Tuition and ‘contractual’ parents

Ephraim Bongcaras
The hard economics of a family's struggle to make a living and secure their future

THE CASTROS. A family picture without the eldest son who was at school taking quarter exams. All photos  by Ephraim Bongcaras

MANILA, Philippines – The house is pygmean, barely sufficient for the family of 7.

More like an enclosure, actually, hidden between two contemporary homes

Thin panels of yero (galvanized iron sheets) welcome the good fortune of the day. The rickety sheets line up beside a wooden door that looks like it had been taken from an old-fashioned condominium unit.

Must be spares, we thought.

Inside, more yeros planted on cramped floors. Unlike the sprightly repainted ones outside, these corrugated membranes stood decrepit, baking in the feverish midday and shivering in the assaults of breeze on rainy nights.

Across them, bare, stacked-up blocks of cement crumbling for the same reasons: they have outlived their days.

The roof, which keeps the house from the weather, is brittle, uneven, and within close distance to the floor that the top level of their bunk bed appears to be inches away from it.

So as soon as we enter their bedroom (which was also their living room), Apple, 17, immediately stands up a small electric fan close to me, despite the wall fan already turned on.

Two fans? We commiserated. Are they enough for the family?

“Enough” seems condescending to their condition. It is just about surviving the day and not about having enough.

Albert, 43, a handyman, and Maricris Castro, 39, a laundress, are parents to 5 kids.

Except for the eldest who earns for her education at a massage parlor, the children are full-time students, mostly grade-schoolers.

The frail roof conceals the sunshine peeking out of exhausted rainclouds. It’s August.

And not only do showery winds visit Manila, installments and other periodic school fees pursue most families with enrolled students.

So, in months like this, Albert and Maricris, whose wavering incomes are used up by their daily expenses, are like cats on a hot tin roof.

Work, food for the day

Many times, the employment of Albert and Maricris depends on peer recommendations. But for a better chance at hiring, they peddle their services.

Albert posts and hands out flyers to nearby neighborhoods. He also inquires if they have clothes her wife can hand-wash.

FINDING WORK. Albert offers his services amid the challenges of the weather, health, bills, and uncertainty

Albert is a handyman who is able to perform more than the minor fixes.

Primarily working on carpentry and painting, he understands electric house repairs, plumbing, construction, and pest control.

Maricris, too, has an inclusive job description. While she regularly accepts laundry, she is also hired to do housework such as pressing clothes, cooking, and cleaning.

On top of those: their domestic duties. Like other parents, they carry the burdens of housekeeping.

They have their clothes to wash and press, supplies to buy and organize, cooking, dishes to clean, rooms to sweep and wipe, and kids to bring to school.

Taking different types of jobs does not guarantee a regular compensation. Both of them are arawan. That is, they are paid at the end of a workday, instead of pakyaw, in which one settles for a fixed payment and number of working days with a contractor.

For Albert, arawan is not about taking home a bigger sum than pakyaw. It’s about urgency. They survive by the day – literally speaking – that they can’t take jobs that may delay the money reaching home at night.

So, work opportunities far from Manila, especially if they require long periods of “stayovers,” might be out of the question.

That’s the bitter irony. Although they need to accept any contractual employment to cover their expenses, they can’t.

“Kailangan madala kaagad ang panggastos sa bahay,” Albert said. “Para may pambili kami ng pagkain kinabukasan.”

(We need to bring home the money for expenses right away so we can have food tomorrow.)

Budget and school

Aside from nutrition, in which the family spends about P330 (US$ 7.56) just for a day, schooling takes out a hefty amount of their budget.

Twins A and AA, 11, together with Ara, 14, go to a public elementary school. They don’t have to pay tuition fees.

On the other hand, Al, 16, is enrolled in a semi-private high school, where he is required to pay P400 (US$ 9.16).

An average sum of P130 (US$ 2.98) is apportioned every school day for pocket money to the 4 kids.

The student allowance is for class projects, snacks, transportation (for Al), and other studying aids (such as computer rental for homeworks).

The kids are also asked to pay for workbooks that they use for examinations. About P900 (US$ 20.6) is spent in a school year for their son’s senior-high workbooks alone.

School clubs and other extracurricular activities are part of the finances as well. About P40 (US$ 0.92) is paid per student’s organizational membership. Some intra-group activities require extra fees.

Other school allotments go to uniforms, IDs, and notebooks, pens, and other school supplies.

The parents try their best to pay on time. “Baka kasi mapag-initan,” Maricris said, fearing the children might be picked on in school.

So the parents try to divide their income well.

Depending on the amount of work, each of them earns P300 (US$ 6.8) up to P500 (US$ 11.45) per day of service.

For Albert, a workday begins at around 8:00 a.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m. For Maricris, it usually takes 3 hours to wash clothes.

The food and school funds are just two slices of the budget pie.

5 days’ worth of medical maintenance for Albert’s cardiac condition costs about P110 (US$ 2.5).

Monthly, they pay about P200 (US$ 4.58) for clean water and about P700 (US$ 16) for electricity.

When they can’t get work, they use yesterday’s change to buy low-cost bread and instant noodles to get through the day.

Maricris admits asking her children for their saved-up coins to tide the family over.

They have experienced 3 days up to a week without employment.

TO COLLEGE. Al aims to study Marine engineering, a 5-year course that costs P23,000 (US$ 526.79) a semester

Frequency of work

Looking for a contractor is the first step to employment. Next is to agree to a workload, price, location, and duration.

Because of the type of service Maricris provides, she is more likely to be employed than Albert. Neighbors hire house repair with practicality, they noticed.

Even with this being the case, there are still other considerations for her job.

Oftentimes school and office uniforms as well as underwear make the bulk of her work.

So when students are on school vacation, her workload decreases, which means less pay and frequency.

The weather is also a factor. Some of her contractors live in flood-prone areas.

And then the heat, which affects the laundry cycle.

Since they work on a day-to-day basis, family emergencies concerning their employers are another circumstance that can’t be overlooked.

Contractors may change plans the night before the agreed schedule. Some families have one of their members look after the workers. The couple’s occupations rely on the discretion of the owners.

How about Maricris’ other jobs?

Most of the time, she is hired to cook only during special occasions.

She rarely gets housecleaning jobs, which neighbors would rather do themselves.

Albert, whose projects may last for days, has other considerations. He deducts his daily transportation from his salary. And if he stays in his workplace, he has to spend money for food.

He also gets group contracts, which means splitting their earnings.

Besides the difficulties in finding employment, the actual work is taxing for Albert and Maricris.

Sometimes he works in sweltering environments, which could aggravate his heart condition.

And Maricris copes with backaches, swollen knuckles, and dried, puffy hands from hours of laundry work every day.

She readily acknowledges that these are the only skills they know, which they try to do well despite the difficulties.

What drives Maricris to persevere?

“Para makatapos ang mga anak ko.” (So my children can finish school.)

Maricris attributes their hardships to their limited education.

Albert remains hopeful about retirement, complemented by his kids finding employment after school.

By then, he still wishes to keep himself occupied.

He will still work, he said, but this time for his satisfaction, and to earn money for himself. –