NFA employees fear job loss under rice import law
Employees of the National Food Authority (NFA) wore black on Monday to protest the rice import liberalization or tariffication law as they feared losing their jobs when it limits the agency’s function to procuring palay and clips its regulatory powers.
The NFA has 4,136 employees nationwide, according to records.
In a press conference at the NFA central office in Quezon City, the NFA Employees Association said it was considering filing a case against the government in the Supreme Court for violating its members’ security of tenure.
A majority of the employees hold regular positions, said the association’s president, Maxie Mallabo Torda.
Edwin Paraluman, the farmers’ representative in the NFA Council, said the sector questioned the legality of certain provisions of the law and would seek a temporary restraining order from the court.
The Rice Import Liberalization Act, or Republic Act No. 11203, overrides Presidential Decree No. 4, or the NFA Charter, Paraluman said. It is set to start on March 3. (See story in Business, Page B1.)
Under the new law, anyone can import rice as long as shipments are slapped tariffs ranging from 35 percent to 180 percent.
The law would allow the flow of cheaper rice in the market, give farmers a yearly subsidy of P10 billion from duties that would be collected from imported rice, and would open the market to more competition.
Before President Duterte signed the law on Feb. 14, the NFA regulated the entry of rice from abroad by granting import permits to boost the country’s buffer stock.
The NFA was blamed for the surge in rice prices last year because its supply of subsidized rice had been depleted. The situation had dragged down the President’s ratings.
Asked for comment during a press briefing on Monday, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said “the Palace welcomed any move from any sector questioning any act of the government.”
In a statement, Panelo said the new law was expected to “result in lower rice prices as well as help cushion the impact of inflation for the benefit of the consumers.”
“The law, at the same time, protects our farmers from the emerging competition as a result of its implementation through a direct safety net and productivity support in the form of the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund,” he said.
Acting NFA Administrator Tomas Escarez was teary-eyed while delivering a speech before agency employees on Monday.
Escarez said the signing of the bill “broke the hearts of millions of Filipino farmers, consumers, small grains businessmen and employees who rely on NFA for support.”
“I’ve been with the agency for the past 39 years and I’ve seen the hardships of all the employees. I’m saddened that our economic planners don’t realize this, although they’ve promised that employees would be given compensation packages,” he said.
“But right now, we really don’t know what will happen to NFA,” he added.
Escarez, however, said the employees should “not be discouraged by this development” as the agency “will still fight for the best—for the farmers, consumers and our employees—in the IRR (implementing rules and regulations).”
The IRR, to be crafted by the NFA Council, would specify the powers and functions of the grains agency, including the optimal level for its buffer stock, its source of funding and whether it would still sell subsidized rice.
Escarez, who also sits in the council, said economic managers were rushing to finalize the IRR, which should be crafted within 90 days upon the bill’s approval.
Farmer groups fear that limiting the power of the NFA would strip them of a “safety net” when palay prices decline.
They are also wary that once the agency stops selling subsidized rice—priced at P27 to P32 a kilogram—more than 10 million Filipinos would not be able to afford the staple.
In Tagbilaran City, at least 30 NFA employees also wore black.
“It’s the beginning of the end of the rice industry in the Philippines,” said Maria Fe Evasco, NFA-Bohol manager, reading the message of Escarez.
“This law stripped the NFA of its regulatory and stabilization functions. We are just reduced to a mere buffer stocking agency,” Evasco said.
She said the law would affect many farmers, small grains retailers and consumers who rely on NFA for support, livelihood and affordable rice.
“There will be no price monitoring and control as NFA rice will no longer be available through accredited retailers,” she said. —WITH REPORTS FROM CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO AND LEO UDTOHAN
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