Skills development

A new wave of traditional mat-making sweeps through a Philippine town

The ILO-UK Skills for Prosperity Programme has helped locals produce and sell premium, high-quality hand-woven products and thus earn a decent wage.

Comment | 22 August 2023
This bag is part of premium, high-quality hand-woven products produced by BANIG Inc. © Bernard Testa/ILO
When he was growing up, Rey Gacutan didn't pay much attention to tikog, a plant native to Basey town in Samar province in the Philippines where he lived.

But his grandmother Josefa bought batches of them, dried them off on the pavement, and then wove them together to make mats (banig), a tradition that continues to live on in Basey, considered as the Philippines' banig capital.

Despite her efforts, Gacutan felt that his grandmother’s work – and the traditional mats she made – were not valued properly.

To make a single mat, Lola Ipak – as Gacutan fondly called her – sat on the floor, one leg folded vertically at the knee and the other stretched out horizontally to keep the strips of leaves in place. To weave them together, she had to constantly lean forward to ensure that the stitches didn't come apart.

Lola Ipak spent three days in that same awkward, backbreaking position to produce each mat; four, if the mat featured an embroidery of the San Juanico Bridge, the iconic structure that connects the provinces of Samar and Leyte.

Once finished with a batch of six or more mats, Lola Ipak brought the young Gacutan to help her carry her handcrafted goods to Tacloban, the capital of Leyte that is an hour away from Basey.

They had a better chance to sell them quickly and at higher prices in the city, Gacutan explained.

Rey Gacutan now earns a decent wage weaving traditional mats. © Bernard Testa/ILO
"In Basey, we would be lowballed," he recounted, citing the stiff competition from fellow mat makers in town.

However, in Tacloban as in Basey, mat-making remained a buyer's market.

In the early 2000s, a regular, family-sized banig that took three days to produce sold for 200 Philippine pesos (US$3.6) apiece. The same mat with an embroidered design that took an additional day to produce sold for 300 pesos (US$5.4).

These prices weren't fair, Gacutan said.

In the year 2000, the minimum wage in Eastern Visayas – to which Samar and Leyte belong – was 163 pesos (US$3) a day, according to data from the website of the Philippines' Department of Labor and Employment. Making mats didn't provide a decent wage.

This explained why people – especially the younger generation – weren't excited about learning the trade of mat-making and the craftsmanship it involved.

"Making mats was considered menial work," Gacutan said. "It wasn't something that provided a decent livelihood."

A whole new world for traditional mat-making

However, in late 2022, as the whole world recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gacutan, now pushing 30, was prompted to look at tikog — and mat-making — in a new light.

Gacutan's aunt – an artisanal mat maker just like his grandmother – told him about BANIG Inc (Basey Association for Native Industry Growth), a women-led umbrella group of women weavers and artisans involved in making traditional mats.

The group would need a regular supply of tikog, Gacutan said his aunt told him.

This was because the thousand-strong BANIG Inc and its dozen or so affiliate groups had since October 2022 partnered with the Skills for Prosperity Programme in the Philippines (SfP-Philippines), which is implemented by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and funded by the United Kingdom government. The partnership aimed to demonstrate inclusive lifelong learning practices at the community level, with BANIG Inc aiming to upgrade the skills of its members as well as youth in their communities.

As a result of that partnership, the organization was able to level up, producing and selling premium, high-quality hand-woven mats, bags, and decorative products both in the Philippines and abroad.

A member of BANIG Inc in Basey, Samar shows off one of several new products that the group was able to produce. © Bernard Testa/ILO
Support from SfP-Philippines helped BANIG Inc to standardize the production and processing of its products through the development of sector-specific competency standards and further improve its operations.

This meant the women weavers were able to set uniform sizes for tikog leaves, the amount of colouring to be used, the number of hours needed to boil the leaves for the dye to seep in, and the length of time needed to dry them off. These specifications are now reflected in competency standards submitted to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) for registration, and they will eventually form part of the country’s technical and vocational education and training (TVET) delivery system.

Similarly, BANIG Inc has worked with the Department of Education in Region 8 to develop a competency-based curriculum on tikog mat weaving which will subsequently be integrated in the Technical, Vocational and Livelihood (TVL) Track in senior high schools that leads to Tikog Mat Weaving (TMW) National Certificate Level I/II (NC I/II).

Since product standards and best practices were put in place, BANIG Inc has been able to charge higher prices for its items since quality and design are no longer patchy nor uneven. A handbag produced by BANIG Inc currently fetches 2,500 pesos (US$45) or more, depending on the size, embroidery and design. Using the old, non-standard practices, the same bag used to sell for just 500 pesos (US$9) or less.

A woman hangs tikog leaves to dry. © Bernard Testa/ILO
As a result, the higher prices brought about by product standards have allowed BANIG Inc to pay its workers decent wages. A mat weaver now earns 300 pesos (US$5.4) daily, a far cry from the previous 200 pesos (US$3.6) they got for three days’ work.

Convinced and inspired

It didn't take much for Gacutan to be convinced — and inspired.

During the tight lockdowns, Gacutan created a 43-member youth group, the Basey Young Advocate Farmers Association (BYAFA), that allowed its members to formally receive pandemic assistance from the government.

But the group’s livestock farming was only a partial success.

In late 2022, thanks to his aunt's suggestion, the group decided to use a third of their land to plant tikog.

In May 2023, the group was finally able to sell their first tikog harvest. The batch was big enough to fill up half the cargo capacity of a regular pick-up truck, Gacutan said.

"Around this time, we learned that we had a fixed market for tikog," Gacutan said. "Moreover, planting tikog didn't harm the environment because we didn't use any fertilizers."

By then, BYAFA had become an affiliate group of BANIG Inc and four of its members – including Gacutan – had become trainees, weaving tikog leaves and earning 300 pesos per day.

"I grew up knowing that plants like tikog existed," Gacutan said. "But I never expected that growing it ourselves would provide such a big opportunity."