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For months, the workers at a Davao del Norte banana plantation owned by Marsman-Drysdale, one of the largest agri-business companies in the country, were not paid their salaries. This plunged the workers families into extreme conditions and indebtedness. The company also failed to remit the workers SSS, Philhealth and Pag-IBIG payments. Desperate, the workers banded together, forcing the company to pay up. Davao Today staff writer Marilou M. Aguirre reports.

For more Davao Today stories and special reports on the problems being faced by workers in the banana plantations of Southern Mindanao, click here.

Davao Today
Roger Boncaoil has been working at the Marsman-Drysdale plantation for 17 years. Propping bananas is one of his tasks. ( photos by Marilou M. Aguirre)

STO. TOMAS, Davao del Norte “I never imagined that my family would experience having only boiled cardava for meals,” Necita Abay-abay said with a bitter smile, referring to a variety of bananas.

Abay-abay, 44, has six children. As a mother, it breaks her heart that she and her husband can’t put decent foods on their table, let alone provide for their college education. They have managed to send their children, aged 25, 22, 21, 19, 18 and 14, up to high school, relying mostly on her husband’s meager salary from Marsman-Drysdale Agri-Business Group.

Most of the children havent found permanent jobs as they are only high-school graduates. The youngest is the only student left.

Abay-abays husband has been working at Marsman-Drysdale in the last 26 years. His family is just one of the many here whose daily needs depend on the salary they get from working at the plantation.

Recently, around 966 workers of Marsman-Drysdale, both from the Marsman Estate Plantation Inc. and Marsman-Drysdale Biotech and Research Corporation, complained of low and delayed wages, nonpayment of their SSS remittances and other benefits, and the company’s alleged influence over the workers union that is negotiating with Marsman-Drysdale.

Davao Today
Necita Abay-abay was forced to accept laundry to make ends meet, while her husband waited for Marsman-Drysdale to pay him. ( photo by Marilou M. Aguirre)

The complaints forced the workers to unite and, with the help of local government officials, confront the company to force it to pay its obligations. Their success, according to the workers and union leaders, has been hailed as an example of what can happen when workers organize themselves to fight for and protect their welfare.

Industry Barometer

Marsman-Drysdale, one of the largest agricultural companies in the country that supplies products such as banana and asparagus to other countries, owns the 1,300-hectare farm in the town of Sto. Tomas, Davao del Norte, a mere one and a half-hour ride from Davao City. The farm, established in 1969, is one of the first banana plantations in Mindanao.

In its website, the company said it ” continues to be a barometer in the industry as far as wages and salaries are concerned.”

Our strong labor force and management team, it said, have enabled us to address our commitments to buyers throughout the globe.

But early this year, Marsman-Drysdale failed to give the workers’ salaries — a total of four payrolls or two months pay on time. Town mayor Maximo Estela told that during his dialogue with the Marsman-Drysdale management, the company said it had production problems.

Davao Today
By 6 a.m., Domingo Deguma is already at the Pump Station-12, about 8 kms. from the banana plantation’s main gate. Every day, he prepares the Drip Irrigation System which covers 100 has. of farm lot, for another day’s production. ( photo by Marilou M. Aguirre)

The company, according to Domingo Deguma, 51, president of Marsman Labor Association for National Democracy-National Federation of Labor Unions-Kilusang Mayo Uno (Marsland-Naflu-KMU), had always claimed that it wasnt making money. Since he started working there in 1978, Deguma said he had never heard that it gained profit. “The company always says it was losing,” he said.

The workers were always incredulous at this claim because the company had never stopped production. tried to get Marsman-Drysdales side to this story but was told by the guards at the plantation gate that company officials were not available for comment.

A regular worker at Marsman-Drysdale receives 258 pesos per day for an eight-hour work. But as of August 2006, the daily cost of living for a family of six is 681.29 pesos. This means that the minimum wage is short of 423.29 pesos for a family to sustain its daily needs.

Hard for My Family

Davao Today
At Farm 5’s Packing Plant, women workers make sure that the bananas are clean and of good quality. ( photo by Marilou M. Aguirre)

“It was really hard for my family when our salary was delayed,” Michael Dumile, 32, said. “We had to borrow money. That made our situation worse as we had to bear the interest. No one would lend us cash if there’s no interest,” he said.

Dumile has been working at Marsman Estate for 13 years now. He belongs to a five-man team tending to the plantation’s Farm 5, covering 9.52 hectares. Each member of the team receives 4,180 pesos for a 15-day work at the plantation.

With only one child, aged eight, Dumile finds the predicament of his coworkers who have more children quite depressing. “My family is already having difficulty sustaining our basic needs, what more with those who have big families?” he said.

Davao Today
A worker pulls bananas from the field to the packing plant. Each bunch weighs 50 or more kilograms. ( photo by Marilou M. Aguirre)

His teammate, Roger Boncaoil, 42, has the same problem. “My salary is enough only for our food. When it comes to giving my children proper education, that would be a long shot,” he said.

Boncaoil said his eldest child, 17, stopped this second semester because they haven’t paid the previous fees. “My child is already a ‘regular’ in giving promissory notes,” he said, grinning. He has four more children aged 15, 10, five and two. He has been working at Marsman Estate for 17 years.


Davao Today
Sto. Tomas mayor Maximo Estela had to arrange a dialogue between the company and the workers. ( photo by Marilou M. Aguirre)

While Marsman-Drysdale had promised to Mayor Estela that it pay the workers their salaries, the workers and their families were forced to do something in the meantime, or they would go hungry.

Abay-abay said she kept on hoping that her neighbors would ask her to do their laundry. Sometimes, she and her children would gather banana twines that they sold for 2 pesos per kilo.

Local businessmen in the town were also affected by the nonpayment or delayed of wages. A lumber shop owner, Victoria Cayona, 32, said that around 20 workers from Marsman-Drysdale still owe her money.

“No matter how modest their debts are, they still find it difficult to pay,” Cayona said. She couldnt insist for payments of these debts since, according to her, they almost have nothing to eat. “Some families even resorted to pawning their bank books in order to pay their bills,” she said.

Some sari-sari (variety) stores had closed down because a number of Marsman-Drysdale’s workers were not able to pay their debts.

Seeking for Help

The unions Deguma said the company started delaying the workers’ salaries in 2003, forcing the workers to seek the help of the local government through the town councils labor committee.

Davao Today
Workers also sought and got the intercession of Sto. Tomas Councilor Daniel Batosalem Jr. ( photo by Marilou M. Aguirre)

Councilor Daniel Batosalem Jr., who heads the said committee, said that through the request of the workers, they scheduled a dialogue with the management last October. A week after that, the workers’ salary for one month was released. The company said it would settle the rest in the coming weeks.

Batosalem said that the management had promised to regain the workers’ trust within six months to one year. “If the workers keep on protesting or go on strike, the company’s production will be affected,” he said.

Estela, the mayor, believed that, in due time, the company’s operation would normalize. He said that bananas are in demand and the company is gaining profit from it. “The company would make sure that it will give the workers their demands. Because without the workers, there will be no one to ensure production,” he said.


But the delayed salary was not the only problem. Workers were distressed when they found out that the company has not remitted their Social Security System (SSS) payments for more than a year. The same was true, they said, of their PhilHealth and Pag-IBIG funds. The company automatically deducted these payments from the workers salaries and are required by law to immediate remit these to the SSS, Philhealth and Pag-IBIG.

In response, the workers conducted a series of protests at the plantation and at the main office of the Marsman-Drysdale Group in Davao City. On Nov. 7, they filed a case against the management. Two days later, the management had a dialogue with the workers, promising to pay the Pag-IBIG remittance by Nov. 10 and the PhilHealth remittance by Dec. 1. The company also said it would initially remit to the SSS 10 percent of the workers payments.

With the problems long besetting them, the workers here found it urgent and necessary to organize themselves in order to defend their rights and get the benefits due them, especially since their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) already expired last March 1.

At present, there are three labor unions existing at the plantation. The workers, through an election, would have to choose which among the three would be their sole bargaining agent.

It has been alleged that the incumbent bargaining agent is toeing the company’s line. The workers are hopeful that they would be able to elect a group that will truly represent them. “We badly need the election so that we could have our CBA and that we can demand for an increase in salary,” Boncaoil said.

They are hopeful as well that their CBA negotiations for the period 2001-2005 would be replicated this time around. At that time, the workers successfully fought for a wage increase and additional benefits. “It was the first time in the history of the plantation that the workers got a 50 peso wage increase and 70,000 pesos hospitalization per admission for every worker,” Deguma said.

“The labor union gives security to the workers and would also ensure their unity. If there’s no union, one that would really stand for the workers, I doubt that we can demand for what’s rightfully ours,” Deguma said. (Marilou M. Aguirre/

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