A lost foot, a lost job and a threat to lose his home. This tale of a sugar mill worker at the Central Azucarera de Tarlac brings to fore the miserable conditions that bug the work force of Luzon’s largest sugar refinery.
BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
It was 30 minutes past midnight on Feb. 7, 1999 when Fernando Alcibar lost his foot while on duty at the Mill and Boiler department of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT). CAT is part of the sprawling Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, 120 kms north of Manila, and site of a violent strike dispersal last Nov. 16.
Hacienda Luisita, a 6,443-ha sugar plantation and milling company, is owned by the family of former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino.
According to the company’s injury report, Alcibar heard an unusual sound on the head end of the Wet Bagasse Conveyor No. 2. When checked where the sound was coming from, “he was off-balanced and accidentally stepped on a corroded catwalk structural which gave way. His right foot hang inside the drag conveyor and was caught by the moving channel slots against a structural beam which resulted to a severe injury.”
Alcibar, in an interview with Bulatlat in his home in Sitio (sub-village) Obrero, Barangay (village) Sentral, said two of his co-workers helped him up and brought him to the nearby St. Martin de Porres Hospital (SMDPH), a small hospital inside the Cojuangco-owned hacienda. The hospital facilities were inadequate to manage Alcibar’s injury and he was immediately transferred to the Central Luzon Doctors’ Hospital in Tarlac City.
The former conveyor belt operator was sidelined for a year after the first operation. His wound would not heal however and he was operated again in 2000.
Despite his disability, he tried to get back to work after his operation. But on Dec. 5, 2000, Alcibar received a memo from CAT management saying he was being “terminated due to sickness.”
Alcibar received a monthly pension of P5,000 (US$89.28 at US$1=PhP56) from the Employees Compensation Commission and the Social security System for only three years and eight months because he was declared as only partially disabled. When his pension ended last year, he had to depend on his earnings from his jeepney which he bought from his gratuity pay of P188,825.
Despite his handicap, Alcibar himself drives his jeepney since getting a driver would mean less income. Alcibar uses his left foot and plies the Tarlac-Burot route everyday, enabling him to feed his family and send his children to school.
Alcibar’s case is not isolated. Romeo Sarate, a SMDPH staff nurse and CAT Labor Union (CATLU) officer representing the Medical Service Department, said most of the sugar mill workers suffer from work-related injuries and diseases. The most common case is pulmonary tuberculosis (PTB), of which around 25-30 percent of the workforce is inflicted with due to exposure to bagasse, the waste of sugar canes after the sugar has been extracted.
Although PTB cases can be cured within three to six months of oral chemotherapy, Sarate said most cases are not cured even after being given triple or quadruple regimens. In such cases, the illness is no longer an ordinary lung disease but may already be bagassosis, a respiratory disorder due to the inhalation of the dust of bagasse.
To make the situation worse, these cases are not classified as work-related. The afflicted workers are thus forced to spend their own money for medication since the company only allows P100 a month medical benefit for union members and P50 a month for their dependents – not even enough for a full dosage of the ordinary antibiotics. Any amount exceeding this would be deducted from their salary.
Medicines in the plantation’s hospital are free only when the patients are confined but since PTB patients take their regimen at home, they are not entitled to it.
Meanwhile, the hospital recorded almost 15 cases of death from blood-related diseases since 2001. Sarate said this is due to the workers’ exposure to chemicals. He added though that these diseases could be detected only at its final stages.
Sarate said there were cases like Alcibar’s in which workers were terminated due to sickness while still undergoing treatment due to a work-related disease. Once terminated, the workers lose their medical benefits from the company.
The SMDPH has only 35 beds. Ninety percent of its patients are usually farm workers from the sugarcane plantation and 10 percent are sugar mill workers.
In the mid-1980s, the hospital started hiring contractual doctors, removing the regular doctors. It now only has 29 nurses and six moonlighting doctors to attend to the 20,000-strong Hacienda community (farm and mill workers and their families). Each doctor attends to 40 to 60 patients a day.
“Syempre, pagdating sa hapon, pagod na ang doctor. Wala ng quality kasi hindi na nache-check mabuti ang pasyente”(By afternoon, the doctor is already tired. There is decreased quality of service, the patients are no longer checked thoroughly), he said. He added that some of their doctors have no specialization that may result in wrong diagnosis or under-dosage of prescribed medicine.
He cited the case of a patient who had gastric cancer and given oral therapy by one of SMDPH doctors. The patient went back to work but became sick again. When transferred to the Far Eastern University (FEU, owned by Josephine Cojuangco-Lopa, one of the hacienda’s BoD) in Manila, doctors found his cancer at its third stage. A doctor from Manila said the patient suffered due to under-dose of medicines, which made his condition worse. The patient has since then died.
Apart from losing their jobs from work-related sickness, workers also face losing their homes.
Late last year, a village official approached Alcibar and asked him to sign a document saying he would be paid P30,000 as payment for his house. In turn, he and his family are to leave as soon as the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway gets underway.
“Syempre, hindi ako pumirma” (Of course, I did not sign), he said adding that he inherited his house from his grandparents who worked at the hacienda during the Spanish colonial period.
As stipulated in the CBA, each sugar mill worker is entitled to a 240-sq.m. homelot, with 1993 as the cut-off date for distribution.
Brgy. Sentral, which consists of four sitios – Sit, Obrero, Lote and Camarin – and about 2,000 households, would be wiped out due to the land conversion project of the hacienda. In 1995, the Tarlac provincial government approved a proposal from the Cojuangcos to use 3,200 hectares of the agricultural land for roads, residential, recreational and industrial enclaves.
The expressway would displace at least five of the 10 villages inside the hacienda. The land-use conversion on the whole would evict 2,500 more sugar farm workers because it would leave only some 1,000 hectares for the plantation. Bulatlat.com