Amid growing calls from sugar stakeholders to narrow the gap between the millgate and retail prices of sugar, Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) urged the Department of Agriculture (DA), particularly the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), alongside the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), to consider the welfare of the most vulnerable sector affected by the raging sugar crisis—sugar workers and small planters.
Prioritize small planter, sugar workers
“Hindi sapat ang ‘narrowing the gap’ lamang,” lamented UMA national chairperson Ariel “Ka Ayik” Casilao. “Kung tataasan ang millgate price, bibigyang-katwiran nito ang pag-iral ng matataas na presyo sa merkado, at walang garantiya na makikinabang dito ang mga manggagawang agrikultural at maliliit na plantador. Presyo sa merkado ang dapat hatakin pababa—pero sa paraang higit na sustenable kaysa pagpataw lamang ng price ceiling.”
According to the federation, the sugar crisis rested on the precarity sugar workers and small planters put up with, and this was the result of a confluence of factors: rampant importation, lack of government support to the sugar industry, the existence of a cartel that harbored hoarders, violations to the freedom of association, harrowing work conditions, and systemic peasant landlessness. Only by acknowledging these issues could the state even begin to address them.
Coddling cartels, cronies
The National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) backed UMA’s analysis, underscoring how harmful the US-Marcos regime’s “import-addiction” had been—not only to sugar workers and small planters, but to the sugar industry at large. While importation may be excused in cases where the buffer stock for a month was insufficient, NFSW observed that the last import volume amounted to as much as three months worth of buffer stock, making the drop in millgate prices inevitable.
“May inaalagaan bang mga crony sa industriya ng asukal si Marcos at ang DA?” wondered NFSW secretary general John Milton “Ka Butch” Lozande. “Sila na mismo ang nagsasabing mapaminsala ang pag-aangkat ng asukal, pero angkat pa rin sila nang angkat kahit umaaray na ang mga manggagawang agrikultural at maliliit na plantador. Palibhasa importer din ang ilang mga landlord — win-win para sa kanila ang tambalang importasyon at monopolyo sa lupa.”
Genuine agrarian reform, living wages
In UMA and NFSW’s view, nothing short of genuine agrarian reform, partnered with a national living wage that approximated the family living wage of P1,188 in the National Capital Region, could solve the worsening sugar crisis in the long term. Breaking up land monopoly would create more small planters empowered to sustain domestic sugar production, and improved work conditions would arrest the decline in the sugar workforce and, consequently, in their productivity.
Nevertheless, the two peasant organizations agreed that short-term measures could be pursued for the mean time, if only to curb the drop in millgate and rise in retail prices: 1) End the administration’s constant resort to importation; 2) institute government procurement of locally produced sugar whether through Executive or Department Order; 3) provide production subsidies to small planters; 4) carry out a crackdown on hoarders; and 5) uphold the freedom of association.
Cracking down on hoarders and subsidizing sugar production would eradicate the false impression of chronically low sugar supplies. Government procurement of sugar from small planters with five hectares or less could be conducted by the SRA with local government units. These could be funded by reallocating the budget for rural militarization — the leading culprit for violations to the freedom of association — away from union-busting and redtagging and towards support for the sugar industry.
“Praktikal ang mga hakbang na ito,” ended Ka Ayik. “Ang industriya ng asukal ay binubuo ng tao, at para alagaan ito ng gobyerno, dapat alagaan ng gobyerno ang tao. Wala nang mas praktikal pa kaysa bigyang-prayoridad ang kapakanan ng mga manggagawang agrikultural at maliliit na plantador na siyang gulugod ng industriya ng asukal.” He emphasized not only how actionable these five measures were, but how urgent they were in improving the welfare of the peasantry.