Exploitation of Farm Workers in Sugar Plantations in the Philippines

Prepared by Ms Cynthia A. Deduro for the Agricultural Workers Meeting, May 20-22, 2005, Penang, Malaysia
Friday, 20 May, 2005 - 05:16

Sugar industry has predominantly ruled the lives of the people of sugar producing regions of the Philippines since the 1800s. The sugar workers of today are the great grandchildren of the sugar workers of the past. They lived owning nothing of their own, even their lives; only the debts handed down from their forebears. Landless, property-less and indebted, they have been tied to the hacienda system (sugarcane cultivation done in large tracts of lands owned by big landlords or hacienderos) and subjected to wage slavery and subhuman working and living conditions.

The origin of the hacienda system dates back to the colonial past of the Philippines. It was instituted by the Spanish colonialist as an economic and political unit and were entrusted to loyal natives. The haciendas served in producing surplus for the consumption of the colonialists and imposing control in the communities. Natives who resisted colonization were displaced and escaped to areas where the colonial government's control is weak. They eventually joined the armed uprisings against the colonizers. They were hunted as "bandits" for resisting the invaders. Hacienderos aided the Spanish colonizers in pacifying the native inhabitants. Property rights over the haciendas were protected under the American rule up to the present.

Since then, land ownership remains skewed, monopoly of land by a few families still prevail in sugar producing areas. Based on a 2003 government data, out of the 618,991.026 hectares planted with sugarcane, 49.41% is owned by about 1,807 planters (or 0.03% of the total 46,574 planters) whose land ownership range from 50 hectares to 100 or more hectares. They also control the sugar industry's 28 sugar mills and refineries. The same few also own the fertilizers, pesticides and farm implements businesses.

The hacienderos are not only the economic elite, they are also the "king makers" in politics. Most of the Philippine political elite, came from sugar barons families. They are a big power bloc in the national politics.


In the Philippines, Negros island, located in the central part is considered as the sugarland of the country.

Of the total sugar production in the Phil…..

  • 56% - from Negros,

  • 20% - from Tarlac and Batangas (Luzon)
  • 24% - comes from Bukidnon (Mindanao), Panay, Leyte and Cebu (Visayas).


Twelve (12) out of the twenty eight (28) operational sugar mills in the country are located in the Negros. This includes Victorias Milling Corporation (VMC) - the biggest refinery in the country and Asia and the third largest in the world. Of all the sugar producing areas, Negros is dependent on the sugar industry because of its monocrop nature.

Sugar has brought in huge profits to the sugar barons and foreign transnational corporations, and to the government coffers as well. Yet, it failed to uplift the lives of the sugar workers -- the main components of sugar production - they who toil in the fields from dawn to dusk, enduring the heat of the sun and the coldness of the rain, suffering all the bitterness of hard work. But never have they tasted the sweetness of their produce.


In a 2003 government data:

- 460,000 agri sugar workers in the country, 310,000 are found in Negros.
- 24,000 industrial sugar mill workers in the country, 18,000 are in Negros


Farm workers in haciendas are divided into two categories: 

- "dumaan" (permanent farm workers)- work in the haciendas whole-year round, albeit for 2 to 3 days a week only
- "sacadas" (migrant workers) - work during the milling season only when there is need to harvest the sugarcane faster for milling.


Much of the work in the haciendas are done during the milling season (October-May), where much of the work involved is the cutting and loading of sugarcane. Land preparation, planting and weeding are also done during these months. The months of June to September is considered by the sugar workers as the "tiempos muertos" or "dead season" where only about 10% of the workforce during miling are able to engage in farm work in the haciendas. The rest increase the number of odd-jobbers in the countryside.

The situation is worse for seasonal workers (sacadas) who work mainly during the harvest season and are paid by the job at an average of P60/ton of cane harvested and loaded to the trucks. A work group of 10 to 15 workers is needed to fill up a cane truck. A cane truck loads from 8 to 10 tons of cane. This is economical for the planter since it drives labor costs lower. Many small planters customarily use the pakyaw or piece rate system of hiring for all the farm works.

In the case of Hacienda Gaston, the pakyaw or piece rate of P60.00/ton nets each of the workers a minimum of Php P30.00 (US$0.60) wage per day. Many of these workers are poor peasants and settlers who till unproductive, hilly land and need to work at odd jobs to augment their incomes. Others are itinerant landless farm workers who move from one hacienda or farm to another for work.

Most of the farmworkers and mill workers do not have job security because of the seasonal character of the industry. The government mandated minimum daily wage for agricultural workers is Php 175.00-250.00 (US$3.24-4.60). Only a very few work as regular workers and receive about Php 2,000.00 (approximately US$37.05) per month. Other workers are employed on an intermittent basis to weed and do other jobs and are paid an average daily wage of P60.00 (US$1.11) per day and some even as low as Php 30.00 ((US$0.60).

Particularly in Region 6 (which includes Negros and Panay islands), estimates for costs of decent living is P454.55 (US$8.40) per day for a family of six, while the government's estimate of the poverty threshold in Negros is a measly P71.40 (US$1.33) for a family of six per day. Based on this threshold, the government estimates 41%of the Negros population as poor.

While the farm workers receive wages, they continue to have a relationship of patronage with the planter/landlord which intensifies the exploitation of the farm worker. The planter remains responsible for the upkeep of the workers. They commonly maintain stores and sell overpriced foodstuff and other basic commodities to the workers on credit. As a result of farm worker agitation during the sugar crisis in the 80's, most haciendas now allocate a portion of their area for rice production, the harvest of which is then loaned by the planter to the farm workers. The planter then deducts the long list of debts when the wages are due, most often leaving the workers still heavily in debt.


Family labor is rampant. Inhuman scenes of malnourished children, elderly and women doing hard work in the cane fields have become ordinary. They comprise almost half of the hacienda workers. The whole family is working, but still their income is not enough for their basic needs. Children work mainly because of poverty. Though their incomes do not suffice to meet even their personal needs, they still serve as regular contributors to the family income.

Based on the 2000 survey of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and National Statistics Office (NSO) and studies by the Bacolod City-based research group Center for Investigative Research and Multimedia Services (CIRMS), around four million or 16.2 percent of the 24.9 million Filipino children (aged five to 17 years) are working.

The CIRMS' study shows that 64% of Negros' working children are rural-based. Majority or 26% are working in sugar plantations engaged in weeding, plowing, fertilizing, cane cutting and hauling during harvest season. Fourteen percent (14%) on the other hand work in rice/corn fars and orchard; 11 percent in commercial fishing as helpers and divers in trawls, haul boats, fishing boats and fishponds; 3% in various rural odd jobs like charcoal making, woodcutting, vending, small-scale mining and helper in public utility jeepneys; and 1% percent in domestic work.

The CIRMS study also reveals that child labor within the sugar hacienda system has its own particularities. While it recognizes that it is mainly poverty that pushes children to work, CIRMS study says that child labor in the context of the hacienda system is not simply explained by poverty factor, but by the exploitative character of the sugar hacienda system.

Sugar landlords have been relying not just on parents, but on every "productive family" residing in the hacienda. This is proven by the fact that 92% of the sugar working family respondents said that "their children do not just work as replacements, but as regular working force just like the parents." That "for decades, their families have been treated by their employers as a productive unit which have to render service regardless of their age and gender."

In the sugar plantations, whether the parents are able to work or not, the children must also render service to their masters. Because the entire sugar worker-family has been indebted to them for years, the rest of the family members, including the children, must also work for the masters. Previously conducted sociological studies in Negros revealed that the phenomenon above is part of the "slave making" character of the sugar industry.

Slavery is a reality in an expeditious system of sugar plantation because of the peculiar labor needs of planting and harvesting cane. The planting and harvest season is very tedious, expansive and busy and only a large, well-disciplined labor force capable of toiling in the tropical heat can meet its demands. Sugar farming tended to find a niche in regions where abundant labor could be turned to or coerced into doing field work for low wages. Henceforth, production became associated with extremes in social structure: the very poor who cultivate and cut the cane, and the estate owners and millers who control the process of converting canes to sugar.

As the country's economy further sinks due to the fiscal crisis, more and more children will likely be forced to engage in economic activities for their families' survival.



    • Throughout the generations, the families of the sugar workers have been living in extreme poverty, hunger and misery. Subhuman living conditions indeed! Sunburnt, pale, haggard and sickly, they dwell in makeshift huts, and clothed in rags.
    • A research conducted by NFSW revealed that a member of a sugar worker family of 6 members lives with a budget of P2.35 (US$0.05) each per meal.
    • Malnutrition plague the sugar workers. In Negros, the yearly rate of increase of malnutrition is 8.89%. And illiteracy is worsening. Malnourished and illiterate, the future is so bleak for the youth. They seek greener pastures in Manila, Cebu or Bacolod, but only to find themselves as workers in construction firms, house helpers, odd-job seekers, or prostitutes and criminal elements there. They join the army of the underemployed and jobless elements and squatters in the metropolis.




    • Hunger and poverty is inherent in a backward pre-industrial economy. Farm workers should be given the right to till the land they are working on and given the necessary government support to improve production. Ultimately, the struggle of farm workers in sugar areas is basically a matter of implementing genuine land reform.
    • Genuine land reform should be coupled with national industrialization to achieve sustainable development.