Post Pablo: banana farmers, growers lament vs union busting, high-interest loans

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January 25 2013

The Freshmax Trading Company has now closed its facilities affecting a total of 200 workers who, mostly, have been working for at least five years.  It just posted a memo that, Roto, another company, would be taking over. 

By JOHN RIZLE L. SALIGUMBA
Davao Today

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Banana farmers and growers in Pablo-ravaged areas in the region are not done with their dilemma.  Aside from receiving minute assistance from the government, they are also being bled dry by financial institutions and banana plantation companies.

Irwin Canalda, President of the Freshmax Worker’s Union (FWU) of the Korean-owned Freshmax Trading Company in Compostela town, Compostela Valley province, told davaotoday.com that after being hit by Pablo, their employer told him to dismantle their union.

“After the storm hit us, the owner of the company told me to go to a meeting of a majority of workers.  But when I arrived, it was just the management and me.  They told me to sign a blank paper waiving our right to form a union,” he revealed.

He did not sign the papers.  “I told them that it cannot be done because having a union is a right guaranteed by law and the Constitution itself,” he said.

A company foreman, one Arman Baste, allegedly threatened him.  “He told me, Klaroha bay kay basin di naka kagawas og buhi (Don’t mess with us or you will go out dead).  They were cursing at me because I would not sign the paper,” he said.

Canalda said that they were also forced into signing the papers in exchange for rice, but they did not sign it.

The Freshmax Trading Company has now closed its facilities affecting a total of 200 workers who, mostly, have been working for at least five years.  It just posted a memo that, Roto, another company, would be taking over.

The FWU launched a strike last October to demand a raise in their daily wages, additional day for their leave benefits and a closed-shop policy, that is, all regular workers become automatic union workers.  The company has only put 64 workers under a regular status.

The union achieved victory for their demands and had a pre-signed agreement with the management in November 22, 2012.  Their final signing was set in December 15, but the Pablo tragedy did not allow it.

Growers, too

Two weeks after typhoon Pablo devastated the banana industry in the region, banana growers have already raised their concerns on the government’s rehabilitation plan, especially in acquiring or securing loans.

Hangyo lang, ang amoa lang kanang makatarunganon lang nga offer, matabangan mi nga motubo lang pud dili kay tabangan duot (We appealed for a just offer, that is to help us and not pushed us to the wall),” said Arturo Manigo, Vice-President for External Affairs of the Compostela Banana Growers Associations and Cooperatives, as he scored buyers for forcing them to enter into an “unfair” deal.

Nag-offer sila sa amo og 185,000 pesos per hectare pero ang interest rate 13% per annum (They offered us a loan of 185,000 pesos per hectare but the interest rate is 13 percent per annum).  It’s very high,” Manigo said, adding that they are hoping for a fair deal.

His organization includes all growers under the Sumifru buyership.  He noted that the buyers also want to extend their lease contract to 15 years.

Ang mahitabo ana, mas malubong mi sa utang.  Definitely maapektuhan ang atong presyo, maapektuhan ang sweldo sa mga tao (It will only bury us deeper into debts.  It will definitely affect the price of bananas and the workers’ wages),” he pointed out.

FWU noted that growers tied with buyers cannot go bankrupt as Stephen Antig, Executive Director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA), reminded growers not to enter into deals which are unfair to them, saying “Businessmen are businessmen. They have a choice.”

Department of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala reported in December that the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) will extend PHP 2.1 Billion loans to big banana growers in Mindanao to rehabilitate their farms.  LBP offered a loan package of PHP430,000 per grower with six percent interest per annum; and with a grace period of two years for loan payments.

But, according to PBGEA’s Antig, the amount will not be enough if it will include the daily subsistence of growers, farmers and banana workers in the field.

“At least 30 to 40 percent” should be added on top of the amount of loan being offered (by the financial institutions),” he said during a press conference here, January 23.  He claimed that this will help the families of affected banana growers and farmers for daily subsistence.

Early this month, the Department of Agriculture’s High Value Crops Division announced that they released PHP 33 Million-worth of assistance for the banana farmers in the region in January alone.

In ComVal, 4,430 out of 6,468 hectares of destroyed small and corporate farms were approved for assistance while 2,000 out of 3,800 were approved in Davao del Norte. The assistance package consists of PHP 5,750 for clearing operations, farm tools and four bags of fertilizer.

PBGEA noted that farmers lost about PHP 8 Billion-worth of crops from Pablo, citing that about 80,000 hectares of banana plantations in Mindanao were destroyed last December, hitting-hard small growers (9,020 hectares) and corporate farms (5,166 hectares).  It added that at least PHP 7 Billion is needed to rehabilitate the plantations.

Antig also expressed the “dilemma” of growers.

“Total export volume in 2012 was down by more than seven percent (7.25%) compared to 2011 figure.  The industry was caught in a quagmire as a result of the market crises, intermittent weather conditions, the onslaught of typhoon Pablo in December 2012, and now the series of flooding that heightened the risk on the spread of plant diseases,” he said in a news report.

He added that these burdened the banana growers, especially with the continuous “appreciation of peso.”  They also expected a 33 percent drop in the production this year, reducing production to 100 million boxes from 150 million.

PBGEA slammed

“We have no other recourse but to resort to cost-cutting measures and minimize operation costs, including payments for salaries and wages and the accompanying compulsory contributions, benefits and incentives intended for the workers,” Antig said, adding that they might “retrench workers.”

Labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), scored PBGEA’s plans saying that they “show no concern for their workers’ plight.”

“For decades, banana firms have reaped huge profits from the labor of the workers and people of Mindanao.  It is reprehensible that they will now retrench workers when they can maintain employment by absorbing a minor cut in their profits,” said Roger Soluta, KMU secretary-general.

Soluta said that “PBGEA’s statement runs counter to data released by the Department of Agriculture showing banana exports more than doubled from 1.8 million metric tons in 2011 to 3.8 million metric tons in 2012.”

“Government data imply that capitalists in the banana industry are lying and overstating losses to justify workforce adjustments in order to further boost profits. They are exploiting a disaster situation for their selfish ends,” Soluta noted.  (John Rizle L. Saligumba/davaotoday.com)

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