Gift-Commodity Conversations in a Transnational Philippine Market Trade

As studies have documented, the millions of men and women who have left the Philippines to find work across the globe regularly send cash remittances and in-kind gifts to family and friends in the Philippines. Filipinos working abroad are known as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) or balikbayans (returning Filipinos) – Filipinos visiting or returning to the Philippines after a period living in another country. The cash remittances OFWs send to family and friends in the Philippines are renowned for the direct contribution these funds make to the country’s national economy. The in-kind material gifts OFWs send, however, can experience more circuitous life-histories depending upon whether recipients keep the gifted items, sell, or exchange them for goods that better meet their subsistence needs. The gifted goods, such as personal grooming and health products, clothing, and canned goods are packaged in standard-size cardboard containers (60 x 30 x 30 cm or 60 x 60 x 90 cm) known as balikbayan boxes. Overseas Filipino Workers can economically send these boxes via small freight-forwarding companies directly from pick-up at their residences and shipment via cargo container to the Philippine recipient’s home. Because these “gifted” goods contribute to the economic and social well-being of Filipinos in the Philippines, they enter the country tax-exempt and duty-free.

Given that the Philippine state has failed to construct the basic political and economic foundations that can provide the majority of people with viable livelihoods, both gift recipients and entrepreneurs operationalize this transnational flow of balikbayan box goods by diverting selected products into public market commodity trade – transactions that straddle informal/formal, gift/commodity and sometimes other-than-legal practice. The Philippine government, cognizant that such transnational gift-to-commodity transactions can provide income for residents across classes while acknowledging the commercial capitalization of these untaxed goods, issues vacillating by-laws that variably allow, prohibit, or restrict the duty-free entry status of this trade.

Within this political economic context my research project, conducted in Baguio City, northern Philippines, investigates the mainstream strategies and the edgy side roads through which Baguio City Public Market entrepreneurs selling the aforementioned balikbayan box goods sustain their livelihoods given municipal policies that periodically threaten their viability. I argue that these entrepreneurs, rather than emerging as passive and oppressed recipients, have established alternative businesses that service urbanites’ everyday needs and profitably contribute to the city’s economy. By sourcing goods across local-to-global sites through both commodity and gifting transactions, these merchants emerge as self-styled transnational entrepreneurs who connect different sectors of society in new and innovative ways while remaining firmly seated in their Baguio market stores. Their on-the-ground enterprises create new social and economic interstitial spaces within old ones thereby contesting local government livelihood constraints imposed from above. Traders respond to consumers’ changing consumption needs, foster personal ties with suppliers in global locations, transform part of their business profits into community outreach or gifting gestures, and consign goods on flexible repayment terms to part-time, often not-so-legal sellers. That entrepreneurs create such in-between or “gray spaces” of practice and that the city grants marketers formal and legal permission to pay rent to do so, highlights how the government “formalizes informality” and that both government and entrepreneurs are complicit in using informality and “extralegality” as urban organizing logics when these practices are to their mutual advantage. One Baguio City Public Market entrepreneur aptly captures the pivotal position of her fellow marketers when she describes her entrepreneurial practice as kapit sa patalim – “holding on to the edge of the knife.” She explains that the often unpredictable and potentially vulnerable nature of her public market work means that, “One just needs to forge one’s own way with it.”


Milgram's 2017 article "Recrafting in/formality, leveraging public market trade in Baguio, Philippines," published in Vol. 6, Issue 2 of Anuac

Milgram's 2015 article "Unsettling Urban Marketplace Redevelopment in Baguio City, Philippines", published in Vol. 2, Issue 1 of Economic Anthropology

Lynne Milgram featured in OCAD University's 2016 Annual Research Report: Transformation through Imagination


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: In the Philippines Lynne Milgram is a Research Affiliate of the Cordillera Studies Center (CSC), University of the Philippines Baguio. Lynne thanks the CSC staff and faculty for their ongoing support of her research. Lynne also thanks her current Research Assistant, Rose Busacay, and expresses her gratitude to the many public market entrepreneurs and consumers who answered her many questions.

B. Lynne Milgram is Professor of Anthropology at OCAD University, Toronto. Her SSHRC-funded research in the northern Philippines analyzes the cultural politics of social change regarding women’s work in crafts, the Hong Kong-Philippine secondhand clothing trade, and street and market vending. Milgram investigates issues of nationalism, “tradition,” and “authenticity” vis-à-vis crafts, and issues of informality, governance, and extralegality regarding local livelihood rights and food security. Milgram’s recent co-edited book (with Hansen & Little) is, (2013) Street Economies of the Urban Global South; and recent book and journal articles include: (2018) “Informality and Legality in Women’s Livelihoods in Baguio City.” In Routledge Handbook on Contemporary Philippine Culture and Political Economy, (Thompson & Batalla, eds.); (2017) “Recrafting in/formality, leveraging public market trade in Baguio, Philippines.” Anuac 6 (2); (2016) “Refashioning Global Craft Commodity Flows from the Central Philippines.” In Critical Craft: Technology, Globalization, and Capitalism. (Wilkinson-Weber & DeNicola, eds.).

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Photograph of Bagiuo City Public Market
Photograph of Bagiuo City Public Market, dry goods section
Photograph of Bagiuo City Public Market vendors working
Photograph of Bagiuo City Public Market vendors working
Photograph of Bagiuo City Public Market vendors working
Photograph of Bagiuo City Public Market vendors working
Photogarph of a large hall filled with shops: the La Trinidad Space vegetable trading post, Benguet Province, Philippines
Photograph of vegetables in market stall of Baguio City Public Market vegetable section, Baguio Philippines
Friday, March 2, 2018 - 12:30pm
Lab Member: 
B. Lynne Milgram
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