Julius Mariveles, who was then secretary general of Bayan, was also one of the participants to the fact finding mission. Among the places visited were Hinigaran and La Castellana towns and the city of Victorias.
He came to the fields unshod but he ignored the smoldering heat beneath his soles. He ignored, too, the sweltering heat of the noonday sun as he came upon a group of workers – farm workers like him – who, with one graceful sweep of their machetes, were felling sugarcane stalks before them.
The stalks fell like limp rag dolls on his feet but he had no time to contemplate now about how much the stalks look so much like his younger sister’s hand-me-down toys. He had work to do. He was aware that he was paid according to the quantity of the work done and he reminded himself that if he continued to let his imagination wander, there was no telling how much he would earn that day.
Maybe less than yesterday – this was conceivable given the remaining time left for him to do his tasks.
He could only hope that he could earn more this time – which was unlikely unless he would be given the ability to stretch time or master the art of bilocation. Unless he could do both, there was no assurance that he would be earning more today.
Nonoy is a farm laborer. That is obvious. But he is not just any other farm laborer.
He is only 12 years old.
He was born to a family of farmworkers and as far as he could remember, his parents had been tilling soil and getting very low wages. His parents had tried their best to send him to school – a public school that supposedly offers free education.
But free education or not, going to school was expensive for Nonoy’s family. A ride on a tricycle costs P10 or roughly translating to half a kilo or rice for the dinner table.
Nonoy cannot afford the luxury of education – not even free education. Thus, at an age when he is supposed to be running around and playing with other children, he finds himself doing something backbreaking work in the fields along with his parents.
At an age when he is supposed to be at school learning basic grammar and math, he is in the fields learning how to wield a machete, cut canes the right way and figure out a way to protect his arms from the razor-sharp cane leaves that always given him not-so-welcome souvenirs after a hard day’s work.
He figures out that at the rate things are going, his sister, who is now seven years old and is three years smaller, will also go his way when she will be old enough to wield a machete without posing any risk of maiming herself or the people around her. Or she could, like other girls, pull out the weeds that compete with the sugarcane for nourishment.
He also reckons that in his family, nobody will be spared from labor, not even his baby brother, nestled now in the arms of his mother, an infant clad in clothes three sizes bigger (it’s not that the clothes were too big; the baby was rather small for his age).
“He had to stop schooling so that he could help me and his father augment the family income,” Nonoy’s mother, Nanay Maria, said.
She said the words in a hush, forcing anybody who cared to listen to strain.
Her words seemed to be cloaked in resignation, but beneath it all was something seething, struggling to break free. Anger at their abject poverty? A grim determination to change their lot? Resoluteness? Or hope?
Nanay Maria’s face was made more animated by the flickering flame of the kerosene lamp – the only source of light in the shanty. Shadows dappled her face – a face lined by years of backbreaking work and untold sufferings she encountered in a hacienda owned by a multi-national company.
She had to work, she said, or else the whole family would starve. Already, they were starving and she knew things would be far worse if she stopped working.
She is, of course, earning considerably less than her husband, Tatay Dolpo, a raw-boned man who is pushing 40 and, like Nanay Maria, looks decades older.
Tatay Dolpo, as far as any of them could remember, had been tilling the fields, pouring out her blood, sweat and tears upon the land that had shackled them to sheer enslavement.
“Like me, he is a tumandok ( native) who had lived all his life in this squalor; he had been tilling this land for decades but nothing has improved,” she said in the vernacular.
It was an understatement. For if things had remained the same and rest of the world around them had worsened, it went without saying that their lot, too, had worsened.
It would not take a genius to see why. Tatay Dolpo is earning as low as P60 a day and Nanay Maria is earning only P30 or less.
Nonoy, like most children, are also earning considerably less. Some women, especially the transient workers, are similarly exploited.
“The others are paid according to the quantity of work done per hectare. The going rate is P800 per hectare. That would be divided according to the number of people working per hectare; usually there are about 30 people working on it, they could finish one and a half hectare a day,” she said.
That means at most, a hard day’s work for certain women meant a grand total of P40 a day. And things are going downhill for the people in the hacienda.
And what can P40 do? If a kilo of rice is P18, trust it to mothers like Nanay maria to make do of whatever is at hand. Whatever she earns, she said, goes back to food, however little it may be, at least it would ease the rumblings of the stomach that, at times, can be eased by going to sleep.
Everything spells poverty – extreme poverty.
In fact, the families like those of Nanay Maria are earning so little that at times, they were decided to forego rice, the staple food in their diet.
“All that we eat at times are boiled camote (sweet potato) leaves and boiled bananas; we could hardly eat three meals a day,” she said.
Nonoy, she recalled, used to go to school hungry. Things have changed of course. Now, Nonoy goes to work, hungry. There is no more school but the hunger stays.
Their hunger is aggravated by the fact that women, As Nanay Maria is, are discriminated against because of their gender.
They are paid less even if they work just as hard as the men.
They also had, like in most workplaces, less chances of being hired because, “women get pregnant; pregnancy gets in the way with work because a woman has to rest when she reaches the final term.”
The woman’s uterus, her reproductive system, had become a curse, it seemed.
The management’s utter lack of concern for its workers is punctuated by the way it deals with the laborers’ complaints.
Maternity benefits, for starters, are unheard of. And woe befalls any worker who injures himself or herself while on the job.
Nanay Maria remembered how one under-aged worker fell into a ditch and broke his leg while he was cutting canes.
Management practically scrimped, offering the hapless youth a few painkillers and some aspirin. Surgery was out of the question – management could not afford that. And his medication, the youth’s family learned, would be taken off his wages.
Nanay Maria now watched as Nonoy slowly slithered out of the shanty.
He was off, no doubt, to prepare himself for the next day. For sure, there is very little to look forward the next day. Not when the next day means not running around in the playground, eating peanut butter sandwiches during recess and learning how to divide and multiply three-digit numbers manually.
Not when the next day means nine hours of exposure to the smoldering sun, suffering from heat waves and enduring the blisters on the soles of his feet.
Certainly, there is very little to look forward to in a day that usually ends with him looking like he just survived a gladiator match, his body bruised and battered, his arms and neck bearing the not-so-welcome souvenirs courtesy or razor-sharp cane leaves.
Indeed, how can he look forward to tomorrow when tomorrow means hard labor and unfair wages?
And as Nonoy finally reaches home and rests his battle-weary body, he was hardly consoled by the fact that nothing would change – not tomorrow.