CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 13 July 2019

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Indentured labour is the way in Sugar Bowl

BACOLOD (SE): Nanay Lani holds up her pay slip, a small piece of paper more akin to a debt notice that the kind proprietor of your neighbourhood sari-sari store hands you to point out that you have run out of credit.

She receives one from the hacienda supervisor every 15 days, usually showing her take-home pay will be less than a hundred pesos ($17) in cash for her toil as farmworker among the sugarcane.

“Here,” Lani says as she holds up the scrap of paper, “I take home only 43.42 pesos ($7.36) for 15 days work.”

This represents her earnings during the boom harvest and milling season, but the amount is so small because her debt at the cooperative store for rice and other supplies has already been deducted.

“Now it is dead season and work is scarce. Even if we get some work, we no longer take home any cash. We incur so much debt during this hunger season,” she explains.

Her face melts into an anguished expression as she explains that this crisis comes in the dead season when there is little work and the collective hunger grumble is loud.

A press release from the Peasant Movement of The Philippines in Bacolod City, the capital of the country’s reputed sugar bowl in Negros Occidental, says farmworkers are into the third day of a protest led by the Movement and the Negros and National Federation of Sugar Workers.

On August 10, hundreds of farmworkers like Lani tore up their pay slips on a picket line in front of the Department of Labour and Employment regional office in Bacolod. Protests were also held in Escalante City, 63 kilometres to the north.

This year, the dead season is deader than usual because of the drought caused by the El Nino phenomenon. A state of calamity was declared in Negros Occidental in April.

Sugar workers are demanding that the provincial government release its 40 million peso ($6.78 million) calamity fund and the multi-million Social Amelioration Fund handled by the department to provide immediate relief to affected sugar workers.

The chairperson of the sugar workers union, Rolando Rillo, said, “Negros has a long history of struggle against exploitation and oppression by the island’s elite, who also hold powerful positions or influence in national politics.”

He pointed out that the continued reign of the so-called old rich, the Marcos cronies like Danding Cojuangco and the Benedictos, as well as the present-day despots like the governor of Negros Occidental, Alfredo Maranon, prove that Negros remains the playground of the owners of Philippine democracy and landlords. Peasant unrest is constant.

The secretary general of the United Agricultural Workers, Danilo Ramos, said that aside from immediate aid, the government must support farmworkers in asserting their land rights.

In many areas, organised workers have already embarked on land cultivation initiatives, but they are mostly met with violent opposition from the big land owners.

“The failure of the government land reform programme is most visible here in Negros. Farmworkers would not have to beg for aid during the hunger season if their initiatives for food security were given full support,” Ramos pointed out.

The plight of the workers is well illustrated by a decision from the Department of Agrarian Reform in their favour at Hacienda Ilimnan in Sta. Rosa, as the ruling is now being contested by the governor of Negros occidental, Maranon.

He deployed the military to harass workers tilling a 12-acre block, but they now are ensconced in a makeshift camp in front of the Provincial Capitol in Bacolod City in protest against land grabbing and militarisation.

The protest illustrates how little has changed in the Philippine hinterlands, as this is the exact same issue which sparked the arrest of the Negros Nine back in 1981.

The three priests and six lay people had been supporting farmworkers in their struggle for land, but were arrested and charged with treason and multiple murder, as well as possession of guns and subversive documents.

The case, which attained international notoriety because of the presence of Father Brian Gore and the late Father Niall O’Brien, was dismissed three years later for lack of evidence.

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