We’ve heard this story before: the farmworkers who cut and haul cane in this controversial sugar estate earn only P9.50 a day as ‘stockholders’ of Hacienda Luisita, Inc. The thousands who have had enough of this oppression decided to strike. This happened more than 12 years ago.
Fastforward to 2017. Mario Bagnaran, 58, a farmworker in pineapple plantations in Maramag, Bukidnon decided to accompany fellow workers from his barangay recruited by Greenhand Labor Service Cooperative for a “livelihood project” in Tarlac last November.
Yesterday, he was among those who filed a complaint against his employers. A few minutes after leaving the Labor office, he received an urgent call. He was told that his elder brother, Brixcio Sr, 64, had died of the illness he contracted from working in Hacienda Luisita. His nephew, Brixcio’s Junior, was still in Tarlac, waiting to be “rescued.”
Mario is among the 43 sakadas from Bukidnon who decided to leave Hacienda Luisita only two months into their supposed work contract. They were assisted by the national office of the Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) through communications from a local farmworkers union in Bukidnon, the Organisasyon sa Yanong Obrerong Nagkahiusa or OGYON.
According to UMA Secretary General Danilo Ramos, the sakadas are clearly victims of human trafficking. Among the sakadas “rescued” from December 25-31 are 4 minors, while 24 are indigenous people or lumad who belong to the Manobo tribe.
Early this morning, Junior Bagnaran and eight (8) other sakadas finally had the chance to leave Hacienda Luisita. They had been camping out in the sugarcane fields for days because they refused to go back to their bunkhouse. After they saved enough for their fare to Manila, they went straight where the others sought temporary shelter.
In as early as August last year, the recruiters from Greenhand, headed by a certain Billy Baitus based in Polomolok, South Cotabato, said that it was already milling season in Tarlac. Mindanao had been reeling from the dry spell and sugar plantations in Bukidnon have yet to escape from the curse of tiempo muerto or dead season.
The workers were promised wages higher than the rates in Bukidnon, a province also known for its sugarcane plantations and mills. The recruiters said they were to be housed in a hotel very near a hospital so that all their medical needs would be properly attended to. They would have free provisions and benefits. Transportation to and from Hacienda Luisita would also be free. They will get a cash advance that they could leave with their families.
Mario went to Hacienda Luisita in November with five other men with the Bagnaran family name. Instead of a hotel, they were housed in a cramped bunkhouse owned by the Cojuangco firm Agrikulto Inc. with hundreds of other sakadas from different Mindanao provinces. Everything had to be paid for – even kitchen supplies and work tools were deducted from their measly pay. They had to work even before first light and they were hauled back to the bunkhouse late afternoon when it become too dark for them to cut cane.
And then they were paid – based on pakyaw or group rates that could yield slave wages averaging only P 180 each week. One payroll even revealed that they earned only P66.21 from December 5-13. That’s only P 9.46 a day.
Within weeks of hard toil, they have had enough. His elder brother Brixcio Sr. contracted a lung illness en route to Hacienda Luisita and was not able to work in the fields. After days of complaints, he was finally brought to a clinic, but was only given analgesics to ease his condition. He was made to stay in the bunkhouse for a month before the supervisors were finally convinced that he must be sent home immediately if they would not allow him proper medical care. Brixcio Sr. died yesterday in Bukidnon.
“We could not send any money home, we did not even earn enough for our daily sustenance,” Bagnaran complained.
“The locals we met asked us – ‘Why did you even have to come here? Don’t you know how many people have been buried in this very ground we tread on?’ That was when I started to really worry,” Mario narrated.
Impunity and day-to-day violence have become common occurrence in Hacienda Luisita, that the case of these Mindanao sakadas exposed by UMA is but an open secret to the locals.
“This despicable practice of exploiting sakadas for the kabyaw season has long been uninterrupted in Hacienda Luisita. The hiring of sakadas who are made to endure slave-like conditions and wages is one of the worst forms of exploitation and contractualization, technically legalized and tolerated by government for years,” said Ramos.
“Government cannot make true its promise to end contractualization if the most horrible conditions we’ve seen in sugarcane plantations here in Hacienda Luisita and in the whole of Negros Island still exist,” said Ramos.
Bagnaran is among the first batch of sakadas to file complaints at the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) against the recruiter, Greenhand, and the principal employer, Agrikulto Inc. and Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT).
Agrikulto and CAT is now jointly-owned and managed by the Cojuangco-Aquinos led by Fernando Cojuangco with Martin Lorenzo, a scion of the Lorenzo landlord family also currently embroiled in land disputes with farmworkers in banana plantations under Lapanday Foods Corporation in Mindanao.