Banana firm in North Cotabato aborts closure plan

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/9 Feb) – A Japanese-backed banana company has thrashed plans to close its operation in North Cotabato province, a labor official confirmed on Wednesday.

Sumifru Philippines Corp, a joint venture with Japanese corporate giant Sumitomo Corp, signified late last year to withdraw operations in its District 2 operations covering the towns of Antipas, Magpet and Makilala mainly because of low farm productivity, the ban imposed by Iran on Philippine bananas, and diseases in banana farms.

Instead of shutting down at least 270 hectares, the firm decided to cut only the operations of 157 ha., said Feliciano Orihuela Jr., regional chief of the National Conciliation and Mediation Board.

“The main problem there was low productivity resulting from the apparent indifferent attitude of the workers. We have threshed that out and the management and the union are now in the process of coming out with their first ever collective bargaining agreement,” he told MindaNews.

To be a viable venture, production should have been 3,500 boxes per hectare annually but the company is not even breaching the breakeven yield of 2,700 boxes per hectare per year, Orihuela said.

The actual average annual yield was only from 1,700 to 1,800 boxes per hectare, he added.

With the decision of the company to scale down its operations instead of shutting down, the move affected only 144 workers out of the total 344, NCMB records showed.

Of the displaced figure, 118 workers have already received their separation pay equivalent to one-half month per year of service or a total of P2.484 million.

Records show that Sumifru Nlavi Workers Union, which is affiliated with the Alliance of Labor Union and the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, had filed a preventive mediation case against Sumifru, citing unfair labor practices, particularly union busting, and illegal shutdown of operations.

Orihuela said that a series of conciliation efforts convinced the management and the union to agree on a commitment to help raise the productivity level of the banana farms.

In fact they have adopted the slogan “Lahat Kasali, Kasali Lahat,” literally meaning “we all belong,” the official said.

In a separate statement, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz hailed the regional efforts that averted the closure of Sumifru’s operations in parts of North Cotabato.

Sumifru, which has been attacked by the communist New People’s Army several times, also operates in the towns of Arakan and Tulunan.

Altogether, it maintains over 1,000 has. of banana plantation in North Cotabato

Sumifru produces bananas, papayas, and pineapple. Organized in 2003 as part of the expansion efforts of Sumitomo Corporation’s food business division, it grows and exports Philippine bananas not just in North Cotabato but also in South Cotabato, the labor department said.

Earlier, Baldoz noted that following the resumption of banana exports to Iran, the Department of Agriculture is eyeing “newer markets for the agricultural produce like China, Malaysia, and Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.”

Iran’s decision to stop importing goods from the United States and allied countries followed Washington’s ban on trade with Iran over its nuclear energy program.

Baldoz encouraged the industry to strengthen standards, improve productivity, and take advantage of opportunities considering the assessment made by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that “demand for banana exports was expected to reach 15 million metric tons in 2010 alone.” (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)