Since two years ago when banana plantation and packing workers began forming unions and agitating for legally mandated minimum wage rates, soldiers from the 28th Infantry Battalion have also started harassing them in their barangays (villages). The harassments took a more violent turn with the shooting of union president Vicente Barrios and four other unionists as they were on their way to work. One worker, Jerson Lastimoso died and another, Doniglenn Sundon remains in critical condition as a result of the shooting incident during the early morning of December 15.
BY MARYA SALAMAT
From his hospital bed, Vicente ‘Boy’ Barrios, 43, union president of Nagkahiusang Mamumuo ng Suyapa Farms (United Workers of Suyapa Farms or NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU), was sadly saying he owes his life to Jerson Lastimoso, a co-worker and unionist. “If not for him, I would have been dead now.”
Barrios was with Lastimoso and three other unionists namely, Andres Lagare, union vice-president, Aldin Cortez, union board director, and union member Doniglenn Sundon while on their way to work at the banana ‘Packing Plant 90’ in Compostela Valley on December 15 when they were sprayed with bullets. Earlier, Lastimoso, Cortez, Lagare, and Sudon on board motorcycles fetched Barrios at around 5:50 a.m., in line with a union resolution to accompany the latter to work since he has been receiving death threats. When they arrived at Barrios’ house, they noticed a white L300 van parked nearby. Barrios rode with Lastimoso and the convoy of four motorcycles went on their way. As they were nearing the intersection at Purok Albor, same province, Lagare noticed a gray L300 van parked at the side of the road. Suddenly, a black motorcycle with two men on board, one wearing a helmet and the other a ski mask sped past him. He shouted to warn his companions but it was too late. The assailants fired at Barrios and Lastimoso with 45 caliber pistols before shooting at the others after reloading their weapons
Barrios survived with a bullet piercing his left arm and ripping off flesh from his stomach. Cortez was hit at the upper right back. Sundon sustained a gunshot wound at the neck. Lastimoso was hit three times at the back and another bullet pierced his abdomen hitting one of his kidneys and his intestines. Only Lagare, who was positioned at the back of the convoy survived unscathed. The four were brought to Davao Regional Hospital at Tagum City, 50 kms. away. Lastimoso died later in the afternoon. Sundon remains in critical condition. Barrios and Cortez were declared as stable as of December 18.
A worker with the Philippines’ banana export industry for 16 years now, Barrios led in organizing NAMASUFA two years ago. As they began collectively pressing for unpaid benefits, incentives and minimum wage rates, Barrios and fellow union leaders were subjected to armed intimidation and harassments.
Poverty and repression amid growth
Miles and miles of land in Compostela Valley in Southern Mindanao are now covered with banana plants, producing the bulk of the Philippines’ exports of roughly 1.7 million tons of fresh bananas from January to September, 2006 alone, based on Department of Trade figures.
Value-wise, these banana exports are worth close to $300 million, or a 21 percent increase over that of 2005, said the Department of Trade.
Over the years, banana planters, harvesters and packers, among other workers’ titles such as banana “dehanders,” have continuously multiplied with the expansion of banana plantations in Compostela Valley.
All these upward figures including the rising employment in the banana export industry constitute a trend which the Arroyo government would likely crow about as sign of an improving economy. But how does it help improve the lives of ordinary Filipinos, particularly of the workers behind it?
Unfortunately for workers in the banana plantation and packing plants in Southern Mindanao, their problems are not merely about growth failing to trickle down to their families. Their problems seem to be about maximizing growth in profits at their expense.
Headed mainly by Andres Soriano’s Fresh Bananas Agricultural Company (FBAC), now under the Japanese transnational Sumitomo Fruits Corporation, banana exporters shoddily treat their workers who earn below the government-mandated minimum wage. For years FBAC has been shirking in its responsibility as employers, pointing instead to small landowners, called ‘growers,’ or to the cabo-like labor contractors, even as it clearly controls the production, packing and distribution of bananas for export.
But the banana plantation workers started agitating for their legally mandated rights in 2004. Nagkahiusang Mamumuo ng Suyapa Farms (United Workers of Suyapa Farms NAMASUFA), led by Vicente Barrios, is one of the first successful unions to have done so. Their success inspired workers from other packing plants in organizing their unions and working for humane working conditions. However, the spread of militancy in the banana export industry has spawned militarization and armed intimidation of the workers’ communities.
Tony Pascual, secretary general of the National Federation of Labor Unions-Kilusang Mayo Uno (NAFLU-KMU or May 1st Movement), said banana plantation workers are organized into unions according to their farms or packing plant number in order to collectively press for their minimum wages and other already legally mandated workers’ rights. But the military and other hooded armed men would frequently order the workers to stop doing so at gunpoint. In fact, like a chronicle of a death foretold, the armed attack on Vicente Barrios’ convoy in December 17 had been forewarned in various infringements by these armed groups since 2004, said Tony Pascual.
Unarmed unionists treated as enemies of the state
“We urge all well-meaning citizens to help press the Arroyo government to stop treating militant unionists as enemies of the state,” said Tony Pascual. “Instead of treating the workers as criminals whenever they act collectively, within the bounds of law, to work for humane working conditions, we hope the government will respect the workers’ human and trade union rights,” he added.
Pascual said what is happening in Southern Mindanao, where NAFLU-KMU has a regional chapter, utterly demonstrates the Arroyo government’s “diabolical” treatment of workers. Since two years ago when banana plantation and packing workers began forming unions and agitating for legally mandated minimum wage rates, soldiers from the 28th Infantry Battalion have also started harassing them in their barangays (villages), shared Pascual.
Men with high-powered firearms and hiding their faces in ski masks frequently barged into their homes. Union leaders were tailed and harassed by armed men. Vicente Barrios and fellow officers, for instance, have repeatedly been questioned by the military and other armed men. He’d been hit with a slingshot at least once. And recently, while other banana plantation workers in Compostela Valley were on strike, the military jailed and tightly guarded in a gym some 70 of the striking workers. The military reportedly told the jailed workers, “Don’t join the union or KMU and we will not jail you!”
Pascual said, “If this is the Arroyo government’s response to workers’ legally recognized demands for fair wages and decent working conditions, then it’s the Arroyo government itself who’s urging the workers to join the New People’s Army, not the KMU.” (Bulatlat.com)