“Tiempo muerto will continue to be a season of hunger and death for sugar workers every year, if the country’s fundamental land problem is not seriously addressed.”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – There is a brewing unrest at the country’s “sugar bowl” as sugar workers decry dirt-poor wages, with most receiving less than a dollar for half-a-month of hard work.
Today is the third day of protest by sugar workers at the Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol in Bacolod City, supported by peasant organizations, such as the Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA), Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), and the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW).
On Aug. 10, sugar workers tore their pay slips in a protest in front of the Department of Labor and Employment’s office in Bacolod City. One of the pay slips showed only P43.42 or less than a dollar for 15 days of work during the boom of harvest and milling season. Most sugar workers incur debts from the landowner’s “cooperative store,” from which they source their rice and other staples.
It is tiempo muerto (dead season) or tigkiriwi, the lull between planting and harvest seasons, “when the sugar industry’s work force collectively grumbles in hunger and pain,” UMA said in a statement.
The poverty and indebtedness of sugar workers is not just a seasonal thing, but is deeply rooted in their landlessness, as vast haciendas remain in the hands of the landed elite of Negros. This inequity now stirs restlessness among the poor, landless majority.
“Negros has a long history of struggle against exploitation and oppression by the island’s elite who also hold powerful positions or influence in national politics,” NFSW chairperson Rolando Rillo said.
Dire situation of sugar workers nationwide
In a separate press release on Aug. 10, UMA secretary general Danilo Ramos said sugar workers are left without any source of income, as finding other means of livelihood is “obviously scarce,” because the lands are mostly devoted to planting sugar.
Ramos said the lands are still in the hands of big landowners who are engaged in monocrop industry. He said 48 percent of the country’s sugarcane is produced in Negros region.
During tiempo muerto, the NFSW said sugar haciendas only offer “budgeted work,” which are usually non-productive tasks with fixed rates of only P500 to P1,000 every 15 days on average.
Rillo said, “It redounds to a measly P8.33 to P16.66 budget per head per day for a family of hacienda workers with four members.”
The El Niño that hit the country last year has also greatly affected their livelihoods. The provincial government of Negros Occidental declared a state of calamity last April. But UMA said sugar workers have yet to benefit from the provincial government’s P40 million ($857,000) calamity fund and other assistance such as the multi-million Social Amelioration Fund (SAF) by DOLE.
Ironically, an NFSW study shows that while sugar workers live in dire conditions, hacienderos or big landowners and their aryendador (or lease agents) earn an average of P80,000 ($1,700) per one hectare of sugarcane plantation.
Genuine agrarian reform is key
To earn a living, Ramos said that farmers have embarked on bungkalan or land cultivation inititiatives, but these efforts “often meet violent opposition from the landlords.”
“The failure of the government’s land reform program CARP is most visible here in Negros. Farmworkers will not have to beg for aid during tiempo muerto if their initiatives for food security are given full support,” said Ramos.
In the case of Hacienda Ilimnan in Sta. Rosa, Murcia town, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) recently resolved the agrarian dispute in favor of farmworkers, but no less than the provincial government deployed armed state security forces to evict and harass farmworkers tilling a 12-hectare area just last month, said Ramos.
UMA said Hacienda Ilimnan farmworkers have camped out in front of the provincial capitol in Bacolod City to protest land grabbing and militarization.
They have also expressed support to the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill by the Anakpawis Partylist.