KASAMA Vol. 25 No. 2 / April-May-June 2011 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Women and Children in Manila’s Piracy Trade

by Shirlita Espinosa

A cursory glance in a map of Quiapo from Google maps elicits streets perpendicular to each other, Elizondo and Hidalgo, where a block of infrastructure is named ‘Quiapo DVD’. Any visitor who has been to the place has an idea of the plethora of choices—from the Hitchcocks, Godards, Wong Kar Wais and Kurosawas to the newest Hollywood ‘fastfilm’—a film fan has at the prices that range from fifty US cents to two dollars, depending on the quality of the pirated copy. That said, Quiapo may not be special at all in the business of media piracy as the practice has gained grounds in most developing economies. The proliferation of pirated DVDs – in their many forms from the auteur–centered compilations to the latest novelty of shiny canisters that look much more polished than those found in record stores — in cities and towns in the Philippines is no longer questioned by those who consume it; the ones who do so publicly are either Optical Media Board officials or police officers whose job description include the demolition of piracy production and its hubs.

What needs special attention is the composition of those who labour in these streets. The dominance of Muslim Filipinos in media piracy is unquestionable. A claim by an insider in the barter trade that one hundred ten out of one hundred fifteen DVD stalls in Quiapo are owned by Muslims is a testament to this (Yahya 2009). The links between the religio–ethnicity and piracy have been strong as to fire up the speculation that the lucrative DVD trade in Quiapo finances Al–Qaida cells in Southeast Asia. However, I would like to focus on spe­cific demographic that is not exclusive of this religious and ethnic grouping but on the women and children, Muslim or Christian, that run the big business of retail media piracy. The ubiquitous presence of hijab–wearing women in the streets of Hidalgo and its adjoining areas points to the fact that it is not only the Muslims who operate DVD piracy but it is Muslim women who makes visible the religio–ethnicity of piracy.

During a recent fieldwork in Quiapo, I decided to count all the women and children who conduct the business from their stalls. On a Friday, at noontime, a time when Quiapo was particularly packed by churchgoers from all over Manila and its surrounding provinces, DVD stalls (may puesto) and those in sidewalks and streets (walang puesto) were all preoccupied by the onslaught of buyers. There were about 279 women overseeing the shops, permanent or makeshift, while there were 69 children who either helped the adult or were alone in the stores. Although this number is an approximation – for people in Quiapo are highly mobile moving from one stall to another, from their houses to their workplace, doing errands – it is telling of the argument I put forth. With my informant and I stopping at one stall to another, from one building to another, one barter area to another to count, women, from someone whose face looks like she’s fifteen to an old woman in her seventies, predominantly figure in the Hidalgo side of Quiapo. Children, on the other hand, although much less in number are visible, too. Some lay on a hammock watching movies, some were working like little machines packaging DVDs into plastic or boxes together with the printed covers, some were expertly transacting with customers.

The strategic placing of the DVD stalls near the machines that reproduce the disks and also the proximity of the Muslim barangays to the people’s place of work makes it easier for women and children to move around fulfilling their many roles as mothers, daughters, carers, domestic managers, students, and then also as income earners. Muslim men are often seen running errands, carrying heavy load of boxes, transacting in the barter trade. Although there are men manning stalls and conducting retail business, women and children dominate this side of piracy industry: a traditionally sexualised division of labour. This explanation as to why women and children are many in numbers in the Hidalgo side of Quiapo however does not explain why men are hired in Carriedo, the street where the ‘miraculous’ basilica of the Black Nazarene is found.

Women and children in Hidalgo work in ‘better’ conditions than those who toil in the make shift set up in Carriedo. Housed in permanent structures with airconditioning, it is generally considered acceptable to make them work where they can sit comfortably without being exposed to Manila’s hot weather or occasional rains. Equipped barter trading areas and stalls in Hidalgo were built for this is where capital and merchandise are exchanged and where huge profits are made. For every three–peso DVD–format of the latest Oscar–nominated film that could be sold for twenty pesos, or for every seven–peso premium eight films–in–one sold at thirty–five pesos, all the rest is profit. The recent maximisation of space in Quiapo where old structures are torn down for newer ones and the ensuing land speculation are both a result of the cash flow pumped by media piracy. The old mansions rented out — with commercial stores on the ground floor — are now replaced by multi–storey buildings. The capital that funds the architectural make–over of Hidalgo also pays for law enforcers not to enforce the law. Muslim Filipinos in their air–conditioned stalls need not run five to ten times a day for cover, neither do they need a safe house to hide their merchandise.

Who is a pirate? The ‘pirate profile’ leans towards male, 16 to 24 years old and urban–based. In the research, a ‘downloader pirate’ has a distinguishable entity from those who consume piracy via DVDs and CDs. This oft–cited study which marked U.S. motion picture loses at $6.1 billion worldwide, however, surveyed 22 countries most of which are developed nations. The list includes UK, Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Italy, Japan, among others, but it also consid­ered Thailand, India and Mexico (MPA/LEK). Because the study is biased towards advanced economies that yielded forty–four percent participation from women as pirates, not far behind from male pirates, it undermined how piracy in developing nations such as the Philippines is being run to a great degree by women and to a lesser degree by minors. Women and children are those whose faces, hands, indeed, their working bodies, finally transpose a mere object into a pirated commodity.

Moreover, if a child and a hijab–wearing woman are the ones vending stalls with thousands of pornographic DVDs around her, their sexualisation is completed. For in Quiapo, the economic division of labour where women perform undervalued yet difficult tasks in the home and at work does not end there. Her degradation becomes total when as a labourer, sometimes in the company of her children, she is surrounded by the images of male and female genitalia, of children in various stages of undress, and other pictures of excess and abuse. When practices such as a child selling child pornography in DVDs or a Muslim woman who feels insult upon the stares of male buyers but peddles films where women are sex objects, are normalised in local media piracy trading, it could only mean that Quiapo’s gender relations and practices have taken on a deeply abusive level in the name of capital. My shock as I saw a boy, no older than twelve, looking after his wares of pedophilia in broad day light is something I have not really recovered from. The greed of capital — whether the corporate American brand or informal piracy sector — is insidious. When children and women work for their food and sus­tenance by selling pornography in a very public arena, the avarice of neoliberal capitalism is no less than upfront and felt in the guts. In cases like this, unjust international policies that have caused the poverty in developing nations such as the Philippines are unpardonable.

Shirlita EspinosaBibliography:

Motion Picture Association/LEK. The Cost of Movie Piracy. Retrieved 17 February 2011 from

Yahya, M. (2009). ‘Exploring Islamic Movements among Filipino Muslim Urbanites in the Quiapo Area: A Sociological Study of the Impact of Modernization and Urban Life’, in Asian Transformations in Action: The Work of the 2006/2007 API Fellows, pp. 87–94, Japan: The Nippon Foundation.

About the Author:

Shirlita Espinosa is a full-time PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. She is working on the migrant print material culture of Filipinos in Australia. Her studies are made possible by Ford International Fellowship Program.