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Tobacco control: What about the supply side?

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Ezra Acayan

BALAOAN, LA UNION, Philippines – There are no more bills to pay, no more children to send to school, no more house to build, but Manong (Older Brother) Dominador ‘Domeng’ C. Clemente and his wife don’t even need an alarm clock to jolt them up from sleep at 5 in the morning to head to their 3-hectare tobacco farm.

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The couple of 33 years no longer remembers a year in their life when their family and the generations of families before them did not harvest tobacco.

Tobacco is life, money, family, and community to them.

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But it is also a fatal peril for many others.

Almost 48% of male adults and 9% of female adults in the Philippines are smokers as of 2009. That is some 17.3 million smokers who are susceptible to preventable causes of disease, disability, and premature deaths.

Smoking is a habit that dies hard.

In the town of Balaoan, the labor-intensive farming for this crop is also a means of living that is hard to shake off.

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Mang Domeng’s eldest daughter is already a nurse in Taiwan. His two other children finished criminology and education courses respectively from their parents’ hard-earned tobacco money.

They tell their aging father who only understand them in the vernacular to stop growing tobacco. We no longer need it, they say. He doesn’t have to.

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But Mang Domeng keeps renting a plot of land from an arendo (a local landowner) so he can be with his workers from morning till noon.

At the farm, they cut the tobacco leaves that prior to harvest serve as their canopy at noon when they eat together.

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The leaf is both product and protection from sunlight for them.

The taller the plant, the better the yield. Class double A to A, as the big-time tobacco company classifiers would say. The types that can be sold at P80 per kilo.

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The taller the plant, the higher also is their canopy.

At lunch, the women in their lives bring food for the tobacco farmers. Meat is served. They whisper to each other that it is cat meat, but eat and laugh like tomorrow’s never coming. Bottled soft drinks are passed on from a pail of crushed ice.

Finding refuge from the sun, the farmers squat on the narrow strip of soil in their field dividing the tobacco plants into rows. Their hands all greasy from the resin of the plants during harvest.

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Mang Domeng leads about a dozen workers, tells them to gather the leaves early this time, assures everyone there will be no work in the field when the sun shines its brightest that day.

The farmer smiles with the smile of a man at his prime who sees only the good in life. All is well in his tobacco paradise.

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Paradise it is for many of these tobacco farmers who prefer the simplicity of cultivating their land for their families, for others’ consumption, and for what they call the tatak (signature) of Balaoan.

In this side of the country, the mere mention of a smoking ban brings residents into reflection.

“A tobacco ban would make our hearts heavy. We paid for our children’s education through farming tobacco,” 49-year-old farmer Hilario O. Olidan said in Filipino.

“We hope they won’t ban tobacco because many will lose their jobs,” he added.

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, including inside public transport vehicles and other cars.

One of the premises of Executive Order No. 26 is the belief that “public health takes precedence over any commercial or business interest.”

Duterte recognized that cigarette smoking puts a strain not only on the financial resources of individual households but on public healthcare.

The order dated May 16 points to “scientific evidence [that] has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability, lead to devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences.”

“… an increasing number of Filipinos become afflicted with and die each year of tobacco-related diseases such as stroke, heart disease, emphysema, various cancers and nicotine addiction, and both the public and workers in facilities where smoking is allowed are most at risk from these and other tobacco-related diseases,” the order explains.

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While tobacco farmers in Balaoan fear such policy directives, experts assure the public that these measures will not cripple the tobacco farming industry.

“There is no evidence that tobacco control measures will unduly affect our tobacco farmers, to the contrary, reports from the Department of Finance demonstrate that our tobacco exportation has increased,” explained  Dr. Lee P. Yarcia, health law and policy consultant.

Philippine tobacco exportation ensures a market for existing tobacco farmers.

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There are 55,533 tobacco farmers in the Philippines, according to data in the years 2010 to 2011. This is 0.16% of the country’s total employment.

But tobacco growing is extremely labor-intensive. It yields relatively low income compared to input costs as well as foreseen negative externalities – i.e., costs to health and public interest that are hard to put a price on.

Houses in Balaoan have burned down because of nearby unattended multistoried fireplaces meant for cooking tobacco leaves. These structures need round-the-clock monitoring for a week after harvest.

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“Both under the Sin Tax Law and the WHO (World Health Organization) Framework Convention on Tobacco, we recognize that tobacco farming is an unsustainable and unhealthy practice for our farmers, for our environment, and for the people,” the tobacco control expert added.

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Tobacco cultivation is often related to cyclical poverty due to unfair loan conditions as well as diseases due to the poor handling of strong pesticides.

Still, farmers in Balaoan are wary of leaving tobacco farming.

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One of the major obstacles for tobacco farmers to diversify their crops is the lack of technical knowledge when it comes to growing other crops, having been used to tobacco growing and trading in their farms.

“The Philippines has both domestic and international commitment to support tobacco farmers shift to alternative livelihood such as engaging in food crop production,” explained Yarcia.

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He explained that the sin tax law “guarantees that tobacco-producing regions have earmarked funds from revenues collected from sin taxes.”

A percentage of sin taxes collected from cigarettes is meant to fund programs that would help tobacco farmers to diversify their crops.

The challenge, said Yarcia, is “to ensure implementation of the law so that our farmers will fully benefit from tobacco control measures.”

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But it will take more than lip service to elevate the discussion on tobacco control among farmers on the ground.

Education and awareness on the need for effective regulation is scarce in areas like Balaoan.

In Balaoan, current alternative crops such as corn and watermelon provide lower income compared to tobacco due to the lack of a captured market the farmers can directly sell to.

Mutlinational tobacco companies enter into deals with tobacco farmers to gain exclusive purchase of their crops, providing a sure income for land lease holders like Mang Domeng and a guaranteed return for the months-long labor of his workers. These giant cigarette firms also extend pre-harvest loans meant for fertilizers and pesticides.

Statutory law also grants incentives for local governments in the form of tobacco excise taxes.

Other crops are simply not given the same attention as tobacco in both public policy and private investments.

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Not only that. In a town reliant on tobacco farming, tobacco has an impact on the most important elements of human life.

Tobacco farming provides liquidity, has strong emotional resonance among families who survive and thrive through selling smoked and dried tobacco leaves to cigarette companies, and has become part of people’s daily routines.

The dignity in the work that they do is something Balaoan’s tobacco farmers take pride in.

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“What else will we do? What else will we plant?” asked Mang Domeng’s wife, convinced that there is no other alternative.

But this is far from the truth, if only shifting perceptions on the ground is prioritized as part of the transition process and if only food crops are subsidized in national laws the way tobacco is.

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Tobacco farming is indeed systematically entrenched.

Local governments earn from tobacco cultivation through their shares from national taxes. Most farmers also simply rent lands from landowners who are part of associations that have tobacco as their crop of choice.

“It is high time that we implement our policy commitment to pursue genuine and effective tobacco control measures, which includes supply side reduction measures,” said Yarcia. (END)

 

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“This story was produced under the ‘Mga Nagbababang Kuwento: Reporting on Tobacco and Sin Tax Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation with the support of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The grant-giving bodies have no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”


 

The 2016 labor agenda

By: Buena Bernal

Filipino workers fix the electrical line at Quiapo, Manila on January 08 2015. Photo by Lito Boras
Filipino workers fix the electrical line at Quiapo, Manila on January 08 2015. Photo by Lito Boras

As the 2016 Philippine elections draw near, various workers’ groups seek to influence political outcomes by choosing candidates who will push for pro-worker reforms.

Long-time trade unionists Louie Corral and Gerard Seno talk about the needs of the working class, which demand political will to be met.

Corral is the executive-director of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, and Seno is the Associated Labor Unions executive vice president.

What is the labor agenda for 2016? Here are the priority areas for key reforms they say will benefit the average Filipino worker:

  • Security of Tenure

Foremost of the concerns of the working class is the passage of a Security of Tenure (SOT) bill, said Seno.

Security of tenure is a constitutionally enshrined right that protects workers from termination without just cause and due process.

Alternative hiring set-ups, however, are exploited by some unscrupulous employers to misclassify workers and deny them regularization and law-mandated workers’ benefits.

At least 11 proposed laws are being heard by the House committee on labor and employment that deal mainly with workers’ job security. The measures require amending the 41-year-old Labor Code.

There are proposals to either limit or completely prohibit job contracting, a system where workers are outsourced from capitalized general contractors, as well as to limit fixed-term employment, which some employers use to hire and rehire workers for fixed periods without making them regular employees.

Seno said there must be clear criteria when contractual labor is permissible. Advocates have said contracted workers must be limited to non-core positions which are not necessary and desirable in the day-to-day operations of a company.

Permissible contracting must likewise be at a minimal level and not the norm, he added, citing factories with 80% contractuals among their assembly workers who are the core factory workers. A pending bill seeks to bring this down to 20%.

Labor Undersecretary and interim spokesperson Nicon Fameronag said the labor department has also drafted a “compromised version” of a legislation in relation to job security. The “alternative measure” takes into account the “highly contentious features and political underpinnings of the pending SOT bills.”

It shifts from registration to licensing of contractors and subcontractors, making them easier to regulate.

Multiple sources who sit at the technical working group crafting the bill said the debate has focused on the capitalization requirement for the contractors and subcontractors.

Workers’ groups want the current requirement of a P3-million paid-up capital for all contractors to increase to at least P5 million and add the same multi-million requirement in terms of the contractors’ investment to equipment.

Currently, job contracting and subcontracting is subject to regulations under Department of Labor and Employment Department Order 18-A series 2011.

It provides that both the principal and the subcontractor would be administratively liable for any labor law violations, creating shared responsibility and making a company on the lookout for labor law-compliant contractors.

Arturo Guerrero III of the Philippine Association of Legitimate Service Contractors had explained before a House panel that certain products and services are seasonal, creating the need for alternative hiring set-ups such as job contracting. 

Seno said a strong political contender who may be able to galvanize support from the labor sector is someone who wants to end widespread precarious employment in the country, which likewise forces many to instead find more stable jobs overseas.

  • Reliable, affordable power

Corral explained that power is a working class concern, suggesting that the country’s next leader must have a clear vision to bring down power rates and ensure its steady supply.

“Power is the principal driver of all industry roadmaps. Without power – and by that we mean reliable supply and affordable ASEAN competitive rates – there will be no new investments and there will be no new jobs,” he said.

Especially given the envisioned full integration of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economic community by the end of 2015, Corral said the Philippines would need to up its game in terms of lowering public utility rates in general including power.

Corral said the way to attract investors should be through lower utility costs and upgraded skills of workers instead of lax labor standards and low pay. Many industries in developing economies attract foreign investors partly through cheap labor.

He added that workers are often the ones negatively impacted by companies cutting down costs when power rates increase.

“Existing jobs will be at risk,” he explained, as investors may opt to transfer “to countries with cheaper power rates, specifically our main competitors Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia.”

Affordable and reliable power requires greater regulation and updated rules by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), he added. He said this demands the appointment of “genuinely independent, objective regulators” – an issue that now hounds the Aquino administration.

“The silver bullet to attract new players into the power sector – more supply – and to bring about lower rates – through genuine competition – will be to subject all supply contracts of all distribution utilities to international public bidding under ERC supervision,” he explained.

He urged the international public bidding of all power supply contracts of distribution utilities like the Manila Electric Company (Meralco), which passes on to consumers generation charges or the cost of producing the electricity. The generation charges are paid by power distributor Meralco to supply companies it has power supply agreements with.

“The current system leaves the choice of who its power supplier will be entirely to the private distribution sector. This is conducive to sweetheart deals and stage-managing fake power supply shortage,” Corral explained.

Earlier, Corral said power plant shutdowns should be physically inspected by a 3-party panel composed of representatives from government, civil society, and the power sector to prevent collusion attempts by power players. (READ: Tripartite inspection of power plant shutdowns sought)

Corral said the tripartite inspection will partly address power shortages and artificial inflation of rates caused by the deliberate withholding of power supply by generation companies, noting dubious simultaneous outages of power plants.

  • Progressive taxation 

Tax impositions must be based on ability to pay, said Seno.

He proposed that the Value Added Tax be “tweaked lower, so it doesnt impact the poor in the same way that it impacts the rich.”

Negotitated benefits through collective bargaining agreements must also be non-taxable, he said.

Unemployment insurance must likewise be provided to protect from destitution jobless workers who were laid off due to company restructuring, he added.

Laid off workers attempting to find new jobs amid the volatile labor market are made to wait for their back wages, often forced to take out loans to survive while without income. Too often, they are victimized by loan sharks in the process.

Seno said early retirement benefits must be exempt from tax as well. Currently, only mandatory retirement benefits are non-taxable.

He explained that optional retirement is often offered to workers when a company downsizes.

These same workers would likely struggle to find a new job due to widespread age discrimination in company hiring practices.

A trade unionist since 1978, Seno urged workers to approach the elections based on issues affecting them and not merely personalities.

The weight voters place on certain issues — employment, infrastructure, education, health, minority rights, etc. — can influence the weight candidates would place on these issues as they build a campaign that is focused on them. (END)