Odd jobs: Spiraling through another day

July 6, 2024

by Jaeann Marañon

The roads leading to a barrio in Caloocan are narrow and uneven, with broken patches of asphalt that create a bumpy tricycle ride. They are so cramped that we have to stop often to yield to oncoming traffic. Hordes of people walk everywhere, and all sorts of noise vibrate through the air, accompanied by the smell of seafood and poultry from the nearby shops on a Sunday morning. It may seem to be a mere picture of urban poverty and underdevelopment at first glance. But a closer look reveals something more profound: hundreds of black and white spiral coils litter the tiny cracks in the road, over mud and wet concrete, and float in the creek that runs through the western part of the barrio.

It doesn’t take long to understand this. As you walk along the streets, you will notice huge brown boxes labeled “notebooks” on top of them, crowding the front doors of houses and further on the alleyways. We reach a stop, and despite the humidity, we are welcomed by an Engelbert Humperdinck medley on the karaoke, ladies in pink and green dusters laughing, and a community-led lugaw (rice porridge) feeding event bustling under a makeshift tent. Nanay Arly, one of the organizers for the event, greets us and offers us some lugaw. Stories are exchanged fast, and questions are answered promptly.

Laking notebook ako. Bata pa lang ako, gumagawa na ako ng notebook.” (I grew up on notebooks. I have been making notebooks since I was a child.) is a remark you will hear not just from one person but the entire community. It turns out that the spiral coils that are strewn all over the area are the excess cut out pieces of the notebook spines once they’re attached to the notebooks and the notebooks are finally assembled. The whole process is shown to us by Nanay Lia,a friend and coworker of Nanay Arly. Nanay Lia’s pace and precision in notebook assembly is astonishing; she could easily be mistaken for a machine. As Nanay Lia speeds through each coil, she explains how her practice has been honed through almost four decades of work, pausing each time she shares how she goes through an average of 30 boxes, or 6,000 pieces of notebooks almost non-stop every day, to earn an average of Php3,000 per week (around Php429 per day; 7 centavos per notebook). But to achieve this figure, Nanay Lia has taught her children to assemble notebooks and help her out, just like her own mother did. Less than 10 minutes later, she finishes half a box.

Moving on to another barrio, we get acquainted with Ate Kat. Under a blue tarpaulin tent sits Ate Kat dressed in all pink, her hair tied in a pom-pom scrunchie made of pink yarn and beads. She is introduced to us as the best person to assemble a notebook, this time with a yarn. True to claims, Ate Kat sews through a notebook in under 20 seconds, ending the process by cutting the excess yarn on top and moving on to another notebook. Blue, red, yellow, and orange yarn threads fall to the ground as she goes through more notebooks and shares that like Nanay Lia, her own mother taught her the skill. She laments how despite spending her whole life assembling notebooks, the pay has never been sufficient. In exchange for assembling a box containing 200 notebooks, Ate Kat receives only Php45 (or 50 centavos per notebook), a bit more than Nanay Lia makes, because yarn sewing is more time consuming. But she doesn’t mind, and further shares that sometimes she’s asked to cover the notebooks with plastic jackets. This earns her an additional Php25 per box.

By the fifth notebook, Ate Kat repeatedly says sorry and explains that today isn’t her best as she just did the laundry and cooked a meal for her children. Nanay Fe, another notebook assembly worker, tells her to rest a while and pours her some coffee. “Great Flavor yung kape namin ha, hindi Nescoffee,” she exclaims. We ask her why and she proceeds to tell us that while they are all primarily notebook workers, there are other types of subcontractual work that comes their way such as “expiry date alteration”. By the name itself, Nanay Fe tells us how they are paid to erase expiry dates from different products and replace these with newer dates. As she recalls the story, Nanay Fe props up and visualizes the work with her fingers. Conjuring a rectangle, she tells us how the process works. “Nasa isang lamesa kaming lahat. Sa isang dulo, yung nagtatambak ng mga box tapos yung naglalabas nung produkto. Tapos kami naman sa gitna nagbubura ng expiry date. Pagkatapos namin burahin, ipapasa namin sa kabilang dulo ng lamesa tapos didikitan na nila ng bagong petsa.” (Everyone is at one table. At the head of the table are those who carry and bring out the boxes from the factory. We are right beside them in the middle, erasing the expiration dates. Once we are done, we pass it to the other end so the others can paste new expiration dates on the products.) Pained laughter erupts as more people come in and agree with Nanay Fe.

Kuya Guy, a newcomer, elaborates on the experience of altering expiry dates. He recalls how tiring, strict and dehumanizing the work is. In order to conceal the crude work, the company does not allow them to bring phones or go out to eat. He angrily shares that they have to stay in the factory from Mondays through Fridays, and sometimes Saturdays, sleep in coffin-sized bunk beds, and share a cramped space where they cook, clean, and do their personal businesses. To cope, they have to buy as much food as they can on weekends to consume during the week, but they barely have enough to buy by the week’s end. He shares that about 15-20 people work at one table and are paid between Php1,000 to Php3,000 depending on the product assigned to them. They then divide the amount among themselves and earn an average of Php100 per person per day, and that is without any benefits or health and emergency funding. Kuya Guy shares how he was once injured during work hours and the company just sent him home to tend to it without even giving him a band-aid.

We all fall silent, in the heat of the afternoon. Their stories of crushing work and living conditions engulf me and my fellow researchers in anger, shame, and guilt, leaving us with no space to respond. The agonizing memories (and continuing experiences) of painstaking labor seem to have frozen the workers’ faces in pain and frustration. Kuya Guy and Nanay Fe look into the distance. Breaking the silence, Flora, another subcontractual worker says, her voice breaking: “Basura lang kami sa kanila.” (We are but garbage to them.) Her agitated tone seems to have roused the others, as they regain focus and attention, sit up straight, and sip their now-cold coffee.

Flora concludes our small gathering by sharing that, despite its influx, subcontractual work is insecure and unstable, and the workers remain dispensable and unprotected. To ensure a steady income, she shares how the community has banded together by sharing work schedules, skills, and referrals. Flora explains that once the school season ends, notebook assembly work will no longer be available, so they will all need to transition to either altering expiry dates or repackaging alcohol bundles – whichever  and whatever comes first. “Kung ano lang talaga yung dumating. Parehas lang naman ang mga bayad, mas mababa pa nga yung iba. Naaral na din naman namin,.” (Whatever type of work comes our way, we will accept. Payment is the same anyway, or even much lower. Besides, we have also already studied the skills required for the job.) Flora adds that lately she earns an average of Php400 a day for repackaging alcohol bundles.

With exasperated sighs, we all stand up to pack our things and clean up the area. Before we say our goodbyes, the Nanays, Ates, and Kuyas warn us to be careful of the food we buy in the stores, to smell first, especially the canned goods, for any hint of acetone, and to check instant noodles and iced tea if the expiration date is simply printed on paper and pasted on the product. We all give a mirthless laugh.

I scroll through social media on the bus ride home. People are fighting over this Chinese woman mayor of a local town ad nauseam. Cultural commentaries, celebrity gossip, fashion trends, the newest guest star on Snowtime. I read every tweet and reply with an agreement or a counter-argument, depending on the point made. Then I see this food layout photo of some niche brand of milk, fruits in plastic packaging, and almond chocolates in a jar with the caption “I love eating healthy and consuming ethically.” The hum of the bus and soft patter of the rain pause as Nanay Fe’s voice echoes in my head. “Paborito ko yung mga almond na may chocolate pag may kaunting pinapamigay pagkatapos burahin yung expiration date. Ang bango bango tsaka matamis.” (Those almonds covered in chocolate are my favorite. They would give us a little sometimes after we erase the expiration dates. They smell so good and they are so sweet.) A heavy wave of sadness creeps over me, as I realize that for little nuts and sweet chocolates, a worker and her children continue to bleed.

I close my phone and look out the window. Flocks of teenagers walk through the rain without umbrellas. I notice good governance reports printed on tarpaulins hung on the walls and tied to poles. I am about to wallow in defeat until my fellow researcher asks me if I noticed how big Nanay Fe’s smile was, and how strong, vigorous, and determined the community has remained. “We must be the same, you know?” he muses. Shaking the weight off, I sit up straight and sip my warm water, resolved to fight for another day. ###