The opening of the sugar industry to displace thousands of agricultural workers

FILE PHOTO: Workers at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac take a midday rest after a hard day’s work harvesting sugar cane. (File photo by Chantal Eco / Bulatlat)

By DAWN CECILIA PEÑA
Additional research and graphics by Gabryelle Dumalag

Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Farmer groups have denounced the possible displacement of thousands of agricultural workers due to the planned liberalization of the sugar industry.

In a statement, Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) and the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) said agricultural workers in the sugar industry had nowhere to go as millions of Filipinos have already lost their jobs during the pandemic.

A study commissioned by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) identified specific actions that the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) or the Ministry of Agriculture can take with respect to the liberalization of the sugar industry.

NEDA advised the relevant agencies to determine the pace of the reduction in quantitative restrictions on imported agricultural products, the parameters of the annual sugar import volumes and the appropriate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

The SRA estimates that there are at least 88,000 sugarcane producers in the country. But farmer groups said the numbers could be higher if sakadas or seasonal farm workers were included.

Towards extinction?

NEDA said the sugar industry contributes an estimated 86 billion pesos ($ 1.75 billion) to the economy, especially with new business opportunities in bioethanol, muscovado and electric power based on sugar. biomass, among other products. The industry, however, has “declined over time,” according to NEDA.

NEDA attributed the decline to fragmented land ownership, lack of improved cane varieties, poor soil quality, inadequate irrigation, poor agricultural mechanization, and inadequate financial support, among other factors. The NEDA also noted that the SRA is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges facing the industry.

The Sugar Regulatory Authority has experienced a 49.5% decline in its annual sugarcane industry development program budget over the past five years. (Source: General Finance Law 2017 – 2021)

In reviewing the General Appropriations Act, SRA has experienced a decline in the annual budget for its sugarcane industry development program over the past five years.

From 1.4 billion pesos ($ 28 million) in 2017, the SRA received only 712 million pesos ($ 14 million) in 2021, which is a drop of 49.5%. In 2019 and 2020, the SRA received only 500 million pesos ($ 10 million), the lowest received in recent years.

It is not clear whether the SRA’s low budget is sufficient to fund the 2020 Sugar Cane Roadmap, a medium-term plan for the Philippine sugar cane industry released in September 2015.

The plan aims to create “an active community of service providers to meet the needs of farmers, millers and workers” and “a more efficient, skilled and fairly paid workforce sector, with access to meaningful socio-economic support services and opportunities ”.

These were to be achieved by “securing funding for identified productivity improvement programs and projects” and “providing easier access to government funding for agricultural loans, agricultural mechanization, irrigation systems, roads from farm to factory, research, development and extension, etc. “

Terrible conditions of the sugar workers

Groups of peasants denounce the slavery working conditions of the sugar workers.

In Sta. Maria Isabela, the sugar workers are only paid about $ 1.00 or even less for a full day of weeding, planting and patching. Some receive about $ 2 to $ 5 per day for fertilizer application and for harvesting.

Read: As the off-season continues, sugar workers occupy land to survive

When the pandemic struck, sugar workers were among those affected by the closure of sugar factories or distilleries and bioethanol plants such as the Bukidnon Sugar Milling Company and the Emperador Distillery in Batangas. The only sugar factory in Cebu has closed due to the pandemic.

Proposals for an emergency daily wage allowance of P 100 ($ 2) for agricultural workers and an agricultural production subsidy of P 15,000 ($ 304) for farmers and fishermen were rejected by the Committee of the House on credits.

According to Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), the agricultural production subsidy of 15,000 pesos ($ 304) is needed to help farmers continue their farming-related activities.

“The costs of production have increased unbearably – agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizers and pesticides continue to rise, the use of water pumps and the rental of agricultural machinery are affected by the weekly price increases of the fuel, “KMP said in a press release.

On June 23, the UMA and the NFSW filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) regarding serious violations of labor rights under the Duterte administration.

Read: ILO help requested for government crimes against Filipino farm workers

State terror

Instead of helping the sugar workers, the government responded by sowing terror in their communities, including the militarization of a sugar field in Sta. Married. This, the WBU said, persists and “demonstrates the urgency of our complaint.”

According to Cita Manguelod of UMA-Isabela, their protests demanded reinstatement, job security, higher wages and benefits at a sugarcane plantation run by Green Future Innovations, Inc. (GFII). They were, however, defamed and threatened with violence by the state’s armed forces.

GFII produces bioethanol from sugar cane. The latter is harvested in the cane fields leased to the company by Sta. Maria Mayor Hilario Pagauitan.

“Since June 16, soldiers from the 95th IB have been visiting selected sugar workers on a daily basis, questioning them about WBU typhoon-related relief operations and claiming they had ties to the New People’s Army,” the armed wing of the Revolutionary Communist Party of the Philippines, “WBU said.

There were also attempts to portray the sugar workers as captive rebels when several trade unionists refused to follow instructions from the 95th IB to clear their names at the barangay hall of Barangay Calamagui North and Barangay Bangad.

“This is not just an anti-union fight, it is full-fledged state terrorism,” said Antonio Flores of the WBU, adding that Isabela’s sugar workers had organized themselves to protest their inhumane daily wage of $ 0.30, a far cry from the region’s minimum wage of $ 7.00. .

The peasant leader called on the ILO to put pressure on the Ministry of Labor and Employment to speak to them. He also called for peasant activists and human rights defenders to stand alongside the oppressed sugar workers. (JJE, DAA) (https://www.bulatlat.com)

Rachel J. Bradford