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Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)

Poverty and Child Labor Set Off Philippine Banana War

by David Bacon

Davao, Mindanao, Philippines (1/22/98)-Roberto Sabanal had been picketing Dole Corporation's banana groves from the very beginning, when the company's former employees stopped harvesting on December 4. His own plantation was shut down tight. But in the groves of nearby Diamond Farms, banana workers barricaded the roads, worried the company intended to resume operations.

"They asked us for help. So most nights we went over to Diamond Farms, to beef up their lines and guard the roads," Sabanal recalls.

That's what he was doing at four-thirty in the morning on December 21. After spending the night at an encampment next to the gate, he and his friends were about to knock off and return home. Suddenly, a Diamond Farms worker burst from the intense darkness of the rural Mindanao night, running out of the trees.

"He shouted to us that their lines were being attacked by soldiers and police on the other side of the plantation," Sabanal says. "We jumped onto the company fire truck, and began rushing across the farm to aid our comrades. It was very dark. Then, about 200 yards away from their picket line, we heard a shot. Although we were very scared, we kept on going. But then there was another shot, out of the trees beside the road."

Sabanal felt a numb sensation in his buttocks and upper leg. "I reached down, and felt the wetness in my clothes." His voice still trembles with incomprehension as he remembers the shock he felt: "When I brought my hand up before my face, I could see it was covered in blood."

Still the fire truck hurtled through the trees, finally breaking out onto the main road. "Suddenly, we saw a lot of military men holding guns," he says. "The fire truck stopped, and I jumped down and rolled over in the dirt beside the road. By then the pain in my buttocks was like fire."

Sabanal's companions loaded him onto a jeepney (kind of a homemade cross between a jeep and a bus), and rushed him to a local hospital. There eight men from his own plantation, and another 20 from Diamond Farms, stood guard outside his room as the bullet wound was stitched up. Afterwards, Sabanal took off for the plantation again. Plainclothes police officers had already come looking for him at home while he was in the hospital, telling his family they wanted to check the story of the shooting.

"I think they want to make me say it never happened," he says. "And if I don't agree to cooperate, anything can happen to me."

For the weeks since the incident, Sabanal has opted to hide in the plantations as the work stoppage continues. This first exclusive press interview took place late at night by the light of a kerosene lantern, around a table at a strikers' camp deep within the struck banana groves. After talking and showing his bandaged wound, he disappeared again with his companions into the trees.

According to Antonio Edillon, a Diamond Farms banana harvester, over 500 armed men attacked 100 people on the picket line that night. "We sat down at the edge of the banana grove, beside the main road, and locked arms with each other. We weren't even blocking the plantation road anymore," he says. "I was hit by an iron bar, and I saw others hit and kicked as well. The soldiers pointed their Armalite rifles at us, and told us they'd shoot."

Almost 2000 Dole farm workers have refused to cut a single banana for the company since December 4.

Edillon and Coronado Apusen, an attorney from the National Federation of Labor who assists the strikers, identified the attackers as members of the 432nd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Armed Forces, commanded by Major Sakam, along with local police and guards from Timog Agricultural Corp., a division of Dole Asia, Inc. Asked if the strikers also had arms, Edillon laughed. "We don't even have enough money to eat. Where would we get the money to buy guns?" he asked.

The attackers dragged the picketers onto busses. They were taken to Carmen, a nearby town, where they were released. The picket line was broken, and armed guards entered the plantation. When later asked to identify themselves by this reporter, they refused, but one man in camouflage fatigues, his head wrapped in a bandanna and holding an AR-16, said he worked for Stanfilco, a division of Dole Philippines, Inc. No criminal charges have been brought against anyone for the beatings on the night of December 21. But a warrant has been sworn out against Sabanal's companions for "carnapping," for the supposed theft of the fire truck.

It's ironic that the Diamond Farms plantation is now occupied by armed men who refused for weeks after the December 21 incident to allow banana workers to set foot on the land. Since 1996, these banana workers have been the plantation's owners.

For the past month, the banana groves in four of Dole Corporation's principal Philippine plantations have been uncharacteristically silent. In place of the normal cacophony in the trees of harvesters cutting the huge bunches, the only sounds are the quiet voices of men and women sitting all day in dusty tents beside the plantation roads. Almost 2000 Dole farm workers have refused to cut a single banana for the company since December 4.

Two years ago, these workers became owners of the four plantations, when in 1996 the land they formerly worked as employees was transferred into their hands. But Dole, they say, pressured them into accepting a very low price for the fruit.

Thousands of banana growers and workers on other Dole plantations throughout the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are watching the work stoppage closely. They receive the same price which is now the subject of the dispute on the struck plantations. Already another 2500 workers have served notice they intend to join the work stoppage at the end of January, which would paralyze most of the company's Philippine banana operations. There is more at stake, however, than just the banana harvest of a large U.S. corporation.

In the wake of the economic meltdown in southeast Asia over the last few months, the International Monetary Fund has forcefully urged the Philippines and other countries to further liberalize their economies, providing even greater incentives for foreign investment. The dispute on the Mindanao plantations highlights the possible consequences of this economic strategy. Income is declining for the work force in export agriculture. That decline has become fuel for rising social conflict, and has even led to an increase in child labor on some of the plantations producing Dole bananas.

Until two years ago, banana workers on the struck plantations were employed for wages directly by Stanfilco, a division of Dole Philippines, and by two other Dole subsidiaries, Diamond Farms and Checkered Farms. In the mid-1980s, they joined the National Federation of Labor, one of the Philippines' most militant unions. Under the last NFL contract in 1996, Stanfilco paid a daily wage of 146 pesos, and provided medical and pension plans, paid vacations and sick leave.

In 1996 workers petitioned the national government's Department of Agrarian Reform for redistribution of the four plantations. The Philippine agrarian reform law, passed after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, gave Filipino plantation workers the right to become owners of the land on which they work, in purchases financed by the Philippine Landbank.

Workers set up cooperatives on each of the four plantations, and, they say, Dole welcomed the move. But in the negotiations which followed, Dole insisted on a complicated arrangement in which it subsidized part of the production costs, and paid a small amount to the coops to cover the rest.

"The children on this plantation work because their families can't survive without the wages they earn."

A provision of the agrarian reform law allows a landowner to make a voluntary offer to sell only part of its assets when faced with a petition for land redistribution. Under that provision, Dole retained ownership of the plantation roads, the packing sheds, and the complicated network of cables needed to support the trees and transport the bananas. Without those assets the coops couldn't produce bananas, making it impossible for the workers to turn down the low price per box the company offered.

By the end of the new arrangement's first year, daily income for workers in the four coops had dropped from 146 pesos to 92. In addition, workers lost all the medical and other benefits they had as direct employees of the company. The coops were quickly in debt themselves. The Diamond Farms coop lost 30 million pesos the first year, and Checkered Farms 11 million, according to Coronado Apusen.

The low price Dole is paying the coops isn't unique. The company has expanded, buying bananas from many other growers on Mindanao. It uses a system in which it convinces small rice farmers to consolidate their tiny plots of land and turn them into banana plantations. The company then builds the roads, cableways and packing houses. It pays growers the same price per box of bananas, under the same cost-subsidy arrangement it has with the cooperatives.

Six years ago, Stanfilco created the Soyapa Farms plantation in San Jose Campostela, about 75 miles from the coops in Panabo and Carmen. There many families have done what others are trying to avoid-sending their kids to work.

At six in the morning, five children from 11 to 17 years old, huddle in a circle at one side of the Soyapa Farms packing shed. They flatten out and recycle the sheets of plastic which are inserted between banana bunches as they grow, to keep them apart. Children get 2 centavos for each sheet they save, making sometimes as much as 50 pesos a day.

Danilo Carillon, 16 years old, stopped going to school five years ago, after the third grade. For 86 pesos a day he also climbs a bamboo ladder, pulling a plastic bag over each bunch of bananas. He has to bag 160 bunches of bananas a day.

The bags are treated with a pesticide, Lorsban. Carillon wears a simple dust mask over his face when he unrolls each bag, one not capable of filtering out chemicals.

The Associated Labor Union, affiliated to the more-conservative Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, represents workers at Soyapa Farms. Bebot Llerin, an ALU representative, says that after a few years, baggers appear thin and pale, and get lots of allergies. "I think this might be an effect of the chemical in the bags," he says, "but we know very little about it."

Because the workers are contract employees, they don't qualify for even the lowest minimum wage in Mindanao, which is 96 pesos a day. "Stanfilco says it isn't responsible for the situation," says Bebot Llerin, "since it doesn't employ the plantation workers directly. We've asked Dole to come up with some money for subsidies to pay the families so their kids can go to school, but we've heard no response."

Dole's low price per box of bananas traps growers in increasing debt, providing no money for raising the wages of plantation workers. If the strike in the cooperatives can force the company to raise its price, many Dole growers elsewhere will undoubtedly ask for the same deal.

Confrontation over low wages and debt is brewing at another huge Dole plantation in Mindanao, the Luna Industrial Banana Growing Farm, where 2500 plantation workers are represented by the National Federation of Labor. In early January, in compliance with Philippine labor law, they issued a notice of their intention to strike within the month.

"On the average, these growers owe 200-300,000 pesos apiece to Stanfilco," explains NFL organizer George Aquilon. "Even though they're scared, they have to learn to fight the company for their own welfare, not just for ours." According to Aquilon, the Luna plantation alone accounts for 40% of Dole banana production in Mindanao. A strike both there and in the coops would cut off at least two-thirds of the company's Philippine banana operation.

Aquilon says that, despite the end of the authoritarian Marcos regime in 1986, there hasn't been a strike on banana plantations for 10 years. "The government says any strike here affects the national interest," he cautions. "But what that really means is sacrificing us to make investment attractive."

More information on the "banana war," etc., can be found at: http://www.bananasite.com/links/bananawar.html

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