Volume IV, Number 16. 31 August 2022.
Barely two months in office, the government of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr hit a snag with the ‘sugar importation fiasco’. On 5 August, the Sugar Regulatory Administration issued Sugar Order No. 4 allowing the importation of 300,000 metric tons of sugar. An uproar from domestic sugarcane landlords forced Marcos Jr to extricate himself from the mess, put the blame on his subordinates and declared the importation “illegal”. A few days later, however, he backtracked and allowed the importation of 150,000 MT, ostensibly to address the increasing demand for industrial sugar supply and skyrocketing retail prices.
The ‘elephant in the room’ in this foul-up is the glaring incompetence of Marcos Jr, the Chief Executive, Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and concurrently Chairman of the Sugar Regulatory Administration. Notwithstanding the incompetence, the ongoing ‘sugar importation fiasco’ lays bare the myriad and long-standing crises plaguing the domestic sugar industry and the entire country in general.
Domestic sugarcane is produced in 19 provinces covering an estimated 422,000 hectares. It is the fifth largest crop after rice, banana, corn and coconut, employing more than 700,000 plantation and mill workers, and producing more than 2.2 million metric tons of raw sugar per year.
Ever since the introduction of the sugar industry in the 1800s during Spanish colonialism, sugarcane production has been founded on monopoly land ownership of the hacienderos, monopoly of sugar milling operations and colonial trade. As the industry flourished, the parasitic and privileged classes of hacienderos and compradors developed as the social base of Spanish colonialism, then American colonialism, and eventually of US neo-colonialism.
The sugar barons indulged in building mansions, acquiring expensive consumer goods and foreign travels. As the powerful ‘sugar bloc’, they extend their clout from the plantations and mills to control local and national political power. All the while, amidst the abundance of wealth and power, plantation and mill workers wallow in poverty and hunger.
The minimum wage for agricultural workers, as mandated by the Manila government, amount to PhP410 (US$7,30) per day. This amount is less than half of the living wage. Even so, hacienderos and mill owners never even pay this minimum! Workers receive from PhP150 – PhP250 per day. Add to this the inhuman working conditions and precarious work contracts. And when the workers organize themselves to assert their economic and political rights, they are brutally suppressed by the armed goons of the sugar barons and state security forces.
The series of land reform programs from Marcos Sr up to Marcos Jr is a hoax. Despite legal documents proclaiming land distribution to the tillers, control of sugarcane plantations remain a monopoly of the hacienderos and their agribusinesses. And despite humanity’s progress in the 21st century, Philippine sugar production lies stagnant in the 19th century – pre-industrial, decrepit, feudal, hampered by comprador profiteering and plagued by bureaucratic corruption.
The impoverished and oppressed plantation and mill workers, and the Filipino people, are clamoring, not so much about the increase or decrease of sugar importations, but an increase of wages and improvement of working conditions. They clamor for genuine land reform and the modernization of agriculture. They clamor for the pursuit of national industrialization and liberation from imperialist impositions and intervention.