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 markets and supermarkets. 70 percent of the fish supply of Metro Manila passes through the complex.
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.
Climbing the social ladder of the fish market
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.
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.
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.
Backbreaking work for less than minimum wage
Mang Edwin Rodriguez is 57 years old. His skin is browned by the sun and his hands are thickened by calluses. He leads a team of 12 to 15 “lagum”, men who unload baskets and deep, wide aluminum basins known in the Philippines as “banyera” from the boats.
Mang Edwin negotiates with the boat owners and/or boat captains how much the lagum should get for unloading the catch 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.
“It varies,” he explained to Maritime Fairtrade. “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. 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’s a short walk, but there are still dangers: 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 explained, is why they usually go without slippers because the risk of slipping is higher wearing them.
From 2 am to 5 am every morning every day, seven days a week, the lagum are already at the pier. They work intermittently, in short bursts determined by the arrival of boats. While waiting, they talk among themselves, smoking cigarettes or eating food bought from itinerant vendors. 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.
There is a lull in the afternoon and again they wait for the boats to return around 3 pm.
It is a hard life, but Mang Edwin said he is used to it. He was formerly a cook on an Indonesian fishing boat or “pangulong” in Iloilo in the Western Visayas region. It was, he said, an illegal fishing vessel.
“We were unregistered workers, and the vessel itself was not registered to be a commercial fishing boat. We always ran the risk of getting caught,” he said. This was way back in 1987, and he earned P400 (US$7.80) a week.
Now he earns P300 to P400 a day as a lagum, 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. As a worker in the fishing industry and the larger maritime sector, he has been working without social security benefits and health insurance for over 20 years.
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,” he said.
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.
A rung higher in the social ladder
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.
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.
Livelihood impacted by Chinese fishing militia encroaching on Filipino waters
To all extent, the fish market appears very busy and productive, but the workers are aware there are adverse factors that affect their livelihoods.
“There have been days when the boats did not bring in the usual amount of fish and there were times that most of the boats docking in the late mornings were the ones that harvested mussels and cultivated fish from the fish pens,” said Mang Edwin.
Based on data from the Philippine Fisheries Development Authority – Navotas Fish Port Complex (PFDA-NFPC), COVID- 19 has affected the fishing industry and thus the fluctuating numbers of unloading.
Other reports have it, however, that the catch of Filipino fishermen has been steadily declining because of the encroachment of Chinese fishing vessels in Philippine waters.
There have already been many reports of fishermen saying how they have been chased away from their traditional fishing grounds in areas in the West Philippine Sea by Chinese boats, including poachers who illegally harvest endangered taklobo or giant clams.
The high-value species, like lapu-lapu or grouper, tanigue or Spanish mackerel, and maya-maya or red snapper, have become scant because the Chinese fishing boats have been capturing them faster.
What worsens the situation is that Filipino fishermen also have to contend with the armed Chinese coast guard, who prevented them from fishing in their own waters.
Government statistics show that in 2011, the fish haul was pegged at five million tons, but by 2018, this has decreased to 4.3 million tons. Even the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) has stated in a recent report that 10 out of 13 fishing grounds or about 75 percent are overfished, with Filipino fishermen spending more time to catch fewer fish.
And fewer fish means less work for all the lagum, kargador, and the batilyo.
Mang Edwin said: “Every day we pray that all the boats come fully loaded with fish. We hear in the news all about Chinese fishing boats driving away Filipino fishermen and of course, we get angry because we know how hard it is to make a living these days, especially from fishing.
“On top of the smaller fish catch, diesel is so expensive, too. There are times when fishermen get paid less by the boat owners, and then the rest of us get paid less, too. It’s a bad situation all around.”
Modernizing of fish port scheduled for next year
The Navotas Fish Port is scheduled for upgrading in the next year. The Philippine government aims to turn it into an integrated center for different types of agricultural commodities.
Some P14 billion (US$272 million) has been earmarked for the modernization project, and it will include expanding and improving existing facilities, elevating low-lying areas, repairing road networks and drainage systems, as well as building more efficient cold storage.
Construction and upgrading works are targeted for completion end 2023. Big-time industry players are lauding the entire project as they foresee higher profits.
However, for the likes of the workers in the fish port, people like Mang Edwin, Edward, and the girls and women who scrape the barnacles off mussels for P50 for every 35 kilos, while the mussels themselves sell for P75 per kilo, life will most likely remain the same.