A Hard Life at the Port

A look into the struggles of workers at the Manila Port.

Port workers are the invisible and under-appreciated workforce that keep the world trade moving smoothly along the supply chain.

Working all hours of the day

At the South Terminal, the massive wheels of cargo shipping trucks create a sound like low thunder as they move across the pavement. With their loaded trailers, the trucks leave the pier at sunset and like the segments of a massive caterpillar, make their way to the container terminals in Tondo, Manila.

Roberto S. OCA Gate, South Terminal, Philippine
Trucks leaving pier at sunset towards container terminals in Tondo, Manila
Trucks forming like caterpillar

In a sea of unemployment, Junel considers himself lucky​

In a street corner, a young man waits for one specific truck to arrive. He wears the prescribed uniform for dock workers, but the dirty and mussed face mask that covers his nose and mouth will never pass health protocols against COVID-19.  

Every day, 22-year old Junel Dacunes stands on that same street corner in front of the container terminal with whom the cargo company he works for stores its shipments. He arrives at least 30 minutes early, and he knows that patience is the name of the game because sometimes the trucks get held up at the port checkpoint. He makes sure to check with the driver of his company’s truck every five minutes, and he doesn’t mind waiting. He is only too glad to have work. 

On the long breakwater wall behind Junel sit hundreds of other men—most of them older and definitely tougher looking. They are also waiting for the trucks to come so they can get on one them and enter the container terminal. 

Unlike Junel, many of these men are not regularly employed and some are just taking their chances. They want to work at the pier as sanitation dockworkers, machine operators or drivers. From Wednesday to Friday, many people go to the port area in Tondo looking for employment.

Junel considers himself lucky. He finished high school and could not proceed further. As the middle child of a brood of eight, he had to make way for younger siblings to have their chance at getting an education. For the last two years, he has been working on night shift, with work similar to a clerical staff, checking and double-checking shipping manifestos. 

He works eight hours, sometimes 10. The pay is good, he says. The P700 (US$14) a day he earns is food for the table. His family relies on him, he says, and this enough reason to never complain about whatever job he has or about how much he makes.

Junel Dacunes, 22 years old, stands on a street corner waiting for his company's truck to arrive to take him inside the terminal.

Junel texts the driver of the truck every minute so he won't miss getting a ride.

Hundreds of Filipino men sitting on long breakwater wall

Waiting and hoping to get jobs inside the container terminals, from Wednesday to Friday, the port areas are filled with men trying to land work.

No Union, No Protection

In another terminal, port workers arrive to begin the midday shift. It’s just after the rain and the pavement is wet, but their safety boots have more than enough traction to prevent them from slipping. 

Elmer Florenda, 52, is waiting for his teammates and friends. Asked about his work, he says he doesn’t have complaints. During the first wave of COVID-19, work became intermittent as ships stopped coming for weeks at a stretch. He himself worked only three days out of seven in the first months of the pandemic.

Things have more or less returned to normal now, he shares. They have all been vaccinated, and the ships have returned to their normal schedule. 

Asked about his glowing green uniform, he says that they’re all paid for by the company. The uniform, the safety shoes, the helmet, and other safety equipment they need to work safely inside the terminal are provided for. In other container terminals, he has heard that workers have to pay for their gear. “They are not unionized,” he says. “They barely have rights there, and it’s very bad. They have no job security and benefits.” 

Ricardo Azurin, 57, is also going to work. He walks a little slowly, and it is somewhat a wonder that he can still work at the port area as a stevedore. 

“I’m not a contractual worker, I’ve been working here for more than 20 years doing different jobs. I started off as a driver, then as a machine operator. Now I’m part of the cleaning crew,” he says. 

Ricardo says he is a union member, and he cannot just be laid off.

Another man who is grateful he is a union member is Manuel Patriarca. At 51 years old, he has worked at the shipping terminal since 1989. He says he owes everything to the union – he was able to keep his job through thick and thin, and because of this he was able to send his children to school and build his family their own house. 

His loyalty to the union is such that he even had the neighborhood amateur tattooist tattooed the union’s emblem on his right forearm. 

“Unions work,” he says.

Philippine Transport and General Workers Organisation, Associated Workers Union

Innocence of port workers’ children 

As the sun sets on another day, Filipino children play on the artificial beach and dive into the waves of the polluted Manila Bay. Ignoring the flotsam and jetsam of rotting vegetables, degraded product packaging, and decayed carcasses of dead animals, they whoop and scream with happiness. 

Childhood is sometimes an indifference to risks, a defiance against dangers.

As for their parents, they are away working as garbage collectors at the pier or looking for work, and the children are left to their own devices. 

Filipino children play on artificial beach, ignoring rotting vegetables and degraded product packaging.
Indifferent to the garbage and the stench, they play in the polluted waters of the Manila Bay.

A man collects trash from the offices at the pier to recycle and sell. It’s clean money from garbage.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more