“In the land of bigname hacienderos, contractual workers lug everyday more than 1,000 sacks of sugar weighing 50 kilos. They are paid lower than the minimum wage. Some suffer bone fractures. Some developed hernia. But the workers complained the company does not even provide them a clinic or first aid.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — “Atat na atat,” Filipino word for overly eager, is how the sugar workers in Negros feel toward putting an end to contractualization. Noli Rosales, regional coordinator of Kilusang Mayo Uno in Negros, said he is ready to bet that if a survey is held among the workers in Negros right now, whether under yellow or genuine unions they would choose to end contractualization.
Nearly all of the 19 cities in the island-region have sugar mills, making Negros the largest sugar-producing region in the Philippines. Its sugar plantations grew by 50.97 percent to 183,051 hectares in 2012, up from just 121,249 hectares in 1990. Sugar lands in Negros comprise almost half of the entire country’s sugar lands.
In 2012, sugar contributed PhP70 billion or roughly US$1.5 billion to the national economy, according to the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).
Behind this wealth, all of the sugar mills and sugarcane hacienda employ contractual workers being paid less than the low minimum wage, Rosales told Bulatlat.
In 2012, exactly four years ago this week, in one of these sugar mills, longtime contractual workers had been forced to launch a strike. They succeeded in stopping production for four days. But on the fifth day, a battalion of fully armed soldiers demolished the picket line by force. The brutal demolition of workers’ picket allowed the sugar mill to resume production, and hire new contractual workers in place of the strikers.
But the labor dispute continued to this day.
Before being forced to launch that strike, the workers had succeeded in urging the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to conduct an inspection of the sugar mills.
The labor department confirmed that indeed, the labor agencies separately supplying the sugar mill with stevedores, drivers, baggers and mill operators were engaged in illegal labor-only contracting. The workers were thus supposed to have been regularized under the actual employer: the First Farmers Holding Corporation.
Instead of taking responsibility for its workers, though, First Farmers Holding fired its decades-long contractual workers. But they denied firing the same workers. Instead, it said it just terminated the contract of the labor agency Fas Services.
Until now, four years since the strike, most of the workers still had to enjoy the labor department’s ruling on their case. They are now either unemployed or still contractual in other haciendas or sugar mills. The Supreme Court ordered the lifting of their picketline in April this year. The union complied in August but appealed the Supreme Court decision.
Top sugar producers employ contractuals, pay below minimum wage
In an interview with KMU regional leaders from Negros, they told Bulatlat that the country’s embrace of neoliberal policies since the Marcos dictatorship has steadily subjected the island’s sugar to competition from imports. Some sugar mills ceased operation. But the same neoliberal policies also subjected the country’s workers to deregulation. Policies concerning wages, work condition and benefits were relaxed or removed. One of its most recognized forms is what the workers call today as contractualization.
Under contractualization, the business owners get workers from service providers or contractors. In the process, their employer-employee relationship is blurred but only on paper. Its effect is far-reaching. Businesses’ profits soared as employers became freer to minimize labor costs, hire and fire workers, and avoid unions. For workers, the impact has been a combination of stagnant wages, little to no benefits and throttled to decimated unions.
Following President Duterte’s promise last May to eradicate contractualization, most workers’ groups were hopeful. But so far, they have yet to become regular on the job. The employers’ groups and even some officials of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) have been busy citing the possible backlash on job creation of a ban on contractualization. The Labor department even presented to workers what the Department of Trade and Industry and employers’ groups dubbed as ‘win-win’ proposals. The labor leaders think it is win-win only for employers.
4-year workers’ strike in Negros traced to contractualization
The same is true in Negros. The province is home to some of the country’s biggest names in business and haciendas: the Cojuangcos, the Aboitizes, the Ledesmas, among others.
But in Negros, most workers receive only P130 to P150 ($2.67 to $3.08) per day of work, amounts which are below the P298 ($6.12) minimum wage. According to Noli Rosales of Negros-KMU, the workers who approach them to fight contractualization are often paid the lowest.
An example is the First Arrastre Stevedoring Services Employees Union, the union that launched a strike four years ago this week. It counted as members baggers of sugar whose pay was just P80 ($1.64) per day. It also organized the stevedores who at the time had to share with the rest of their work “gang” the P1 to P1.50 ($0.031) pay per sack hauled.
Having formed a union, their work condition slightly improved, but they were still contractuals the company could more easily threaten with termination. In fact, it did fire them following the labor department’s inspection, Rosales said.
More than a hundred contractual stevedores were fired from October 29 to 31. The following days, the sugar mill workers launched the first strike in years in sugarlandia.
The direct cause was the workers’ termination, but the real issue was their contractualization and their P89 to P91 daily income at the time.
Rosales said the stevedores also decried the absence of toilet and clinic for contractual workers.
“Stevedores frequently developed hernia, lugging more than 1,000 sacks of sugar weighing 50 kilos each every day they work. Some suffered bone fractures. But the workers complained that the company does not even provide them a clinic or first aid,” Rosales told Bulatlat.
Before contractualization through agencies became prevalent, First Farmers had up to 2,000 regular workforce. Now its regular numbered only 300, Rosales said.
Ironically, a labor federation affiliated with the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) “helped” the management to repress the union organizing of the contractual stevedores, Rosales said.
He told Bulatlat he was surprised to see the leaders of Nacusip-TUCP taking part in Labor Secretary Bello’s dialogue on stopping contractualization last month in Manila.
In Negros, it appears Nacusip has been instrumental in the sugarmill’s repression of militant unions.
After the First Arrastre Stevedoring Services Employees Union (FASSEU) composed of contractual stevedores succeeded in bringing slight improvements into the sugar mill workers’ conditions, following the labor department’s inspection, it defeated Nacusip in a certification election.
But the employers opposed the labor department’s ruling (on labor-only contracting). It asserted the TUCP’s wish that only unions allied with Nacusip would be recognized.
The latter reportedly said the contractual status of the FASSEU members prevented them from being a legitimate union. The sugar mill management used the TUCP reasoning that only NACUSIP members can be regularized and only regular workers can form a union.
The militant unionists were fired but they launched a successful four-day strike four years ago this November.
It paralyzed production in the sugar mill. But on the fifth day, Rosales said a battalion of soldiers under the Armed Forces’ Regional Mobile Group, accompanied by goons and the para-military group RPA-ABB, used force to demolish the strikers’ picket line.
Four years since then, the worker’s case of illegal dismissal filed against the sugar mill has reached the Supreme Court’s 3rd division.
The workers await the court’s decision. They also await the Labor department’s intervention so that they could finally enjoy the ruling against labor-only contracting in 2012.