A counterfeit life in a Philippines slum

Metro Manila slumYou can be a Harvard graduate, a licensed pilot or a doctor of medicine in the Philippines without even trying.

At least, you can on paper. Just head to Claro M Recto, a chaotic street in the heart of Manila’s University Belt, in the Philippine capital. It is home to hundreds of diploma mill operators that eke out a living making fake certificates, diplomas, IDs and licences of your choice.

‘It’s a job,’ says Lito, a lanky, brown-skinned man with a worn-out blue cap, who can have a driver’s licence ready by 10am the next day to anyone in need.

He wipes the dust off his makeshift wooden stall filled with samples of IDs and documents while waiting for customers.

A few minutes’ walk from Recto is the district of Quiapo, the primary city square in the Philippine capital where more counterfeiters sit amidst a sea of other street hawkers selling anything and everything – from the latest dildo to a mobile-phone charger.

Quiapo is the mecca of bootleggers selling everything from pirated movies to the quintessential wooden jukebox, at rock bottom prices.

The vendors are scattered all over the famed Quiapo Church, a Roman Catholic basilica that attracts thousands of devotees every day. Unmindful of the scorching heat of the sun, they fill the roads and compete with the noise of honking jeepneys and buses as they call out to pedestrians.

Quiapo is also a pickpocket’s paradise. Anyone walking through its populated alleys can’t escape the preying eyes of thieves. The complacent shopper is sure to lose a cellphone or a wallet.  

Most vendors in Quiapo and Recto live in the nearby slum area they call the ‘interior’, not far from where they put up their makeshift stalls and booths.

The city government allows it because each street vendor pays a rent of P1,500 a month (roughly $22), says Nolita Anon, a 54-year-old who has been a cigarette vendor in Quiapo for 13 years now.

Quiapo and Recto epitomize the Philippines’ informal sector, with thousands living in nearby interior slums and making a living by selling various consumer goods, dumped by smugglers mostly from China.

Yet, the slum dwellers and the vibrant underground economy in these districts are just drops in the ocean.

The Philippines’ informal sector is growing and while government policies include them, the individual men and women who toil in the underground economy and live in the slums don’t feel they’re part of the country’s development.

These informal traders usually settle in slum communities and other urban dwellings. And they long for decent paying jobs and permanent homes, not just relocation sites that offer no livelihood programmes or long-term solutions to poverty.

slum lifeThe Philippines is a country of 94 million people, where almost a third of the population live below the poverty line. Most live in densely populated and cramped slum areas all over the country. Economic growth – recorded at 3.7 per cent in 2011 – isn’t enough to trickle down to the whole population, especially the informal sector.

According to a 2010 paper authored by Marife Ballesteros and published by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), a government think-tank, the country has a large number of urban slum dwellers.

‘Slum population is increasing at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent compared to an urban population growth rate of 2.3 per cent for the period 2000-06. In Metro Manila, an estimated 37 per cent of the population – or over four million people – lived in slums in 2010,’ the PIDS paper said.

Furthermore, PIDS said the slum population in Metro Manila alone could reach nine million by 2050.

‘Slums are characterized by poor sanitation, overcrowded and crude habitation, inadequate water supply, hazardous location and insecurity of tenure. The people living in slums are highly vulnerable to different forms of risks – both natural and man-made. Their living conditions depict poverty in terms of both inadequate incomes and environmental deprivation,’ the paper also noted.

Just look at the maze-like district of Tondo in Manila, a netherworld of street traders, scavengers, gangsters and pickpockets.

In one area facing the famed Manila Bay, there is a place called Pier 18, a muddy patch of earth called ulingan. It is a makeshift charcoal factory and home to hundreds of dwellers. Ulingan is derived from the word uling, the Filipino term for charcoal.

Here, a thick, grey blanket of smoke fills the air as the men and women work endlessly burning scraps of wood into charcoal.

Those not used to the smoke can only spend a few minutes before their lungs and throat hurt, but the people here endure the suffocating carbon emitted in the tedious process of making charcoal. Children play beneath the haze.

The daily grind

Many slum areas in the Philippines are cramped and congested. The shelters are 5 to 10 square metres in size and are attached to each other with very thin walls.

Yet the government tolerates the harsh conditions of life in the slums for a wide range of reasons, including the lack of relocation programmes.

Just ask Joey Basilio, a 40-year-old one-legged vendor who lives by the tracks of the state-run commuter train, the Philippine National Railways, in the district of Sampaloc, also in Manila.

Joey and his wife live on the periphery of the train tracks, just spitting distance from the speeding trains, which pass by every 30 minutes.

In 2007, the government relocated some 50,000 settlers by the tracks to Cavite, a province in the southern part of the National Capital Region.

 ‘But we have no livelihood there. They gave us some money to put up a house but that’s it,’ Joey says.

Life by the tracks is dangerous. The trains have sideswiped young and old alike but Joey stubbornly opted to stay, selling cigarettes and candies to commuters and passers-by.

‘This is where our life is. We were born here,’ says his wife, Rosario.

The current administration has promised not to neglect the impoverished sector.

Budget and Management Secretary Florencio Abad, co-head of the government’s economic team, assures that the administration has a long-term conditional cash programme for all informal settlers.

Under the programme, the government provides cash assistance to poor households provided they send their children to school and ensure proper healthcare.

‘President Benigno Aquino wants all informal settlers covered by the programme,’ Abad says.

Ordinary men and women who struggle daily in these slum areas, however, do not have much hope in government’s promises. They will continue with the daily grind because they need to, whether or not the government helps them.

‘Government officials only come during election time,’ says Elvie Wilford, a 37-year-old informal settler in the district of Old Balara in Quezon City, which has more than 90,000 households of informal settlers.

Elvie, who earns a living by selling gasoline per litre to pedicab drivers, says authorities have asked their family to relocate to pave the way for the construction of a main highway that will cut through their neighbourhood.

‘Everything’s in the name of development but when it comes to development, poor people like us are always excluded,’ Elvie says.

Photos by Iris Gonzales