They Who Paint Our Roof White: The Price of Cheap Labor

Yesterday upon waking up, I headed straight to our garage to jog on the treadmill a bit. Not so much of a routine; just something I thought of doing since I haven’t done it for a while. The unbearable heat tempted me in every way to go inside our room again and enjoy the air conditioner, but somebody suddenly caught my attention.


I looked around: only Chippy, the family dog, was beside me.


I looked around the second time, then a drop of white paint fell innocently on my right arm—I looked up.

“Uy, Mang Temmy, andyan ka pala!” (Hey, Mang Temmy, didn’t know you were there!)

I seemed surprised but really, I was more afraid of the unaccountable calls earlier on.

“Ang hirap dito sa taas, ang init! Pero mas matangkad na ‘ko sa ‘yo!” (It’s so hard to be up here, it’s so hot! But at least I’m now taller than you!)

I just smiled, then laughed, not knowing what to say. As much as I wanted to help, I know it’s out of the question to do so. He has his work, I have my work, so it’s fair enough.

I then went straight to the treadmill machine and headed for a 20-minute workout, yet I felt too tired, too dumpy, to even go on. It must be the weather, it’s just too hot to go even further. “Sayang naman (It’s a waste),”  I thought, so I went on.

After the workout, too tired to even put back the treadmill in place, I decided to head inside for a shower but on my way, I again saw Mang Temmy, now with an assistant, working on our roof. They were painting the undercover white.

I couldn’t help but look up again and stare at their grim and tired faces, their paint-splattered hair and skin, and stick-think frames. I couldn’t imagine that a small and seemingly insignificant piece of our home would entail a lot of hard work. I wanted to deny the pain of realizing it, telling myself, “Okay lang ‘yan (It’s okay). It’s their work. They need to work hard for their families.” Then I took the long-sought shower.

It took me longer than expected to take a shower, which usually required a mere 10 minutes of my time.

Upon opening the heater, I wonder who had it installed. When I adjusted the flow of the water, I wonder who assembled the pipes to make them fit just right. When I got my towel, I wonder who installed the rack to make these kinds of things more accessible. When I brushed my teeth, I couldn’t help but think who made the sink so clean, the mirrors so clean, and the drainage free of weird things that’d make the routine less convenient.

Every single piece seemed to be puzzles of a universal truth that people comfortable in their lives inevitably deny. I wanted to face it, yet afraid, too, of carrying the moral burden the truth shall cause. Am I that young not to care?

I feel I’m caught in between the battle of struggle in this life. I couldn’t help but feel pity when I see the many faces of poverty around me: when I drive to school, when I sit in a restaurant, when I buy my medicines at the local drugstore. Yet at the same time, I also feel guilty for letting myself enjoy these luxuries in the face of hunger and homelessness in this country.

As much as I wanted to break free of these necessities-turned-luxuries for the majority in this developing country– having three meals a day, having a car, owning a house to call home; and of these luxuries: mobile phones, new books almost every week, clothes, shoes and the list goes on– I feel like a Hamlet, an Ivan Karamazov, crippled by the decisions I have to make. I couldn’t unite the fact that while I am here sitting on a soft couch, thinking of the next book I am to read, the enrolment requirements I have to prepare, the need to take a bath in a few minutes, and the place I want to visit for another bird-watching session, there are people who are physically tired yet spiritually inspired to toil hard every single day to “just get through the day.”

I am so aware, so moved by this truth, yet I am immobilized by my comforts, my interests, my future, that I am not entirely ready to give these things up.

“O Kuya, tapos na kayo? (Kuya, are you now through?)” When I saw Mang Temmy and another carpenter heading to the kitchen.

“Kain muna tapos kayod uli. (We’ll eat for now then work again.)”

I waved my hand, bowed my head down, knowing that this time, I shouldn’t let myself fall into defeat.

**In 2015, Mang Temmy passed away due to prostate cancer. Thank you, Mang Temmy, for keeping our home clean, bright and beautiful; for the prim garden, leaks you fixed, and lines you kept safe for us. Most of all, I will never forget the undercover you painted white. This is a forever tribute to you.