Labor groups slam planned importation of 450,000 MT sugar
BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines — To safeguard the welfare of farmers as well as farm and mill workers in the sugar industry, labor groups said they were opposing the government’s plan to import 450,000 metric tons of refined sugar this year.
In a manifesto they signed on Friday, labor leaders and their allies in the sugar-producing province of Negros Occidental said that the importation would result in “grave and irreparable injury” to the sugar industry.
“The gravity of the possible injury cannot be underestimated as the sugar industry directly and indirectly impacts the lives of around 3 million Filipinos,” the manifesto said.
“It will condemn to economic bankruptcy the sugar industry’s 80,000 planters and the employment and livelihood loss of its 700,000 agricultural workers, 26,000 mill workers, and some 3 million downstream dependents,” it added.
The manifesto would be sent to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Department of Agriculture (DA) which he also heads, the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), and sugar planters’ groups, according to Wennie Sancho, convenor of the Save the Sugar Industry Movement.‘Dead season’
In Manila, Presidential Communications Secretary Cheloy Velicaria-Garafil said the SRA “always considers the welfare of the local farmers and producers and their laborers first in all importation programs.”
“It is the mandate of the President that we should make sure that the local producers will not be affected, and in turn, that the local producers will be made to produce more,” she said, quoting a statement from the SRA.
The imported sugar will be released in a “calibrated and timely manner,” Garafil said.
“We cannot afford to hurt the local industry, as they are needed to ensure supply security,” she said. On Jan. 18, the SRA proposed the importation of 450,000 MT of sugar this year following an instruction from the President purportedly to bring down its retail price.
“With the importation of the 450,000 MT of refined sugar and the full liberalization of the industry, sugar farmworkers will have their ‘tiempos muertos (dead season)’ not only for three months, but for a lifetime,” the labor manifesto said.
The labor groups said sugar farmworkers were already suffering from low wages and very narrow employment opportunities.
Sancho said most of the small farmers in the industry were agrarian reform beneficiaries who planted sugar without government support.“Thrusting them to slug it out with imported sugar in the domestic market without protection under a regime of sugar import liberalization will only add cruelty to government neglect,” he said.
The United Sugar Producers Federation (Unifed) said that it sympathized with the labor groups opposing the importation but disagreed with their view on the need for imports.
‘President is correct’
“The President is correct in importing 450,000 MT of refined sugar because this will address the runaway retail prices which are too high. This is because there is a speculation on the trader side that there will not be enough sugar up to the next milling season,” Unifed president Manuel Lamata told the Inquirer in Manila.
“With this, prices will come down in the retail and the millgate prices will adjust to the level where it should be,” he said, adding that his group also wanted to protect its biggest market—the ordinary Filipinos.
While labor groups recognize the need for imports and a sugar buffer stock, Sancho said they should be informed about the actual and projected production and consumption figures.
“Sugar imports should be calibrated in volume and timed to arrive after the close of the milling so that it does not depress milling prices that would be grossly disadvantageous to the sugarcane farmers,” he said.
He urged the DA to consult planters and millers before proceeding with importations.
“We are still in the peak of harvest and milling activities and there is abundant local stock at this point. The DA should determine if there is a real shortage,” Sancho said.
The SRA will submit its import proposal next week even if the sugar price still exceeds P100 per kilogram, SRA board member Pablo Luis Azcona told the Inquirer in Manila.
“Now we are basing at 350,000 MT plus a buffer to make it 450,000 MT,” said Azcona, adding that the SRA was anticipating a production of 1.8 million MT against a demand of 2.2 million MT for crop year 2022-2023.
The sugar cropping season in the Philippines begins in September and ends in August the following year.
The National Federation of Sugarcane Planters (NFSP) said it also wanted an explanation from the SRA on how it arrived at the indicated import volume.“The National Federation of Sugarcane Planters remains consistent in our position that the importation should be only for the specific volume needed for the buffer stock, and it should arrive in several properly scheduled tranches after the milling season,” federation president Enrique Rojas told the Inquirer.
The SRA has not disclosed the actual shortage as well as the average monthly sugar consumption by households and industrial and institutional consumers despite his group’s repeated requests, he said.
Rojas said these figures would help the NFSP compute the two months’ worth of buffer stock required.
“What is SRA’s basis for the proposed 450,000 MT importation? And most important, what is the schedule of arrival and specific volume of each shipment of the proposed 450,000 MT importation?” he said.
In February last year, the SRA authorized the importation of 200,000 MT of refined sugar for use by the beverage industry.
It decided on the importation as both the wholesale and the retail prices of raw and refined sugar reached record highs following Typhoon “Odette” (international name: Rai) in December 2021.
The SRA planned to import another 300,000 MT of refined sugar in mid-2022 but Mr. Marcos disallowed it.
In September, the SRA issued another directive authorizing the importation of 150,000 MT of refined sugar at the request of various stakeholders.As of Jan. 13, the average retail price of refined sugar was P100.72 per kg in supermarkets and P97.50 in wet markets in Metro Manila, according to SRA data.
Last year’s data showed that the average retail price per kg of refined sugar in supermarkets and groceries in Metro Manila rose from P95.02 in September to P99.70 in October, P101.85 in November, and P101.45 in December, up from the average range of P54.55 to P55.68 for the same period in 2021.
Raw sugar production reached 928,257 MT as of Jan. 15, a 17.56-percent increase from 789,628 MT a year ago, and 21.33 percent higher than the 765,021 MT produced as of Jan. 17, 2021.
—WITH REPORTS FROM JORDEENE LAGARE AND NESTOR CORRALES
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