No signs of softening as Sumifru workers vow to carry on the fight for rights

Apr. 14, 2019

COMPOSTELA VALLEY, Philippines – Red flags are still waving high as hundreds of banana workers remained on strike against the giant Japanese banana firm for its unfair labor practices and the company’s push for government’s immediate intervention on different attacks against the striking workers.

The Sumifru Philippines Corporation (Sumifru), a Japanese multinational company (JMNC) is engaged in the sourcing, production, shipment, and marketing of various fresh fruits, primarily on the export of quality Cavendish bananas, pineapple, and papaya. The company operates more than 12,000 hectares of plantations in Mindanao.

In the town of Compostela, Sumifru operates in more or less 2,200 hectares of banana plantation with nine packing plants totaling a production capacity of at least 19,000 boxes per day or seven million boxes per year.

With the said production, Sumifru is earning a gross daily income of PHP19 million per day in its Compostela operations alone.

It has more or less 4,700 workforces that, according to the company, 3,000 are from its 300 contract growers and 1,700 are workers in the packing plant.

On October 1 last year, workers who are members of the union Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Suyapa Farm (NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU) decided to stop their operations and installed makeshift barricades in seven SUMIFRU Packing Plants, to include (PP) 370 in Barangay Pilar Babag, PP 98 and PP340 in Barangay Osmena, PP 92 in Barangay Alegria, PP 90 in Barangay Gabi, PP 99 in Barangay San Miguel, and PP115 in Barangay Maparat.

These workers are members of local unions named: Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Os-miguel; Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa San Jose; Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Suyapa Farm; Packing Plant 92 Workers Union; Packing Plant 340 Workers Union; San Miguel Workers Union; Maparat- Montevista Workers Union; and the Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Pilar-Mangayon.

Of the total number of 931 workers who are union members, 540 of them are women.

Many of the union members are workers of Sumifru for more than a decade but remained contractual despite recent pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte to end contractualization in the country.

The 931 workers are under contract to work at Sumifru under the contract service providers Mobasco, Northskill, and Bapapawoco.

Heronima Renegado, 60, has been working at Sumifru for 18 years. Renegado worked at PP230 tasked to cluster bananas in PP 230 while another woman worker, Sosema Alibio 56, worked at the processing department of PP230.

Both Renegado and Alibio remained contractual until now.

Renegado will soon retire but her service provider will only pay for its four years of service based on her recent contract.

She said her service provider, Mobasco would only pay her PHP24,000 as remuneration for her retirement.

“I have devoted my life working for Sumifru but this company does not even recognize me as their employee,” Renegado complained.

The members of the union at Sumifru have been fighting for their regularization but never materialized.

Paul John Dizon, chairman of NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU said many of their members have been working with minimum pays for eight years as contractual workers.

Health hazards

In an interview with the workers, the majority of them said that Sumifru and its partner service providers rarely provide personal protective equipment or PPE’s despite their direct exposure to various chemicals needed for banana production.

Seven-month pregnant Robilina Limo who works as a contractual worker in the processing department of the PP 115 for four years, complains about skin rashes due to exposure of chemical called Banket. She has several skin allergies all over her body including her stomach. Limo said, she has undergone company medical checkup but “its clinic only gives her some ointment to ease the itchiness” and advised her to continue working.

The same case happened to Rosemarie Dubluis who works in the processing department of PP230. The doctor said she had an allergy but did not give further explanation of her situation upon learning that she works in the banana company. She believes that she acquired an allergic reaction after her exposure to the chemical used in the processing of bananas. Dubluis also complains of dizziness and difficulty in breathing during exposure to chemicals.

The union complained that the majority of Sumifru workers do not have proper PPE’s despite their daily exposure to chemicals.

Their different agencies only provide plastic hand gloves, masks, and a pair of boots. The company rarely replaces issued hand gloves to workers, the union said.

History of the struggle

The first unions at Sumifru were organized in 1992. The workers of Packing Plants 90, 92, and 95 were members of unions under the yellow federation Alliance of Labor Unions (ALU), which was replaced by the National Federation of Labor in 2000. Packing Plant 99 had an independent, management union, while the workers of Packing Plant 98 were able to establish a genuine union led by Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in 1996.

In 1992, the exportation of bananas was changed to growerships where small landlords with 1.5- 16 hectares of land entered in a contract with Standard Philippine Fruit Company or Stanfilco, the banana division of Dole Company in the Philippines, to provide specific volumes of bananas in a period of 20 years.

Growerships have five packing plants operating in Compostela, to include PP 90, 92, 95, 98, and 99.

It was in the year 2000 when Stanfilco announced the shift of its operations to Freight on Board production scheme in which it would only buy the bananas produced by the growers and would no longer provide inputs such as fertilizer.

Stanfilco told the workers of the takeover of a new company and that they would be paid according to the length of service they rendered at Stanfilco.

They could return to work under the new management but as members of a cooperative, that would serve as their own employer on paper. The scheme allowed the new company to escape from any accountability to the workers while eliminating their job security.

By the end of 2002, almost all the banana farms in Compostela transformed their business operations into FOB scheme. It was also during the year that Fresh Banana Agricultural Corporation (FBAC), under the AMS Group of Companies took over the production.

The workers of Packing Plants 90, 92, 95, & 99 reluctantly accepted their severance pay and witnessed the disintegration of their unions. Only the workers of Packing Plant 98, under the leadership of their union led by KMU, Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Osmiguel (Namaos-KMU) in 1996 were able to successfully foil the plans of Stanfilco and FBAC to bust their unions and shift to the cooperative.

The workers of Packing Plant 98 continued to win concrete benefits through their collective actions, such as overtime pays, higher daily wages, vacation, and sick leaves, and others.

Recognizing the strength and stability of Namaos-KMU and the benefits it has brought its members, workers of the other packing plants approached the union for assistance, wanting to form genuine unions that will protect their overall interests. In 2004, the Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa SanJose (Namasan) was formed in Packing Plant 95; and in 2005, the Nagkahiusang Mamumo sa Suyapa Farms (Namasufa) in Packing Plant 90. Packing Plant 92 Workers Union was also organized in early 2006.

As workers across Compostela began organizing under KMU and the filing of cases for underpayment of wages and other labor standards violations against the company commence, harassments from management, local politicians, and the military increased.

Support groups conducted two fact-finding missions (FFM) in May and August 2006 that documented the direct intervention of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in union affairs. The FFM also verified the complacency of key local politicians, and the violation of workers basic rights through complicated production schemes that allowed FBAC to wash hands of any obligations to the workers.

In 2006, documents received from the AMS Group of Companies confirmed that the AJMR Holdings Company in partnership with Sumitomo Fruit (Philippines) Corporation of Japan took over the management of FBAC.

The management of the new gigantic transnational corporation immediately employed every available tactic to busts the unions that stand as a direct threat to their profit interests.

One of the approaches the management applied was the pitting small growers against their family members working in packing plants.

The new management also shifted the packing operations to non-certified mini packing units where workers were hired on a contractual basis. The company also utilized the military to instill fear in communities near the plantations that hinder workers from asserting their rights.

Starting that year and onwards, the AJMR and Sumitomo Fruit (Philippines) Corporation partnership earmarked 10,000 hectares of lands for expansion of their export banana operations in Mindanao.

Employer-employee relationship

It was on March 14, 2005, when workers of Packing Plant 90 organized themselves under NAMASUFA and filed a petition for certification election (PCE) before the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to represent the 140 rank and file workers of the then Fresh Banana Agricultural Corporation (FBAC). The PCE aimed to certify NAMASUFA as its sole and exclusive bargaining agent (SEBA).

The merger of FBAC and Sumifru took place three months after the filing of the petition. The merger made Sumifru the surviving corporation.

The move of the two companies prompted NAMASUFA’s efforts to file a PCE with Sumifru as an employer. Sumifru denied it was the employer of the PP 90 workers. Instead, it claimed A2Y Contracting Services as the employer of the workers.

In the midst of the moves of Sumifru and the union, the DOLE-XI Med-Arbiter made a decision declaring Sumifru as the employer of the workers. DOLE-XI also issued an order for the conduct of the Certification of Election.

In February 2010, then DOLE Secretary of Labor Rosalinda Baldoz affirmed the Decision of the Med-Arbiter rendering the case as final and executory.

Sumifru refused to comply with the DOLE’s decision. The company appealed to the Court of Appeals (CA) through a Petition for Certiorari. The CA denied Sumifru’s petition.

It was also clear in CA’s decision that there was no Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) or Injunction to stay issued against the finality of the Labor Secretary’s decision, thus, cementing the DOLE decision that Sumifru was the employer of the PP 90 workers.

On the same year, Sumifru brought the case to the Supreme Court. But in the year 2017, the Supreme Court dismissed Sumifru’s petition and affirmed the CA resolution declaring the workers as employees of Sumifru.

Asserting their rights

After the eight local unions in Compostela consolidated as one union under the NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU, it became a legitimate union with DOLE Registration No. R1100-0508-UR-248 in August 2018.

NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU then submitted its Collective Bargaining Agreement proposal but Sumifru refused to bargain, providing the alibi that no employer-employee relationship exists between the company and the workers. Sumifru further alleged that the consolidation of the local unions into one union was illegal.

On September 4, 2018, NAMASUFA filed a Notice of Strike (NOS) before the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB) but after a series of mediation conferences, Sumifru still refused to bargain, prompting the union to conduct a strike balloting verifying unanimous consent of the union members who said “yes” to a strike.

As the workers launched its strike on the first day of October 2018, the company filed a Petition for Assumption of Jurisdiction with the DOLE Secretary without furnishing a copy to the union following a complaint filed at Regional Trial Court branch 56 in Compostela for Damages and Issuance of TRO.

On October 5, 2018, DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello issued an Assumption of Jurisdiction listed in Department Order No. 40-H-13 stating that the company is losing a total of PHP38 Million per day. Bello’s order further stated that stoppage of the company would adversely affect public good and public interest.

On the same day, RTC Branch 56 issued a TRO for 72 hours ordering to free the ingress to and egress of the gates of the packing plants. A hearing for the issuance of extension of TRO or Issuance of Preliminary Injunction was set on October 9, 2018.

During the serving of the TRO, the Municipal Mayor Lema Bolo strongly demanded the workers to stop the strike.

This followed by a violent dispersal of the striking workers last October 10, 2018, where the scores of Namasufa union members were wounded during the commotion. Documentations also showed the presence of the Philippine National Police and the AFP accompanying the unidentified men responsible for the dispersal of the striking workers.

Authorities severely beat and later arrested Ramil Monte after the dispersal and testified that the unidentified men were too aggressive during the demolition.

“I was hit in any part of my body by men wearing a mask and shouting me foul names. I just covered my head and later to the ground,” said Monte.

DOLE-XI scheduled a conference-dialogue last October 21, 2018, due to the request of the different service providers of Sumifru. Union members traveled full force from Compostela town to Davao City but were denied entry to the city by the military and police.

Their travel from Compostela to Davao City was stopped 11 times by the series of police and military checkpoints intently mounted to bar the workers from entering the city.

Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio ordered the military and the police to bar the entry of the workers. Task Force Davao (TF-Davao) held the workers at their checkpoint in Barangay Lasang from 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on October 21.

Davao City Police Office (DCPO) chief P/Col. Alexander Tagum, when interviewed by the media on that day said they prevented the union members to enter the city based on intelligence reports stating that the workers will join the protest against the government in connivance with the communist groups.

Union leaders dismissed the claim of Tagum, saying that authorities suppressed the right of the workers to air their sentiments to the government.

The concerted efforts of authorities to bar the union members to ventilate their grievances did not hinder their resolve to continue the fight for their rights and advance their struggle.

The fight continues

Namasufa has never been unfazed and unshaken by the “numerous threat and harassment” they have experienced over the years of struggle for their rights.

Authorities tagged many of their leaders and members as members of the New People’s Army (NPA) and subjected to “forced surrender” activity staged by the AFP.

Suspected state forces gunned down some of the leaders and members of the union.

Among those who were killed include Danny Boy Bautista who was shot by an unidentified gunman in Compostela town, Compostela Valley province last October 31, 2018; Victor Ageas, Board of Director of Nagkahiusang Mamumuo sa Suyapa Farm (NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU) who was ambushed by motorcycle-riding gunmen last September 4, 2018, while traveling for work at Sumifru Packing Plant 340 at Purok Uno, Barangay Osmeña, Compostela.

During the last quarter of 2018, Namasufa workers went to Manila and have already reached out to various agencies, offices, and organizations and gained support from them.

They camped out at the Liwasang Bonifacio for months with the aim of adding pressure to Sumifru Corporation to recognize all workers in a collective bargaining agreement.

On Friday, April 12, 2019, Namasufa held a protest action in Davao City, demanding for the execution of NLRC (National Labor Relations Commission) decision for the reinstatement of Sumifru workers of Compostela Valley under its union NAMASUFA-NAFLU-KMU.

“Sumifru consciously ignored the mediation conferences set by the labor department. Until last March 25 of this year, NLRC has ordered Sumifru to reinstate us to our respective jobs but the company has brazenly neglected the tribunal’s order. Not to mention, Sumifru together with the AFP-PNP and its goons have already committed several human rights violations against us, such as the extrajudicial killing of our member Dannyboy Bautista and the harassment of union leaders,” Dizon said in an interview.

Dizon added that big companies like Sumifru use as shield the continuing imposition of martial law in Mindanao to protect their interests and further suppress the workers.

“We call on and demand Sumifru to face their responsibility to the workers at the soonest possible time. Negotiate with us to settle our labor dispute once and for all, so that we can return to our workplaces and provide for our families. NAMASUFA also call on the Department of Labor and Employment to side with the workers and steadfastly facilitate the execution of the NLRC decision. We call for justice,” Dizon said. (

comments powered by Disqus