The color of this protest is white. Stretching from Luneta, a park in Manila, to Mendiola, where the presidential palace sits, tens of thousands of Filipinos dressed in white gathered and marched on August 26 to decry the billions of pesos in pork-barrel funds that are allegedly swallowed up by government corruption every year.
From students to lawyers to celebrities, up to 100,000 Filipinos showed up in Luneta, all seeking reform after a businesswoman named Janet Lim-Napoles allegedly secured P10 billion in pork for her dubious nongovernmental organizations. The call for the “One Million March” was made over social media networks, and netizens flocked to the cause.
July Estero, 27, was also wearing white that day, and eagerly awaiting the crowd. At 11 a.m. he was at Mendiola, ready for their arrival. But he wasn’t there to join the rally. A pedicab driver, he said protests in Mendiola and other parts of Manila help double his income as thousands of people converge in one spot.
Estero and around 20 other pedicab drivers prowl the areas where protesters assemble before heading to Mendiola. “On regular days, we earn P200 ($4.48 USD) a day, but when there are rallies in front of Malacanang, this doubles to P400 ($8.96),” he said. A native of the northern province of Pangasinan where he used to work as a fisherman, Estero has been propelling people around Metro Manila in his pedicab for four years. He has witnessed a number of rallies already, some of which turned violent, especially during the Arroyo administration, which was dogged by frequent protests throughout the first decade of the 21st century. Estero said one of the more violent protests he encountered was led by students who were protesting budget cuts to state universities. “They tried to climb over the gate,” he said, referring to the locked gates of Mendiola that surround Malacanang Palace.
The bloodiest rally Estero has seen in Manila, however, was one he participated in himself. In 2010, he and the other pedicab drivers staged a protest against the local government of Manila after it banned the kuliglig (motorized pedicab). These vehicles are not registered with the government, but they bring employment to some 2,000 pedicab drivers throughout the capital. “Imagine you’re old – some here are almost 70 years old – then they will tell you can’t use your pedicab anymore to earn money,” Estero said in disbelief.
The pedicab drivers got support from some partylist groups, which sent some of their members to the rally. Estero claimed the police used tear gas on them. Rocks were thrown, and there were many injuries.
When asked if anything changed after the protest, Estero said no, with a bitter smile. They were left with no choice but to use motorcycles. A pedicab driver who still uses a kuliglig (which means “cricket” in English) passed by us as we spoke. I asked Estero what would happen if that driver gets caught. “They will impound his vehicle and he has to pay a fine of P500 ($11), if I’m not mistaken,” he said.
Across from the line of pedicab drivers is a small store and eatery owned by Rizalina Rivera. Rivera sells siomai (dumplings), lunch and snacks. Like Estero, Rivera said she earns more when there are protests.
Her eatery, which is located in front of a bookstore, caters mostly to students from the universities in Mendiola. She earns an average of P2,000-P3,000 ($44-$67) a day. When there are rallies, however, her take goes up to P5,000-P6,000 ($112-$134).
There was one particular day this year when her income shot up: May 1, Labor Day, when an estimated 10,000 workers marched to Malacanang in the scorching heat, thirsty for soda and bottled water. “May 1 was a big day for me,” she said. “I earned P8,000 ($179).”
Rivera never earned that much in her old job as a civilian intelligence officer. With her cropped hair, apron and easy smile, it is hard to imagine her chasing after shoplifters in department stores, which she used to do on a daily basis. In that job, she earned P425 ($9) a day.
She decided to resign in 2012 and set up her own store. The start-up costs were P25,000 ($560). In a year’s time, she had earned back that capital and then some. At 34, she said she does not mind lacking health or housing benefits as she does not have a family yet.
On August 26, Rivera’s customers included a group of policemen that were deployed to maintain peace and security in Mendiola during the protest. They flocked to her small eatery and ordered lunch, which sells for cheap as P40, or less than a dollar. Should a rally ever turn ugly, Rivera chuckled, “I’ll just run. If a brawl happened or if they started to throw things at each other, I’ll leave my store. Have to save myself first before anything.”
And though they may not be directly participating, both Rivera and Estero said they believe in the cause that the people are protesting for.
“I hope the lawmakers stop having the right to receive millions in money,” Rivera said.
Estero was even more furious. “We are the bosses of those people,” he said, turning to a fellow pedicab driver. “When we buy gas, don’t you think we’re paying taxes? We are!”
Almost two hours into the protest, the police were summoned to station themselves in front of Mendiola’s locked gates. Estero and the other pedicab drivers started to leave Mendiola. The protesters were coming. For Estero and Rivera, this meant more customers — and also more questions for a government that has yet to fully respond to the demands of a protest colored white.
Photos by Purple Romero