Negros Island, the Philippines, a land of stark contrasts. Many of the wealthiest of that country’s land-owning elite live next to the poorest of the million of working poor. Starvation haunts the homes of thousands of sugarcane workers while thousands of acres of prime agricultural land stand vacant on the giant sugar plantations of Negros.

Serge Cherniguin, Secretary-General of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW), based on Negros, described these conditions to church, labor and community groups in Seattle recently as part of a West Coast speaking tour at the invitation of the Negros Food and Freedom Fund of Hawai’i. He is explaining the emergency situation facing the sugarcane workers of Negros and appealing for sorely needed donations and assistance.

Cherniguin traces the current plight of sugarcane workers to the collapse of the Philippine sugar industry in 1984. At that time, world sugar prices dropped precipitously, resulting in massive unemployment on the sugar haciendas of Negros. The effect were devastating on an island whose economy is completely dependent on a single, export-oriented crop. Employment in the sugar industry dropped from a high of 1.8 million to 439,000 in a few short years with no other source of jobs available. Ironically, while both the sugar lands and sugar workers were idled by the collapse, the people have not been permitted to farm the vacant land for food. The result has been starvation in the midst of the Philippines richest farmland.

Even those who still hold jobs cannot make ends meet. The Philippines’ minimum wage law was passed years ago, but it has never been enforced. By law, the minimum wage should be 32.5 pesos or about $1.50 a day, but on Negros, 90 percent of the workers are paid piecework rates, called the “paquiao” rate. Those who work for the “paquiao” rate, Cherniguin says, make 12 to 22 pesos or less than one dollar a day. And during the “tiempo muerto” (off-season) from May to September, no one has jobs in this seasonal industry.

Bad conditions are made worse, Cherniguin reports, by the presence of multinational corporations, primarily U.S., but also several Japanese firms. Multinational effectively control the Philippine fertilizer, machinery, oil and finance industries, using this control to exploit Filipino labor and natural resources. Unfortunately, Cherniguin says, President Aquino and the government technocrats have yet to end foreign domination of the Philippine economy, an absolute necessity if the Filipino people are to achieve national independence and development that benefits all sectors of society.

The National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW) was founded in 1971 by a group of priests, seminarians and labor leaders. Massive organizing was going on throughout the Philippines in the years just prior to Marcos’s declaration of martial law, and the NFSW was formed to address the unique conditions of the sugar workers on Negros. Pro-management unions, called “yellow unions,” were also established by the landowners to co-opt and divide the workers, but the NFSW has continued to grow. Today, the NFSW boasts a membership of over 80,000.

Organizing the sugar workers had not been an easy task. The first step, Cherniguin says, was to raise the awareness of the sugar workers, “because their minds had been conditioned by generation of oppression and exploitation to accept the situation, to be thankful for the very little benefits they receive from the sugar planters. The responsibility of the union was to awaken the sugar workers that they are human beings, that they have rights.”

The second step was to overcome the opposition of the sugar planters. “The sugar planters of Negros,” says Cherniguin,” are one of the most elite in Philippine society, so wealthy, so haughty and imperious, so proud and very despotic.” They have used their wealth and power to buy off the labor courts, the police and the military and enlist their aid in suppressing union organizing activities, Cherniguin added.

“Many sugar workers have lost their lives,” Cherniguin reports, “for simply demanding the implementation of the minimum wage law, a law that is already on the books.” Violence against the sugar workers and union organizers has increased recently with the rise of right-wing vigilante groups like Alsa Masa and the doubling of the military garrison on the island.

Like most other NFSW union organizers, Cherniguin knows his name appears on right-wing death lists. He shrugs when asked of it, saying. “When you see the suffering of the people, the depth of poverty and hunger, you get so angry. As a Christian, you feel ashamed of so much injustice. You have to take action.”

Vigilante groups on Negros have even attacked the local Catholic church for its strong stand in support of the sugar workers and land reform. Several church schools and facilities have been razed, and an attempt was recently made to assassinate Bishop Antonio Fortich as he slept in a church compound. The church has stated, Cherniguin says, that “the cry of the sugar workers and people of Negros for land reform is a sacred cry… the church is willing to suffer with the people in their quest for land and will rise up with the people in triumph once genuine land reform is implemented.

Land reform is perhaps the key question facing the Philippines today. President Aquino has just unveiled her program for land reform to the public, but Cherniguin is not impressed. While it is intended to cover all lands, an improvement over previous programs, Congress must still implement it and decide how much land each landowner may retain outside the program.

Cherniguin feel this is a fatal flaw. The new Congress is dominated by traditional Philippine elites. A majority have spoken out against land reform even before debate has begun. Both the chair and vice chair of the land reform committee in Congress have close ties to the sugar planters of Negros. “What was a promise of great hope for the people,” he says, “turned out to be a great frustration.”

The NSFW demands genuine land reform because only this can empower the 80 percent of the population that has been so impoverished. Only genuine land reform, Cherniguin maintains, can solve the “peace and order question” in Negros. For the NFSW, this means giving land to the landless, abolishing the hacienda system, and setting up workers’ cooperatives.

Cherniguin believes the main problems of the Philippines are economic, not ideological. While government officials show interest only in the Philippines’ export capacity and Gross National Product, for 90 percent of the people, the first interest is food. And to have food, they must first have land. “The people are hungry, they watch their children starve to death, they have no jobs, so they join the union to improve their lives,” he said. “Then their union is suppressed and even their churches attacked. People go to the hills because they have no alternative.”

In preparation for genuine land reform, the NFSW has initiated a Farmlot Program which sets up sugar workers on borrowed land, provides farm supplies and teaches farming techniques. Organic farming methods are used, says Cherniguin, because Filipinos need to end their reliance on expensive fertilizers, pesticides and fuel provided by foreign multinationals.

Cherniguin hopes to build recognition and support for these projects that prepare Philippine sugar workers to take control of their lives. He also appeals to the American people to look at the real problems of land reform and economic independence, stop the exploitation of Philippine resources and labor by the U.S. multinationals, and halt U.S. military aid to the Philippines.

Serge Cherniguin, Secretary-General of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers, will be guest of honor at a reception on Sunday, August 16, hosted by the Philippine Workers Support Committee of Seattle.

The event, from 3 to 6 p.m., includes a light supper and a performance by the Filipiniana Dance Troupe. It will be held at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Hall, Local 1105 at 1010 South Bailey St. Donation is $10. All proceeds go to NFSW.

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