Labor leader’s death dampens rural workers’ pursuit for land reform

Text & Photos By: Buena Bernal


NEGROS OCCIDENTAL, Philippines – Rolando Panggo was not a dancer but he loved to dance – when drunk, during parties organized by his labor group and special occasions at home.

He was a shy and quiet man. But when inebriated, the myth of Bacchus becomes perceived reality through his dancing.

There was less dancing when Rolando, nicknamed Lando, took upon himself the task of organizing a group of long-time sugar cane plantation workers to help them fight for better wages.

Lando is known as ‘Nong Lando to most of his comrades in the local labor sector, where he has been a labor organizer in Negros Occidental province for over 2 decades.

(‘Nong is a shortened form of the word Manong, a vernacular term of endearment for an older brother.)

Through the country’s agrarian reform program, the 46-year-old ‘Nong Lando was resolute in helping these rural workers who look up to him finally own their due share of the land that they and their fathers’ fathers have tilled for over half a century.

On November 29, 2014, ‘Nong Lando died.

He was on his way home riding a motorcycle with his cousin, when a car blocked their way and an unidentified man alighted to point a gun at them.

The man dragged Lando to the side of the National Highway, shot him in the head, and took off.

Lando’s body lay right beside the tall, blade-like, and forest green grasses of sugar cane his province is known for. He was proclaimed dead on arrival at the town’s infirmary.

Lando’s youngest daughter Lea Jane still believes her father is coming back home.

At night, as Lando’s grieving widow tucks in the 4-year-old kid to sleep, Leah Jane releases an innocent smile and tells her mom she is still waiting for Papa.

Demolition of houses

‘Nong Lando’s death has dampened organizing efforts at Hacienda Salud, where long-time tenant-workers are taking their chance to become land-owners.

’Yung iba, hindi maka-intindi. Parang natakot na (Others don’t understand. It’s like they were consumed with fear),” said Jose Julo Dablo, president of the Hacienda Salud Farm Workers Association (HASAFAWA).

Like many labor organizers, the late ‘Nong Lando was in charge of morale – keeping the workers’ spirits hopeful in the face of great tribulation.

The acts of intimidation by the arendo or the plantation’s lessee increased after Lando’s death, said 37-year-old Maria (alias), wife of one the rural workers.

Routinely, Maria would help out her husband in the daily tasks at the hacienda (estate) – planting the cut stalks of cane, ploughing the land, and pulling out weeds.

A group is then contracted to harvest the canes for mass sale at the local sugar refinery.

The hacienda, located at the village of Romirang in Negros Occidental’s town of Isabela, has been home to dozens of families whose ancestors lived and died as farm workers there.

These generations of families have built their homes in the hacienda, but all of them were at the beck and call of one arendo after another through the years.

HASAFAWA officer Mary Grace Narciso said the groups’ land dispute with the plantation’s owner – who is not in the Philippines but has leased out the land to a local businessman – angered the lessee.

The lessee had allegedly pressured them to withdraw the case through various forms of harassment, including firing farm workers and demolishing the houses in the hacienda passed on from generation to generation of farm workers.

Plantation road

Over 32 houses were demolished in 2015 – all erected by families who have applied as agrarian reform-beneficiaries with the help of Lando.

Since then, the farm workers who were driven out of the hacienda they were born into have tried their luck in industries unfamiliar to them – as drivers of local public transport vehicles, for example.

Some of them are still hunting for jobs, making no income in the meantime.

Maria herself is starting to doubt if their struggle for land ownership will bear fruit, casually and with reservation asking in the vernacular to what end are their efforts for.

But she immediately lets go of the thought, as she pulls her kid in between her thighs, as if the sight of the young child makes her forget.

Chilling effect

Freedom of association is one of the cornerstones of promoting decent work for all, crucial in ensuring that members of the working class have a shot at a better life.

Mary Grace questioned how a daily wage of less than P300 (around US$6), which was what each farm worker received at the hacienda, would suffice if one is already sending kids to school.

HASAFAWA members maintain that the birth of the group was driven by a desire to break the perverse cycle of intergenerational poverty among them.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 141, also known as the Rural Workers’ Organizations Convention of 1975, mandates that such groups “remain free from all interference, coercion or repression.”

A universally applicable standard on labor rights, the said international instrument was ratified by the Philippines in 1979. This means the country is bound to institute policies that ensure its application.

Despite this, Filipino labor leaders and organizers like Lando are threatened with trumped-up charges, actual violence, and in his case, even death.

This creates a culture of fear among those who desire to form or join workers’ groups, which can legally demand through the workers’ collective power for better labor conditions.

The alleged forms of harassment against labor organizing in rural areas are on top of what international labor standards consider as anti-labor policies, including the prescribed minimum number of members needed to establish rural workers’ trade unions.

Lando’s eldest son displays his emotions generously at the thought of his father’s dancing.

Lando was a jolly man, the son said, as his fair-skinned wife rested her palm on his shoulder.

Trying but failing to hold back his tears, the son would wipe each droplet with his pointer right at the edge of his eyes before the tears fall on his cheeks.

He didn’t really think much about it when his father was still alive, but he now volunteers to proclaim that he is proud of what his father did for a living. (END)


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“This story was partially funded by the Center for People’s Media (CPM), a private endeavor focused on underreported labor issues. CPM has no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”