Perspective: Dignity to the Shoemakers

Dignity can be defined as a sense of pride and self-worth. It is when you can hold your head up high and take pride in yourself with what you do and have accomplished. We can also say that having dignity improves ones perception of ones situation. A person who has a higher perception of self-worth will ultimately be happier than one who has more financial and material wealth but is insecure about his standing in society.

We can therefore say that there is a direct correlation with dignity in ones career and personal happiness. Dignified workers also create better products since they take pride in their work and have what we call “malasakit sa trabaho” or passion for one’s work. There is an inherent difference between a worker who simply goes to work to finish the day/quota as compared to a worker who goes to work with a drive to become better at their task and to give happiness to the client by creating a product with care and proper attention to detail.

We also have to consider why people work, yes I know it is a silly question because the most obvious reason is to survive. But simply surviving should not be enough. One has to thrive and grow as a person and enjoy some level of personal happiness. Happiness and dignity in ones work goes hand in hand in making better products and achieving a mutually beneficial arrangement for all concerned parties, from clients to the investors to the workers. But what if the dignity of the worker was sacrificed? This is an analysis as to what happened to our shoe industry and how years of undignified work contributed to the collapse of our once proud Marikina made heritage.

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Looking Back

The Marikina shoe industry from the golden years has enjoyed a relatively good balance between work and wages due to the protection afforded them by the Marcos Administration. That is why Marikina shoe makers gifted so many pairs to Imelda Marcos during their rule and how she amassed so many shoes. The labor system from the golden years were retained after the markets opened up in the 1990s. The traditional labor system here in Marikina is the piece rate system. This system divides up the tasks as according to the processes and pay the worker assigned to a specific task per piece. So there is no standard daily wage but there is an industry standard for how much each task is per piece. Back in the day, the piece rate system worked because there was a steady demand and workers, even if they worked long hours, got compensated with enough to be able to live decently and comfortably. It would not be an affluent lifestyle, but the basics comfort back then could be covered with some luxuries afforded if they worked hard enough. There was no peak or low season as almost all sources were local and Marikina enjoyed an all year round full production. But when the events mentioned in the previous articles (Looking Forward series) happened, the production queue started drying up and work became seasonal. The pay per piece also had not progressed enough to cover the needs of the workers. Eventually, other jobs requiring much less skill and training overtook the shoemakers’ take home pay thus making it less enticing for the younger generation to learn and develop the craft.

Because consumers were so focused on getting the cheapest deals and workshop owners with maximizing profits, the piece rate system became a system which was easily abused. The system ensured minimum risk for the workshop owner since if there is no order, the workshop wont have labor overhead. Then if there was a flood of orders, workers then are forced to work 14-16 hours per day just to meet the order requirements and maximize their take home pay. If they slacked off and worked for shorter hours, their production allotment would be given to other workers and since there are limited pieces only, everyone wants to get the most while there are still orders otherwise when the production lot finishes, they would not have anything to produce again and nothing to bring home to their families forcing them to go into debt (think Hacienda farmers) just to be able to meet daily needs.

How Much Do They Earn?

At present, the budget for labor for the locally made shoes that you see in the market (aside from the branded ones like Bristol hopefully) is usually around Php100.00 to Php150.00 per pair. That is at least 4 people splitting that among themselves. The cutter usually gets around Php10.00; the upper assembler (areglo) between Php20.00 to Php30.00; the sewer Php25.00 to Php30.00; lasting is around Php25.00 to Php35.00; soling is at Php20.00 to Php30.00; and finishing and quality control at around Php10.00 to Php20.00 per pair. Some tasks are usually combined for simpler pairs to lower labor costs so workshops can achieve the minimum cost. Although this is not an industry standard (some workshops give veteran shoemakers get higher rates), this is the prevalent system in place. Each worker can only finish around 32 pairs for cutters, areglo around 12 pairs, sewers around 16 pairs, lasting around 8 pairs, soling (with crafted soles) at 10 pairs, finishing around 24 to 36 pairs on a daily basis over an eight hour period. So each worker gets to take home roughly Php250.00 to Php350.00 per day when production is at maximum over an 8 hour period which is why most of them prefer to work for more than 8 hours when there are projects to maximize their earnings while there is still a project.

Effects of the Piece Rate System

There was a time when shoemaking was even considered as a lower profession than construction labor due to the low pay. This coupled with the quality of life that the profession awards its workers coupled with poor working conditions, has eroded the dignity of the craft significantly over the years. Morale was really low that old shoemakers strove to cling to whats left of the jobs offered to them while the younger people would rather work in department stores as promodisers and fast food attendants since the barrier to entry in significantly lower and the pay better. The nobility of the craft is lost and the general public lost respect for the art.

The loss of dignity for the craft also ensured that workers just wanted to finish as many pieces as possible and the first thing to suffer is quality. In a bid to meet orders at targeted deadlines, quality was sacrificed and this continued on for many years. This created bad habits which are now hard to take out of the system especially since most of the shoemakers are now middle aged are very stubborn. They do not take pride in their work anymore but instead defend their mediocre output vehemently saying that is all they can do with the current system. I am tempted to agree that with the amount of compensation, we cannot expect the best but only what is due.

The fact that we are still doing everything by hand means that the work is skilled labor. It takes time to hone and polish the skills required to finish a pair decently. More than 30 years after the market has opened up, our labor system has not changed which means that with each passing generation, we are losing craftsmen who can uplift the industry. While business leaders talk about losing profits and how the industry was swallowed by the mass import market, the backbone of the industry which is also the key to revive the industry is slowly dying out. The attempts now to train new shoemakers using current technology is not working because the Piece Rate System is still in place and workshops do not see enough demand to actually invest in the machinery required to create mass production facilities where you would not need craftsmen but more of machine operators. The modern trend and business of production for the mass market will erode what little dignity for the craft that is left by reducing it to a mechanized process.

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Bringing the Dignity Back

In order to bring the dignity back to the craft, we have to elevate it. This means letting go of the notion that we have to produce more. The elevation of the local industry from a mass production orientation to an artisan craft orientation will allow for actual daily wages which can be supported by year round sales due to a demand for semi-luxury goods driven by a huge aspirant market. Sleeper brands can be created giving rise to a developing craft industry whose focus is not the make more but create better shoes which can compete in the international market.

Let big business have the mass production. Let them train their machine operators and make their shoes by the thousands per day. There is certainly a huge market for that. But that is not our main concern, our concern at this point is that the dignity of our shoemakers have been eroded and the younger generation have lost interest in continuing the craft. The heritage will be lost to us unless this generation starts to work to revive it by creating a new system which is beneficial for all parties involved.

There is a direct correlation between dignity and compensation, so we have to work on that first. The generate more interest from the youth to learn and support the craft, we have to elevate compensation. That means working towards the minimum wage for experienced shoemakers. The Piece Rate System has to evolve (I will be discussing this in the next Perspective entry) in order to suit the modern needs and gear it towards giving back to the craftsmen who worked hard to create a pair of shoes. This is why I mentioned in the 3rd part of the Looking Forward series that we have to create the vision of a new Marikina where we will be an artisan city. As an artisan city creating craft goods, we can raise the standard of living of our shoemakers. Creating artisans is also better because like wine, the vocation gets better with age. Unlike quick endo (end of contract) jobs like food servers and promodisers, where by their mid 30’s workers will find it difficult to secure jobs, artisans and craftsmen can leverage their experience to become foremen or subcontractors which offers better vertical mobility than the shortsighted perspective of fast job creation lauded by economists and big business owners.

In bringing the pride and dignity back to artisan shoemaking, we can create a new golden era for the Marikina shoe industry thus preserving the heritage and responsibility passed on to us by our fathers and forefathers. In giving dignity back to the shoemakers, we honor they memory of those who worked hard in order to establish the industry. In seeking to evolve the current system, we ensure that we will continue to remain relevant in the international ecosystem by contributing new knowledge on how we reshaped our history to reclaim our heritage and restore dignity to our craftsmen. In uplifting the lives of our shoemakers, we can create a new middle class which can develop the industry to be geared towards export because contrary to what big businesses are doing at this time, we have to focus on developing our local manufacturing industries and focus on bringing revenue in from exporting actual finished goods instead on relying on the financial markets for majority of international capital inflows.

The actual problem goes deeper as abuses in the system gave rise to the degradation of worker dignity as a whole in favor of profits but we have to start somewhere to make sure that we become the change that we want to happen by creating and supporting new systems which are progressive and equitable.  This is a steeper path, a more difficult way, but one which we must undertake in order to ensure that essential traditions and heritage are kept for future generations to enjoy.

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Images courtesy of Jan Aliling. Thank you sir for letting me use the photos! 🙂 All photos are taken from the Black Wing workshop.

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