No Free Lunch

Where have all the workers gone?

It’s not easy anymore to find workers for our farm operations,” I’ve been hearing many farmers tell me lately. I’m making the rounds again talking to various farmers in different parts of the country in the course of a research study. Whether they are tilling less than a hectare or operating hundreds of hectares of consolidated farms, a persistent clamor our research team keeps hearing is for easier access to farm machinery, because farmworkers are getting hard to find or costly to hire.

One thing is very different about our farm sector now compared to the 1970s. Back in 1977, I lived among rice farmers in Bicol, Panay, and Central Luzon studying the various farm machines being used in threshing and drying harvested palay. My masteral thesis research was on the appropriate choice of technology for Philippine rice farms, and with abundant farm labor then, I noted that the large McCormick threshers (tilladora) found in Central Luzon made little economic sense. With cheap and abundant farm labor, savings in labor cost simply could not offset the large capital investment the machine entailed. Similarly, the kerosene or rice hull-fueled flat bed palay dryers developed by UP Los Baños agricultural engineers proved unattractive to farmers. The capital cost was simply too high, whereas sun drying on available pavements or mats had minimal capital cost even if it required more labor.


Fast forward to 2020, and we’re finding farmers in Mindanao, Visayas, and Luzon all clamoring for farm machines. “The problem is 4Ps!” is a cry we hear wherever we go. The Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, the Philippine version of targeted conditional cash transfers, is designed to incentivize poor parents to keep their children in school, thereby investing in their family’s long-term welfare. But farmers swear that their workers are no longer inclined to work as hard, or not at all, because “the 4Ps cash doleout has made them lazy.” One sugar farmer observed that “they might come to work in the field in the morning, but in the afternoon, they’d rather be drinking.”

People also point to BBB (Build, build, build) as another problem. Farmers say they are forced to match the wages being paid to construction workers, which is higher than the minimum wage for farmworkers, if they are to get workers at all. There’s apparently so much demand for workers in both government and private construction projects now that farmworkers are being siphoned off the farms.


“Many agrarian reform beneficiaries would rather lease their piece of land to a large farm consolidator, buy a motorcycle, and be a ‘habal-habal’ (motorcycle taxi) driver instead,” our research team heard more than one sugar planter point out. It made me recall the doctoral research of Danielle Guillen, where she found that farmers are drawn into driving tricycles and habal-habal because it provides them cash daily, even if total income from farming would actually be higher. But cash flow, she found, is often more important to the poor than the level of income, which leads them to leave farming in favor of occupations that put cash in their pockets every day.

All told, various farm machines are now commonly seen in our farms, and for a logical reason. In rice farms, combine harvesters that mechanically harvest and thresh palay as they pass through the rice fields earned the name “halimaw” (beast) from farmworkers who earlier saw them to be eating up their jobs; it seems that resistance to them has since become muted. In sugar farms, mechanical grabbers that load harvested cane into trucks are now common, especially because this task cannot be done by women, who can still be relied upon for the work of cutting cane in the fields. Even so, sugar planters attest that tapaseros have become much harder to find, especially since the traditional sacadas have become small landowners after agrarian reform.

It has taken us so much longer to get here than the Thais and Vietnamese did—because we seem to love making babies much more than they do—but now the direction is unmistakable: We must pursue wide farm mechanization vigorously now, or else.


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TAGS: Central Luzon, farm operations, UP Los Baños
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