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Death of the Palengke
Public markets, once the heart of every town, are dying because of neglect and the entry of more aggressive mall entrepreneurs.

by Alecks P. Pabico

THE HOURS they spent there for many years were mostly drenched in sweat, but Rosario and Manuel Mata can only speak fondly of the Caloocan Poblacion Market. Through the money they earned selling general merchandise from two rented stalls at the city public market, the Matas were able to feed, clothe, and send their four children to school, right up to college. All four now work as professionals the tangible dividends of their proud parents' toil.

Rosario and Manuel, however, say it is ironic that they are now deep in debt, just when they no longer have to worry about their children. Since last year, the Matas and some 400 other stall holders and street vendors have seen their earnings reduced to a pittance.

All of them had been "relocated" to a nearby plaza while the old palengke was transformed into a commercial center. Rosario says because of that transfer, they lost their long-time suki (clients) either to private markets with ample provisions for parking or to the talipapa set up by ambulant vendors along the nearby railway.

Until recently, the Matas and other vendors believed they would get back their old stalls once work at the palengke was finished. But while that was what the city government promised before they were transferred, Mayor Reynaldo Malonzo has since decided to allow the entry of private companies in the operation and management of public services and facilities. These include the public market, and the mayor has acknowledged that his decision is likely to result in rental rates beyond the reach of palengke vendors.

He has thus asked the sangguniang panlungsod (city council) to enact an ordinance declaring the plaza as the permanent site of the public market, but the vendors are insisting they were guaranteed their former stalls at the old palengke. With the likes of big-time real-estate developers and mall operators like Sta. Lucia and Robinsons being the possible investors in the new commercial center, however, the vendors are not confident they will get what they want.

Their plight is not unique. In this era of globalization, both national and local governments are succumbing to economic, social, and other pressures to privatize public services and facilities. Public markets have topped the list of public facilities undergoing privatization, and record numbers of vendors across the country are losing their stalls and their means of livelihood.

Rudy Dalangin, president of the National Federation of Market Vendors Cooperatives (Namvesco), counts thousands of their members, erstwhile stall owners in public markets in Metro Manila and nearby provinces, who have been relegated to street vending after they were displaced by the conversion of palengkes to commercial centers.

The Caloocan palengke vendors, however, are trying desperately to escape that fate. They have been told that the new stall rates would be P100 per square meter a month, but the vendors are standing pat on their demand for a monthly rate of P20 per square meter. In truth, this amount had been agreed upon in an earlier memorandum between them and the city administration (but which Mayor Malonzo refused to sign). Efren Salazar, president of the vendors' association, says they are amenable to this amount, even though it translates to a fortune to most of their members. Besides, he says, the P100 per square meter is already equivalent to that collected by medium-sized private markets like the Suki Department Store.

"If you have a 2 x 3 square meter stall, at P20 per square meter, that's P120 a day o P3,600 a month," says Salazar. "Before I was paying just P600 a month. That means an increase of 600 percent. If you base it on a P100-rate, you will be paying P18,000 a month. That's an even bigger increase."

But the issue over rental rates has become academic as far as the city government is concerned. After all, it has already declared the relocation site as the permanent venue of the Poblacion Market as per the request, says city administrator Mamerto Manahan, of the vendors' leaders themselves. But the vendors say there was no such request, and that officials are merely bent on sowing dissension among their ranks. They also say it is likely that the Malonzo administration has been pursuing the market's privatization all along, and that they were merely tricked into believing their transfer to the plaza would only be temporary.

Interestingly, the principal author of the ordinance authorizing the city government to finance its priority projects among them the public market is among those siding with the vendors. Rep. Edgar Erice, who had authored the ordinance when he was still city councilor, says that based on the project's original terms of reference, the vendors should be able to return to their stalls in the new market.

"There should be no problem with having the public market there, then using the front part for something else, so that its potential as a highly commercial area can be maximized," says Erice. "The old tenants are provided for in the contract."

THAT THERE are still public markets able to survive the onslaught of supermarkets and malls can be traced largely to the enduring popularity of the wet-market section, which continues to draw people who cannot afford to buy from air-conditioned foodstores. Thus, the usual proposed setup in converting the palengke to a commercial center involves a token concession of a wet market that is less strategically located, either at the back or basement/ground level of the establishment.

The upper floors or the main building, however, are devoted entirely to enterprises by private retailers or franchisees. Among the more profitable ventures have been Jollibee and other fastfood restaurants as well as cinemas.

That, Dalangin rues, is the more lamentable, though hidden, impact of privatization: the loss of the culture of the palengke. He says, "We are against turning the public market into something like a mall because the market is the meeting place of Filipinos just like the park or the church. They see each other every day, especially in a community where the members are already familiar with each other."

Indeed, as part of the "public commons," the public market is responsible not only for supporting inexpensive retailing opportunities for small entrepreneurs but also for "creat(ing) dynamic places and instill(ing) community spirit and cultural exchange," says a 1996 study of markets worldwide done by Spitzer and Baum. A visitor wanting to know the character of a place in fact can just go to the public market, which showcases and celebrates what is unique and best about the local community

Since they function on a human scale, public markets also provide a more spontaneous atmosphere than other retail environments. Says Dalangin, "Nandiyan Yung tawaran, tumpok-tumpok. Yung suki system na wala sa isang airconditioned supermarket o mall (You have the bargaining, the mounds of produce, the frequent-client system, all of which are absent in an air-conditioned supermarket or mall)."

Advocates of the public commons therefore see privatization as plunder in the name of "economic growth." This leads Dalangin to ask: "Does that mean that having a mall is now the new symbol of progress?"

But even if the public market is not taken over by a commercial developer, the mere presence of a supermarket or mall nearby is bound to hasten its demise. Dalangin cites the experience of Central Market in Manila after an Isetann department store and the Tutuban Mall were built just a few steps away Today 40 percent of the market's stalls are empty

A similar thing happened to the public market in Calamba, Laguna after the likes of big retailers Walter Mart and Liana's Supermart were allowed to operate in the vicinity Dalangin estimates that about 50 to 60 percent of public-market sales, particularly from the dry-goods section, have been gobbled up by supermarkets and malls.

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