ose Jerry Catalogo was feeding his carabao out in the fields of his poor village in Escalante City, Negros Occidental, off the northwest coast of Cebu island in the Philippines, when he was gunned down by suspected state agents.
According to Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura or UMA (National Federation of Agricultural Workers), Catalogo was the 260th “victim of political killings among the peasantry under the [President Rodrigo] Duterte regime,” which took office in June 2016. Of this number, 190 had been killed in the last five months. Six of these, including Catalogo, were felled in June alone, and all were members of farmer groups such as UMA, which are opposing flawed or ill-thought-out government policies affecting their sector.
Catalogo held a seat in the local farmer’s association under the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW). In the days leading to his murder on 23 June 2020, Catalogo noticed that he was being followed by unidentified men, his widow said.
Earlier in June, a farm worker, Gaspar Davao, was arrested by police operatives at a checkpoint in Escalante City on trumped-up charges. Davao, who was part of a local farmer group under the NFSW, had been tagged as a ranking officer of an insurgency movement in the country, the New People’s Army (NPA).
Just three days prior to Catalogo’s death, four farmers were killed in the Visayas island by suspected state actors. At least two of the victims were accused of being communist rebels.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the condition of agricultural workers – mired in abject poverty and, for many who have organized themselves to advocate better worker conditions, constantly branded as members of anti-government insurgency movements, in particular the NPA. The NFSW, for example, which fights for the rights and welfare of sugar workers in Negros province, has been incessantly red-tagged since it was established in 1971.
Across the country agricultural workers are considered the poorest of the poor with the majority of receiving very low minimum wages prescribed by regional wage boards. Many also do not enjoy social and health benefits mandated by law.
This is also true among agricultural workers in such Southeast Asian countries as Thailand and Malaysia, especially their foreign migrant workers who are paid lower than local workers and many of whom are undocumented.
Doomed to deeper poverty
To curb the spread of COVID-19, the Duterte administration imposed various degrees of lockdowns across the country beginning on March 17. If, on paper, the rules of the shelter-in-place orders were confusing, they were much more so on the ground. Plans were half-baked: what counted as lockdown violations? What were appropriate sanctions? Which industries were to remain open? How will mobility be ensured for essential workers? When will the promised emergency assistance come?
For agricultural laborers, the lack of concrete and detailed quarantine guidelines, suspension of public transport, and poor on-the-ground implementation of quarantine checkpoints have made it difficult for them to get to work and driven swaths of the sector into unemployment. This was despite the government’s assurance that all those engaged in agricultural work should have unhampered movement from one place to another to ensure an adequate supply of food for the country.
Thus, for a sector that is among the country’s poorest, the pandemic brings with it a deadly triad: the virus, hunger, and the barrel of a gun.
This sector includes men and women who labor in crop fields, orchards, glasshouses, livestock farms, and processing facilities. Also included in their ranks are migrant agricultural workers, both domestic and foreign, as in the case of Thailand and Malaysia.
Many of them do not own or rent the land on which they work and do not own the farm tools and equipment that they use. They can be full-time, temporary or casual, seasonal, migrant, or piece-rate workers. They can work for a farmer (like a grower), a farming or plantation company, a subcontractor, or a labor contractor. They are paid in cash, in kind, or a combination of both.
Even before the pandemic, agricultural workers, particularly in the sugar industry, were already some of the lowest paid workers in the Philippines and across Asia, aside from being landless and bereft of agricultural assets. Sugar workers, for example, earn only about Php 60 to 200 ($1.20 to $4) per day, lower than the amount required for a family to subsist, P1,200 ($24).
Wages vary by province, employer, and task. Some earn as low as Php100 ($2) per day, while others have a more manageable daily rate of about Php 350 ($7), barely enough to meet a family’s basic needs.
Efforts to organize these workers have led to improved wages, but organizers, often red-tagged, have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence.
Similar issues elsewhere in Asia
Filipino agricultural workers are not alone in their precarious condition — made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Indonesia, where more than 22 million hectares of land are planted with oil palm, corporations are taking few steps to protect their workers against the pandemic.
Most palm oil companies ignore the national government’s directive to take pandemic prevention measures, and majority of the plantations, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan, operate business as usual amid today’s global crisis.
A lack of health safeguards in the Indonesia palm oil industry is compounded by a weak commitment to social protection for its labor force. A large company under London Sumatra (Lonsum) and Indofood group recently retrenched 570 workers, including the union leaders, citing the economic downturn brought about by the pandemic.
In Sabah, Malaysia, 1.5 million hectares of land are planted with oil palm, with a one million-strong workforce. Ninety percent of the oil palm workers in this Malaysian state are migrants, including Filipinos. Seventy percent of migrant workers engaged in various kinds of agricultural work in this Malaysian state at the northern side of the island of Borneo are undocumented. Despite assurances by the local government that undocumented migrants would not be arrested if they sought medical assistance, the Malaysian government has not repealed the Health Circular 10/2001, which requires healthcare providers to report undocumented migrants to the authorities.
When the country’s Movement Control Order, a series of pandemic mitigation measures, was enforced in early March, many palm oil plantations ceased operations. Based on a policy of no work, no wage, many of the workers lost substantial income. A number of workers remain locked inside plantation estates and are forced to rely on food relief and donations to survive.
Inadequate social safety nets
Back in the Philippines, in an attempt at social protection as the deadly virus rages, the government promised aid to families who had lost income during the lockdown. The general idea was to provide emergency cash relief to “poor, vulnerable, and marginalized” households, delivered in tranches and only to qualified recipients.
In northern Isabela province only around 40% of sugar workers and their families were able to get the promised relief funds because of stringent requirements set by the government’s social welfare department.
Sugar workers, who number approximately 700,000 nationwide, were excluded from the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) social amelioration program because they were considered informal workers, while only a handful (6.5%) received a measly PhP1000 ($20) one-time cash support under another program from one of DOLE’s bureaus.
Although lockdown restrictions have been eased in many areas in the Philippines, challenges have hardly abated. For one, entry restrictions still apply to some areas, making transport of farm produce or finding other sources of income impossible – more so now that the dead season, or ‘tiempo muerto’, for some workers like sugar planters, has set in.
For another, transportation rate has gone up significantly while cash assistance, if any, remains scarce.
Amid these challenges, agricultural workers are forging on with a steely resolve by taking other concrete steps. In the Philippines, plans are afoot by local farmer groups to seek dialogues with relevant government agencies to explore other forms of financial assistance they can avail themselves of. They are also gearing up to campaign for wage increases in the coming months. Workers’ demands in Negros include 50% increase in the piece rate and 50% increase in the prevailing daily wage.
In Indonesia, workers have to assert their rights as the pandemic is being used as justification to retrench workers, especially those belonging to unions. They have also to assert their rights to be protected from the virus.
In Sabah, Malaysia, various local advocacy groups must forge solidary with migrant workers to ensure the latter are provided with basic necessities amid the ongoing global crisis.
Across the Southeast Asian region, there is a need to campaign both locally and internationally against human rights violations committed against agricultural workers.
From state-backed crackdown on progressive agricultural groups going into overdrive and poorly thought out mitigation measures and emergency relief programs, to decades-old structural issues that have thrust many workers into the throes of extreme poverty, this sector’s steely resolve and ability to survive is facing an unprecedented challenge, starkly manifest now more than ever. ●
Gi Estrada is the media officer of Unyon ng mga Mangagawa sa Agrikultura (National Federation of Agricultural Workers) in the Philippines.