Text by Ingrid Delgado
As the clock strikes eight on the first night of December, two wagons made of mismatched wood and patched-up polyester begin to light up a dark alleyway along the streets of Tondo, Manila.
Standing behind these is a petite old woman sporting a tight bun and a striking apron. At 76, Aurora Sandiosa or ‘Nanay Aurora’ hunches over her makeshift stall to butter her clay pots. She cracks an egg, sifts the flour and stirs the milk with a swiftness brought by 58 years of making bibingka from scratch.
In the past, she would match her colorful aprons with a face full of makeup. This year, however, she trades her bright red lipstick for a disposable face mask over her recognizable smile.
When she was first encouraged to start a bibingka business, 18-year-old Aurora knew nothing about baking, much less whipping up rice cakes.
“Wala akong pera noon, kaya ‘yung [may-ari ng tinitirhan ko] muna ‘yung namuhunan [para sa akin],” she recalls. “Bigas, asukal at itlog na maalat lang muna.”
It didn’t take long for ‘Nanay Aurora’ to learn the ins and outs of the business. Soon, her thriving bibingka store grew into a Christmas staple for the entire neighborhood. Thanks to her loyal patrons, she was able to build a house of her own and send all her five children to school.
As she grew weaker over the years, ‘Nanay Aurora’ passed down her bibingka recipes and bequeathed the business to her children and in-laws to set up and manage. Year after year, they would greet the cold December air with embers of their charcoals, but this year, a much stronger wind threatens to extinguish the tradition.
“Malaki ang tinumal [dahil sa pandemic],” she laments. “Dati drum na malaki pa [ang] ginagamit namin. Ngayon, kailangan talaga alalay lang sa ingredients. Meron [pa] ring bumibili pero ‘di na kasing dami.”
Nanay Aurora, like other sidewalk vendors selling affordable food, belongs to the informal sector that keeps much of the population from going hungry.
The sector has long endured low income and poor working conditions even before the pandemic. But as lockdowns are enforced, these conditions are felt a thousandfold which calls for more inclusive policies for the sector, with or without a pandemic.
The most wonderful time of the year
For some, Christmas is a time to search for silver linings. But for street vendors, it is a struggle to make one.
As the country clocks in nine months of lockdown — the longest in the world — the nation’s capital remains under general community quarantine for the Christmas season.
These quarantine restrictions hit the informal labor sector the hardest, says Wilson Fortaleza of labor group Partido Manggagawa.
“Matinding gutom ang pinakamalaking epekto ng lockdown sa mga street vendors at iba pang nasa informal sector. Sa katulad nila, ang mawalan ng trabaho ay kawalan ng kita at alam na natin ang karugtong pa na mga problemang idudulot nito,” he says.
Benjamin Lorenzo knows this all too well, as he stands under the heat of the afternoon sun and waits for customers to buy castañas (chestnuts) from his tiny stall along the crowded streets of Carlos Palanca in Quiapo.
“Medyo matumal siyempre, pero at least may bumibili. Siyempre kasama na rin sa tradition ng Christmas ‘yung castañas, diba?” the vendor of 40 years asserts. “Mabagal lang ang bentahan [ngayon], pero siyempre kailangan nating mabuhay. May pinag-aaral pa akong anak eh.”
With the holidays fast approaching, Irene Baluyo, who has been selling parol lanterns under the Quezon Bridge in Quiapo for six years, shares how some of her customers are still keen on celebrating Christmas despite the difficulties of this year.
“‘Yung ibang customers [bumibili pa rin] para lang daw kahit tayo naghihirap, mairaos pa rin ang pasko,” she says.
Irene adds that some customers who previously bought Capiz lanterns now have to settle for cheaper plastic parols just so they can hang something for Christmas.
Despite their persistence to retain traditions, experts still believe that consumer behavior has already been drastically changed by the onslaught of the pandemic.
Philippine Retailers Association president Rosemarie Ong said in a Pinas Muna Tayo webinar that “practicality will be at the forefront of decision-making,” but that “Filipinos will continue to spend despite the circumstances.”
The informal sector
A 2017 labor force survey shows that there are at least 15.6 million informal workers in the Philippines, contributing to about a third of the country’s gross domestic product.
However, even before lockdowns were enforced, street vendors were already bereft of laws that protect and accommodate their needs.
In an online discussion with Tony Salvador of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, he said that “prior to the lockdown low wages are already a problem… [they] are only enough to subsist on a daily basis. There are no savings to speak of, therefore no lifelines when emergency hits.”
Nanay Aurora recalls how the barangay relocated her bibingka stall from its original location to a more secluded one. She now pays P10 daily to a ‘walker’ so she could keep her spot this Christmas.
75-year-old Lourdes Lariza had similar experiences of having to plead with officials just so she could keep her bread and butter.
‘Nanay Lourdes’ has been selling Sampaguita outside Quiapo Church in Manila since 1972. She recalls pre-lockdown days with glistening eyes as if yearning for a far-flung dream.
“Noong araw maganda ang bentahan namin [pero] simula noong nagkaroon ng lockdown, ‘di na kami nakabenta nang maganda,” she laments.
Her regular income may seem like a dream, but a similar nightmare haunts her still.
As the lockdown began to ease, she found herself once again begging officials to allow her to go back to work despite her age.
“Ilang beses na akong nakikiusap sa [Department of Social Welfare and Development] sabi ko, ‘Ma’am pang-maintenance ko lang po [ang pagtatrabaho para] sa aking mga karamdaman sa mata at sa puso,” she recalls.
For most informal workers, living in uncertainty comes as an occupational hazard.
“[Tuloy pa rin ako sa pagbebenta] pangbili ng gamot. Sulit naman din ‘pag pwesto ko dito dahil ang mga anak ko pamilyado na rin. Ayokong umasa sa kanila dahil malakas pa naman ako,” says the 75-year-old.
During the early days of the lockdown, Fortaleza says that Partido Manggagawa received multiple reports about workers not being included in the social amelioration program (SAP).
“Inaasahan namin ang ganitong resulta dahil hindi universal ang sistema ng ayuda kaya’t binagabag ng administrative gridlock sa pamimili ng qualified na beneficiaries, bukod pa sa dating problema pa ng patronage politics sa ganitong mga proyekto,” he says.
He adds that even those who were able to receive their ayuda still find themselves at a crossroads as the SAP only covers two months of necessity.
“Sa isang pamilya halimbawa na parehong nawalan ng trabaho ang dalawang miyembro nito, ang nawalang kita sa kanila ay katumbas ng pitong buwan o kombinasyong 14 months sa kanilang dalawa sa nakalipas na siyam na buwan na may hard at moderate lockdown na pinapairal,” he says.
Due to multiple crises brought by the pandemic, the United Nations Development Programme projects up to $200 billion in income loss for developing countries. The World Bank also expects the Philippine economy to recover slower than its regional peers.
Although lockdown guidelines are beginning to ease with more malls and establishments allowed to operate, the informal sector is still left to fend for themselves while being regarded as pasaway for trying to make ends meet.
This problem faced by the informal sector goes far beyond the current pandemic.
It’s time (that the government changes its approach to street vending), Fortaleza says.
“Kahit wala pang pandemya ay off-limits naman na talaga sa mga vendors ang mga sidewalk dahil sa batas at mga patakarang ipinatutupad ng [Metropolitan Manila Development Authority] at mga [local government units,]” he adds.
The Nagkaisa Labor Coalition previously proposed a “public employment program” that urges the government to focus on areas not prioritized by the private market, such as universal healthcare, food security, and green and climate jobs.
Fortaleza believes that progress can only be made through one’s transition from informal to formal work.
“Kabilang din sa itinutulak naming programa ay paid training para libreng mapaunlad ng mga manggagawa ang kanilang kaalaman sa marami pang bagay para sa mas magandang trabaho,” he adds.
The gaps exposed by the pandemic assert that informal workers are only considered “illegal” because there has been little to no effort from the government to legalize them and make policymaking inclusive to those who should benefit most from them.
While waiting for progress in these proposals, street vendors have to make do with what’s available at the moment.
“Kailangan lagi lalaban tayo sa buhay. Ako swelduhan rin ako. Sa tulong ng Panginoon nakakaraos rin naman sa araw-araw. Kahit na sabihin mong sapat lang sweldo, nakakatulong pa rin tayo sa iba,” Irene says.
Social safety nets are necessary because an entire labor sector cannot depend on the kindness of strangers alone. It may be the longest in the world, but even Christmas in the Philippines doesn’t last forever.