On The Dole
Labor unrest, child labor characterizes Dole''s dealings in the Philippines
Thursday, March 19, 1998
Almost 2,000 Dole farm workers have refused to cut a single banana for the company since Dec. 4. Thousands of harvesters on other Dole plantations are following the work stoppage closely. Another 2,500 have served notice they intend to join the strike at the end of January, which would paralyze most of the company''s Philippine banana operations.
The dispute on Dole''s plantations highlights the possible consequences of economic liberalization in the wake of the economic meltdown in Southeast Asia. The International Monetary Fund 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 labor.
Plantation workers are striking over the low price Dole pays for each box of bananas they harvest. The Dole Corp., with operations in 80 countries, is the world''s largest grower of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the largest producer of bananas. There is also a division of Dole Fresh Vegetables in the Salinas Valley.
Last month, two of the struck plantations, which Dole refers to as "its flagship farms," reached an agreement with the company on an increased price per box, a flat rate of $2.60. Even more important, Dole agreed to pay in dollars to offset the devastating effects of the Philippine peso''s current devaluation. Dole still refuses, however, to apply the same terms to the other two struck plantations.
Until two years ago, the strikers were direct, salaried employees of Dole''s subsidiaries Stanfilco, Checkered Farms and Diamond Farms. Their wage scale 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 labor 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 small tuition, and the cost of uniforms, food and transportation. "I''m worried I''ll have to send them to work if the company doesn''t pay more," he says.
Workers charge that Dole took advantage of their lack of knowledge during negotiations. "The company promised we would make big profits if we produced over 3,000 boxes of bananas a day, but even after meeting that goal, our co-ops lost money," Chacon says. "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, they were in a weak bargaining position because they didn''t gain control of it all. 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 co-ops couldn''t produce bananas. When they suggested a clause in their agreement which would have allowed them to sell bananas to other companies, Dole said it would refuse to let them use that infrastructure.
Amansueto Agapay, information officer for the Philippine government''s Department of Agrarian Reform for the banana region of Davao, admitted that the arrangement gave Dole an unfair advantage. "That allowed them to set the condition that they would be the sole buyers," he says. "But legally we had no power to force them to sell these assets."
Agapay points his finger at the company. "The main problem," he says, "is that Stanfilco has to raise its price."
However Walden Bello, a professor at the University of the Philippines and senior fellow at the US-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, points out 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 to take place, but it also allows so many loopholes that the former owners benefit from it more than the workers," he says. "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 actually lower its costs, while appearing to comply with the land reform process."
Bello says that the government''s actions are part of an overall plan to make the country more attractive to foreign investors. "Following the advice of the International Monetary Fund, the government is trying to help companies lower their labor costs in order to make the country''s exports cheaper."
Mario Morillo, country manager of Dole Philippines, and Stanfilco vice-president, refused repeated interview requests. Other company officials chose not to comment.
Dole uses the same arrangement it negotiated with the co-ops with many other Mindanao growers. Six years ago, for instance, Stanfilco 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 and 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 2 centavos for each sheet they save, making about 50 pesos a day.
Other children work in the banana groves. Dini (15), Jane (11) and Alan Algoso (9) 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 the sixth grade. His parents, five brothers and three sisters all work for Soyapa Farms.
Danilo Carillon, 16, 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''s not able to 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. Baylosis tries to convince parents not to send their children to work. "When we started to campaign against child labor here, the parents were very angry, fearing the kids would lose their jobs," she says.
Three hundred 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 another huge Dole plantation, the Luna Industrial Banana Growing Farm. Its 2,500 workers are represented by the National Federation of Labor (NFL), the same union which used to represent workers at the striking co-ops. In early January the NFL issued a notice of their intention to strike the Luna plantation. 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 apiece to Stanfilco," explains NFL organizer George Aquilon. "They have to learn to fight the company for their own welfare, not just for ours." According to Aquilon, a strike both there and in the co-ops would stop at least two-thirds of the company''s Philippine banana operation.
The growing confrontation has already escalated into violence. On the night of Dec. 21, the 432nd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Armed Forces, along with local police and company guards, expelled coop 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. The soldiers pointed Armalite rifles at us, and told us they''d shoot."
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. When later asked to identify themselves by this reporter, they refused, but one man in camouflage fatigues, holding an AR-16, said he worked for Stanfilco.
"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 Southeast Asia implement IMF austerity programs in the wake of the region''s financial crisis. "The growing poverty, child labor and now the strike on the Dole plantations show what these IMF policies are really going to mean to people," he predicts. cw