Resistance and Repression in the Sugar Workers Movement

John Milton Lozande,  Secretary General, National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), Philippines

Prepared for the Agricultural Workers Conference, May 20-22, 2005, Penang, Malaysia
Friday, 20 May, 2005 - 05:07

Repression is inherent and concomitant to exploitation. This sad reality is clearly illustrated in the case of sugar workers in the Philippines.

The sugar industry is a major pillar of the pre-industrial and agricultural economy of the Philippines. It is still a major segment of the economy today.

Sugarcane was introduced from India to China, then to Formosa and later to the Philippines. From 1854 until the late 1970s, sugar became one of the top Philippine exports. The industry experienced a series of severe crisis: first, when the US sugar quota was restricted as a result of the termination of the Laurel-Langley Agreement (preferential trade agreement between the US and the Philippines) in the mid-1970s; the glut in the global supply of sugar in the first half of the 1980s; and impact of globalization since 1995 up to the present. In 1986, then President Corazon Aquino declared that the sugar industry as a "sunset industry".

Big landlords and comprador businessmen dominate the Philippine agriculture. Only six percent (6%) of the country's families own and control more than 60 percent of the total agricultural land in the Philippines. Barely two percent (2%) of the 40,000 sugar planters control 44% of the 366,000 hectares sugar plantations in the country. They also control the sugar industry's 28 sugar mills. The same few families also control the supply of fertilizers, pesticides and farm implements.

The elite who control vast tracts of sugar lands and sugar mills squeeze sugar workers dry to maximize their profits. Wages (which in many cases, US$1 and below/ daily) and benefits are kept very low. Union rights are trampled upon. Hunger and malnutrition hound sugar plantations while sugar barons wallow in luxury.

The government's Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), like other bogus land reforms before it, failed the sugar workers and their historical and continuing aspiration for land, jobs and justice. Flawed from the start, it is used by sugar barons and TNCs to retain, seize and reconcentrate control of the land through land conversions, transfer certificates and cancellation of Certificate of Land Transfer (CLTs) and Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs). In essence, the CARP legalizes land grabbing of the sugar barons and big corporations. Various schemes like the stock distribution option (SDO) and the corporative scheme are used by big landlord families like the Cojuangcos, the family of former President Cory Cojuangco Aquino, to conjure an illusion of land distribution.

The sugar industry is concentrated in Negros Island, the fourth largest island of the Philippine archipelago. Sixty percent (56%) of the national sugar production is produced in Negros. Negros host twelve (12) of the total twenty eight (28) operational sugar mills in the country. In fact, Victorias Milling Company (VMC), the biggest sugar refinery in the country and the whole of Asia is found in Victorias City, Negros Occidental. Other major sugar producing provinces in the country are Bukidnon, Batangas, Tarlac, Cebu, Iloilo, Capiz and Leyte.


The vast tracts of sugar lands owned by big landlords today, originated from the hatedhacienda system during the Spanish colonial regime in the Philippines. Haciendas were royal grants given by the then King of Spain to loyal natives. These lands were forcibly taken away from the native inhabitants of the Philippines during the Spanish colonization of the archipelago. Subsequently, instead of returning these lands to the natives, the US colonizers upheld Spanish and haciendero property rights over them. Majority of the country's political elite today, trace its roots to this haciendero landed elite who benefited from their subservience to Spanish and American colonial rule. Those who resisted colonialization, were considered and hunted down as "bandits" and "insurectos".

The modern sugar industry was introduced by a British businessman, Nicolas Loney. Loney first set foot in Panay Island and established modern sugar mills. He destroyed the native textile industry by flooding the local market with cheap factory-made textile. From Panay, Loney brought massive cultivation sugarcane and modern milling of cane sugar in Negros, a vast land of fertile volcanic soil favorable for sugarcane farming. Tens of thousands of hectares were grabbed from the native through force, intimidation and deception.


In 1890s farm workers in the sugar lands of Negros took up arms against the cruel Spanish colonialist and hacienderos. This uprising was led by Papa Isio (Dionisio Sigbela), a farm worker in a hacienda in Central Negros. The uprising spread like a bush fire amidst the unbearable oppression and exploitation of Spanish colonialists and localhacienderos. This was eventually put down by the treachery of local landlords who collaborated with the colonizers.

Several decades later, in 1928 the militant union, Federacion Obrera de Filipinas (FOF) was organized. In the face of widespread suppression of their right to organize, denial of humane wages and cruelty of owners of sugar mills, hacienderos and labor supervisors in the port areas; FOF waged a paralyzing strike that covered not only Panay and Negros but also some parts of Mindanao. Scabs and policemen were used to break picketlines. Thousands of workers were retrenched and injured in the strike. Again, the resistance of workers and farm workers were frustrated by force and deception. Yellow unions assisted mill owners and hacienderos in breaking the people's resistance.

Amidst frustration with labor dealers of yellow unions and the unbearable subhuman wage and lack of benefits, peasants and farm workers established the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) in 1971. They were assisted by well-meaning priests and nuns who were disgusted with the miserable situation of sugar workers and the hypocrisy of the government in dealing with their situation. NFSW led a series of strikes in the farm and sugar mills, which was brutally dispersed by the police and military.

In September 21, 1972, then President Marcos declared martial rule in the Philippines. Unions were banned and tens of thousands of leaders and members of workers unions, farm worker and peasant organizations were incarcerated. Some were extra-judicially executed. Until now thousands are still missing. Many of those who eluded capture went to the hills and joined the armed revolutionary underground. On September 20, 1985, 19 rallyists in Escalante City, Negros Occidental were massacred. The conviction of Marcos at the Hawaii District Court on violation of the human rights of 10,000 Filipinos, is only a tip of the ice berg. The actual victims of the Marcos fascist dictatorship could run up to hundreds of thousands.

The Marcos dictatorship was ousted by a people's uprising (EDSA 1) on February 26, 1986. There was widespread euphoria as the hated dictator was thrown out of office. Marcos was replaced by Corazon Aquino, widow of Senator Benigno Aquino who was murdered by martial law henchmen at the airport tarmac when he returned to the Philippines from exile in the United States. But contrary to popular expectation, then President Aquino proved to be more brutal and subservient to US dictation than her predecessor.

Negros experienced the worst militarization and human rights violations during the Aquino administration. Approximately, 30,000 peasants and farm workers were displaced by the government military's "Oplan Thunderbolt", a mass base denial operation of the government to deprive the New People's Army (NPA) of mass support. In the process, tens of thousands of sugarland were declared "no man's land", where everything that moved is shot. The people in these areas were forced to flee and leave their work and houses. These internal refugees were housed in religious institutions where epidemic broke out and scores of the elderly and children died. Later on, these evacuees were forced to join the multitude of urban squatters in the cities, suffering from lack of jobs, poor housing condition and lack of social services. In the cities many leaders and members of people's organizations were harassed. Many were killed, including a priest, lawyers, and labor leaders. On January 22, 1987, 19 protesting farmers were massacred by government troops in Mendiola Bridge in front of the Presidential Palace.

On January 19, 2000 then President Estrada was thrown out of power by another people's uprising (EDSA 2). Like former President Aquino, the current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo proved to be unprecedented in her puppetry to US dictates and worse in human rights violations than her predecessor.

On November 16, 2004, 7 striking sugar workers were massacred and hundreds were injured and hospitalized in Hacienda Luisita, Tarlac. The rest of the striking farm workers and mill workers were brutally dispersed by an elite military troops of the government. Ironically, this hacienda and sugar mill is owned by the family of former President Cory Aquino who was placed in power by the people's uprising that unseated the former Dictator Marcos.

In the first quarter of 2005 alone, 35 were extra-judicially executed. The range of killings, from labor leaders, lawyers, government officials, media practitioners and priests illustrate the wanton character of these killings. Worse, the Arroyo government has not conducted a serious investigation of this spate of killings, giving credence to doubts that such killings is part of the official policy of the government aimed at muzzling dissent to its anti-Filipino and anti-people globalist policies. The latest victim of these killings is Edwin Bargamento, Auditor of NFSW who was cold-bloodedly murdered while on his way home on April 13, 2005.

In Negros, organizers of NFSW are systematically harassed by the RPA-ABB, a pseudo revolutionary armed group utilized by the government as "vigilantes".


History shows that where there is repression, there is bound to be resistance. However, resistance to be effective, it should be organized. Agricultural workers of various countries should organize genuine and militant unions to defend their rights and promote their interests.

Sugar workers have already organized the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW). Together with other unions fighting for the rights and welfare of agricultural workers and industrial workers, NFSW has joined the national labor center, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).

It is timely today that we organize a global agricultural workers network.