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Mat weavers revive tradition, enhance skills for decent work

Weavers use the mat-making tradition to upgrade their skills, become government-certified trainers and chart a better future through decent work.

Feature | Tacloban City, Philippines | 30 November 2023
Diane Rose Capito returned to mat-making as she earns a decent wage under the UK-funded ILO Skills for Prosperity Programme in the Philippines. ©Bernard Testa/ILO
TACLOBAN CITY, PHILIPPINES - When she became a teenager, Diana Rose Capito began to dislike weaving native mats.

This was because she started making mats as early as five years old. It was a skill she learned from her mother, who also made a living by weaving plant fibers to produce what is known in the Philippines as banig, a mat generally used for sleeping.

As a trade, mat-making is neither easy, profitable, nor glamourous.

To produce a standard, usable mat, artisans make full use of both arms and legs, hunched over the dyed and dried fibers while sitting on the floor for hours, explained Capito.

Any method that makes use of fewer than all four limbs or deviates from traditional practice — weaving on a table or any raised platform, for instance — will result in a substandard product, she said.

"The whole thing will become loose, and it will have holes in between the stitches," said Capito, who grew up in Basey, Samar, the Philippines' banig capital located an hour away from Tacloban City. "It also won't be nice to look at."

Capito knows whereof she speaks, probably more than she can even care to remember.

After all, she practically spent her childhood making mats.

From five to 11 years old, Capito attended school in the morning and helped her mother weave mats at night.

She learned how to make hats and decorative flowers, from tikog and buri, fiber-plants native to the province.

These diversions may have satisfied her youthful artistic impulses but that didn't help erase a sad truth. Each mat she and her mother made took five days, only sold for P500 ($10) each or two days' worth of wages during that time.

In short, making native mats — however culturally valuable — was arguably not worth the effort.

"Even when I was still a kid, I knew that I would eventually get tired of making mats because it did not pay much," Capito said. "I wanted to get a better job."

But then again, she didn't have much in the way of choices, unlike other kids her age.

Her family was hard up. This explained why her schooling was interrupted some years later.

To bring about a change— and perhaps even just to avoid mat-making — Capito took to farming, planting rice and other crops just to help support her family. Using some money she saved, Capito also bought mats from other artisans and sold it at a small profit in Tacloban.

All that would change not long after.

During the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19, Capito joined the Basey Young Advocate Farmers Association (BYAFA), a youth group that helped its members to formally receive pandemic assistance from the government. Her membership inspired her to make mats again, without regret.

A Programme helped artisans like Capito enhance their skills and earn a decent income from making mats.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Skills for Prosperity Programme in the Philippines, funded by the UK government implemented several initiatives to make this possible.

The Programme partnered with the thousand-strong Basey Association for Native Industry Growth (BANIG Inc.), a women-led umbrella group of traditional mat weavers and artisans.

The partnership helped BANIG Inc. produce and sell premium, high-quality hand-woven mats, bags, and decorative products both in the Philippines and abroad, as well as train members to become certified trainers of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

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
As a result, BANIG Inc.'s earnings slowly increased, allowing it to hire more workers and expand its product to include holiday decors from tikog and buri fibers.

In mid-2023, BANIG Inc. teamed with BYAFA, allowing Capito to be included as a trainee on tikog and buri stalks dyeing. The skills she gained not only changed the way she regarded mat-weaving but also gave her the chance to earn more to support her own college education.

Now earning P300 a day twice a week, Capito can work and, at the same time, enrol in a computer course at a local school.

While she intends to finish college, Capito said that she will no longer abandon mat-making.

"Although I'm still studying right now, I no longer entertain any thoughts about working in another profession," Capito said. "I just want to focus on mat-making. I also want to show how important mat-making is to our community."