By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — The Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in the Southern Mindanao Region (SMR) announced in a statement that workers of Freshmax Trading Company in Compostela Valley went on strike November 13 after negotiations between their union and the management failed to agree over workers’ salaries and benefits.
Freshmax Trading Co. is a Korean-owned company that produces and exports Cavendish bananas. The company plantation occupies 130 hectares, producing an estimated 1,200 boxes of bananas daily. Cavendish bananas are the most important cultivated bananas for export. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, bananas are the country’s second-top dollar earner next to coconuts. The export industry of the fruit occupies some 80,000 hectares of land spread out in 13 provinces in Mindanao.
The members of the Freshmax Workers Union-National Federation of Labor Unions-KMU (FWU-NAFLU-KMU) placed a picket line at the roadside leading to the firm’s office in Sitio San Miguel, Compostela. Union president Irwin Canalda said a major reason for the breakdown in negotiations is the Korean owner Mi Kyung Kwon’s “ignorance” regarding collective bargaining agreements.
He said negotiations broke down after eight months of talks and still, the two parties failed to reconcile their respective proposals.
“Ms. Mi Kyung Kwon said she will not give us benefits because she is already paying our wages,” Canalda said. “It’s very difficult to negotiate with the management because the owner is very stubborn even if she has the benefit of her lawyer’s counsel. She said that almost all of our union’s proposals for economic benefits are unacceptable and she refuses to negotiate terms.”
According to reports, the strike paralyzed the company’s operations and the harvest, packing and exporting processes of the bananas were put to a halt beginning October 13.
He said the management refused their proposal for a P30 ($0.71) daily wage increase and a one sack of rice per month allowance. The company also refused to allow benefits such as sick leave and union leave.
The union had earlier filed a notice of strike with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Davao when the management refused to enter into negotiations. This was in May. Soon, the management decided to open its doors to negotiations when the union declared its decision to launch a strike.
“At first, the management said it had no counter-proposals because it was losing. We find it hard to believe because by all intents and purposes, it looks like it’s making a lot of money given the large number of bananas it produces and exports on a daily basis,” the union president said.
Canalda said the strike was completely legal because the union went through the prescribed legal process before it launched the strike.
According to reports, the company owner has sought to speak to the workers along with representatives from the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB). No formal negotiations took place, however, because the management’s lawyer was absent.
“We will only lift the strike if and when the company improves on its offers and counter-proposals. As long as there is no positive development, then we will continue with the strike,” Canalda said.
Bananas as a major export
Earlier this month, the Department of Agriculture announced that it will establish common packing facilities to help small banana growers and exporters to comply with export standards. Many of these growers and exporters are based in Davao and Mindanao.
According to Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, the agency is working with the Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association to build two banana packing facilities. These will be put up in Kinnamon and Casig-an in Sto. Tomas, Davao del Norte. Each packaging facility will reportedly cost P3.1 million ($73,800), and the funds will come from the Presidential Social Fund. A total of P50 million ($1.19 million) of the PSF will be used for the construction of new packing facilities and or the upgrade of existing ones.
“The Bureau of Plant Industry is inspecting small banana packing facilities so that these will be given accreditation,” he told the media.
As of November 2012, at least 44 packaging facilities have passed inspection.
In the meantime, the Aquino government has already embarked on a “banana mission” to explore and secure export markets for Philippine bananas. Last June 23, officials of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters (PBGEA), and the Mindanao Banana Farmers and Exporters Association (MBFEA) left for the Middle East, Brussels, Netherlands and Italy.
In 2010, the country’s total export earnings from Cavendish bananas amounted to $720 million or P30.2 billion. Exports currently go to China, Russia, South Korea, New Zealand and Japan, and countries in the Middle East.