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Volume 3,  Number 23              July 13 - 19, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Special Report

Mindanao’s Modern-Day Slaves

In the banana plantations of Southern Mindanao, thousands of contractual workers have been virtually reduced to slaves, abused with impunity by their employers. It’s a cruel cycle that does not seem to end for these workers as a result of the government’s contractualization policy.

Bulatlat.com Mindanao Bureau

KAPALONG, Davao del Norte – Virgilio Tandayag, a 52-year-old worker in a banana plantation in this town, fondly remembers when he was still a regular worker. He started working in the plantation in the early 1980s and, by 1989, he was earning P112 a day.

“We had SSS (Social Security System) benefits, housing, (as well as) sick and vacation leaves,” he said. His salary was enough to put decent food on the table and, most important to him, send his children to school.

That “good life” lasted for eight years. Then, in 1989, the company, one of the largest exporters of Cavendish banana in the country, started retrenching its employees. “I took the early-retirement option, thinking that I could make good with the few thousands the company gave me,” Virgilio said.

Everything went downhill from there for Virgilio and his family. By 1992, he was so distraught he decided to swallow his pride and reapply at the company. However, he was hired only as a contractual worker.

Today, more than a decade after he was retrenched, and at a time when inflation has eroded the value of the peso, Virgilio is earning a measly P80 a day working in the banana fields of this town.

His four children are the hardest hit. Virgilio could only support them up to high school. The eldest, 24, ended up getting married without finishing college.

The poverty, Virgilio said in Visayan, is palpable at home. “We sometimes have to make do with nothing but rice. Oftentimes, we didn’t even have rice. Some of us sometimes would cook the raw banana so we could eat,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe I got myself into this.”

Not that Virgilio had any choice. All over the Southern Mindanao region, all plantations have been firing, dismissing or retrenching their workers and then hiring them back as contractuals. Their contracts would last no longer than six months, the maximum period allowed by law that a company can hire contractuals or probationary workers.

Constant anxiety

“This has been a constant source of anxiety for us,” said Henry Ibajan, a 33-year-old harvester and father of two children in another plantation, where he earns P100 a day. “We are constantly wondering whether we would be able to retain our jobs a few months from now. There’s no such thing as job security around here.”

According to Romualdo Basilio, chairperson of the Kumilos Labor Center based in Tagum City, half of the banana workers in Region XI are contractuals. In Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte provinces, there are more than 32,000 agricultural workers, practically all of them working in the 54 banana plantations in the two provinces.

The daily wage range from P80 to P230. Under the law, agricultural workers should be receiving a minimum daily wage of P183. Even then, that minimum wage is not enough, which is why workers nationwide are demanding a legislated wage increase of P125.

“If you look at the real situation in the plantations, it is very depressing,” Basilio said. “The workers are always worried that they may lose their jobs just like that. The low pay and the fact that there’s just too many people out there who are willing to settle for P80 a day or less just to survive – this makes the workers ignore the abuses of the companies,” he said.

This situation, as shown in the case of Virgilio Tandayog, translates to real misery for the workers and their families, Basilio said. “They don’t have enough food. Because of that, their children get sick. When they are sick, they don’t have medical insurance. It’s a trap, when you really think about it.”

And they cannot complain about their predicament, Basilio said, because the company can easily fire a worker. “Nobody wants that to happen…so the cycle continues,” Basilio said.

‘Terrorist policy’

Aside from the low wages and complete absence of benefits for contractual workers, only one worker tends to every hectare of the 32,000-or-so-hectare plantations in Davao Del Norte and Compostela Valley, according to data from the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in Region XI. “Based on this data,” the KMU said, “the workers, especially the contractuals, are abused and exploited.” The group called contractualization a “terrorist policy of the government.”

Contractualization is implemented even if banana exporters are earning so much. As an example, Basilio noted that the Tagum Development Corporation produces 55 million boxes of banana each year, which translates to a revenue of P80 billion annually.

The contractualization of labor in the plantations is implemented through schemes like growerships, joint ventures, cooperatives or a combination of these schemes. In all these schemes, the company is shielded from its responsibility to its workers. In one case, the company enters into a growership agreement with a landowner, who hires the contractual workers. Technically, the workers are not employees of the company.

What betrays the scheme, however, is that the company, in many cases, would supply the materials, equipment, even payroll to the landowner. In many instances, the workers even punch their timecards in the company’s time-card machines.

In short, the growership agreement is just a scheme to give the appearance that the company is merely engaged in a business deal with the landowner when, in truth, the company owns and manages everything.


To make matters worse, and precisely because contractual workers have no power in this scheme, they are subjected to all forms of abuse. Workers are afraid to be absent from work for fear of being fired. “One time, I had fever and I wanted to take the day off but I couldn’t because that would be a minus point for me. I was afraid that they would advise me to resign,” Virgilio said. And so, just like him, workers who feel ill would pretend to be all right and kept on working. The downside, of course, is that if the illness gets worse, workers have no medical benefits from the company.

Moreover, it is common in the banana plantations that the supervisors also run the stores from where the workers get practically all their supplies – food, medicine, clothes, even appliances. Because their wages are so low, the workers are almost always in debt to the store. A take-home pay, said Virgilio Tandayog, is an alien concept to the workers. “I have forgotten how a P10 bill looks like. I didn’t even know that there is now a P10 coin,” he joked.

The store takes advantage of this by charging unreasonably high prices for the goods. For example, a kilo of NFA rice that normally costs no more than P20 in an ordinary store would sell for P27 at the plantation store, or an appliance worth P17,000 would sell for P29,000.

As if these were not enough, the salaries are rarely on time. “The salary delays can go from three months to six months,” said Henry. Which is why the workers have no choice but to rely on the store, whose income is assured because its owners know that the workers would be forced to work in the plantation if only to pay off their debts.

The cruel paradox is that, the more the workers work for such a measly and delayed pay, the more they get buried in debt. The more their debts pile up, the more they become desperate to hold on to whatever job is available, never mind if they get abused and exploited with impunity.

Again, the workers could not complain because their supervisors could just easily fire them. Indeed, according to several banana plantation workers interviewed by Bulatlat.com, they have learned to take every abuse silently.

“We have no choice,” said Gilbert Ongayo, a 28-year-old banana plantation worker from this town. “If we complain, the company will be more than happy to get rid of us. There are hundreds of workers looking for jobs in banana plantations, workers who are probably more desperate than us. What can we do?” Bulatlat.com

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