“The DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) is sleeping on the case of Musahamat workers and it can no longer pretend that nothing is happening. By being silent, it is being complicit in the apparent campaign to silence the workers in Pantukan by any means possible, including murder.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Hours after the police shooting of protesting farmers in Kidapawan, the protest camp of banana workers in Pantukan, Compostela Valley, was strafed at midnight April 2 by gunmen riding in tandem. They narrowly missed three unionists.
“It is a clearly attempted murder of trade unionists,” said a statement of Kilusang Mayo Uno-Southern Mindanao Regional chapter (KMU-SMR). They recovered eight empty shell casings from what appears to be a .45 caliber pistol.
The strafing occurred amid an ongoing vilification campaign against KMU and its affiliate union in the area, the KMU-SMR said. A few weeks before, the protesting banana workers complained of an attempted arson of their camp. The fire was successfully put out by the residents before it could spread.
Carlo Olalo, secretary general of KMU Southern Mindanao, called on the Department of Labor and Employment to step into the case. He linked the “series of crimes” happening in Barangay Kingking, Pantukan, Compostela Valley to the brewing strike in Musahamat Farm 2. Musahamat is a multinational company that produces and exports bananas and other fruits. It began operation in the Philippines in 2008.
Demand for improved wages being met with repression
Less than two months ago, Musahamat Workers Labor Union II – National Federation of Labor Unions – Kilusang Mayo Uno (MWLU-II-NAFLU-KMU) successfully defended its status as the sole and exclusive bargaining agent of the workers at Musahamat Farms, Inc. in a certification elections against its rival union federated under Associated Labor Unions – Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP). The KMU-affiliated union had to overcome various acts of repression.
In 2015, they filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization (ILO) against Army officials, saying it forcibly interrogated their union officers and then presented them as rebel surrenderees. After that, the KMU-SMR said the banana workers’ union members and leaders had to live and work with daily threats and red-baiting by management and state forces.
In winning the certification election this February, the union of banana workers defeated a smear campaign attempting to link them to the New People’s Army (NPA). But soon after their victory, Musahamat Farms, Inc. sent notices to 19 union leaders and members demanding explanation why they should not be fired for holding a picket protest on February 9, 13, and 15. The affected workers responded by explaining that the picket constituted freedom of expression, and that they conducted it peacefully without hampering operations at the plant.
Since February 6, the banana workers’ union said 52 workers have been dismissed, 19 have been placed under 30-day suspension and 19 union members, including nine union leaders, might also be laid off as the representatives of management had said at a conciliation meeting at the National Conciliation and Mediation Board last month.
Esperidion Cabaltera, president of MWLU-II-NAFLU-KMU, said Musahamat is an “incorrigible union buster” who wants to eradicate the presence of leaders and staunch supporters of the KMU union because “it does not want us around demanding our rights.”
Aside from opposing the company’s policy of “arbitrary dismissals,” the union has been helping “overstaying” workers or “job-orders” who exceed service for six months and one day to attain regular status on the job.
“The company’s answer is to dismiss them outright but we are here fighting for their reinstatement,” Cabaltera said.
After many failed negotiations with Musahamat for reinstatement of dismissed workers, on March 28 the union delivered an overwhelming “yes” in a strike vote.
Since then, their protest actions and encampment in preparation for the actual strike are being maligned and threatened.
Particularly after the strafing April 2, the labor group called for immediate action to protect trade unionists in Pantukan. Olalo of KMU-SMR said, “The DOLE is sleeping on the case of Musahamat workers and it can no longer pretend that nothing is happening. By being silent, it is being complicit in the apparent campaign to silence the workers in Pantukan by any means possible, including murder.”
Musahamat makes no reference in its website to the brewing strike in Pantukan, its series of dismissals of workers demanding regularization on the job, or its failure, so far, to negotiate with the workers’ union for a collective bargaining agreement. It claims to be trying to observe a healthier and environmentally safe way of producing bananas and other fruits. It exports bananas in the Middle East and Asia.