Plight of the Gold Diggers: Going Back to the Miners of Lepanto

Two years ago, I participated in a basic masses integration (BMI) program that aims to facilitate our integration with and support for workers in their fight for just wage increase and benefits. The goal of our BMI now was to check up on how the workers are two years later.

Northern Dispatch
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 45, December 16-22, 2007

The long rough road all the way from the welcome arc of Mankayan, Benguet to the Poblacion remained the same. It has been two years since I last passed this way when I joined a group for a Basic Masses Integration (BMI) with the workers of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC), and yet the dust, the rocks, and the terrain never felt different. The plight of the workers however, seem to inch forward very slowly.

Our van carried 13 representatives from Tanghalang Bayan ng Kabataan sa Baguio (TABAK), Anakbayan and League of Filipino Students (LFS). Our BMI was scheduled to last three days and two nights, so our bags were stuffed with comforters, extra clothes and snacks. Two years ago, I participated in a basic masses integration (BMI) program that aims to facilitate our integration with and support for workers in their fight for just wage increase and benefits. The goal of our BMI now was to check up on how the workers are two years later.

Begin to dig

Large-scale mining in the country was introduced by foreign corporations. In Mankayan, Benguet, the LCMC, aside from being the largest mining company in the Philippines, dominates large mining corporations alongside Philex Mining, Marcopper, and Atlas Mining, which, in an article of Antonio Tujan Jr., “trace their history to American Colonial times, with strong equity and financial linkages with transnational mineral interests in Japan, the U.S., Canada and Australia.”

Being an ancient volcanic arc, the existence of gold reserves in the Cordilleras cannot be denied and such fact has lured multi-national corporations especially during the end of World War II. According to Chibuzo Nwoke’s Third World Minerals and Global Pricing, “metropolitan firms have always dominated Third World minerals production and marketing…despite the fact that formal sovereignty over natural resources now rests with the governments of minerals-exporting countries.”

In the Philippine setting however, the Mining Act of 1995 passed by the government facilitated the access of foreign corporations to the rich natural resources of the country. It permitted 100 percent foreign ownership of mining corporations. With its implementation, however, the national minorities living in ancestral lands faced diaspora and violent dispersals if they attempt to fight or taken in as workers.

Tremors underground

It was never easy to dig for gold – such impression was left on me even before we were oriented at the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement) office. Manong Tony, a KMU organizer, narrated that the miners only get to wear briefs, boots, and a helmet with a light in their everyday work.

“Mahirap ang buhay…mausok, mainit, madilm” (Life is hard [there]…it’s smoky, hot and dark), an underground worker once disclosed.

“Sila ang laging nasa panganib” (They are always in danger), Manong Tony added.

Last 2005, the campaign of the mine workers for wage increase and benefits were met with violent dispersals and retrenchment of 100 union leaders. The protest was a result of the deadlock on the 23rd Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The CBA is the venue for the management and the union to meet halfway on economic and non-economic aspects concerning the workers of LCMC.

The retrenchment of workers, needless to say, spells trouble for the miner and his/her family. The basic salary of a worker is pegged at P420 – 438 per day ($10.20 – $10.64 at an exchange rate of $1=P41.14). Though pay day comes three times a month, Manong Tony shares that delays of salary always happens. “Wala raw pondo, hindi raw nabebenta ang ginto” (They say there are no funds because they’re unable to sell the gold), Manong Tony answered when asked why. The salary is barely enough for food and college education for the children.

Budget for the house is still another issue. If a miner doesn’t receive housing allowance, “kinukuha sa sweldo lahat ng panggastos” (we shoulder all our expenses), Kuya Simeon, a drilling worker shares.

Bunk houses were constructed for the workers of LCMC, however, the company somehow cannot build enough for all the workers. Only a handful of bunk houses were spotted during our stroll to the airport and the mill site. The 2-floor bunk houses were made of wood with the paint nearly peeling off and were a far cry from the houses of the staff in the higher portions of the mountain. Ate Lilian, an organizer of the Timpuyog ti Babbae iti Minas a Lepanto (TBML) and a wife of a retrenched worker shared that any repairs needed by the house are usually shouldered by them (the family living there). According to her, the management takes action on requests, only that it takes them long to actually do something.

Contractualization has also become a dilemma for workers. They are no longer guaranteed any job security at LCMC. The mining industry provides employment in places like the Cordillera as there are no factories and the people have “no choice.”

A union worker called Kuya Simeon said that the SSS, PAG-IBIG, and health insurance are deducted from their salary and yet these are never remitted. Contractualization appears to be a tactic of the management of bringing down the recruitment of unions. Manong Tony narrates that “ayaw na ayaw ng management ang NAFLU” (management hates NAFLU very much), pertaining to Lepanto Employees Union – National Federation of Labor Union – Kilusang Mayo Uno (LEU-NAFLU-KMU) which spearheaded the mobilizations last 2005 and continues to fight for the welfare of the workers.

Aftershock aboveground

Adding to the various pains of workers is the safety of their profession and the geographical effect of mining. Kuya Simeon shared that a nearby community slowly sank. Remnants of large concrete houses can be seen as we walked past by the said community. The inhabitants, according to Kuya Simeon, have no choice but to move higher. Ate Lilian explained that the management does not believe that mining was the reason behind the slow sinking.

Meanwhile, the probability of underground accidents confront miners and their families daily. Ate Lilian narrated that accidents have always happened but thankfully, bodies were always recovered. She also shared that underground workers were also trained to do the rescue operations and outside help would only come when such operations takes longer than normal.

Currently, the LEU-NAFLU-KMU is preparing for the 24th CBA (collective bargaining agreement) negotiations in which they shall once again try to negotiate for a wage increase and most likely improved benefits. The talks, taking place in Baguio, still depict a terrain of contradiction between the powers that be of LCMC and the union. It is easy for the management to travel all the way to Baguio, while for the union leaders, it would be another expensive trip. They are determined however, to fight for the workers of Lepanto

It is such an irony for a miner to search and dig for gold, exposing themselves to immense danger, and yet their economic situation has never been alleviated.

As the end of the day comes, the gold ore is taken to the mill site where it is processed, then taken to the airport where a company airplane fetches it and flies back to Makati, further empowering the tycoons while they, the workers, the foundations of the mines, are left to a glitterless life. Northern Dispatch / Posted by Bulatlat

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