Tales from Hacienda Luisita

By Solita Collas-Monsod
Tuesday 24 August 2010 by LRAN

Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE SO-CALLED "Compromise Agreement" that was signed by farm workers of Hacienda Luisita gave them the choice between remaining as shareholders of the corporation (Hacienda Luisita Inc. or HLI) or getting their land. Quite apart from the legal issue that the stock distribution option (SDO) may no longer be valid because the new CARP law disallows it, one would have thought that the farm workers would have chosen to get the land anyway.

The land is extremely valuable after all: 12 years ago, 500 hectares of that land were converted to commercial/industrial use, and sold for P2.5 million per hectare; in the first half of this decade, Luisita was paid P100 per square meter or P1 million per hectare. (Non-Luisita Tarlac agricultural property used for the SCTEX right of way was bought at P118 per sq m.) And more recently, when the hacienda virtually stopped operations after the so-called "Luisita Massacre" toward the end of 2004, some of the workers who decided to plant vegetables on the idle land found that they could earn P75,000 to P100,000 per hectare on their produce.

Moreover, it is not as if the SDO-chosen by anywhere from 90 percent to 97 percent of the workers-was an unqualified success for them. In the first place, HLI has been asserting that it has not been profiting, and has a mountain of debt to attest to that. This obviously in spite of having had to sell the 500 hectares of land referred to above.

In the second place, if what HLI spokesman Antonio Ligon said on TV was accurate, SGV-audited financial statements show that for the period covering 1989 to 2003, the workers received a total of P3 billion from the corporation in wages and benefits. No doubt he said it to emphasize what a good deal the workers had gotten; but a little arithmetic, however, will show the opposite.

Let’s do the arithmetic. It would help, of course, if Luisita’s books were available, so that there is no guesswork. Anyway, we can still get a ballpark figure.

The period covered is 15 years, so that comes out to P200 million a year. Now if we are talking about the 6,296 original workers, that comes out to an average of P31,766 a year for each worker or about P2,650 per month in wages and other benefits (health, education, etc.). If we are talking, however, about 10,000 workers (which is about what it must have been at the end of 2003), then the average annual wage plus benefits would be closer to P20,000 a year, or P1,667 a month. In other words, their wages, in nominal terms, not only in real terms, were decreasing. That is not exactly nirvana, any which way one cuts the cake.

(At this point, a question presents itself: if the corporation was losing money, or at least not profiting through all those years, why were they hiring more workers? Why employment increased by 62 percent even as the hacienda was losing money is a mystery.)

So why then, in spite of these experiences, did an overwhelming majority of the farm workers, as reported in the media, vote for the SDO?

Well, there’s the rub. Because one cannot be sure that the vote is an accurate reflection of the will of the relevant farm worker beneficiaries who opted for the SDO in 1989.

Why not? The main reason is that in 1989, there were 6,296 duly identified CARP beneficiaries, and it was they who chose to own 33 percent of the HLI (therein lies a tale) in exchange for the 4,916 hectares of land they were entitled to (and therein lies another tale). Yet, in the recent voting, 10,250, or 62 percent more workers, were reportedly allowed to vote. That means that workers who came after the 1989 agreement were given some portion of the 33 percent shares of the original beneficiaries, or were allowed to vote even without those shares.

Who allowed them to vote? One presumes it was the HLI. Because certainly the Department of Agrarian Reform, which was not even aware that there were "negotiations," was not there to ensure the integrity of the voting process, or to inform the CARP beneficiaries of their rights, obligations and alternatives.

In a conventional election setting, that kind of behavior would be akin to allowing flying voters or the dead to vote. Certainly the workers’ bonus included in the agreement looked a lot like vote-buying.

The kicker here, though, is that even if the voting were done according to Hoyle, the results very likely would have been the same. Why? Because the choice they faced was effectively between what my TV colleague Arnold Clavio has described as the "bulok" (rotten) and the "panis" (stale).

Why should choosing the land be "bulok"? Simply because under the terms of the agreement, the land available for distribution would only be one-third of the (remaining) land they had contributed. On the premise that they owned one-third of the corporation, they were therefore entitled to only one-third of the land (i.e., 1,366 ha). And that, dear reader, means that the worker who chose land would be entitled to-are you ready for this?-either 1,333 sq m or 2,170 sq m, depending on whether one were using 10,250 or 6,296 shareholders, and assuming that they each held the same amount of shares.

You don’t think that is "bulok"? Only remember: in 1989, if they had chosen the land, they would have received 7,800 sq m each. If they chose the land now, it would mean that they have nothing to show for their 21 years of work except ending up with much less land than they originally could have owned. A truly rotten deal.

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