That the plight of farm workers at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac has already faded from the mainstream media limelight does not mean that there is now peace in the area. Last April 22, some 1,500 farm workers agreed to withdraw their shares in Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI), demand that stock distribution option (SDO) be revoked and opt for land distribution instead.
BY ABNER BOLOS
What happens when tillers are given stock certificates instead of land? Is it still land reform in essence?
At Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac (north of Manila), 15 years of the stock distribution option (SDO) has found land owners engaged in a raging conflict with tillers, to the point where lives have been claimed from the ranks of the latter.
The bitter labor dispute in the vast sugar plantation owned by the family of former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino broke out in November 2004 when work for the members of the 5,000-strong United Luisita Workers’ Union (ULWU) was reduced to only one day a week, their wages and benefits greatly diminished and hundreds were laid off from work.
Promises in 1989
In 1989, at the start of SDO implementation, the farm workers were promised that owning shares of stock in the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) – the corporation put up by the Cojuangco family to manage the 6,443-hectare sugar plantation – is better than actual land distribution. As stock holders, they were supposed to own 33 percent or P196.6 million ($3.6 million, based on an exchange rate of P54.20 per US dollar) of the total shares of stocks of HLI amounting to P590,554,220 ($10,895,834.32). The latter is the value of the 4,915 hectares covered by the SDO.
The SDO, stipulated in the Comprehensive Land Reform Law (CARL or Republic Act 6657), was implemented in the hacienda. The objective of any land reform program is to give land to the tillers. Through the SDO scheme, however, only the shares of stock are distributed. In the case of Hacienda Luisita, the farm workers’ share in HLI is the hacienda land itself, the remaining 66 percent being capital stock and other non-land assets.
As co-owners of HLI, the SDO is supposed to provide a better life for farm workers through stable jobs, higher incomes, improved benefits and shares from company profits. What they got was the opposite. More than 1,000 farm workers have lost their jobs since 1989. The corporation reduced their workdays to only one day a week and their net pay to a measly P9.50 ($0.18) a day.
For the farm workers, while the SDO and land ownership were not among the issues that directly led to the strike, these proved to be major problems that now plague them and the Cojuangco family.
Last April 22, when negotiations to end the strike reached another impasse, some 1,500 farm workers massed up at the picket line in Gate 1 of the sugar mill and agreed that they will now withdraw their shares in HLI, demand that SDO be revoked and opt for land distribution instead.
The decision to withdraw their shares, already a thorny legal and corporate question, was made because the farm workers felt cheated through the SDO. They then reaffirmed their claim on the land, their livelihood and their homes.
Leaders of a group of plantation supervisors who, in October 2003, petitioned the government to investigate SDO and demanded a re-negotiation for a new Memorandum of Agreement, also came and voiced their support for the revocation of the SDO.
The supervisors are in the same boat as the farm workers. They are also stockholders who believe that the corporation cheated them of their rights in the SDO and that the stock certificates in their possession are worthless.
The SDO not only worsened the plight of the farm workers. It also allowed the Cojuangco family to profit immensely from the land. Some 1,532 hectares which was part of the original 6,443-hectare hacienda land were excluded in the SDO and remained in the hands of the Tarlac Development Corporation (TADECO), a Cojuangco-owned corporation which negotiated the 1958 purchase of the hacienda from the original Spanish owners. Never told of this move, the farm workers were surprised to learn later that former sugar cane lands were turned into commercial and factory sites.
Only about 4,415 hectares remain as cultivable out of the 4,915 hectares originally covered by the SDO. In 1995, 500 hectares were sold to corporations also owned by the Cojuangcos. The family earned billions of pesos from the land supposedly owned by the farm workers. HLI apparently served as the instrument where the Cojuangco family imposed its will on the farm workers whom it also calls “co-owners.”