MANILA — In a tiny factory in the Manila slum district of Navotas, the 100 employees of Teano International Export are helping to prove that Christmas may provide a partial solution to the Philippines' economic crisis.
For the past year, workers at the factory and hundreds of others who work for Teano in shacks and shanties throughout metropolitan Manila have been transforming jungle vines into Christmas wreaths, grass into Christmas trees and a fibrous plant called abaca into archangels.
This sort of activity has been going on all year in scores of other small factories and houses throughout the Philippines. Tens of thousands of people are caught up in what has become this country's fastest-growing cottage industry.
Farmers have been working overtime shaving and gluing garlic stalks into wreaths. Corn husks have been turned into Christmas-tree ornaments and Nativity scenes, wood shavings into stars, dried fruit into flower petals.
And almost all of it is likely to end up in American homes.
The Philippine share of the U.S. Christmas market is still small compared to that of Taiwan, which supplies 44% of the more than $65 million worth of Christmas decorations imported by the United States every year. But the $9 million worth the Philippines will export this year--$7 million to the United States--represents 100% more than last year in an industry that got started here only in 1981.
The relative value of Taiwan's currency has increased dramatically this year, making labor and materials more expensive, so Philippine economic development experts expect a boom in the Christmas industry here as a result.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world is a surge in the Christmas industry more appropriate than it is in the Philippines, where Christmas is regarded as a special time of hope and prayer.
Teano's four-room factory is crowded with images of the industry's bright future. Above the shipping boxes stuffed with hand-carved reindeer headed for Minnesota and rice-stalk wreaths headed for New York and New Zealand is a sign with the motto, "What is impossible for men is possible for God."
As part of the factory's routine, owner Veronica Teano sponsors Bible study classes twice a week and, on Monday mornings, a prayer period.
She noted in an interview the other day that few people in Taiwan are Christians, and added: "Taiwanese don't care about Christmas. They only care if they can make money."
It was devout religious belief, she said, that led her and other manufacturers here to switch from salad bowls and ashtrays to Christmas decorations.
"A buyer friend of mine in New York City suggested I try making some of these things for him," Teano recalled. "I thought about it for less than a minute and said OK, because Christmas is associated with Jesus Christ. I knew it would be better for me."
Her instinct has proved to be sound financially. From an initial capitalization of just $10,000 in 1981, Teano International has sold more than $300,000 worth of Christmas goods overseas this year. Already, the company has $200,000 worth of orders for the 1988 Christmas season.
A study by President Corazon Aquino's economic planners projects similar growth for the entire industry. The study, presented in October at an international Christmas decoration convention in Manila, indicates that the 60 firms now in the field here are likely to increase their share of the American market by an additional 40% next year and to take an increasingly larger share over the next five years.
"Taiwan," the study said, "remains a formidable competitor in Christmas decorations, especially for manufactured items made of wood, plastics and glass. However, the Philippines is strong in the hand-crafted Christmas decorations that require more handwork and detailing. . . . In addition, the Philippine competitive advantage for this lies in the presence of a vast source of indigenous raw materials which could be adapted for the production of Christmas decorations."
200 Lines of Products
Teano marvels at the inventiveness of the 200 or so families that produce for her; they turn out more than 200 lines of Christmas products.
"It is important that we are giving them work when there is too little for everyone." Teano said, referring to the 40% of Filipinos who are unemployed or underemployed.
The pay is not great, she conceded--$25 a week per family at the peak of the season. But as many as 10 families can be employed in their homes just stringing beads, which are sewn onto stuffed tree ornaments at the factory.
"If they were not doing this," Teano said, "they would be making nothing at all."
Teano says it was her concern for the unemployed that led her to build her factory in the heart of the Navotas district, which is situated alongside the municipal garbage dump.
"I look at it this way," she said. "If we can get even 20% of the (world-wide) share of the Christmas decorations market that Taiwan has, maybe there will be no one unemployed here in the Philippines any more."
Still, she said, the economics of the projection are not as important as what she bases it on, a non-economic principle she calls "the magic of Christmas."
"There is something in it," she said. "For us, it is not just the joy of giving, the joy of sharing and the joy of celebration. For us, even more, Christmas is our time to experience the joy of hope."