David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Children in the Banana Trees
by David Bacon

Roberto Sabanal had been picketing Dole Corporation's banana groves from the very beginning of the strike. His own plantation was shut down tight. But on the dirt roads snaking through the trees of nearby Diamond Farms, banana workers had thrown up barricades, worried the company intended to resume operations.

"They asked us for help. So we went over there most nights, to beef up their lines and guard the roads," he recalls.

That's what he was doing at four-thirty in the morning on December 21, 1997. Sabanal and his friends had spent the night in tents at an encampment next to the main gate, and were about to knock off and return home. Suddenly, a worker burst from the intense darkness of the rural Mindanao night, running out of the trees.

"He shouted to us that their lines were being attacked by soldiers and police on the other side of the plantation," Sabanal says. "We jumped onto the company fire truck, and began rushing across the farm to aid our comrades. It was very dark. Then, about 200 yards away from their picketline, we heard a shot. We were scared, but we kept on going. Then there was another shot, out of the trees beside the road."

Sabanal felt a numb sensation in his buttocks and upper leg. "I reached down, and felt that my clothes were wet." His voice trembles, remembering the shock he felt: "When I brought my hand up before my face, I could see it was covered in blood."

Still the firetruck hurtled through the trees, finally breaking out onto the main road. "Suddenly, we saw a lot of men in uniforms, holding guns," he says. "The firetruck stopped, and I jumped down and rolled over in the dirt beside the road. By then the pain was like fire."

Sabanal's companions loaded him onto a jeepney (a homemade cross between a jeep and a bus), and rushed him to a local hospital. There eight men from his own plantation, and another 20 from Diamond Farms, stood guard outside his room as the bullet wound was stitched up. Afterwards, Sabanal took off for the plantation again. Plainclothes police had already come looking for him at home while he was in the hospital, telling his family they wanted to check the story of the shooting.

"I think they wanted to make me say it never happened," he says. "And if I don't agree to cooperate, anything can happen to me."

For the weeks after the incident, Sabanal hid in the plantations. He appeared for an interview at midnight by the light of a kerosene lantern, around a table at a strikers' camp deep within the struck banana groves. After talking and showing his bandaged wound, he disappeared again with his companions into the trees.

According to Antonio Edillon, a Diamond Farms banana harvester, over 500 armed men attacked 100 people on the picketline that night. "We sat down at the edge of the banana grove, beside the main road, and locked arms with each other. We weren't even blocking the plantation road anymore," he says. "I was hit by an iron bar, and I saw others hit and kicked as well. The soldiers pointed their Armalite rifles at us, and told us they'd shoot."

Edillon and Coronado Apusen, an attorney from the National Federation of Labor who assists the strikers, identified the attackers as members of the 432nd Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Armed Forces, commanded by Major Sakam, along with local police and guards from Timog Agricultural Corp., a division of Dole Asia, Inc. Asked if the strikers also had arms, Edillon laughed. "We don't even have enough money to eat. Where would we get the money to buy guns?" he asked.

The attackers dragged the picketers onto busses. They were taken to Carmen, a nearby town, where they were released. The picketline was broken, and armed guards entered the plantation. When later asked to identify themselves, they refused. One man in camouflage fatigues, his head wrapped in a bandanna and holding an AR-16, said he worked for Stanfilco, a division of Dole Philippines, Inc.

No criminal charges were been brought against anyone for the beatings on the night of December 21, but a warrant was sworn out against Sabanal for "carnapping," for the supposed theft of the fire truck.

It's ironic that the Diamond Farms plantation was occupied by armed men. who refused for weeks to allow banana workers to set foot on the land. Since 1996, these banana workers have been the plantation's owners.

Through most of this year, the banana groves in four of Dole Corporation's principal Philippine plantations have been uncharacteristically silent. In place of the normal cacophony in the trees of harvesters cutting the huge bunches, the only sounds are the quiet voices of men and women sitting all day in dusty tents beside the plantation roads.

Two years ago, these workers became owners of the four plantations, when in 1996 the land they formerly worked as employees was transferred into their hands. But Dole, they say, pressured them into accepting a very low price for the fruit.

Prior to the transfer of the land, banana workers on the struck plantations were employed for wages directly by Stanfilco, a division of Dole Philippines, and by two other Dole subsidiaries, Diamond Farms and Checkered Farms. In the mid-1980s, they joined the National Federation of Labor, one of the Philippines' most militant unions. Under the last NFL contract in 1996, Stanfilco paid a daily wage of 146 pesos, and provided medical and pension plans, paid vacations and sick leave.

Union banana workers were still far from being middle class, poor even by Philippine standards. But they had a dependable income, at a level which could support their families.

In 1996 workers petitioned the national government's Department of Agrarian Reform for redistribution of the four plantations. The Philippine agrarian reform law, passed after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, gave Filipino plantation workers the right to become owners of the land on which they work, in purchases financed by the Philippine Landbank.

According to Jesus Relabo, a rank-and-file union leader on the Dabco plantation, the NFL advocated land reform for years before the law was passed. "Owning the land is forever," he says. "It's something you can give to your children."

Workers set up cooperatives on each of the four plantations, and, they say, Dole welcomed the move. But in the negotiations which followed, Dole insisted on a complicated arrangement in which it subsidized part of the production costs, and paid a small amount to the coops to cover the rest.

The agreement proved so controversial it was initially rejected by a vote of the workers. Nevertheless, in the end, it was adopted. Workers say the company required them to ratify the agreement in order to receive the severance pay legally mandated when their status as employees ended. "We didn't really understand how to compute our costs, and the company didn't want us to bring in experts to help us," says Eleuteria Chacon, head of the coop at Checkered Farms.

Mario Morillo, country manager of Dole Philippines, and Stanfilco vice-president and general counsel, refused to be interviewed, as did other company officials.

A provision of the agrarian reform law allows a landowner to make a voluntary offer to sell only part of its assets when faced with a petition for land redistribution. Under that provision, 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 coops couldn't produce bananas, making it impossible for the workers to turn down the low price per box the company offered.

Amansueto Agapay, the information officer for the Department of Agrarian Reform for the banana region of Davao, admitted that the arrangement gave Dole an unfair advantage in negotiations. "But," he says, "legally we had no power to force them to sell these assets. Now we're trying to facilitate negotiations. The main problem is that Stanfilco has to raise its price."

By the end of the new arrangement's first year, daily income for workers in the four coops had dropped from 146 pesos to 92. In addition, workers lost all the medical and other benefits they had as direct employees of the company. The coops were quickly in debt themselves. The Diamond Farms coop lost 30 million pesos the first year, and Checkered Farms 11 million, according to Coronado Apusen.

One Diamond Farms worker, Felix Bacalso, had to pull all but two of his 10 children out of public school, since he can no longer 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 price [per box of bananas] doesn't go up," he says.

Bacalso spent 8 years as a harvester at Diamond Farms, living with his family in a 2-room home on the plantation. "If we had a higher price, I could expand my house. As it is, some of my kids have gone to live with relatives."

The low price Dole is paying the coops isn't unique. The company has expanded, buying bananas from many other growers on Mindanao. It uses a system in which it convinces small rice farmers to consolidate their tiny plots of land and turn them into banana plantations. The company then builds the roads, cableways and packing houses. It pays growers the same price per box of bananas, under the same cost-subsidy arrangement it has with the cooperatives.

Six years ago, Stanfilco created the Soyapa Farms plantation in San Jose Campostela, about 75 miles from the coops in Panabo and Carmen. There many families have done what Felix Bacalso is trying to avoid - sending their kids to work.

At six in the morning, five children from 11 to 17 years old, huddle in a circle at one side of the Soyapa Farms packing shed. They flatten out and recycle the sheets of plastic which are inserted between banana bunches as they grow, to keep them apart. Children get 2 centavos for each sheet they save, making sometimes as much as 50 pesos a day.

Next to them, Benjamin Libron, 15 years old, gathers bananas discarded for minor imperfections. He piles them up, and then throws them onto a truck for transport to local markets or Manila. He is paid 60 pesos a day.

In the Soyapa Farms banana groves, Dini (15 years old), Jane (11) and Alan Algoso (9) cut dead leaves away from the stems of the trees with large knives. The two younger children make 50 pesos a day, and Dini makes 71. "My mom works here on the farm," Jane says, "and my grandparents have land here. We give our money to our family."

The children in the shed and the Algoso kids are still going to school. They work for two hours in the morning, and go back for another four hours after classes. But Benedicto Hijara, at 15, stopped after he completed the 6th grade. He's been working since 1994, the youngest of five brothers and three sisters, who all work for Soyapa Farms with their parents. Benedicto carries a stone and string, which he throws over an overhead cable. He then climbs a ladder, and ties the string to a tree trunk, propping it upright so it won't fall over under the weight of the banana bunch. To earn 71 pesos daily, he has to tie up 105 trees.

Danilo Carillon, 16 years old, stopped going to school five years ago, after the third grade. For 86 pesos a day he also climbs a bamboo ladder, pulling a plastic bag over each bunch of bananas. He has to bag 160 bunches of bananas a day.

The bags are treated with a pesticide, Lorsban. Carillon wears a simple dust mask over his face when he unrolls each bag, one not capable of filtering out chemicals.

The Associated Labor Union, affiliated to the more-conservative Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, represents workers at Soyapa Farms. Bebot Llerin, an ALU representative, says that after a few years, baggers appear thin and pale, and get lots of allergies. "I think this might be an effect of the chemical in the bags," he says, "but we know very little about it."

"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 ALU activist who tries to convince parents not to send their children to work. "So when we started to campaign against child labor here, the parents were very angry, fearing their children would lose their jobs."

One parent, Ludy Quinio, supports four children on his job as disease control worker, which pays 71 pesos a day. To supplement his income, the family raises pigs and makes tuba -- coconut beer -- and his wife runs a tiny sari-sari store, selling a little bit of everything to their neighbors. In December, the value of the Philippine plunged from 30 to 46 per dollar. A coke in her store sells for 8 pesos - an hour's labor.

"If Ernolie [his 16-year old son] didn't work, he wouldn't be able to go to school," Quinio says. Ernolie is proud of his job, which he's been doing for three years. Despite working before and after school propping trees, and 11 hours on Saturday, he's still second in his senior class in high school. "If I can keep on working, I'd like to go to college too," he says. His father speculates that Ernolie's 13-year old sister may have to start working soon also, when she starts going to high school.

The Soyapa Farms Growers Association employs 360 contract workers, both adults and children. Stanfilco convinced 108 small growers to form the association six years ago, pooling their 360 hectares of riceland to grow bananas. It's not a cooperative - each grower retains ownership of their individual plot, and each has an individual contract to sell their bananas to Dole.

Because the workers are contract employees, they don't qualify for even the lowest minimum wage in Mindanao, which is 96 pesos a day. "Stanfilco says it isn't responsible for the situation," says Bebot Llerin, "since it doesn't employ the plantation workers directly. We've asked Dole to come up with some money for subsidies to pay the families so their kids can go to school. But the company says nothing."

There is more at stake in the banana trees, however, than the harvest of a large U.S. corporation.

In the wake of the economic meltdown in southeast Asia, the International Monetary Fund has forcefully urged the Philippines and other countries to provide greater incentives for foreign investment. The children working in the trees of the Mindanao plantations highlight the possible consequences of this economic strategy. Income is declining for workers in export agriculture. That decline has become fuel for rising social conflict, leading to the strike.

Dole's low price per box of bananas traps growers in increasing debt, providing no money for raising the wages of plantation workers. If the strike in the cooperatives can force the company to raise its price, many Dole growers elsewhere will undoubtedly ask for the same deal.

"On the average, growers owe 200-300,000 pesos apiece to Stanfilco," explains NFL organizer George Aquilon. "We believe the government is closing its eyes to what's happening to us," Aquilon says. "They're always telling us that we can't be too insistent. We have to protect foreign investors at all costs, they say, since they provide jobs and income for Philippine workers and farmers. But what kind of jobs, and what level of income, are they providing us?"

Aquilon says that, despite the end of the authoritarian Marcos regime in 1986, there hasn't been a strike on banana plantations for 10 years. "The government says any strike here affects the national interest," he cautions. "But what that really means is sacrificing us to make investment attractive."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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