Hard Work, Hard Life as a Manggagapak

For the people in Balayan, Batangas, paggagapak (cutting sugar cane) is the only job available that does not require qualifications such as educational attainment and work-related experiences. This is the only job available for young people who had to work at a young age due to poverty. The work is hard, the pay is low, and there is no future in working as a manggagapak. If only they had a choice, these young people should be in school instead of toiling under the hot sun and carrying heavy loads just to be able to bring food to the family’s table.

Vol. VIII, No. 14, May 11-17, 2008

Not all youth may be seen inside the four walls of the classroom. Some of them have opted to, due to poverty, try to earn a living at an early age and in the process, learning the realities of life first hand. They did not choose to tire their young bodies with heavy work. But the dire need to provide for the family has forced them to earn money the hard way.

For the people in Balayan, Batangas, paggagapak (cutting sugar cane) is the only job available that does not require qualifications such as educational attainment and work-related experiences. Anyone could work as a manggagapak (sugar cane cutter) as long as one can endure the hard work, rain or shine.

It was four years ago when 17-year-old Mar Baldrias started to work as a manggagapak to earn a living for the family. As the third among five children, he felt obliged to help his family financially. Mar buys rice for the family, while his older brother, a regular employee of Batangas Electric Company (BATELEC) is responsible for their bills, viand and other necessities.

Mar’s father used to be a farmer and a barangay captain but ever since one of his legs was amputated because of diabetes, he became incapable of working. His mother stays at home to take care of household chores. They are still sending the youngest sibling to school.

One can see in his young face the heavy burden he has been carrying, literally and figuratively. Despite his wit and smiles, lies a young soul forcefully molded by the times to cope with the family’s situation and to do something about it. Mar’s young body has been molded by the heavy work he has been doing; one can see the well-developed muscles in his arms and his dark sunburned skin.

Pagagapak is a seasonal job, usually from December to June, when sugarcanes are ripe for harvest. Other than pagagapak, they are also expected to gather the sugarcanes and pile them on the truck. They would walk to the plantation early in the morning so that they arrive before 7 a.m.. Mar jokingly said they wore “uniforms” to work. “Pantalon, long sleeves, sombrero, pamunas, backpack, guantes.” (pants, long sleeves, hat, towel, backpack, gloves)

When they arrive at the plantation, Mar shared “tatabasin naming yung tubo, iipunin at ikakarga sa trak. Minsan sinusunog kasi mabaging.” (We cut the sugar cane, gather it and load it on the truck. Sometimes we have to burn the wild grass first to be able to cut the cane without any obstructions. ) During rainy times, it’s more difficult because they can’t burn the wild grass in the field, making it more difficult to cut the sugarcane.

“Swerte pa,” (I am still lucky.) Mar replied when asked about work-related accidents. He has not been involved in any accident ever since he started working as a manggagapak. Mar shared that one of the worst accidents he has seen while working in the field was when the ladder fell on one of his co-workers because the soil where the ladder was situated was soft because of the rain. His co-worker didn’t suffer any grave injuries other than body pain due to the impact caused by the falling ladder.

“May mga natataga pero wala pa namang napuputulan (ng parte ng katawan) sa mga kasamahan ko,” (Some are hacked accidentally but no one has yet experienced having a limb cut off.) he added.

When asked about his other experiences in the field, he said they don’t eat meals on time because they have to wait for the truck, or they try to get the job done as fast as they could. The more sugarcane they cut and pile in the truck, the more income they get.

“Ang swelduhan, P180 ($4.23 at an exchange rate of $1=P42.48) sa mga taga-Balayan, P200 ($4.70) sa mga dayo bawat isang tonelada,” (Locals get P180 per ton while outsiders get P200.) he said. They are paid every six months based on the number of tons they were able to cut and load. Mar also shared that there is a system called “open bale”, which allows them to borrow money from the management before the harvesting is completed. The total amount lent to them is deducted after computing what is due to them after six months.

“May mga bata kaming kasama. Ang pinakabata ay trese,” (There are young people working here, some as young as 13 years old.) Mar said. The payment for the younger workers is relatively lower because their job is lighter and easier. “Namumulot sila nung mga pinaglinisan.” (They clear the fields.)

Last year, he brought home P2000 ($47.08) after his cash advances were deducted by the management. However, bringing home P2000 may be impossible this time. “Dati kasi, pera lang pero ngayon pati bigas (ang kailangan kong ibigay sa bahay),” (I used to just bring home money but now I also had to borrow for rice,) he said explaining that he had to advance bigger amounts this year.

Mar worriedly shared that he has already incurred a P3000 ($70.62) debt from the management. He fears that he might not be able to bring home money after all his advances are deducted after six months of work. He said it is possible that he may have borrowed more than what he will earn.

In the event that his debt is bigger than what he earned, he jokingly said, “see you next year,” which means that he will have to pay for it next year.

Next year, Mar will be turning 18 and he hopes he’ll be able to get another job other than pagagapak. “Wala,” (None) was his reply when asked if he sees a brighter future for him if he continues working as a manggagapak.

Mar, like all his co-workers are not ashamed of being a manggagapak because this has helped bring food to their homes. But Mar does not intend to remain a manggagapak all his life. He dreams of finding a better paying job, to bring home more than what he earns now. (Bulatlat.com)

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