stories     personal     about      ︎

Who Peels Your Garlic?

Baseco, Philippines

  • The garlic peeling industry in Baseco, Manila, renders Filipino women among the least visible, worst paid, and most dispensable part of the informal economy.

  • The worsening job crisis brought about by the pandemic has forced more Filipino women to resort to home-based work despite poverty wages and on top of the unpaid care work they do for their families.

  • Figures show a rise in low-wage jobs, yet the bill aiming to protect informal workers has been pending in a legislative committee since December 2019.

The pungent scent of garlic lingers on Marites Arendain’s calloused palms all day. She’s had “garlic hands” for years, from hand-peeling kilograms of garlic which are then distributed to markets and large fast-food chains.

This job pays her $1.67 (P83.39) for the sack of garlic she is able to peel each day, a very small fraction of the city’s minimum wage ($10.68 or P533.30), only enough to buy her family of eight a kilo of rice and some dried fish.

“Peeling garlic the whole day burns my hands, especially when the garlic is fresh or thick,” she said.

There is a robust demand for garlic, a basic ingredient in Filipino cuisine, from small restaurants and large fast-food chains in Manila, the Philippine capital. Baseco, a poor community near the Manila port, is where a lot of that garlic is peeled before it ends up in the boxed meals sold by popular fast-food chains, in tinned corned beef manufactured by leading food companies, or in the fancy dishes of luxury hotels.

Arendain is one of the hundreds of mothers in Baseco who are part of the shadow garlic economy. For mothers like her, home-based work, despite the long hours and meager income, allows them to care for children while also making some money to put food on the table.

Arendain works inside her home where she stands in knee-deep floodwaters during heavy rains. “I get up at 2 am to submerge the garlic in drums filled with water to soften the cloves while preparing my small sari-sari (convenience) store,” she said.

She spends the rest of the morning holding a clove of garlic with her left hand and a flimsy cutter with her right. It takes her eight hours to peel a 15-kilogram sack of garlic; typically a few hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening that she can squeeze in between other chores.

“By noon, I start arranging the newly delivered sack while doing household chores. I sleep at 11 pm because I still have to watch over my kids,” she said.

Most of Baseco’s residents are migrant workers from the provinces who sought better-paying jobs in the capital.

They live in makeshift shelters covered by thin, iron sheets that provide little protection from the rain and wind during typhoon season. In summer, these homes, which are packed close to each other, often provide tinder for fires that regularly raze the community.

Read the story as published on Rappler, South China Morning Post, Asian Geographic, and Artiqulate Magazine