Stitching Up the Economic Wound of COVID-19: The Women Sewers of Kamuning Public Market

Blog post by Ana P. Santos
More from Ana P. Santos

(Photo by Ana P. Santos)
(Photo by Ana P. Santos)

The tailors and seamstresses at the Kamuning Public Market in Quezon City are legendary for custom tailoring and couture at off-the-rack prices. They can stitch anything from office and school uniforms to wedding gowns.

The Kamuning Public Market was closed last March when an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was declared to slow the spread of COVID-19. Only food vendors were allowed to sell. 

Seamstresses like 61-year-old Lina Arroyo had to stay at home–a mandate she found hard to follow. “I wasn’t used to doing nothing. I grew fidgety at home sleeping and eating. I needed to work.”

Lina worried about her lost income. This time of year, Lina and her small army of 8 sewers would be cutting, pinning and sewing sometimes up to 12 midnight just to finish gowns waiting to be worn by aspiring prom queens. The end of prom season would be the start of summer wedding season and then school opening. Income was pretty steady all year and Lina could make a clean profit of P10,000 ($250) per week.

When orders for PPEs came in, the sewers were allowed to re-open. From making gowns of silk and lace, Lina started sewing bunny suits and PPE gowns in waterproof microfibre. There isn’t much room for a profit margin because most of the orders are for donations. “But it’s better than zero (earnings). Besides, times like this, it doesn’t feel right to make a big profit from this.”

Lina’s daughter, Syde, started helping out with the sewing to cut down on costs and keep any income they could make within the family.

Syde, 36, was a site engineer for a construction company when the lockdown closed down their operations. She worked from home for the first two weeks finishing up paperwork, but with no new projects coming in, the company began cutting back on employee hours. “I still got a salary one month after the lockdown, but when it was extended, we only got a food allowance.”

Syde’s husband passed away in February and her monthly income of P24,000 ($480) was barely enough for her and her two children, aged 5 and 7.

Her employment status covered her for Social Security and Syde received P8,000 ($150) from the government’s social assistance program. She shared it with her mother and her other siblings who did not qualify for government assistance.

Syde sews facemasks and sells them on Facebook and group chats at P25 ($0.50) so buyers can re-sell them and make a bit of money. Putting all their efforts together, the women can stitch together about  P700 to P1,000 a day ($15 to $20).

“For now, we’re getting by. I don’t know how long we can survive like this. Until when will people order facemasks and PPEs?” said Syde. “If one of us gets sick, I don’t know what we’ll do.” 

A few stalls away, Adelyn Aringoy is sewing a hood for a bunny suit. Like most of the other sewers in Kamuning, Adelyn has shifted to sewing PPEs. “We don’t make much from this–just enough to have something to eat every day.”

Perched on a bench behind her, Adelyn’s two sons, ages 5 and 10 years old, are huddled over a cellphone. She’s not sure what they watch but since the boys have been out of school since March, Adelyn counts on the phone as an assistant babysitter.

The Education Department announced that the new school year will start in August but Adelyn isn’t sure how she feels about that. “They might be exposed to the virus. I heard that they will put classes online. Maybe that’s better.”

Adelyn gets flustered when she thinks about what having class online will entail. They will need a steady internet connection and not depend on the sometimes spotty wifi from one of the other stalls. The boys will also need a computer. The boys can’t share the screen of a mobile phone for their lessons. “I’ll think about that when it’s closer to August. I hope by then all of this will be over.”