Slave-like wages and miserable working conditions

EXCERPT: Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura's National Sugar Workers Summit report (August 2016):…/sugar-workers-de

Agricultural workers’ wages, especially in traditional sugar areas such as Negros, remain in the lowest, slave-like levels despite profits amassed and vulgar opulence displayed by hacienderos. Historically, the blood and sweat of sugar farmworkers fueled the economic and political influence of the biggest landlord clans. The political clout and state power relished by these names came from the hard toil of sugar workers – Cojuangco, Aquino, Roxas, Araneta, Benedicto, Zubiri, Ledesma, Torres and others.

According to government data, agricultural workers endure the lowest wage rates among workers in every region. The rates, from Php 235 (Eastern Visayas) to Php 334 (Central Luzon) for farm workers, and Php 262 to 364 for mill workers, are but a sorry fraction of the living wage of P1,096 – not even half the amount an average Filipino family needs for their daily subsistence, as prescribed by a study of the IBON Foundation.

The minimum government standards, however, are blatantly violated with the domination of the pakyaw or group rate / piece-rate wage scheme in sugar farm operations. In Isabela, there is a reported rate of Php 13 a day, while computations from the pakyaw rates in Negros, Batangas and Mindanao show that workers are paid as low as Php 16 a day for certain tasks.

In Negros and Batangas, the oppressive pakyaw is recognized by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), thereby legitimizing slave-like wage rates for sugar farmworkers. Sugar farmworkers take home an average of Php 1,000 to 1,500 for 15 days work during the kabyaw or milling season; while those who get “budgeted work” from hacienda management for performing non-productive tasks – like ronda (nightwatch) and cutting grass – during tiempo muerto (dead season) or off-milling season take home a maximum of only Php 200 to 500 every 15 days.

These wage rates do not reflect the additional burden, exploitation and dismal conditions suffered by farmworkers – especially the sakada or migrant sugar workers – in the hands of despotic landlords, the supervisors or enkargado, the lead men or kabo and kapatas and the contractors or kontratistas. They usually deduct wages for tithing, donations, favors and their “cut” for recruiting migrant workers. Other expenses, such as transportation to the work place as reported in Isabela, are also deducted from wages.

The sakadas still endure subhuman working and living conditions, prompting contractors to hide them from labor officials and the media. Particularly in Isabela where cane production is relatively new, the know-how and efficiency of long-time sugar workers from Tarlac, Negros and even from Mindanao became quite in demand at first. The migrant sugar workers did not have potable water or even the miserable workers’ barracks, where generations of sugar workers in Negros and Luzon used to huddle like rats.

There is a case in Isabela where sleeping workers were run over by a truck when they sought temporary shelter underneath the said vehicle. Workers are also transported to cane farms during ungodly hours and made to wait for work under the rain or scorching heat.

Workers in the traditional hacienda set-up also endure usurious charges for basic consumer goods such as rice, canned goods and soap from the management or “cooperative” store. This cycle of debt prevents workers from taking home any cash – many hacienda laborers work only to pay off their debts.

Discrimination, or lower wage rates for female workers and the sakada is also reported, especially in upland areas of Bukidnon and Negros. The problem of child labor, prevalent in haciendas and among the sakada, is the result of the miserable situation of working parents.

This situation is further aggravated by the annual off-milling season or tiempo muerto, when work in sugar areas become scarce or completely absent. This crop year, tiempo muerto was made even worse by drought caused by the El Niño phenomenon. Isabela, Negros Island, North Cotabato, Davao del Sur and Bukidnon are among the sugar areas that declared a state of calamity. Sugar workers and their dependents still need immediate food aid until milling season starts in as late as December to January 2017 in drought-hit areas in Bukidnon.###


[PHOTO above by UMA Pilipinas]