Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. V,    No. 18      June 12 - 18, 2005      Quezon City, Philippines











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Currents of Unrest at Compostela’s Big Banana Plantations

Labor contractualization and other new schemes in Compostela Valley’s large banana plantations are agitating both farmworkers and small growers for wage increase and union rights.

By Gilbert Pacificar
Bulatlat Mindanao Bureau

Compostela Valley Province - The woes of plantation workers in this top banana-producing province in Mindanao are mounting as big plantation corporations are enforcing another device to lower their wages, scrap their benefits, retrench them, or reduce their status into mere contractual workers.

As a result, many banana plantation workers are forced to either turn to unions for assistance, form their own unions if they do not have one, or put up with the insecurities of the job wrought by the new employers’ schemes.

One of the banana plantation workers affected is Norberto Charcoz who works at one of the five banana plantations of Standard (Philippines) Incorporated or Stanfilco in Maragusan town, this province. Stanfilco is a division of Dole Philippines, Inc. in Compostela, more than 76 kms from Tagum City. It produces Cavendish bananas mainly for export.

While aging people are supposed to be resting and already enjoying retirement, you can still find Manong (elder brother) Norberto, at 88, in an ordinary day either cleaning the grounds under chemical-sprayed and cellophane-wrapped bananas, if not harvesting them. He has been doing this for nine years since he was hired as a worker in 1996 and eventually regularized.

Nong Berto does not mind the toil under the scorching heat of the sun. He said he values this work because, for him, this is the only way he could feed his entire family and send his three children to school.

When the company he works for imposed the growership system last year, regular workers of the rest of the four other Stanfilco farms were retrenched. There were about 2,000 farm workers who were retrenched from the four farms of Stanfilco, according to Kaisahan ng Uring Manggagawa para Isulong ang Laban sa Uri at Sambayanan (Kumilos), a labor organization based in the adjoining provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte.

Farm 98

As a result, only Farm 98, where he works, has regular workers nowadays. Manong Norberto is proud their union has weathered union busting attempts and managed to keep their status as regular workers.

Another scheme

But this year, Manong Norberto and his co-workers have to hurdle another test. Stanfilco, which ranks among the major exporters of banana in the region, has recently imposed the Freight-on-Board (FOB) scheme.

Just this April, Manong Norberto told Bulatlat that he and his co-worker, Martiniano Gorgonio, were shocked to learn that the management ordered the employees’ transfer to another area, this time to work only as mere harvester under the FOB scheme.

The Stanfilco management said that their length of service will be paid at one time by the company in exchange for being converted later from regular to contractual worker.

This would mean reduced wages, from P192 a day to only P162. As a contractual worker, benefits such as overtime and hazard pay will be scrapped, too.

Sadly, many of Manong Norberto's fellow workers have submitted themselves to the scheme. He is one of the remaining farmworkers who refused to submit to this scheme.

Joel Devino, new president of Maragusan United Workers Union (MUWU), said that the FOB scheme has affected 379 workers or 20 percent of Farm 98’s labor force.

Most of the farm workers who were hastily shifted to contractual status were those in service for seven years, Devino also said. But even if they were forced to give up rights just to get the cash offer, they still ended up with a small pay, he added. Each payment, they were told, has a cap of only Php 25,000.

Devino believes, the FOB scheme "only legitimizes further the contractualization policy of the government," another condition, he said, that makes life more miserable to workers like Manong Norberto.

Romualdo Basilio, chairman of Kumilos, lamented that the FOB has affected all agricultural workers in Compostela. Other farms such as those of Marsman in the towns
of Mawab, Nabunturan and Pantukan, the Dizon Farm in Monkayo and the Davao Fruit farms in other towns of Compostela Valley are imposing the scheme, he said.

Unfortunately, Basilio said, workers of these farms have no union thus making them vulnerable to such ploy. Kumilos has tried to reach out to workers in these areas.

But in these agro-corporate farms unionizing faces obstacles. Military elements who are reportedly employed by companies harass union organizers and the companies themselves are imposing harsher policies to discourage unionizing.

"These agricultural workers are slowly dying from the hands of these big capitalists raking in huge profits," said Basilio.

Even growers are affected

Farmworkers are not alone whose lives, they have, have become miserable under the FOB. Small farmowners or growers too are victims under this system. They complain that they too are not free from this type of manipulation by big banana corporations. In fact, many of them have joined the recent Labor Day protest in Davao
City streets.

Alberto Daite, who owns a piece of land in Maragusan, entered into a growership agreement with Stanfilco in 1993. In a memorandum of agreement (MoA) he signed with
the company, he entrusted his land certificate title to the company, renting out the land for 25 years.

In exchange, the company was supposed to provide financing for farm inputs and
labor costs, from planting, growing, harvesting up to processing and packing of bananas. The company has the sole purchasing right to their harvest under prices that they dictate.

Daite said he only learned later that Stanfilco used their land title as collateral with the Land Bank where the company sourced the amount they used to finance the growers.

But such financing offered by the plantation company was true before. Today, the current FOB scheme has forced the growers to the wall – they now take the sole burden of financing the operations. The plantation companies are mere buyers of the growers’ products under terms the former dictate unfairly.

In their case, Daite said, they earn a net income of a measly P13 per box (containing 12 kilos) of banana under the price set by Stanfilco. This, despite the fact that costs of production have gone higher while banana exporters are making a killing out of banana exports. Current prices of banana in the foreign market, based on the monitoring of the union, are now $35 a kilo.

Unpaid loans

With a losing income, growers are protesting that they could hardly pay the debts that are now passed on to them by the company. The banks too are now going after them and are bound to confiscate the growers’ property which is held as collateral because of unpaid loans.

These conditions are now causing agitation not only among farmworkers who are now clamoring against unjust labor practices, but also farm owners who see the danger of losing out their lands to such schemes.

As more farmlands are being sought for expansion of banana plantations in the adjoining provinces of Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley, Manong Berto is seeing the situation as a challenge for him and for the rest of agricultural workers in the province to form unions so that they can collectively protect their rights and welfare. Bulatlat




© 2004 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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