How many sacadas must be exploited in Hacienda Luisita and other sugar plantations in the country to produce sugar made bitter by their sweat and tears?
By AMIHAN MABALAY
“Hindi ko na natiis ang gutom kaya kahit walang pamasahe tumakas ako. May driver ng jeep na nagpasakay sa akin nang libre hanggang sa munisipyo. Doon nalang ako natulog sa kalsada. Umiyak ako doon, umiyak talaga ako. Wala akong pera, wala akong pagkain. Nanghingi lang ako ng tubig sa mga dumadaan,” (I could no longer bear the hunger so I escaped even if I had no money. A jeepney driver gave me a ride for free up to the town center. There I slept on the street. I cried, I really cried. I had no food, no money. I begged for water from passers-by.)”
This was the account of Benjie Caha, a T’boli, on how he escaped the slave-like conditions as a sacada (sugarcane worker) inside the sprawling, conflict-ridden Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac province. Caha spoke at a media briefing on March 17, one among the newest batch of sacadas who escaped from Hacienda Luisita and are now being assisted by Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA).
Driven by landlessness, the mostly Lumad sacadas have gone a long way from Mindanao only to end up exploited in different sugar estates in Central Luzon. After breaking free from slave-like conditions, their journey has now led them to seek justice and fight back against those deceived and abused them.
Escaping modern day slavery
On August 1 last year, Agrikulto Inc., based in Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) in Hacienda Luisita requested recruitment agency Greenhand Labor Service Cooperative for 1,000 sugar workers to work in the sugar estate. Four months later, from December 2016, around 100 of them have either escaped or left their work as migratory sugar cane cutters for Central Azucarera de Tarlac, the biggest sugar mill in Central Luzon. Through Greenhand Labor Service Cooperative, they were transported from different parts of Mindanao to Tarlac and nearby provinces.
The workers were promised a “Tarlac package” which consisted of boarding, food and free transportation from Mindanao. Some recruiters claimed that this was a livelihood project of President Rodrigo Duterte. Mario Memper, spokesperson of the sacadas, said they were even promised to stay in “hotels.” They were promised a daily wage of P450 with benefits, but all turned out to be lies.
Aside from the backbreaking work starting at 4 a.m. until 5 in the afternoon, they were treated inhumanely. Those who worked inside Luisita lived in cramped and poorly-ventilated bunkhouses. They were lucky to sleep on wooden beds, while those who were brought to other provinces like Pampanga and Pangasinan suffered worse conditions. They had to stay in stinky barracks formerly used as pigsty, and slept on the cold concrete floor. They endured hunger and were malnourished because they were not provided decent food. Some had to catch frogs to cook while some went to the fields on empty stomachs. They had to pay for their basic necessities, even the spading (bolo) they used to cut the canes, through salary deduction.
The promised daily wage of P450 ($9) a day was replaced by a pakyaw (group rate) of P220 ($4.30) per ton, based on a quota of 18 tons a day, for a group of eight to 13. The sacadas, however, said that reaching the quota is physically impossible, and were only able to cut and haul 10 tons a day.
Frail and with eyes reflecting despair, most of the sacadas recruited by the contractor Greenhand Labor Service Cooperative were Lumad. These indigenous people belong to different tribes in Mindanao such as Manobo, B’laan, and T’boli. Greenhand recruited the sacadas through verbal agreements, though they were made to sign contracts and given a “signing bonus” of P2,500 ($50) each. But because most of the workers are unable to read and write and are in dire need of money, they were easily convinced. Also unaware of the history of the sugar estate, they were alarmed to learn about the Hacienda Luisita massacre from documentaries shown by UMA later on. Clearly, the Lumad and other workers were lured into a modern-day slavery trap.
Exploitation in Cojuangco-Aquino estate persists 12 years after massacre
Bart Clinton Macadenden, a sacada from the B’laan tribe in South Cotabato, recounts how they also suffered verbal abuse in the hands of their contractor and supervisors from Agrikulto. They were treated like pigs and forced to work even if it was supposed to be their rest day. One of the supervisors scolded them, “Anong gusto ninyo, papakainin nalang namin kayo, patatabain, pagkatapos ibebenta. Ang maiwan lilitsunin nalang (Do you want to be just fed and fattened, like pigs? Those who will not work will be roasted)!”
Macadenden lamented that the employers had no right to treat them this way just because they are indigenous people from Mindanao.
Hacienda Luisita is the site of a massacre in 2004, in which seven striking farm workers were killed when government forces opened fire on their picket line. Hacienda Luisita farm workers went on strike to protest their measly wage of P9.50 a day. Twelve years hence, the migratory workers from Mindanao were given even much lower rates. Payrolls obtained from the T’boli sacadas revealed that four among them received P44 a week or P6 a day. UMA also found this out from a sacada who was able to return home to Polomolok, South Cotabato.
The sacada victims have since filed complaints of violation of minimum wage law and various labor department orders against recruiter Greenhand, principal employer Agrikulto and Central Azucarera de Tarlac. The cases were filed at the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) Regional Arbitration Boards in Pampanga and Cagayan de Oro. More sacadas are poised to file labor and criminal complaints of human trafficking. They are assisted by UMA, Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center (PLACE), Karapatan Northern Mindanao Region and Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao.
Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) through its office, Special Assessment and Visit Establishment (SAVE), presented its findings before UMA, DSWD and DAR on February 16. Some of the findings and recommendations were:
• The sacadas only earned a weekly wage of P1,523 or P217 per day which is way below the minimum wage of P334 a day for plantation workers in Region 3;
• They were not covered by SSS, PhilHealth and Pag-ibig and their contributions were not paid;
• Starting December 2016, a total of 834 out of 861 sakadas escaped from Hacienda Luisita: 586 escaped the bunkhouse, 76 left after signing a waiver, and 72 T’bolis allegedly accompanied home by the Greenland;
• Implementation of the cancellation of the Greenland’s License and issuance of cease and desist order forbidding to recruit for additional workers;
• Require Greenhand and Agrikulto to restitute the amounts illegally deducted from the sakadas and institute appropriate action against Greenhand and Agrikulto for child labor, illegal recruitment and trafficking of persons;
Bitter sugar for sacadas around the country
How many sacadas must be exploited in Hacienda Luisita and other sugar plantations in the country to produce sugar made bitter by their sweat and tears? The sacadas share that working as migratory farm workers is a common practice in their provinces. In sugar cane areas such as Bukidnon where some of the sacadas came from, sugar workers and their families suffer from the annual tiempo muerto (dead season after harvest and milling), joblessness and extreme hunger which drives them to accept jobs as migratory workers.
Worse, the ordeals of the Mindanao sacadas brought to Luisita would continue and victimize others because unfair labor practices still exist. Schemes like labor-only contracting – considered as the worst form of contractualization – such as those by Agrikulto and Greenhand, still exist.
The conditions of the sacadas were exposed by farmers’ organization Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA). Its local affiliate in Bukidnon, the Organisasyon sa Yanong Obrerong Nakahiusa (OGYON) reported in November 2016 that a number of its members were recruited and transported to Tarlac. UMA facilitated the rescue of sacadas who escaped from Luisita on December. Through UMA’s intercession, sacadas were assisted by the offices of Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary Rafael Mariano, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod.
DAR has opened its facilities as a temporary sanctuary for the rescued batches of sacadas. Speaking with the latest batch of rescued workers, Secretary Rafael Mariano said that while DAR is vigorously correcting the social injustices endured by Luisita farmers and farmworkers brought about by decades of landlessness, the Cojuangco-Aquinos lure and deceive workers from other parts of the country. He thus assured them that the agency is committed to support the enactment of genuine agrarian reform law to address the landlessness problem perpetuated by the previous Aquino administration.
DSWD has been providing assistance to the distressed sacadas since December and assured that they will continue to provide needed support. Assistant Secretary Lorraine Marie Badoy came to visit sacadas staying in DAR and assured them that the agency will continue to assist their needs. Meanwhile, Secretary Judy Taguiwalo said that aside from the Balik-Probinsya program and relief goods provided to sacadas and their families, DSWD will also look into other ways to assist the sacadas who have already returned home so that trafficking and exploitation of farm workers will be prevented.
“We are searching for other means to help the sacadas and their families because they need sustainable livelihood,” said Taguiwalo. “It is appalling that they had to endure slave-like conditions just because they want to support their families in Mindanao. We need to empower them and educate them so that they will be informed about their rights and the labor laws of our country so that incidents like this will not happen again.”
Support from private individuals have also poured in. After rescuing and sheltering sacadas they found in the streets near Camp Aguinaldo, couple Pia Castro and Ricky Medenilla started a fundraising project. Through a social media page “Sacada – Ang Muling Pagbangon,” they are collecting donations to raise funds for seeds and other farming inputs to sustain a livelihood project.
Travelling the road to genuine agrarian reform
With the lack of employment in their provinces, the sacadas have travelled from end to end of the country only to be treated inhumanely. UMA Secretary General Danilo Ramos said the sacadas of Mindanao would not need to leave their homes if there was genuine land distribution. Ironically, he said, inside Luisita, farmer-beneficiaries have lost control over the land because of the illicit leaseback scheme aryendo.
“Thus, the heavy work in the fields is shouldered by cheap labor from Mindanao,” said Ramos.
Five years after the Supreme Court decision to distribute Hacienda Luisita, most of the awarded lands have been taken off the hands of the farmers due to aryendo. Ramos called on Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano to investigate Agrikulto’s involvement in aryendo. UMA reports that Agrikulto is the biggest proprietor of aryendo system in the sugar estate.
Meanwhile, holding only Greenhand and AgriKulto accountable for its grave offenses will not end the plight of the many oppressed farm workers around the country. Only genuine agrarian reform and the end of labor contractualization will address the roots of the sacada exploitation, peasant leaders say.
Anakpawis Partylist, together with other members of the Makabayan Coalition, recently filed House Resolution 907 directing the Committee on Agrarian Reform and Committee on Labor and Employment to conduct a joint inquiry on the continuing trafficking and exploitation of sacadas from Mindanao in Hacienda Luisita. Aside from Greenhand and Agrikulto, the resolution aims to investigate the liability of Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) jointly owned by oligarchs Lorenzos and Cojuangco-Aquinos. According to the 2016 annual report of CAT, Agrikulto is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CAT.
Casilao emphasized that ultimately, the oligarch class that systematically exploits the toiling masses in the name of profit should be held accountable. The former labor leader from Mindanao challenged President Duterte to go after the Lorenzos and Cojuangcos for the crimes they committed against the sacadas from Mindanao and other parts of the country.
Speaking before the first batch of rescued sacadas in January, Casilao told them that their harrowing experience will arm their struggle for liberation, and that only through collective action can the sacadas liberate themselves from feudal and semi-feudal exploitation.