By David Bacon
DAVAO, Philippines — For two months, the banana groves in four of Dole Corporation's principal Philippine plantations have been uncharacteristically silent.
Almost 2000 Dole farm workers have refused to cut a single banana for the company since December 4, and thousands of harvesters on other Dole plantations are watching the work stoppage closely.
The dispute highlights the possible consequences of economic liberalisation in the wake of the economic meltdown in south-east Asia.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forcefully urging the Philippines and other countries to provide greater incentives for foreign investment. This economic strategy has led to declining incomes in export agriculture, rising social conflict and even an increase in child labour.
Plantation workers are striking over the low price Dole pays for each box of bananas. Dole, with operations in 80 countries, is the world's largest grower of fruit and vegetables, and the largest producer of bananas.
In early February, two of the plantations on strike, Dole's "flagship farms", reached an agreement with the company on an increased price per box, a flat rate of $2.60. Dole also agreed to pay in dollars to offset the devastating effects of the peso's current devaluation.
Dole still refuses, however, to apply the same terms to the other two plantations on strike.
Until two years ago, the strikers were salaried employees of Dole's subsidiaries, Stanfilco, Checkered Farms and Diamond Farms. Their wages started at 146 pesos a day, and the company paid for medical care, pensions, vacations and sick leave.
In 1996, the workers became owners of the four plantations, after setting up cooperatives and petitioning for redistribution of the land under the Philippines' agrarian reform law. Dole then negotiated an agreement to purchase the bananas, in a complex combination of subsidies and direct payments per box.
But the price Dole agreed to pay is so low that last year workers earned only 96 pesos a day, and lost all of the benefits they had previously.
"The company reduced its labour costs by no longer employing us directly", explained Eleuteria Chacon, head of the co-op at Checkered Farms. One Diamond Farms worker, Felix Bacalso, had to pull all but two of his 10 children out of public school, no longer able to afford the costs of tuition, uniforms, food and transport. "I'm worried I'll have to send them to work if the company doesn't pay more", he says.
"The company promised we would make big profits if we produced over 3000 boxes of bananas a day, but even after meeting that goal, our co-ops lost money", Chacon said. "We didn't really understand how to compute our costs, and the company said they wouldn't negotiate with us if we brought in experts from our union."
Dole also withheld the workers' legally mandated severance pay until they signed the agreement.
Although workers took over some of the plantation land, Dole retained ownership of the plantation roads, the packing sheds and the network of cables needed to support the trees and transport the bananas.
Without those assets, the co-ops couldn't produce bananas. When the workers suggested a clause in their agreement allowing them to sell bananas to other companies, Dole said it would refuse them access to the infrastructure.
Walden Bello, University of the Philippines professor and a senior fellow at the US-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, says that the Philippine government is allowing foreign investors to manipulate the country's legal process. "It's true that the government is allowing land reform, but it also allows so many loopholes that the former owners benefit more than the workers", he charges.
"What counts is how the government interprets the law. By allowing Dole to retain ownership of the plantation infrastructure, the government made it possible for Dole to lower its costs, while appearing to comply with the land reform process."
Bello says that the government's overall plan is to make the country more attractive to foreign investors. "Following the advice of the IMF, the government is trying to help companies lower their labour costs in order to make the country's exports cheaper."
Pressure on families
Dole uses the same arrangement it negotiated with the co-ops with many other Mindanao growers.
Six years ago, the company convinced 108 small rice farmers in San Jose Campostela to pool their land and set up a banana plantation, Soyapa Farms. It signed an individual contract with each grower to buy their bananas at the same low price. Afterwards, many families did what Felix Bacalso is trying to avoid — sent their kids to work.
At six in the morning, children from 11 to 17 years old huddle in the plantation's packing shed. They flatten out and recycle sheets of plastic which are inserted between banana bunches as they grow. Children get two centavos for each sheet they save, making about 50 pesos a day.
Dini, 15, Jane, 11, and Alan Algoso, nine, cut dead leaves away from the stems of the trees with large knives. "My mom works here on the farm", Jane explains. "We give our money to our family."
These children work for two hours in the morning, go to school, and then go back to work for another four hours after classes. They work 11 hours on Saturday.
Others have dropped out of school entirely. Benedicto Hijara, 15, completed sixth grade. His parents, five brothers and three sisters all work for Soyapa Farms.
Danilo Carillon, 16 years old, stopped going to school after the third grade. For 86 pesos a day, he climbs a bamboo ladder, pulling a plastic bag over each bunch of bananas. The bags are treated with a pesticide, Lorsban. Carillon wears a simple dust mask over his face when he unrolls each bag, but it does not filter out chemicals.
"The children on this plantation work because their families can't survive without the wages they earn", explains Nenita Baylosis, a Soyapa Farms employee and member of the Associated Labor Union (ALU).
Baylosis tries to convince parents not to send their children to work. "When we started to campaign against child labour here, the parents were very angry, fearing the kids would lose their jobs", she says.
Three hundred and sixty workers, including children, are employed by the Soyapa Farms Growers Association. Because the workers are contract employees, they don't qualify for even the lowest minimum wage in Mindanao, 96 pesos a day.
"Stanfilco says it isn't responsible for the situation", says ALU representative Bebot Llerin, "since it doesn't employ the plantation workers directly". Dole's low price for bananas traps growers in increasing debt. They have no money to raise the wages of plantation workers, Llerin explains.
Confrontation is brewing at Luna Industrial Banana Growing Farm. Its 2500 workers are represented by the National Federation of Labor, which used to represent workers at the striking co-ops. In early January, the NFL issued a notice of intention to strike at Luna. Like Soyapa Farms, it is run by a growers association, selling bananas to Dole.
The immediate cause of the impending strike is a disagreement over application of the minimum wage law. But Luna growers can't resolve the workers' complaint without getting Dole to raise its price. "These growers owe 200-300,000 pesos each to Stanfilco", explains NFL organiser George Aquilon.
According to Aquilon, a strike both there and in the co-ops would stop at least two-thirds of Dole's Philippine banana operation.
The growing confrontation has already escalated into violence. On the night of December 21, soldiers, local police and company guards expelled co-op members from their land at Diamond Farms. According to Antonio Edillon, a Diamond Farms harvester, "We sat down at the edge of the banana grove, beside the main road and locked arms. I was hit by an iron bar. I saw others hit and kicked as well."
Two co-op members were shot and wounded as they drove a plantation fire truck through the farm to come to the aid of the strikers. Armed guards occupied the plantation.
"The government is closing its eyes to all this", Aquilon says. "They tell us we have to protect foreign investors at all costs, since they provide jobs. But what kind of jobs are they providing us? Jobs for children? They're sacrificing us to make investment attractive."
Bello says the problems on the Mindanao plantations are a vision of the future, as the countries of south-east Asia implement IMF austerity programs in the wake of the region's financial crisis.
"The growing poverty, child labour and now the strike show what these IMF policies are really going to mean to people", he predicts.