August 12, 2010

The Cojuangco compromise agreement

The so-called compromise agreement announced by the management of the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) comes ahead of an upcoming decision of the Supreme Court on the legality of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) decision to revoke the 16-year-old stock distribution option (SDO). The SDO took the place of outright distribution of land to the hacienda farm workers as mandated by the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL).

A close study of the agreement reveals that it does not address any of the grounds cited by the PARC as to why the SDO is illegal and grossly inimical to the interests of the farm workers. Worse it allows the continuation of the SDO under even more onerous terms, lays the ground for continuing agrarian unrest at the hacienda and provides ample fuel to the raging agrarian-based armed conflict nationwide.

Land reform at Hacienda Luisita was subverted twice during the administration of Pres. Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, herself part-owner of the hacienda.

A 1985 Manila RTC decision ordering the Cojuangcos to turn over control of the hacienda lands to the Ministry of Agrarian Reform for distribution was pending at the Court of Appeals. In 1988, the Aquino government filed a motion to dismiss the civil case against the Cojuangcos on the ground that Hacienda Luisita would be covered by agrarian reform anyway. The case was dismissed.

In 1988, the agrarian reform law legislated under the Aquino watch included the SDO scheme that permitted the distribution of shares of stock in a corporation dominated by landowners instead of actual land distribution to farm workers.

In Hacienda Luisita, a referendum was held in 1989 wherein farm workers were said to have overwhelmingly voted for the SDO. Land reform was thus effectively circumvented and the Cojuangcos hold on the estate perpetuated.

In 2003, leadership over the two major unions in the hacienda passed on to the hands of officials who were not beholden to the hacienda owners. Petitions were filed at the DAR to revoke the SDO because it grossly failed to improve the lot of the supposed agrarian reform beneficiaries and in fact, actually worsened it.

In 2004, the joint massive strike by the hacienda farm workers and the sugar mill workers took place due to the illegal dismissal of 327 farm workers and a deadlock in the CBA between management and sugar mill workers union. The violent dispersal of the strikers by soldiers, police and hacienda security guards caused the death of seven strikers and injuries to many others.

Prior and subsequent extrajudicial killings of church people, local government officials and other supporters of the struggling hacienda and azucarera workers upped the ante by way of human rights violations related to the hacienda dispute.

National and international condemnation of the massacre and other human rights violations together with government’s failure to end the oppressive feudal system holding sway at Hacienda Luisita pushed the Arroyo government to respond to the farmers’ demand to end the SDO.

DAR undertook a factual investigation and a legal study of the HLI SDO that resulted in the 2005 PARC resolution revoking it and placing the hacienda under the compulsory coverage of CARP. However in 2006, the HLI was able to get a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court that kept the DAR and PARC from terminating the SDO.

Even on the basis of DAR and PARC findings alone, the legal and moral grounds for annulling the SDO are more than compelling.

First of all, shares of stock were not distributed outright to the more than 5000 beneficiaries as provided by law but were programmed to be parceled out over 30 years on the basis of “man days” or the number of hours a worker works in a year at the hacienda, something that was entirely under the discretion and control of management.

If the farm worker had no "man days " for one reason or another, he could not earn or be issued a share of stocks.
A farm worker who is separated, terminated or dismissed earlier for any reason will no longer receive any shares of stocks and ceases to be a shareholder.

On the other hand, management can continue to hire workers as they please and thereby bloat the number of “stockholders” to their liking, to the prejudice of the original farm workers in the hacienda.

Secondly, the HLI has not given a single cent of dividends to the farm workers cum supposed stockholders.

Whatever “added benefits” the farm workers received from HLI, such as the 3% share from gross production and home lots, are in fact not due from the SDO but from other provisions of the agrarian reform law.

Thirdly, contrary to the provisions of the SDO Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to keep the agricultural lands intact and unfragmented, the HLI management converted 500 hectares for industrial and commercial purposes. It gave the farm worker-stockholders a pittance for their share in the sale of this parcel of land. Subsequently more land was disposed of without benefitting the hacienda workers.

But more than anything else, what is beyond dispute is that the lives of farm workers and their families did not improve; instead, they were pushed deeper into poverty and misery by the one-sided SDO.

The so-called new compromise agreement bears all the hallmarks of HLI management’s manipulation and deception. Apart from questions about whether the HLI had any right to initiate and preside over such an agreement when PARC had already revoked the SDO, there is the nagging question about whether any form of coercion, duress or misrepresentation attended this management-engineered agreement.

In truth, this “agreement” is so patently against the interests of the form workers. It upholds the discredited and rejected SDO. It swindles the farm workers by arbitrarily allotting only one third of the remaining 4,102 hectares of agricultural land for distribution. Furthermore it deprives the farm workers from ever questioning any violations that may have happened in the past or may arise in the future in relation to the 1989 SDO MOA.

President “Cory” Aquino, sadly, presided over the emasculation of agrarian reform and allowed her relatives to take undue advantage of the law’s loopholes to retain their hold over HLI.

President “Noynoy” Aquino, her son, is today burdened by this odious legacy, just as he is challenged to set this historical injustice to right.

His pretense that he has nothing to do with the “agreement” and his obvious lack of interest in using his vast powers to see social justice reign in his family’s hacienda exposes his glaring unconcern for the poor and downtrodden peasantry who make up a majority of the people in this country. #

*Published in Business World
13-14 ugust 2010