DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 07 May) — A labor federation has asked President Rodrigo Duterte to look into the plight of almost 10,000 banana workers who may lose their jobs following the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that the joint venture agreement (JVA) between the Bureau of Correction (BuCor) and the Floirendo-owned Tagum Agricultural Development Company (TADECO) is illegal.
In a press release issued Sunday, Michael Mendoza, President of the Associated Labor Unions – Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP) said they expressed “grave concern and serious alarm” over the massive displacement of workers due to the conflict between House Speaker Alvarez and Davao del Norte’s 2nd district Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr. that reportedly stemmed from the misunderstanding of their girlfriends.
Alvarez and Floreindo are Duterte’s allies. Floirendo, who shelled out P75 million for Duterte’s Presidential campaign was the biggest campaign donor of Duterte, with a P75 million contribution.
“We appeal to President Duterte to look into the plight of workers and their families who have been overlooked in this teleserye brouhaha. They are the true human face to this controversy. These workers have been his avid supporters since he was Mayor and are just toiling day-to-day to provide as decent a life for their children as they can,” Mendoza added.
He suggested that corrective measures to the “legal infirmities” in the 25-year JVA be made first and should not be at the cost of workers’ lives.
The JVA, which allows TADECO to use 5,308 hectares of public land at the Davao Prison and Penal Farm in Panabo and Tagum cities in Davao del Norte, was challenged by Alvarez who called it “grossly disadvantageous to government.”
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre approved the findings of his department’s investigating panel, led by Justice undersecretary Raymund Mecate, that the JVA is “fraught infirmities.”
“Rulings that are mere table studies done by lawyers in air conditioned rooms do not reflect the hard, backbreaking work of workers under the sun eking out a vibrant banana industry with little or no government assistance. After years of benign neglect from Government, we are met with the harshest legal findings, manufactured without hearing out the workers or the communities they have built from their blood and sweat,” Mendoza lamented.
Under the JVA, the banana firm employs 8,000 farm workers, 1,100 male inmates, and 101 women workers who are assigned to the firm’s packing stations.
He said the “inmates are called Inmate Trainees and receive a stipend equivalent to the daily minimum wage.”
TADECO has been using the BuCor property since 1969 to produce export-quality Cavendish bananas under the Del Monte brand.
“Enough is enough. Let us be real here. This rush to so-called justice may have less to do with truth and has more to do with our collective hypocrisies. Their rulings are clearly towards a pre-ordained conclusion. We want to remind all, that these conclusions will determine who will be employed, where they will be employed and under what terms. Our workers thought that the determination of what is legal and illegal is done by the Judiciary following due process. Our workers expected more than this callous, cavalier, high-handed execution of our livelihoods,” he said.
In a press release also issued on Sunday, Surigao del Sur’s 2nd District Rep. Johnny T. Pimentel, chair of the Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, said his committee and the Committee on Justice will jointly conduct a preliminary probe into the BuCor-TADECO deal on May 9.
Alvarez sponsored a resolution in March 2017, enabling the congressional inquiry.
“Politics aside, every accusation that a public transaction is highly
detrimental to government is a grave matter that we are duty-bound to
investigate painstakingly,” Rep. Pimentel said.
He said any contract deemed “manifestly and grossly disadvantageous” to government will constitute a punishable corrupt practice against any public officer involved, whether or not they profited or will profit from the transaction.
Citing the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Law, or Republic Act 3019,
Pimentel said a public officer or private person found liable for
committing a corrupt practice faces up to 10 years in prison, perpetual
disqualification from office, and confiscation or forfeiture in favor of
government of any prohibited interest and unexplained wealth manifestly
out of proportion to his lawful income.
The banana firm, according to the press release, has been paying the BuCor a fixed annual rent of P6,050 per hectare, plus a share of 23 centavos for every P100 worth of bananas shipped to Japan, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, the Middle
East, Russia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Citing Speaker Alvarez, the release said the annual lease rate amounts to less than
one-fourth of the prevailing P25,000 per hectare in the district and assailed the BuCor’s minimal share from every box of banana shipped out, and the unusually extensive lease term that he said was more than double the customary 10-year tenure.
Solicitor General Jose Calida recently declared that the BuCor-TADECO deal openly violated the 1987 Constitution and a Commonwealth-era edict restricting the use of public land.
In a statement released on Friday, TADECO president and chief executive officer (CEO) Alex Valoria said the findings of the DOJ panel were based on “flawed interpretations of the Constitution and laws governing contracts the disposition of public lands.”
Valoria said that when the DOJ investigating panel released its findings, Justice Undersecretary Raymund Mecate pointed out that the JVA was ‘fraught with infirmities.’
“Sadly, when we read the findings released to the media, the only conclusion we can respectfully come to is that the findings were fraught with legal misinterpretations,” Valoria said.
The recommendation of the DOJ panel to amend the JVA to make it compliant with the law indicates that the justice department deems the contract to be valid, he said.
On the DOJ’s claim that the JVA’s contract area of 5,308 hectares exceeds the allowable area of public agricultural lands that may be leased to private firms, Valoria pointed out that the BuCor-TADECO agreement involves inalienable public land, which under the Constitution and existing laws does not have any prescribed area limits.
He said TADECO pays BuCor not only a guaranteed annual production and profit share, but also provides the funds for the Bureau’s Inmate Farm Workers Training and Exposure Program, the inmates’ stipends and training subsidies.
Rehabilitation, not land disposition
Valoria noted that in 2016 alone, TADECO paid BuCor a total of P142,719,662, which equates approximately to P27,000 per hectare. He said this figure is way above the lease rates of P10,000 to P18,000 that the DOJ said BuCor should be receiving from TADECO, when it claimed that the JVA was disadvantageous to the government in terms of per hectare rate,” Valoria said.
“Moreover, the successes of the rehabilitation program under the JVA resulting in the eventual re-integration of the inmates back to society as productive citizens is beyond monetary value,” Valoria added.
He said the 1979 Consolidated JVA between TADECO and BuCor clarified that a new 25-year term on the use of the Davao Prison and Penal Farm (DPPF) Reservation will start in 1979, and thus a renewed 25-year term will start in 2004 and will end in 2029.”
Valoria maintained that the1979 JVA consolidated various contracts entered into by BuCor and TADECO on various dates from 1969 to 1978 involving different land areas while disputing DOJ’s claim that the JVA and its predecessor agreements since 1969 have granted TADECO beneficial use of the DPPF for 60 years, or more than the allowable period stated under the Public Land Act is erroneous.
Valoria said the DOJ also erroneously interpreted the JVA as a form of “disposition” of land when it is not.
“The JVA does not involve any land to be disposed. The primary purpose of the JVA is the rehabilitation of inmates inside the DPPF,” Valoria noted.
He said the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions do not bar the government from entering into joint venture arrangements involving inalienable lands like the DPPF.
“In fact, under the 1987 Philippine Constitution, there is now an express provision allowing joint venture arrangement involving exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources. Natural resources include inalienable public lands like the Davao penal farm,” Valoria said.
The DOJ said the 2013 deal between BuCor and TADECO is not a joint venture because the government’s participation in the operation and management of the banana plantation is minimal, “there is no community of interest” between the two parties, and “no categorical indication of a true and realistic sharing of the profits and losses.”
But Valoria countered by saying that the DOJ’s findings do not apply to the BuCor-TADECO agreement because the JVA between them is not a simple partnership arrangement but “impressed with public interest.”
“Again, I would like to point out that the main goal of the JVA is the rehabilitation of the inmates inside the penal farm by providing them with a decent means of livelihood while serving their sentences,” Valoria said.
He said the BuCor’s financial benefits from the JVA “sufficiently established a realistic sharing of the profits in the joint venture”.
Valoria maintained that DOJ’s findings were based on “on the erroneous assumption that the contract between TADECO and BuCor is a lease agreement, when it is not.” (Antonio L. Colina IV / MindaNews)