Negros ‘sacadas’: Slaves through the years

By Jaime Espina, ABS-CBN, Today, 7 April 2004

HACIENDA TIBAY LOPEZ, Talisay City—Just a short distance from the cluster of humble homes in hacienda Tibay Lopez, barangay Efigemio Lizares, electric lines string from posts and steel pylons, bringing light and power to the rest of this city and parts of Negros Occidental.

But the 32 families living in the sugarcane plantation, live in darkness.

The dumaan or resident laborers, of hacienda Tibay Lopez have lived and toiled here for decades. Some families have worked here for four generations. The older ones, like Preciosa Garcia, 65, and Melvina de los Reyes, 73, remember better days, when their late amo Ner Lopez, ran the hacienda like a kindly patriarch, giving them land on which to build their houses, paid for their hospitalization, helped send their children to school.

Since Vicente Macasa leased the hacienda last year, the workers suffered.

Nanay Melvina says, We remain nailed to the earth [like Christ who was nailed to the cross].

In fact, asked where they would be if their lives were the station of the cross on the way to Mount Calvary, Melvina says, only halfway in jest.

All but a few of the workers here are pakyaw or contractual workers who do not receive regular wages but are paid for the amount of work they accomplished per hectare for weeding, per ton for harvesting and loading cane, per lacsa or 10,000 canepoints for planting.

Since, in theory, the faster you work, the more assignments—and income—you stand to gain, everyone who can pitch in, from Nanay Melvina and Eduardo Mendoza, who is of the same age, to children as young as seven-years-old, help in planting, weeding and applying fertilizer.

The bone-breaking labor of the harvest is the mens sole domain.

Although the law sets minimum rates for pakyaw labor, the Tibay Lopez dumaans say they receive less than minimum wage.

We do not know how much we are to be paid before we begin working, Ireneo Villacampa said. We only learn how much we earn when we are paid. Nor do they get to learn how their pay is computed since all we are shown are summaries, never itemized pay slips.

On the average, they earn a mere P50 a day during the six-month sugarcane season, hardly enough to keep food on the table, much less dream of sending their children to school.

Indeed, none of their children have reached college; only a handful have finished high school.

Those in the elementary grades rack up more than their fair share of absences when they have to join the work gangs.

As if the pay werent bad enough, for every three-week cycle of work, the Tibay Lopez dumaan receive only two weeks wages, the remaining weeks pay kept in reserve for the next work cycle.

When the meager cash runs out, they have no choice but to purchase on credit from the local cantina, run by the farm overseer, where basic goods cost as much as twice what they retail in town.

And like a cruel joke, they say taking out credit from the cantina often spells the difference between getting assigned to pakyaw work since the ones with the largest debts are assigned the most work to allow them to work off their debts.

They have tried to approach their employer for loans and advances, but no one has ever succeeded.

Work assignments are arbitrary and slacking, for whatever reason, met with harsh retribution. Nor is work confined to Tibay Lopez.

We also work in the seven other haciendas Macasa leases in Talisay, often having to walk several kilometers to get there, Villacampa says.

Recently, Wilgardo Atillano, 51, said his wife Armeli asked to be reassigned from planting in another hacienda three kilometers away to weeding in Tibay Lopez because of her arthritis.

She was promptly suspended and, when she asked for how long, was told, Until we say so.

She was forced to seek work as a maid in the city, Wilgardo said.

Thus, Nanay Preciosa and her husband Ernesto, who suffers from severe rheumatism, say they have learned to bite their lips and bear the pain, less they meet the same fate.

Sometimes, I shed tears while I work, Preciosa mutters, her eyes swelling up. We are not treated like humans.

During the harvest, work gangs cannot pause until they have finished loading their assigned trucks.

Alex, one of the younger Tibay Lopez residents, says this means gangs of five to seven men have to work nonstop from daybreak to as late as 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. to fill trucks with 14 to 20 tons of cane each. The pay—P105 a ton on the average.

Regular employees like Dante Allesa only fare a little less badly.

While his pay of P2,000 a month is more than double what most of the pakyaw workers make, more than P150 gets deducted from his weekly pay on Philhealth and Social Security System (SSS) contributions.

He suspects something fishy, with good reason. A Social Security System scale shows members earning P2,000 a month need to contribute only P66.70 with the employer chipping in another P131.30. However, the scraps of paper that serve as Allesa pay slips show as much as P101 a month is cut from his salary for SSS.

Worse, he said, When I tried to apply for a salary loan, the employer refused to sign. He now suspects that his contributions are not being remitted.

Looking at the paper scraps in his hand, Allesa bitterly jests, These are not pay slips but pinislit [squeezed].

Butch Losande, secretary-general of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), said Allesas dilemma is nothing new.

In many haciendas, we have learned that the workers themselves shoulder the employers supposed share of Social Security contributions, he said.

Losande said the plight of the Tibay Lopez workers is typical of 70 percent of the more than 280,000 hacienda workers in Negros Occidental.

Jun Jingco, 27, and Bartolome Basan, 27, belong to another group of sugarcane workers called sacada or migrant workers from other towns.

Jingco and Basan came from Cabadiangan, in the southern Negros city of Himamaylan, the two are among the growing number of sacadas from Negros.

Traditionally, the sacada used to come from Antique and Aklan.

Thousands of these subsistence farmers continue to come to Negros during the yearly sugarcane harvest hoping to earn more income.

But since the early part of the last decade, more and more dumaan in Negros haciendas have been moving from town to town. Many of them are former laborers dislocated either because of dwindling work in their home haciendas or ejected because of disputes over agrarian reform.

Jingco and Basan live in a makeshift tent made of canvas and bamboo that served as barracks for sacadas from Himamaylan less than a kilometer from the ramshackle homes of the Tibay Lopez dumaans.

Jingco started working in the fields when he was 14. He quit school when he was just Grade 3.

We are paid only P80 per ton during the harvest, although we also get an additional percentage, just a small amount, Jingco said.

This year, contracted to work on Macasas leased plantations, they are paid P105 per ton just like the Tibay Lopez dumaan.

We have to pay for our food, [and] we have no choice but to get [this] from our contractor, of course, at a gross overprice.

A fellow sacada, hesitant to give his name, said that, normally, I go home after five months work elsewhere with slightly more than P1,000.

Jingco, Basan and their shy companion are relatively lucky. They are all single and generally keep off the vice.

Last September, 46 of the Tibay Lopez dumaans organized a chapter of the NFSW, the first step toward what Nanay Preciosa said was their eventual resurrection.

Not that they are new to militant unionism. The Tibay Lopez workers were first organized in the early 1980s.

However, the attempt was short-lived when, at the height of a sugar crisis then, the plantation was abandoned in 1985 and the defunct Philippine Constabulary set up a detachment nearby.

Unlike other areas where workers found the opportunity to plant food crops on abandoned land, we were unable to do so because the militia manning the detachment would shoot at us if we tried to till the fields, Villacampa recalled.

They were also constantly harassed and accused of being sympathizers of New Peoples Army rebels.

One time, the militia ransacked a cooperative store and burned the tractor of an adjacent hacienda then blamed it on the NPA. Of course, whispers also made the rounds that we had a hand in it, Villacampa said.

Faced with literal starvation, the Tibay Lopez dumaans retreated to Talisays seashore where they tried to scratch out a living from gathering shellfish and trying their hand at fishing. They returned only when the hacienda went up for lease to a succession of lessees in the last decade.