incorrect. The primary cause seems to be the high cost of education in proportion to income. Impoverished families do not have the money required to provide education for their children, thus they introduce, into system already saturated with laborers, more uneducated laborers. Some families have been doing this for several generations. To escape this cycle is near impossible. I have met young ladies and men that strive to provide for mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers. They seek work away from immediate family, relatives and friends and ‘labor’ in areas of less saturated with labors where they can receive a higher income. Many work with the goal of providing education for a family member. It is not totally the fault of the squatters or the dwellers of slum areas. The fault is shared by members of society that ride in luxury while watching the impoverished suffering to crawl. There is a big different between a person that is lazy and one that feels alone and defeated. Thank you for the informing article.

    • Roy June 26, 2014 / 14:32

      Thanks Jack for the positive comment. You are correct that education is a very important part of this. One good study in Payatas, the slum I live in, shows that education corresponds directly to the income of the family and their dependence on the dumpsite, i.e. the lower the educational attainment the higher the dependence on the dumpsite.

      However this goes a bit further, as even those with degrees are caught up in this cycle. Many large companies do not pay minimum wage and also hire workers for 6 months only which, under Philippine law, means they are temporary workers and they do not have to provide these workers the legal benefits. So that means there are lots of qualified people in slums who are highly underpaid and have no job security. A whole lot of good could be done if large companies were made to pay workers fairly and provide the right benefits. The slums are the labourforce of the largest companies in the Philippines, the poorer the slums the lower the labour costs of these big firms.

  5. Venice July 11, 2014 / 12:18

    I’ve been interacting with these so-called “squatters” for years and IMO, I would say the main problem is the government officials. If they could’ve done their jobs well and had genuine compassion for the people, then the presence of squatters in the big cities would be gone or there will only be very few. But as what I’ve seen amongst these people, MOST of them are indeed arrogant and selfish people. They steal a lot of things which the companies eventually charge to the paying classes. They are not eco-friendly citizens nor they sensitive people. And why do they steal? Because they aren’t given enough money to support their BIG families. Some of these people don’t even get paid properly–minimum wage. And even the people who get the minimum wage can not even address their basic needs because the prices of commodities are quite high. Some if not all of the people are very-hardworking but their hard work are just paid at a low price.. again, they are underpaid. And why they are not eco-friendly and insensitive citizens is also because they lack proper education. If they were given proper education, then they would behave more responsibly. However, these people weren’t educated well and were unfairly treated by other bigger people which is why they behave like this and do illegal things which eventually burdens the paying classes. And if you would look closely, you can see that the government is mostly at fault.
    I do not blame the less fortunate people for the things they do but I blame the government officials who don’t do their jobs well enough. They should stop thinking about their bank accounts and rather think about what they can do to help their fellow countrymen.

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