Tell it to SunStar: Agri-workers to Dole: Ensure aid goes to people

·4 min read

As high-risk regions like the National Capital Region remain under lockdown and more areas reverted to stricter quarantine classifications, we call on the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) to ensure the full use of financial aid to workers. This also means guaranteeing that the help reaches its intended beneficiaries.

Dole should not be too quick to pat itself on the back as it boasted getting an Unqualified Audit Opinion (UAO) from COA. The same report showed that, under Bayanihan 1, its P42.65 million funding for Covid-19 was unused. Another P3.76 billion remained unused under Bayanihan 2 as of March 24, 2021. Such a massive amount could have benefitted around 800,000 workers if each were granted P5,000.

Dole’s Covid-19 financial assistance was channelled through the one-time Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program (Camp), which gave P5,000 in cash; its cash-for-work program, Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (Tupad), mainly for informal sector workers; and Abot-Kamay ang Pagtulong (Akap), for displaced overseas Filipino workers.

The same COA report had indicated that about P50.84 million of Tupad transferred to local government units (LGUs) were yet to be liquidated. This means that whether or not the amount reached the affected workers targeted by the program was uncertain. In the past, Tupad had been criticized by agri-workers for being accessible only to those who were politically affiliated with incumbent LGU officials. The classification of agri-workers as informal workers was also considered a scapegoat from granting them the adequate aid befitting them.

It is crucial for Dole to ensure that the funds are fully used to assuage the worsening unemployment and poverty in the country. Workers, including agricultural workers like us, demand the efficiency we deserve. As of June 2021, the number of unemployed was at 3.8 million and the underemployed at 6.4 million. If, based on the COA report, only 3.4 million beneficiaries had benefitted from Dole’s Covid-19 assistance program from April 2020 to June 2021, did they expect the rest of us to simply go hungry?”

Agri-workers were especially at the losing end of Dole’s lackluster performance at distributing aid. At least 16,466 of them should have received assistance based on the Camp application of 649 establishments and employers classified as part of the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry. This figure was already a far cry from the actual number of agricultural workers in the field, yet only 210 of these applicants were granted approval, benefitting only 3,543 agri-workers. Flores said such ineptitude was unacceptable and warranted condemnation from agri-workers. (For full text, visit: www.sunstar.com.ph)

Sugar workers, too, had already been let down by the labor department. Just last year, Dole’s Bureau of Workers with Special Concerns (BSWC) released a minuscule P49.267 million to 49,267 beneficiaries, lifting the amount from the Unclaimed and Undistributed Cash Bonus Fund (UCBF) and Calamity Assistance Fund from the Social Amelioration Program-Socio-Economic Projects Fund (SAP-SEPF). These beneficiaries made up only 6.35% of the sugar and mill workers as well as small sugarcane farm cultivators affected by the COVID-19 lockdown.

While considered essential workers, agri-workers put up with several obstacles to their livelihoods in the midst of pandemic-related lockdowns. The closure of agri-business plantations, sugar mills, refineries, and bioethanol plants cut them off their main sources of income. Daily wage earners suffered diminishing earnings as the number of work days in a week slid from six to three. For a time, the restriction on public transportation had also kept agri-workers from reaching farms and other work sites outside their barangays.

Even under normal circumstances, our employers already deprive us of government-mandated benefits. Many of us don’t even make minimum wage, no matter how low regional minimum wage rates are. Financial assistance from the government could have gone a long way in augmenting our income or providing for our medical needs. Agri-workers are not asking for special treatment or dole-outs. We are asking for state services that we, as workers and Filipino citizens, deserve.

We challenge the Dole to go beyond their recent statement that the agency would go after employers who had withheld cash aid from their workers. According to the federation, if the labor department’s promise were to be believed, it should also chase the sugar mills, planters’ associations, cooperatives, and planter members who were yet to distribute cash bonuses as mandated by the Social Amelioration Program for Sugarworkers (RA 6982) and advised by COA. Such bonuses had already accumulated to a staggering P422.77 million, undistributed since 1991.

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