Plastic – probably one of the most utilized and abused technological breakthroughs in the history of mankind. This world has practically become plastic-driven because of its versatility in terms of usage, durability and form. With its invention, people have used this material miracle extensively, manipulating it in such a way that it would behave accordingly to the demographics’ demands. That’s why we have different kinds of plastic that carry distinct characteristics from each other, each formed for their own respective purposes in our society.
Though the only factories we had access to were solely focused on manufacturing plastic bags and the plastic involved in repackaging sugar, it was still an eye-opener for us in finally knowing the intricate processes that transpire in order for these things to become as they are. A kilogram of sugar encased in its plastic container and the plastic bags that we use in order to bring home goods from the supermarket is nothing out of the ordinary in this urbanized world. We see these things everyday but what we don’t usually see is the heavy machinery and the intensive labor that come into play behind the scenes.
This was how we spent our day.
From the premises of the Ateneo de Manila University, we travelled all the way to a city north of Manila, Valenzuela City. Valenzuela is known for being the country’s top port for trade and industry and rightly so, because instead of malls, factories and warehouses were plentiful on the area. There, we visited two factories in which one is a sugar repacking factory and the other a plastic factory (as aforementioned). The two factories were beside each other because the owners were blood relatives.
Upon entering the sugar repacking factory, the smell of sugar immediately rushed through our nostrils and we could hear the sound of sugar being crushed under our shoes. It was just a small area and with one look you can see the whole process. We then observed each step of the procedure up close. It starts with a male laborer opening a sack of sugar. Then he pours it all in a conical structure on top of a machine that shoots out equal amounts of sugar into its respective plastic bag. The machine then cuts the plastic off from the string of plastic that was attached to it, seals it and transfers it to an open table. The female workers would stack the repackaged sugar on the open table in groups of seven then they would hand them over to male workers. They, in turn, would put them in sacks and these sacks would be delivered to their clients (which in this case was Puregold). After eyeing the process from a short distance, we decided to get involved. We got our hands dirty and “helped” with the stacking. People were staring at us but we think that was because they were astounded by how pro we were in stacking sugar despite doing it for the first time. We took pictures of them while working and they ended up becoming conscious of what they’re doing. This was evident by a change of pace with getting their jobs done. In other words, we broke their concentration and instead of doing their monotonous routine flawlessly and effortlessly, we slowed them down a bit. Aside from that, they also took a break from their jobs to glance at these three innocent-looking women that had just visited them.
Then, we proceeded to the factory where plastic bags of various types (with and without handle) and of various colors were made. Unfortunately for us, the air that greeted our noses was not pleasant at all and we couldn’t hide our disgust, hence our faces flinched, causing a quizzical look on our tour guide’s face whose expression was unaffected by the stench. After that, she walked with us through the whole procedure. The operation begins with colored pellets that are put into a machine where in they are melted to form plastic that is flat and wide. There was a line of machines that melted those colored pellets, each machine melting one type of color. It is then rolled until it reaches a specific diameter in which it can be transported to another part of the factory wherein it will be shortened into a specific size, cut (to transform them into sando plastic) and packed manually.
When we proceeded to the area mentioned above, there were a lot of topless men and we heard one of them saying: “May tao! Magsuot ka nga ng damit!” A lot of them grabbed their shirts and scrambled to put them on. It was as if we’ve never seen a topless guy before and they would, in a way, devirginize our eyes or as if we came to ogle at their bare chests. Anyways, in order to make the sando plastics, the plastic roll is unrolled and is passed through a machine that folds it in half then seals it (this serves as the indicator of length for each plastic) and trims it near the sealed area. After this, a man then uses a cutting machine to cut the upper part of the plastic, forming the sando shape. The upper part that was disregarded is then recycled into a machine where in it will be grinded to convert it back to pellet form again. The sando bags are then packed into a transparent plastic that will be sold for wholesale. Of course, just like what we did in the repackaging factory, we decided to help them. And as we did it, we elicited a similar reaction from the workers nearby; amusement was seen on their faces as we swiftly got those sando plastic bags into their respective containers.
After the trip to Valenzuela, our bottoms were exhausted from the long car ride but our minds were brimming with newfound knowledge about the world we move about. Imagine, these super lightweight objects that can simply be destroyed by human hands are also the same apparatuses that we heavily and confidently rely on to carry and encapsulate heavy objects that cannot be handled by the same hands that can easily rip it apart. And to finally see with our very own eyes and somewhat immerse ourselves in the process on how these objects were made was definitely something we did not want to miss out on. It was simply a marvel to observe on how these tiny pellets were transformed into substances that have long taken over the world.
Insights from Excursion
Doing these things may be easy to imagine, but once you’ve tried to actually do it yourself, it’s hard since you would be doing something out of your comfort zone. Sure, observing these things may seem boring and tiresome, but doing it will redefine tiresome for you. We only did it for around twenty minutes or so, but imagine all these workers who do these jobs Monday to Saturday, in order to earn the “privilege” of eating. Before doing this field work, we already know that situations in factories all over the world are not easy – workers do the same jobs as a part of the process over and over again to improve efficiency for the company and to depreciate their wages. But we did not exactly internalize how awful it is to do the same thing over and over again until we have done it ourselves.
Being a part of the growing capitalism in the Philippines helped us realize that workers have no choice but to enslave themselves to the urge for efficiency of these companies for them to have enough for their everyday use. As students, we always have the dream of sitting in an office on the top floor of a skyscraper in Makati, giving orders to your employees, but we never realized that we were aspiring to be the same tyrants that would put more people living under poverty in this position. We really can’t point it out specifically but we realize something has to be done in order for these people to be freed from the ploy businessmen have acted upon (monotonous work = minimum wage) that have dehumanized them into machines.
The Role of the Informant
During the activity, the key informant was a huge help for all of us. Without her, we would have looked like lost children, wandering the factory aimlessly with no knowledge whatsoever of where to begin. With her, we were able to understand the processes fully – not even leaving a tiny space for guessing. She was our key in entering the atmosphere we wished to penetrate.
The Advantage of Participant Observation Over Interviews/Questionnaires
Participant observation lets you experience the activity first hand, thus, it enables you to be immersed in the environment you are studying, making the situation your reality, rather than just to hypothesize from a distance. For example, there is a difference between reading about how people felt during a war and actually being in a war. You may read about it that times are hard and so on but you would never truly realize the gut-wrenching despair one genuinely experiences during a war unless you are immersed in an environment that is at war. Same goes for here, we can ask all the questions we want about how they feel at their job but the insights we would have gotten at the end of the day wouldn’t seem as genuine to us as when we would set aside our pens and papers for awhile and work alongside them. Participant observation then gives us an idea on why they would feel this way and that is something interview/ questionnaires cannot answer because the information those can give us is on only what they feel.
The Limitations of Participant Observation
Though we were there in the flesh, stacking up sugar and feeling the weight of the people’s stares as we crossed the whole factory to observe, it was still hard for us to procure an accurate and generalized conclusion about the social component (what the laborers felt while working, how interactions are different between an employee and another employee and between an employee and one’s employer, etc.) in the working environment because participant observation did not allow us to interact with the majority of the people working there. All of them were busy doing their jobs that most of our information was gleaned from an office employee who (graciously) imparted knowledge to us on how things are done rather than on how things are in the factory. Participant observation may have allowed us to be actually part of the working environment but our insights would not be a hundred percent authentic (meaning what we feel is not necessarily what the workers feel) because how we perceive our jobs is already influenced by our upbringing, comfortable lifestyle, etc.
The biggest merit of having to actually hand out questionnaires for them to answer is that one would be able to get direct answers from them to the questions one wants to know about. Placing the questionnaires side by side and by observing the pattern that emerges, one can generate a sensible conclusion about the social question one wants answered. This is the same with setting up interviews with the people there. Being there, just talking to them and casually incorporating the questions in one’s conversations with the employees, would allow them to speak freely on what they truly think and feel about the matters asked.
Jennifer Ang, Beatriz Lao, Maedeliene Uy