Gate 1 of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac, where seven lay dead after the Nov. 16 carnage, remains as the battleground between the Cojuangcos and the striking sugar mill and farm workers. This is where hundreds of battle-scarred strikers have held their ground since Nov. 6 and even non-striking workers say unless this gate is opened, the mill cannot normalize operations.
By DABET CASTAÑEDA
HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac, Jan. 22 – Carrying wooden clubs, sling shots and bottles of water, hundreds of sugar mill and farm workers trooped to Gate 1 early morning of Jan. 21 in anticipation of another violent dispersal following the deadline of the return-to-work order issued by the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) on Jan 14.
The return-to-work order came in the wake of Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas’ ruling that the strike staged by the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) – the sugar mill workers’ union – was illegal.
The 500 sugar mill strikers continue to defy that order while the sugar farm workers belonging to the United Luisita Workers’ Union (ULWU) continue to hold their strike and are likewise standing their ground at Gate 1.
Gate 1 is the main gate of the CAT compound and is about 5.5 kms from the MacArthur Highway. It is the ingress-egress point, the lifeline of the sugar mill that controls the sugar supply of Central and Northern Luzon and parts of Metro Manila. Other striking workers are also guarding Gate 2 and other entry points to the 6,443-ha hacienda.
The CAT’s main products are refined white sugar and raw (brown) sugar. Its by-products include molasses, alcohol, yeast and carbon dioxide.
Gate 1 separates the striking workers from the non-striking ones who have also kept their ground inside the CAT compound since the start of the strike.
For the first time, this reporter met the workers from the other side of the fence in the afternoon of Jan. 21 when some supervisors of the CAT allowed journalists to enter the compound through the hacienda’s East Gate. This gate also leads to Las Haciendas de Luisitas, an exclusive residential village, and Barrio Alto, the Cojuangco clan’s elite and private village inside the hacienda.
The CAT personnel department’s logbook showed there are 452 CAT employees, excluding the supervisors, managers and confidential employees, who continue to work despite the strike.
When checked by Bulatlat, the logbook showed only the number of workers present in each department but did not show names or signatures of the employees. Jesus Fino, CATLU’s board chairman who entertained the media inside the compound, said they have stopped using their time cards since the start of the strike.
Some non-striking workers who agreed to be interviewed on condition that they remain unnamed said that for the first time the company paid them in full since the strike. As an incentive for not joining the strike, they were given free food, an eight-hour overtime pay and 30 percent night premium everyday. With these, they receive almost P 1,000 a day compared to their regular pay of P327. Some of them have brought their families inside the compound.
But the non-strikers agreed that the P15 wage increase and the P12,500 signing bonus ordered by DoLE was way too low especially at this time that prices of basic commodities are up. “Pagtyagaan na. Mabuti na yun kesa wala” (We can live with that instead of receiving nothing), said one lady who works as a company secretary.
The non-striking workers were for the resumption of the mill’s operations but Fino said that the mills are impossible to operate if Gate 1 remains blocked by the strikers.
Staff specialist Amor Gregorio said that they have enough labor force inside the company compound and could operate even without the strikers going back to work. “Pero hindi kami makakagiling kung walang tubo” (But we cannot still mill without the sugarcane), he said.
Back to the table
In a press conference in the evening of Jan. 21, CATLU president Ricardo Ramos reiterated that the solution to the labor dispute between them and the CAT management lies on the negotiating table. “No labor order can solve our problems,” he said.
In the same press conference, CATLU adviser Rene Tua said that the Cojuangcos are the violators of the law citing as proof the non-remittance of wage order numbers three to 10 amounting to more than P100 and the P15 Emergency Cost of Living Allowance (ECOLA) issued in Feb. 2004.
He added that union mill workers continue to defy management’s offer of a P12.50 wage increase and DoLE’s order of a P15 wage increase because this is way below what they negotiated for – P100. This is also very low compared to what they bargained for in the 2001 CBA where they got a P48 wage increase.
This developed even as the CAT, in its financial statement submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), earned a total of P48.645 million since 2001.
Tua added that while the company earned P7.821 million in 2001 when they were given a P48 wage increase, a P15,000 signing bonus and a P200,000 union fund, the company is only offering P12.50 wage increase today despite earning P13.438 million in 2004.
“Habang lumalaki ang kita ng kumpanya, mas lalong lumiliit ang kanyang binibigay, kaya hindi katanggap-tanggap ang offer nila” (While the company’s earnings are getting higher, it offers lower wages. This is unacceptable.), Tua said.
CATLU leaders also decried the continued threats of retrenchment against the mill workers. In 1997, about 500 union members were retrenched, 200 of whom came from the railroad department that was shut off that year. Ten-wheeler trucks took over the transportation of canes from the plantation to the mill.
They charged the company of downsizing its workforce by not replacing those who have been retrenched, resigned or were terminated due to work-related sickness. In return, the vacated positions are merged with those who have been retained. As a result, a retained worker holds two jobs but is only given an increase of at least P140 a month.
Ramos maintained that they still have the bigger number of workers at the picket line. In its general assembly at the CATLU office just across the CAT’s Gate 2 last week, the union mustered around 500 members.
But he also explained that the problem in the non-resolution of the labor issue lies in the Cojuangcos’ refusal to negotiate with CATLU and ULWU, the plantation workers’ bigger union.
“Hanggat naka-strike ang ULWU, hindi aandar ang central” (With the ULWU members still on strike, the CAT mill will not operate), he added.