The start of “ember” season, which is marked by the opening of sugar milling season and increased economic activities, is traditionally viewed as the beginning of good tidings for most sugar workers. It is seen as a season of “sugar money” perking up economic and social activities. It is considered a period of literally massive beer drinking in the urban centers and haciendas, the October Masskara feast in Bacolod, and all sorts of social festivals in various towns. Most sugar workers however see and experience things differently now.
BY KARL G. OMBION
BACOLOD City – The start of “ember” season, which is marked by the opening of sugar milling season and increased economic activities, is traditionally viewed as the beginning of good tidings for most sugar workers.
It is seen as a season of “sugar money” perking up economic and social activities. It is considered a period of literally massive beer drinking in the urban centers and haciendas, the October Masskara feast in Bacolod, and all sorts of social festivals in various towns.
Most sugar workers however see and experience things differently now.
Tatay Lucio, a 58-year-old sacada (itinerant farm worker), the father of a family of sacadas in Hacienda Nabignit, Silay City, Negros Occidental said that such a picture of the “ember” season may have been true in the past, but that is no longer the case.
Narrating in the Ilonggo dialect, he said nothing has changed in his family’s life through decades of working for their amo (boss) in the hacienda. “We are still poor, landless, deeply indebted to our amo and ama, including my grandchildren,” he said.
“The only change we have witnessed is the tiempo muerto (dead season or off-harvest period from April to August), turning from a seasonal morass to a year-round reality for us and most sugar workers,” he added.
Jennifer, 17, a commercial sex worker in Bacolod, who migrated from a nearby sugar plantation said she does not want to return to the hacienda even during the harvest season because in Bacolod, she could earn as much as P800 to P1, 000 ($15.95 to $19.95 at an exchange rate of $1 = P50.13) a night compared to a measly income she could get from a month’s hard labor in a sugar farm.
She murmured however that had her former haciendero amo not been oppressive, and had the local government provided enough social services and care for sugar workers, she would have considered returning to the hacienda.
“Farm is still ideal for wholesome family development, because of less unfavorable social influences, and more options to do production work,” she said. “But that seems a thing of the past now.
Butch Lozande, secretary-general of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) told Bulatlat that tiempo muerto in the Negros sugar industry, which runs from April to August, has become a year-round nightmare for an estimated 380,000 sugar workers here.
“Today, most Negrenses do not feel anymore the distinction between dead season and milling season, or boom and bust of sugar industry; for them economic hardships, hunger, have become a daily problem for most people here especially the sugar workers,” he said.
He added that most sugar workers are deeply indebted to their amo often depending on them for daily survival on small cash advances and rice rationing, and their children also help in farm production and harvest without pay to pay the debts.
Lozande further said that even the middle classes are feeling the pressures as their salaries remain low; and they suffer cuts in basic benefits and surging prices of basic commodities; while others face the lack of job security as a growing number of business establishments and private offices are implementing labor-only contracting, casualization, and other “labor-flexibility” schemes resulting in loss of permanent jobs and diminution of their salaries.
Related studies made by Bacolod-based social research outfit Center for Investigative Research and Multimedia Services (CIRMS) and other academic institutions in Negros revealed that during the tiempo muerto, tens of thousands of sugar workers migrate to Bacolod City, district urban centers and even other provinces to look for temporary jobs.
“Most of them take various odd jobs such as those of transport conductors, drivers, construction workers, cargadores (stevedores) in local ports and warehouses, (and) errand workers in small eateries, while a number especially women and children become commercial sex workers and house helpers,” noted CIRMS.
CIRMS added that the tiempo muerto is very distinct in Negros which is a monocrop sugar-based economy. “Unlike in other sugar provinces like in Bukidnon, Iloilo, Cebu and Batangas where their surrounding provinces have diverse economies, most Negrenses live and thrive on the sugar economy,” it observed.
It said that “even the dominant service sector, wholesaling and retailing businesses in urban centers are very much dependent on the behavior of the sugar industry; thus if (the) sugar industry suffers crisis, urban-based businesses also feel its ripple effects.”
The only factor that keeps the Negros economy afloat, and ensures the continued circulation of money supply is the remittances of Negrense migrants and overseas workers estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000 by government figures, it concluded. (Bulatlat.com)