By Allan S. Freno
This feature story won 1st Place in the Regional Search for Best Feature Story Award of DOLE XII

Amid the early morning chaos in the public market, an old-looking and scrawny man is in a hurry fixing a broken tire of a push cart. He needs to get going. Every minute of the morning rush hours is precious. His income for the day largely depends on how many customers hire his services to haul their products from the gates of the public market to their stalls inside.

Devoting more than half of his life as manugkariton (one who pushes cart for a living) in and around the public market, the hard labor had taken its toll to the body of Crisanto Absalon. He is just 40 years old but his gaunt body betrays his age. The sole breadwinner in a family of seven, he cannot afford to be sick and tired lest they will have nothing to eat.

Residing in Barangay Upper Katungal, Crisanto has to endure seven kilometers of daily travel to reach the public market on board his decrepit bicycle. Before he could even start the daily grind of pushing cart, his muscles were already strained by the tiring travel.

Crisanto started as a sidewalk vendor in the old public market of Tacurong City. On ordinary days, he would be lucky to earn P150 a day. When the market was razed by fire in 1992 and temporarily transferred to the public plaza, Crisanto saw an opportunity for a ‘career change’. He, along with other vendors, shifted to pushing carts.

Income for a manugkariton was better compared to that of a sidewalk vendor. But since owning a cart had been almost impossible, Crisanto and the others were compelled to rent the carts they used. At the end of the day, it was the cart owners getting a chunk of their income.

In 1992, there were already more than 30 manugkaritons plying around the market. The increasing number concerned the pioneer members because they were also tightening the competition among them. That common problem paved way for the members to organize themselves into an informal group they called Tacurong Cart Labor Organization.

Although the organization gave them an identity acknowledged by the market management, policies on how to run their organization were totally absent. In 1994, Domingo Baron of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Sultan Kudarat Field Office met with the members and helped the group organize as an association. The group, changing its name to Tacurong Cart Services Association (TACASA), crafted its by-laws and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

When the newly-constructed public market was established in mid-1990s, TACASA imposed a policy urging their members to have their own carts. Some who could not really afford to assemble one decided to pool their money just to have a cart. It was a common sight then that two manugkaritons owned the same cart. At the very least, they were able to do away with renting.

Market Supervisor Elias Bustamante witnessed how TACASA evolved into a strong association through the years. “There are several organized groups within the public market and I expected TACASA to be one of those difficult to deal with but they proved me wrong” Bustamante said. “In fact, TACASA is currently the most diligent in paying their monthly dues and officers were even able to enforce suspension policies to erring members”.

However, owning a cart still persisted as the biggest problem of many members. And since they could not afford to own heavy-duty carts, they settled to build frail ones that could only last for two years the longest.

The Field Office of DOLE in Sultan Kudarat, taking notice of how strong as an organization TACASA was, prioritized the group as recipient of its DOLE Integrated Livelihood Program (DILP). Fourteen sturdy carts were awarded to the association in 2013. DOLE Field Officer Arlene Bisnon said that her personal experience as a regular market-goer in Tacurong made her aware of the significant presence of manugkaritons inside. “You can see them pushing carts around in the public market and it makes you wonder what could be the life of stall owners without them”, Bisnon said.

The livelihood project had been a huge help to the manugkaritons. For one thing, each was able to own a cart. In the case of Crisanto, he did not have to spend big amount of money to replace his dilapidated cart. Second, his income steadied because he is earning not less than P300 on average days and the income even shoots up to P700 during market days.

For the first time in his life, he felt secure and stable.

“There were times that we in the TACASA felt belittled because of our job” Crisanto said. “We allow people to just push us around.” Not anymore. Their mindset took a 90 degrees turn because of the attention given to them by institutions like the DOLE.

Prior to the help he got from DOLE, Crisanto was uncertain if he could send all his children to school. He even considered convincing his eldest son to stop schooling. He was thankful he did not. Right now, all his children of school age are attending school. “I think giving my children the education they need is the only legacy I could pass on to them”.

In September 2014, Crisanto was even able to buy a new motorcycle to replace his bicycle that has long been begging to retire.

Crisanto now sees brighter days for his family. Pushing cart may not be a the most honored profession but it is what keeps him and other manugkaritons going. It is their hope. It is their life. The manugkaritons are no longer pushovers in the public market. They are part of it. And the government, in its desire of attaining inclusive growth, is making sure that the likes of Crisanto are not left behind.