Hundreds of sakadas or migratory sugar workers recruited from Mindanao have become victims of a giant human trafficking scam when they were brought to Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac to work during the kabyaw or annual sugar harvest and milling season which started in November 2016.
Danilo “Ka Daning” Ramos, secretary general of the national agriworkers center Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) said that the sakadas sought UMA’s assistance through OGYON or Organisasyon sa Yanong Obrerong Nagkahiusa, local farmworkers’ union affiliated with UMA based in Bukidnon province.
A total of 43 sakadas from different towns of Bukidnon were “rescued” by UMA during the holiday season. The sugar workers were also immediately assisted by the offices of Sec. Judy Taguiwalo of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Sec. Rafael Mariano of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and Undersecretary Joel Maglunsod of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
“This despicable practice of exploiting sakadas for the kabyaw season has long been uninterrupted in Hacienda Luisita,” said Ramos, who noted that during the Hacienda Luisita strike and massacre of 2004, among those arrested by police – even believed killed and then disappeared – were a number of nameless migratory sugar workers whose barracks or living quarters were then situated near the picketlines.
At least 160 of around 800 to a thousand sugar workers reportedly recruited from Mindanao have come from the province of Bukidnon. The rest come from other Mindanao provinces such as Cotabato and Davao.
The sacadas were recruited by Greenhand Labor Service Cooperative (GLSC) managed by a certain Billy Baitus, based in Polomolok, South Cotabato. In Malaybalay, Bukidnon, the recruiters were identified as Oscar Sihagan and Evangeline Balmores.
According to OGYON, Greenhand was requested by the Cojuangco firm Agrikulto Inc. to procure a thousand sugar workers or cane cutters to work in Hacienda Luisita. Agrikulto, which is known to be headed by Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr, was reportedly bought by the sugar mill, Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) in 2015. CAT is still owned and managed by the Cojuangcos headed by Fernando Cojuangco, with Martin Lorenzo, a scion of the Lorenzo landlord clan of Mindanao.
“Like the Cojuangco-Aquinos, the Lorenzos are also notorious for exploitation of agricultural workers and massive landgrabbing for the expansion of their banana plantations in Mindanao,” said Ramos.
Agrikulto, Inc. is currently the biggest proprietor of the illicit aryendo or leaseback system in Hacienda Luisita.
“The existence of Agrikulto is glaring proof that BS Aquino’s land reform is a monumental failure. After grabbing lands from local Luisita farmworkers, they are now exploiting new workers from Mindanao,” said Ramos.
Minors, lumad among trafficked sakadas
Four out of the 43 rescued sugar workers are minors. More than half (24) are lumad of the Manobo tribe.
Two needed immediate medical attention. The first one, a senior citizen, was already sent home, while another is currently confined at a public hospital in Quezon City for a head injury. Doctors recommend immediate surgery but the family requests that the victim be treated in Mindanao.
A number of the rescued sakadas are unable to read and write and were recruited through verbal agreements and/or upon endorsement of lumad chieftains. They were promised a “Tarlac package” consisting of a daily wage of P450 plus benefits, including free meals and provisions or board and lodging, and travel to and from Hacienda Luisita. They were also promised P7,000 cash advance in three tranches.
According to the victims, lumad cheftains or datus were also promised that if they were able to recruit people to work as sakadas, Baitus or Greenhand would help them in their ancestral land claims. Baitus also reportedly convinced the victims to work in Tarlac because it is part of a “livelihood project” of President Duterte.
Wages still P9.50 a day
When the sakadas arrived, they were housed in a cramped, poorly-ventilated and stinky bunkhouse in barangay Mapalacsiao, near the CAT sugar mill in Hacienda Luisita. Instead of the P450 daily wage, they were paid a pakyaw or group rate of P220 per ton of sugar cane cut and hauled into trucks.
They say that they were made to work from 4:00 in the morning up to 5:00 in the afternoon in sugar cane fields not just in Hacienda Luisita, but in other sugar plantations within Central and Northern Luzon. They reportedly were made to work in as far as Arayat in Pampanga, Pangasinan or almost or “near Baguio.”
Based on weekly payrolls that UMA obtained, the workers received weekly wages from a low of P66.21 to a high of P898.20 a week or P9.46 to P128.31 a day – due to numerous deductions. The minimum wage for plantation agricultural workers in Central Luzon is P 334 a day.
Workers had to pay for their own food and provisions. There were times that a group of sakadas would only eat congee and sardines for a team of 8-13 persons. Some experienced eating only salt along with rice, while some went to work in the fields with empty stomachs.
The sakadas also did not receive any benefits. The P 5,000 cash advance was further deducted for supplies such as plates, rice cooker and espading or bolo used to cut cane.
The victims are poised to file labor and trafficking cases against the recruiter, Greenhand, and the principal employer, Agrikulto Inc. and Central Azucarera de Tarlac.