Part 2 of our stories of Women at Work
Workers in oil palm plantations are predominantly men. Although not visible, there are also women workers in some types of work like fertiliser application, blanketing, ground weeding, and planting of cover crops. There are also jobs that are usually assigned to women because they do not require hard physical labour, such as application of pesticides/insecticides, banana poisoning through the use of herbicides, and rat bait making. While not physically taxing, these types of work expose women to different chemicals that may be harmful to their health.
Vilma* used to work for an oil palm plantation in the Philippines. Her job was to produce rat baits, which are used to kill rats and to prevent them from attacking young oil palms and fresh fruit bunches of the mature trees. According to Vilma, rat baits are “cooked” by women workers in their homes. Vilma explained that making rat baits is literally like cooking. In a hot pot, all the ingredients for the rat bait — including dried fish, corn chaffs, and the rodenticide Racumin — are mixed together. After “cooking”, the rat bait is packed into small plastic containers. Vilma was paid PhP0.35 per pack of rat bait. On average, she can finish 200 packs in a day. This is equivalent to a measly earning of PhP70.00 (USD1.47) per day.
Vilma took up this kind of work to help her husband in supporting the needs of their family. However, after three months, she stopped doing such work because aside from the low pay, her eyes used to hurt badly in the process of preparing the rat bait. She also had to endure the nauseous smell coming from the mixture that she cooks.
Other women workers in oil palm plantations suffer the same risks. There are lots of cases where women workers faint or vomit in the middle of their work — usually during banana poisoning or pesticide/insecticide application. Some think that the fainting or vomiting might be due to working under the intense heat of the sun. Others claim that it might be because of the effects of the chemicals that they use.
After working as rat bait maker, Vilma, along with other women in the community who cannot get jobs in the plantation, also engaged in amacan-weaving* as an alternative livelihood. Previously, the women in the community (usually wives and female relatives of male plantation workers) can gather laksi from the oil palm plantation for free. However, after some time, the palm oil company started selling laksi to the women even if it is of no use in the company’s core business of producing crude palm oil and palm kernel oil. Worse, it refused to sell laksi to women who are associated with the members and officers of plantation labour union.
Vilma was not spared. As a wife of an active union officer who filed a labour case against the company, she lost her livelihood and faced harassment from the company.
*Not her real name
*Amacan is a woven sheet made of oil palm leaves, which is typically used as walls of nipa huts. The raw material used for making amacan is the laksi, the middle part of the oil palm leaves.
To learn more about oil palm plantations in Mindanao, Philippines, dowload this Briefer on plantations in Mindanao produced by the REAP Mindanao Network. Photo: AMRC
Find out more about groups in the Philippines resisting oil palm plantations here.
Cathy is a tea plucker who is 36 years old. She was married when she was 22 years, and now has 3 children - two girls who are 8 and 5 years’ old, and a two year old boy. Cathy started to work as a permanent worker in Panville division when she was 15 years old. Her sister living next door was supporting her when Cathy’s first two children were born. But when she gave birth to her third child, her sister moved far away. Therefore Cathy couldn’t continue her work in the tea plantation. She stayed at home for 3 months to look after her baby, but because of poverty she could not stay at home forever without an income. Her husband is a cook in a small hotel.
“The owner here does not pay Employees Provident Fund (EPF), ETF or allows sick leave. He earns Rs 800 for a day. We have taken loans of Rs 78,000 from various people. Every month we have to pay a sum to settle this loan. My husband takes Rs 300 for his alcohol use and sometimes he takes more than that for his personal use. Managing the family is very difficult, if I argue about expenses, the family problems start”.
She was looking for a day job so that she could come back home every day. Her only skill was in tea plucking, so she found 2 jobs in small tea gardens. The tea plucking system allows the plucking to take place in one plot and resume in the same plot only after 6 days. Therefore the employers needed her only once a week. When she started to work in the small gardens, within a week, she found another 3 employers. Now in one week, she rotates between 6 employers for 6 days. For the last 3 years she has been working for these same 6 employers. Each employer has 2-4 acres of land, and there are 2-4 workers working in each garden. All the workers are paid Rs 500 daily. Cathy starts plucking at 8 am and her daily target is 25 -30 kgs. However plucking 25 -30 kgs is not possible before 4pm and after that she has to clean that area also. Her salary was increased last month from Rs 400 to 500. No salary advances are given.
“We have no toilet facilities. The owners give us lunch and tea, but no other benefits,” she said. “Last year while I was working in a tea garden a snake bit me and I fainted. The employer gave me Rs 60 to hire a trishaw to go to the hospital. I was in the hospital for 4 days. He came with a lunch packet to see me in the hospital. After I went home I was still not very fit. The doctor asked me to eat well and take another 3 days’ rest. I rested and started working. Luckily he allowed me to continue to work in his garden, but no salary was paid for these days."