Selling spring rolls to Filipino students
23/07/2012 – by Alan C. Robles
Seven days a week, 36-year old Rey Flores walks the broad, tree-lined avenues of the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, east of Manila. To college students he sells fried sugar bread and crisp pork and vegetable spring rolls (lumpia) from of a flat metal tray he carries around. On a strap on his belt hangs a large bottle of spicy vinegar.
The slight and thin Flores has been working the route for seven years now, netting up to 380 pesos (equivalent to € 7.10) a day. He is single, and says he has a girlfriend. He manages to save enough to send money back to the provinces, supporting two young relatives in college.
He ended up being an itinerant vendor in UP almost by accident. After finishing high school, he moved from his strife-torn home province, Zamboanga del Norte in the southern Philippines, to Manila to try his luck. “I met someone who was selling like this and he urged me to join,” he recalls. “I was originally thinking of getting a regular job, but then I thought this would be better.”
He hasn't regretted his decision. He figures his current income is about thrice what he would make in a regular job. He buys the food from a licensed distributor located outside the campus, near his home. He lives in an informal settlement and pays a monthly rent of 600 pesos.
All in all, Flores says, his livelihood is better than working in an office or a factory: “I can take a rest when I want to”. When sales are slow he sits down in one of the numerous benches under the trees.
What does it feel like to be working in the country's foremost university, whose graduates are part of the educated elite? Flores says the students are kind enough. Itinerant vendors have been part of the university's culture for decades. In fact, Flores says, “the student council helps me to get a permit to sell.”
Though they are a long tradition on UP's campus, itinerant food vendors occupy a grey area in terms of regulations. While they are given permits and their suppliers are given certifications by the school administration, the quality and safety of their food aren't checked. Their activities also eat into the profits of restaurants and cafes that pay much higher licence fees. Years ago one administration tried to ban the vendors, but it successors allowed them to come back. Flores says that there are currently at least 11 vendors, selling lumpia, turon (fried sugared bananas in a crispy wrap), ice cream and native soy drinks.
Flores' dream? He wants to earn enough to set up his own shop so he doesn't have to be itinerant. The key, he believes, lies in education. He'd like to learn professional baking. The country's public education system once gave compulsory vocational training to secondary students, but that was discontinued. The government is now working on a reform that will give high school kids choices of academic and vocational specialisation when they reach grade 10. The reform makes sense, but it is unlikely to help Flores.