By JIGGER J. JERUSALEM
A BUSINESSMAN operating an aquaculture farm in Pangasinan is facing multiple charges after his workers from a tribal community in Bukidnon fled and complained about alleged abuses they suffered.
Some 30 men and women, including two children from the Manobo-Pulangihon tribe in Barangay Butong, Quezon town, Bukidnon, arrived at the Cagayan de Oro port Monday night.
The workers said their employer refused to give them their monthly salary of P7,500 each for two months and made them to work beyond eight hours a day while living in deplorable conditions.
Jonathan Sampitan, 27, who acted as the group’s leader, said they were promised free transportation expenses, free food and lodging once they started working in the fish farm in the coastal town of Sual, Pangasinan.
Aside from that, they were supposed to be given a month’s pay in advance so they could send money to their families back in Butong, he said.
Some of the wives who went along with them were also promised employment as cooks and were supposed to receive P6,500 each a month, he added.
Sampitan said they were recruited by one Danny Talisan, a fellow tribesman, and a certain Rizalinda de Felix who accompanied them to Pangasinan.
He said poverty compelled them to accept the offer, but a few days after they arrived on May 12, 2019, they realized that none of the promises made to them were fulfilled by their employer who was identified in a Rappler article as Arian Hao.
Sampitan alleged that they were made to work for over 12 hours while their food was deducted from their salary.
“It was an excruciating job. We would wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and would return to our quarters at 7 o’clock in the evening,” he said in the vernacular.
He said they were told that their job would only be to feed the milkfish in the fish pens near the shore, “but it turned out our job was all-around.”
Sampitan said the physically demanding job, the deplorable living conditions, and the unfulfilled promises were what drove them to escape.
“I told my companions, ‘If we stay here, we will surely die.’ That’s why we decided to go back to Mindanao,” Sampitan said in an interview after arriving at the port.
Sampitan’s sister Marry Jena Ansol-og described their living quarters as “like a pigsty.”
He said his group managed to get out of the compound where they were staying and hiked their way until a bus chanced upon them and took them to Manila.
Pinky Grace Pabelic, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) regional director, said they have facilitated the return of the workers to Bukidnon.
Pabelic said they would also help the aggrieved individuals in the filing of charges against their employer, possibly labor-related complaints and human trafficking.
Beverly Musni, a human rights lawyer and a member of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao, said they will also provide legal assistance to the lumad workers.
In a July 6 statement, the Commission on Human Rights said it has launched a motu proprio investigation into the alleged abuses committed by the employer.
With assistance from the Federation of Agricultural Workers (UMA), the group managed to reach the CHR to file a case.
During their stay in Manila, the workers were assisted by NCIP, Federation of Agricultural Workers, and other agencies.
En route to Bukidnon, the workers, who were escorted by a team of lawyers led by Musni and NCIP personnel, were flagged down and briefly held by police officers manning a highway checkpoint in Barangay Tablon here Monday night.
“We vigorously questioned the police authorities about our detention at the Tablon checkpoint for about an hour, over our insistence on the lack of basis thereof, and their being inconsiderate of the ordeal the trafficked and illegally recruited lumad workers just went through,” Musni said in a text message sent to this paper.
She said they were told by police that there were “changes on security details” without elaborating.
After a lenghty discussion, the convoy was allowed to proceed, Musni said.