It may be an uphill battle, but the 4,000 workers of Hacienda Luisita, Inc. decided to take matters into their own hands by declaring a strike last Nov. 6. Armed with a sense of history and social justice, their leaders vow to continue the protest and now they are demanding the land which should have been distributed to them in the past.
BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac – Sugarcane workers in Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI), the country’s biggest sugar plantation owned and managed by the family of former Philippine President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, used to look forward to kabyaw or the plantation’s milling season that starts in October and ends in six months. At this time, however, operations at HLI have ground to a halt.
Instead of reporting for work, around 4,000 sugarcane workers and milling operators trooped to the main gates of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT), the Cojuangcos’ sugar mill located in Barangay (village) Central inside the family’s compound in Tarlac City at exactly 12 noon on Nov. 6 to declare a strike.
Both the United Luisita Workers’ Union (ULWU, the sugarcane workers’ union) and the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU, the milling operators’ union) declared a work stoppage after their separate Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations reached a deadlock.
ULWU President Rene Galang said that they gave the following demands to the management: 1) that retired seasonal and permanent workers be replaced by their next of kin or by casual workers; 2) that daily wages be increased by P100 ($1.77, based on an exchange rate of P56.35 per US dollar) for permanent workers, P75 ($1.33) for seasonal workers and P60 ($1.06) for casual workers; 3) that laboratory and other hospital fees at the St. Martin de Porres Hospital inside the hacienda be waived as stated in the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) agreement; and 4) that additional benefits such as two-month Christmas and service bonuses be granted.
Three of at least 50 truckloads of sugar cane sit outside the gates of Central Azucarera de Tarlac as sugar farm workers stage a strike.
But the HLI management, represented by Tess Liwanag and three other lawyers, rejected the workers’ demands which resulted in a deadlock in the CBA negotiations. To add insult to injury, 327 permanent and seasonal workers were retrenched effective Oct. 1, including Galang and eight other union officers.
On the other hand, CATLU President Ricardo Ramos said they had the following CBA demands: 1) that management implement an across-the-board increase; 2) two months gratuity pay or the amount twice their salary rate multiplied by their number of years in service as their retirement benefit; and 3) a P30,000 ($532.39) signing bonus for each union member after the signing of the CBA.
Ramos said that CAT management gave the following counter-proposals: 1) a P12 ($0.21) increase per day to be added to the CAT workers’ current daily wage of P309; 2) a lump sum of P2 for two years; and 3) a signing bonus of P 12,500.
Reyes said that the management’s stand was unacceptable because according to government standards, a family of five would need a minimum of P14,000 a month to provide for three meals a day.
But while the Cojuangcos gave a counter-proposal to CATLU, they did not do the same in negotiating with ULWU. Galang said that the management told them that it would not give in to any of their demands because it is losing money. Challenging this, the union leaders demanded that the company’s financial statement for 2003 and its operational expenses in the last five years be presented for scrutiny but management has not produced the documents, Galang said.
Is HLI losing money?
The HLI’s audited financial statement shows that it incurred losses amounting to P165,782,608 ($2,942,016.11) in 2004 despite posting gross sales of P 307,784,093 ($5,462,006.97).
However, in a Bulatlat interview Nenita Mahinay, lawyer of both ULWU and CATLU, said that the losses of the plantation were due to the bloated figures of the sugarcane workers’ salaries.
While the HLI financial statement showed that P226,944,903 ($4,027,416.20) went to the salaries of the sugarcane workers, Mahinay said that this was based on 423,393 guaranteed mandays (total number of workdays in a year).
According to Galang, the actual number of mandays was only 341,852 based on the actual number of days worked by all sugarcane workers in 2004. The total salary of the sugarcane workers actually amounted therefore to P110,042,767.50 ($1,952,844.14), representing only 26 percent of the company’s expenses. (See Table)
This means that HLI’s total losses only amounted to P48,880,472.50 ($867,444.06) in 2004.
HLI workers dispensable?
The Cojuangcos have a reason to disregard the HLI, Reyes said, because it does not determine the profitability of their milling and refinery business. The HLI contributes only 200,000 tons or less than 25 percent of the CAT’s sugarcane supply because 750,000 tons or almost 75 percent of the supply comes from other plantations in the same province.
“Talagang babalasubasin lang ng mga Cojuangco ang mga taga-plantation dahil wala naman silang masyadong pakinabang diyan” (The Cojuangcos will really oppress workers from the plantation since they do not benefit much from it), he said.