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Ocean of Pineapples

January 30, 2008

I never wrote at length about the time I spent on the Dole Pineapple plantation in Polomolok, at least not on this blog. This is an article I wrote for InPeace about my time there:

When Polomolok children first see the ocean, they see it from the shores of the Sarangili Bay. The public beaches there aren’t particularly clean, but they’re swimible and so the Filipino children dive in clad in shorts and t-shirts. It’s a metaphorical lesson- when Polomolok children grow up they will need to be ready to swim in the sea. Though not a sea of water, but an ocean of pineapples.

This tiny community on the southern shore of the island of Mindanao has a one-fruit economy. More than 50 percent of the work force punches their time card at the Dolefil cannery and plantation. The other 50 percent works mostly in the service industry (caring for the workers) or on small farms (most selling pineapples to Dole.) An undetermined number wait outside of the Dole industrial complex each day to see if they can fill an open spot.

Polomolok the Dole Pineapple is not just an ocean, but it’s the air and the land as well. The sweet smell of pineapples mixes with kalichuchi flowers, exhaust fumes, and sewer openings. Land that used to grow rice and vegetables for consumption now produces pineapples for export.

Polomolok is not alone. The whole economy of the Philippines now revolves around exportation. Whether it’s foreign call centers, cash crops, or workers moving abroad globalization has changed the way Filipinos do business. Certainly it’s changed things for Americans too. When Americans call a credit card help line then end up talking to someone in Asia, when Minnesotans want coconuts in the middle of February they need only go to the grocery store. Many young Filipinos move abroad in search of higher, often just living, wage. It’s the brain drain- the best and the brightest in the Philippines move to China, Europe, or North America to do work for which they are over-qualified. Doctors work as nurses, nurses as caregivers; lawyers and teachers become cabbies and janitors. And they still make more money doing this than they will at their previous profession in their home country.

Certainly the brain drain is known in Polomolok, but it’s the land drain that has the people here most concerned. There’s a tiny Bla’an Lumad community on the edge of one of Dole’s massive pineapple fields. The men travel to the next town over to work on farms there. When asked where their ancestral lands were, the Datu pointed out at the field. But we don’t even work there now, he said.

“The pineapples are bad for the land,” said KMU Union President Jose Tuelad. Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) is a nation-wide union; the Polomolok KMU was chartered in 1985. “Big companies rent the land for a small price and when they return it to the people in 20 year it will be destroyed.”

Small-scale farmers get around problem of pineapples being nutrient-draining by performing extensive crop rotation in cycles over years and years. But according the Tuelad corporations like Dole don’t see the land as a irreplaceable resource, but rather as a short-term commodity. If the soil is depleted, they’ll just find somewhere else to grow their pineapples.

“Pineapples that aren’t even for us,” Tuelad goes on, shaking his head. Like all the other multi-national food producers in Mindanao, their crops are for export only. After being collected, the vast majority of these pineapples are immediately processed at the cannery down the street from the fields. Those fields, that used to yield vegetables and rice for the people’s consumption, surround the people with a bountiful harvest but the price of their personal foodstuffs continues to climb. Pineapples, pineapples everywhere, but there’s nothing for the people to eat.

For its own part, Dole insists that it’s a responsible corporation that takes care of the people in the plantation communities. The question of course is how can a corporation truly be responsible to working people? If the corporation by-laws state (which they do) that Dole’s first and foremost responsibility is to make as much profit as possible for its shareholders, how can the needs of the community truly matter?

Naysayers would point to the vast amount of charitable contributions given by Dole to Polomolok. The backs of the chairs in the Catholic Church near the cannery are stamped with the words “Donated by: Dole Philippines, Inc”. In fact, Tueland says that the whole church was funded by the company- from the sanctuary, to the priest’s quarters, to the statue of Christ on the top of the building, dressed as a conquestador. Hardly a donation as much as a purchase. Can a priest speak out against the company who paid for his house and church? Can the people sit on chairs marked with Dole’s name without being reminded of its power?

The charity extends to health services for families and to schools for children. Temporary clinics are set up in Polomolok and other Dole plantation communities every few months to treat certain health problems and do general check ups. Elementary schools wear huge signs that say “This school is funded by a generous donation from Dole Philippines” or more simply “Dole Philippines Cares!” Workers and managers alike pass these sign on their way to work. Who are these signs for?

In their hurriedness to provide all this charity, at some point it must have occurred to the higher-ups at Dole that the company is the reason all of this charity is needed. There’s no reason why men and women working six days a week, 10 hours a day for a large corporation should need someone else to fund schools for their children and churches for their families. But the average pay for steady workers averages about 200 pesos per a 10-hour day. Roughly this is one-tenth the amount a minimum wage earning American worker would receive for the same amount of labor.

And those are the steady workers, the only group of workers at Dole who make at least minimum wage and only 25% of the work force. The way Dole “saves” the largest amount of capital (or exploits labor the most) is by abusing the contractual labor system. Under labor laws, companies are allowed to higher contractual workers (often through service providers) for temporary work, like construction or consulting. Dole uses loopholes, and just out-right law breaking, to employ contractual laborers as the vast majority of its work force. Contractual labor is more exploitative (and in turn cheaper) for a number of reasons, the first of which is that contractual laborers are not required minimum wage. Many young people work in the cannery for less than 125 pesos a day. Even though canning and harvesting are far from temporary work at a pineapple cannery, these contractual laborers are only guaranteed their jobs for a few months at a time. This lack of stability keeps them quiet to company abuses. They’re not allowed to join the union and so any success the union achieves (ie benefits, higher pay) does not apply to the great majority of the workers at Dole.

In light of these contractual labor abuses it’s no surprise that one of the primary goals of KMU is to get as many contractual laborers switched to permanent labor status. In 2004 the union was successful in such a case. After long and complicated negotiations with Dole Philippines 1,500 contractual laborers were granted full-time labor status and admitted to the union. This raised the union’s membership up to 5,200 workers, or 25% of the Dole labor force in Polomolok.

“Still a long way to go,” Tuelad said lighting a cigarette, “(but) the workers can do everything if there is unity.” The long way stretches out before them. As corporations like Dole continue to grow and take over whole communities, the workers continue to see the cost of staples like rice and vegetables on the rise while the promise of permanent work is often uncertain.

Smoke escaped Tuelad’s nostrils as he writes union dues tallies on the chalkboard in his office, the cigarette exhaust a bit reminiscent of a dragon. Unlike in Europe, in Asia the dragons are the heroes; symbols of good luck and fortune. KMU may need both to stay afloat in the pineapple ocean.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Linda permalink
    February 26, 2008 9:36 pm

    Maybe no more pineapple for me!!! Wow!

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