Unsung heroes of Navotas Fish Market

The lowly manual workers working every day, seven days a week, to ensure the smooth operations of the biggest fish port in Philippine, are the unsung heroes.

In the dead of the night at 2 am, seven days a week, “lagum”, men who carry heavy loads of fish and other seafood from fishing boats, can be seen working at the Navotas Fish Port Complex.  Throughout the day, they labor intermittently, in short bursts determined by the arrival of boats.  When there is a lull, they rest, talk among themselves, smoke cigarettes or eat food bought from itinerant vendors. 

Fishermen taking short breaks, smoking cigarettes.

When the boats arrive, the lagum flick their cigarettes and the remains of their food into the nearest garbage bins, wade into the water and tie the boats’ rope to the posts on the shore. 

It is a hard life, but Mang Edwin Rodriguez, 57 years old, is only too happy to have a job. His skin is burnt by the sun and his palms are thickened by calluses yet he has no complaint.  Being uneducated and raised in poverty, he does not have many options in life.  He is used to braving the harsh weather and working hard, having been in the job for 20 years.

Mang Edwin Rodriguez

Mang Edwin now leads a team of 12 to 15 “lagum”, men who unload baskets and deep, wide aluminum basins known in the Philippines as “banyera” from fishing boats.  He negotiates with boat owners and/or boat captains on how much his team should get for unloading the catch at the pier and carrying them to the market proper.  At the end of the day, he will divide the earnings equally among all the men in his team.

The other men on Mang Edwin’s team shared similar stories; most of them reached high school but did not finish. They have limited options, their lives dictated by poverty and lack of opportunities.

Rogie Abella, 34, for instance, has been working as a lagum for the last 10 years. He finished the sixth grade and did not proceed any further. He has three children, the eldest is 10 years old, the youngest is a seven-month-old baby. Rogie has dreams for his children which he said he can only help fulfill if he works hard.

“Times are hard, but they have always been for people like me. It’s not like we can pick and choose our jobs, we take what we can get and we make the most of it,” he said.

When asked how much they usually earn, Mang Edwin explained to Maritime Fairtrade: “It varies.  The rates depend on what’s being unloaded – fish, shellfish, or whatever kind of seafood. It’s usually the call of the boat owners, but sometimes it’s also the fishermen who set how much they’re going to pay us.”

Usually, however, the pay is P20 to P30 (US$0.40 to 0.60) for every banyera, which when loaded with shellfish, weighs at least 30 kilos. 

He earns P300 to P400 (US$6.00 to 7.70) a day, the same as all the other lagum in his team, but sometimes they can make as much as P700 (US$13.60) on a good day.  However, being self-employed, they are all without social security benefits and health insurance. 

The minimum wage in the National Capital Region (NCR) is P537 (US$10.40), and it is much lower in the surrounding regions.

“As far as I know, none of us are registered with the Social Security System (SSS). Many of us do not even have government identification cards. We never just got around to registering or getting copies of our birth certificates – it would mean time away from work, and none of us can afford to miss even a day off. What we earn is money for the next few meals for our families,” Mang Edwin said.

Previous
Next

The lagum wade waist-deep into the water up to where the fishing boats are docked, and shoulder the basins the fishermen pass on to them.

It is a short walk to the market, but there are still dangers. The water is dirty and is full of floating rubbish. The beach is rocky and the tiled steps that lead to the market hall are often slippery.

There are seldom accidents, Mang Edwin said, but when they do happen, it is not a pretty sight and a man could end up with a fractured leg. This, he said, is why they usually go without slippers because the risk of slipping is higher wearing them.

 

On any given day, the Navotas Fish Port Complex, specifically its fish markets, is one of the busiest places in Manila. Considered as the biggest fish market in the Philippines and one of the largest in Asia, many commercial fishing boats that operate in different fishing grounds drop their anchors here to unload and sell their catch. The catch, in turn, are sold to major wet and supermarkets. 70 percent of the fish supply of Metro Manila passes through the complex.

Previous
Next

The complex is a massive industrial center, which houses cold storage facilities, canneries, fish processing plants, and, as a venue dedicated to the fishing and maritime sector, a fuel depot, gasoline stations, and ship repair facilities.

One noteworthy function of the complex is to disseminate information to the public regarding fish prices and species processed inside the port, as well as the volume of processed products.

Every day, thousands of buyers visit the port and around 15 to 25 commercial fishing vessels unload a total volume of about 300 tons of fish and other aquatic products, with an additional 50 tons arriving from provinces north and south of Metro Manila in overland vehicles.  The complex is within a five-kilometers range of the major cities of Manila, Caloocan, and Malabon.

Previous
Next

In a corner of the port is one of the five market halls.   There, the local fish pen operators, fish distributors or brokers, wet market vendors, and suppliers by turns sell, haggle and buy fish caught from the coastal waters of nearby provinces of Bulacan, Palawan and Mindoro. 

Among the fish regularly sold there are the labahita, the dalagang bukid, cream dory, imelda, milk fish, tilapia, sapsap and loro, as well as various types of shellfish, crustaceans and squid.

It is easy to spot the fish brokers – they are usually the ones seated behind the makeshift tables or dilapidated desks that line the main wall of the market hall. With their stacks of receipts and fingers swiftly tapping on calculators, they compute costs and prices and haggle with buyers and sellers alike.

The buyers are usually from restaurants, big supermarkets, hotels, as well as small fish stall vendors in the public wet markets found all over the city.

There are also the small-time fish brokers, usually women, who buy fish and sell them house to house in their community.  The money they earned is only enough for their families’ need for one day. 

The fish market can be said to be a microcosm of the Philippine society. There is a hierarchy of authority and wealth, but this is not correctly mirrored by the division of labor.  On the lowest rung of this social ladder are those who physically work the hardest. They are the ones who exert the most physical effort but also earn the least in return for their labors.

Apart from the lagum, the other manual workers in the fish market are the kargador and the batilyo. The former are the ones who load the refrigerated trucks of the large fish distributors and haul literally tons of ice to keep the fish from spoiling. They are higher in the labor hierarchy because some of them work for companies, even if only as contract workers; they make a minimum wage, but they have no job security.

Previous
Next

The kargador who do not work for companies, however, earn P25 to P30 (US$0.50 to 0.60) for every aluminum basin when they are tapped to unload them from the trucks to the market selling floor. 

The fish brokers and boat owners hire them when they are short on regular manpower. These kargador are usually residents of nearby urban poor communities in Navotas, and they also do other odd jobs for the fish brokers or the port management like running errands and cleaning and clearing the market spaces of fish innards and debris at the end of the day.

Edward Santos is one of the on-call kargador at the fish market. At 25 years old, he said that he would much rather work as a waiter or even bus boy for a fast-food restaurant, but he always fails to make the cut.

“They require applicants to have a college degree. I went to college but attended only up to my second year. There are no education requirements here at the fish market, and I’m just saving up money so I can finish school. I’m thinking of taking a vocational course at least,” he said.  

Finally, there are the batilyo, usually girls and women with dexterous hands, who use knives to scrape the sisi or barnacles off the mussels for P50 (US$1.00) for every banyera. They huddle in small groups, not talking but instead deeply focused on their task. The faster they work, the more money they will be able to bring home.

When not cleaning mussels, they also help sort fish catch or put the mussels into plastic sacks that will be transported to seafood markets.  The girls interviewed by Maritime Fairtrade said they no longer attended school and stopped after grade school or high school.