By Chito Chavez
Militant farmer’s group National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) stressed that the two-day Sugarcane Stakeholders Summit organized by the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) that started yesterday “should take a strong stand against the liberalization of the sugar industry as this would kill the industry.”
Among the NFSW members who aired their grievances at the Sugar Summit in the Bureau of Soils and Water Management Convention Hall were those from KAISAHAN-Batangas.
They said the more than 10,000 small planters and sugar field workers in the province were against liberalization of the industry as most sugarcane farms in Batangas are owned by the former.
The NFSW stressed the liberalization was proposed by neo-liberal technocrats of the Duterte regime like Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Benjamin Diokno, which in effect would remove fees for importing sugar and stop the SRA from regulating shipments to further open up the Philippine market for the sweetener in the guise of raising the tariff to 30-40 percent.
Since 2015, the tariff for imported sugar has been pegged at five percent from a previous 38 percent as a result of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA).
The group said this was similar to the liberalization of the rice industry whereby rice can be imported without limits also in the guise of higher tariffs.
“If the sugar industry is liberalized, nobody in the country would dare engage in agriculture for the local market as the government would rather import cheaper agricultural products for its citizens while at the same time promoting export crops such as palm oil, cavendish bananas, pineapples and the like for the global market,’’ the NFSW noted.
In effect, NFSW said Philippine agriculture would only cater to large foreign and local corporations that produces the above export crops and controls its markets. The country would thus never achieve food security and sovereignty.
Gi Estrada, in a statement, explained that “many have already said that particularly in the sugar industry, this would result in the eventual displacement of more than 700,000 workers and 75,000 plus small planters.
“This would add to the growing job losses in agriculture which increased to 1.8 million from July 2016 – July 2018,’’ the NFSW added.
If the sugarcane stakeholders would really want to maintain the local sugar industry, Estrada said it should also tackle and solve the long standing problem of low wages of its sugar workers which the Sugar Industry Development Act (SIDA) and the Sugar Industry Roadmap never mentioned saying “it is also the reason why planters are saying that there is a shortage of workers’’.
“In particular, there should be more social benefits and welfare program for the workers. Wages and benefits must be raised to national standards and the widespread use of piece-rate (pakyaw) and contractual work arrangements must be stopped,’’ NFSW insisted.
“Other than that, it should junk the SIDA and embark on a genuine agrarian reform program. For sugar workers there are only stipulations for skills training and scholarships for their children and nothing more,’’ it added.
With regards agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) in sugar areas, NFSW noted majority of them were forced to lease their lands back to financiers and hacienderos.
In Negros Occidental, according to NFSW secretary-general John Milton Lozande, 80 percent of the ARBs have been forced to lease their lands and become agricultural workers again.
In Hacienda Luisita, the NFSW noted that based on the data of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), 83 percent of ARB had already either leased or sold their lands to financiers.
Lozande said the SIDA institutionalized the re-concentration of lands by encouraging the formation of block farms.
“In effect, the P2-billion yearly budget for block farms would be devoured by financiers and hacienderos because most of the lands had already been leased to them by ARBs,” said Lozande.
“Only a genuine agrarian reform program can change this situation and ensure the feasibility of the sugar industry in the country,’’ the group ended.