Sugar workers in the Philippines endure two ‘dead seasons’ under Duterte

by Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura

January 13, 2022

It’s a deadly season for sugar workers in the Philippines. They not only endure the annual “tiempo muerto” (dead season) that lasts for up to six months in the sugarcane industry, but like the rest of agricultural workers and peasants in the country, especially those who are organized, are fair game in being targeted in extra-judicial killings and other gross human rights violations by state security forces and goons. 

Tiempo muerto refers to the dreaded off-milling season in the sugarcane industry when work in the fields and mills temporarily grinds to a halt. This annual crisis period brings hunger to millions of sugar workers and their dependents. 

This is exacerbated by the repressive policies of the present regime which have already resulted in the killing of 16 members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) in Negros Island.

Struggle for food, struggle for life

The NFSW earned the ire of President Duterte when it launched several Land Cultivation Areas (LCAs) in the island to ensure that the sugar field workers would have something to eat during tiempo muerto and to hasten the distribution of the lands to them as promised by the government based on its land reform program.

An LCA ended in tragedy in Sagay, Negros Occidental on October 20, 2018, when nine members of NFSW were massacred by suspected paramilitary troops of the government after they had just cleared the land for food cultivation. 

Ironically, but not surprisingly, Duterte and the military alleged that the New People’s Army (NPA) was behind the massacre. Eventually, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found two survivors of the carnage guilty of the said crime and issued out warrants for their arrests.

Before the DOJ decision, President Duterte released Memorandum Order No. 32 (MO32) on November 23, 2018. It covered the whole of Negros Island, the Bicol region, and provinces of Samar as these were under a so-called state of lawless violence and experiencing acts of terror.

One of the main reasons given was the Sagay massacre allegedly perpetrated by the NPA rebels. Negros Island became a howling wilderness soon after, with a little over 100 activists being killed, including professionals and even local barangay officials.

Busting unions, distorting history

Other than that, the government through the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in coordination with security forces operating in the Island initiated atrocities mainly targeting the NFSW and peasant organizations. 

It has also attempted to discredit the NFSW and other progressive organizations by portraying them as front organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA. This is popularly known today in the country as red-tagging. 

At the same time, the NTF-ELCAC set up its own organizations controlled by state security forces to force members of the NFSW and others to disaffiliate from their respective groups and join these bogus ones.   

NTF-ELCAC has gone as far as stage a spectacle to distort the history of the Escalante massacre, which happened on September 20, 1985. In 2019, the task force framed the massacre’s annual as a ‘peace miracle,’ where the main event was the surrender of 2,510 supposed rebels and supporters of the CPP-led armed struggle. In the revisionist presentation, the so-called surrenderers pledged allegiance to the state to show that they have returned to the fold of the law.

On top of these, the Duterte government is also hard bent on dismantling the LCAs which the NFSW and other organizations have been painstakingly setting up all throughout the years. The effort was started even before the Marcos dictatorship was imposed in 1972. 

LCAs were even included initially in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of unions under the NFSW, in which one of their demands was for landlords to allot farm lots for their workers to tide them during tiempo muerto. Later, this would be used to hasten the distribution of lands to sugar field workers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) of the government. 

State terrorism, peasant resistance

The main office of the NFSW in Bacolod City and its leading officers were not spared from the state’s wrath. On the night of Oct. 31, 2019, its office along with two others were simultaneously raided by state security forces. One of those arrested on spurious charges was John Milton Lozande, secretary general of the NFSW.   

He subsequently posted bail, then recently, on March 9, 2021, a Bacolod judge voided the search warrant issued against him and four others by a Quezon City judge for non-conformity with established constitutional rules and evidence. 

Despite all the persecution that the NFSW has suffered, it continues to function effectively with half of its membership still intact. It persistently stages protest actions in Bacolod, and has even succeeded in the struggle to increase of the wages of those toiling in sugarcane plantations—from P100 to P150, and from P150 to P200 daily—benefiting 138 families. It also was able to open a new LCA in Southern Negros.

In June 2021, the NFSW submitted a joint complaint with the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) at the Committee on Freedom of Association of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO accepted the said complaint.

The committee wrote in its report that “it urges the Government to provide a detailed reply to the serious allegations of extra-judicial killings, illegal arrests, detention, threats, intimidation, harassment and red-tagging of trade unionists communicated by the ITF, the UMA and the NFSW–FGT.” 

It also added that “it expects the Government to ensure that all of the above allegations will be rapidly investigated and perpetrators of violence against trade unionists identified and brought to justice, irrespective of whether they are private persons or State agents, so as to combat impunity and prevent the repetition of such acts.”

Sugar workers always find ways to survive the yearly tiempo muerto inherent in the sugar industry. They are also bound to overcome the dead season being brought upon them by the Duterte government through their continuing struggles despite facing enormous challenges. 

They had survived the 14-year martial law rule of the Marcos dictatorship. They will make sure that in the coming May presidential elections, no Marcos or Duterte will pluck the highest positions in the land, lest dictatorship and tyranny reign all over again in the country.  

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article is that of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization nor of the CPDG.