For a company like Dole, where part of the appeal for investors this week is the brand image that drives its Dole’s sales, the company’s corporate culture and the values management infuses in its daily decision-making can be a barometer of the future value. For a company like Dole, which requires significant amount of land and ultimately leaves a huge footprint in the areas where it produces its fresh and packaged produce, management practices also influences how local communities benefit from the company’s large presence. Thus, it bears asking, do Dole’s management practices promote strong relationships with its workers and the communities in which they live?
Dole argues that it does. In filings before the US Trade Representative in support of reduced tariffs for its products, Dole argued that it has garnered the respect of the people of Polomolok, Mindanao, a company town that has grown up around the Dole 20,000 hectare pineapple plantation over the past several decades. Dole runs the local hospital, distributes wheelchairs, and raises money for local anti-poverty and health-related causes. Because it dominates the economic landscape in an impoverished region of Mindanao, Dole enjoys tremendous political support.
Oscar Serihijos would disagree. Mr. Serohijos, a long-time employee and union officer at Dole Philippines subsidiary, faces up to four years in jail and a criminal conviction because Dole is accusing him of spreading false rumors. Charged by Dole with the crime of defamation, Mr. Serohijos has lost his job, faces a lengthy and costly legal defense that may end up with him in jail and the loss of his right to vote because a news magazine article raised health and safety concerns about the disposal of chemicals that Dole uses.
According to Dole, a reporter for a local news magazine in Mindanao, Periodico Banat, wrote an article about a day-long prayer rally by Amado Kadena-KMU, the Kilusang Mayo Uno -affiliated union formed by Dole’s roughly 4500 rank-and-file full-time workers in Polomolok. At the rally, workers gathered to give public speeches to support their on-going contract negotiations with Dole management. The workers and Dole had been locked contentious negotiations where the side were far apart. The union was asking for significant pay raises and an in-kind rice allowance while management was offering nominal raises below inflation rates and a cash allowance for rice, which would save the company money overall as the price of rice in local markets was rising quickly.
According to the article, statements attributed to Mr. Serohijos described Dole’s waste basin as “a dumping area of all the wastes . . .including different chemicals”; that the basin overflows when it rains (You can see the basin for yourself here); and finally that Dole uses banned chemicals. (Dole uses the pesticide endosulfan, which was finally banned in the Philippines this year because of public safety concerns.
Denying the allegations in the article and insisting that its chemicals are safely used and disposed of, Dole management decided to make an example out of Mr. Serohijos, who admitted that he was one of many interviewed by the reporter during the prayer rally but denied making those statements. According to Dole, Mr. Serohijos and the union had been spreading false rumors about the impact of Dole’s pollution on the community in an effort to sway public support in their favor during the contract negotiations. Mr. Serohijos was arrested by the police and held for 8 hours. Dole then fired him for committing “a crime or offense by the employee against the employer.” Criminal charges and possible jail time for Mr. Serohijos, Dole argues, is “a reasonable counter-measure of a responsible corporate citizen in the face of baseless allegations” of chemical filled ponds and work areas.
Now, Mr. Serohijos, who no longer has a job, faces a difficult legal battle. Philippine defamation law presumes that Mr. Serohijos acted with malicious intent, and now he must convince the court he was not “prompted by personal ill-will or spite” and that he was speaking “in response to duty” to raise health and safety concerns and not “simply to injure” Dole. Because he has to disprove Dole’s accusations, he is essentially presumed guilty until he can prove himself innocent.
Though Dole asserts that it has brought the suit because the statements in the article are “baseless”, the truth does not matter in this case. Philippine defamation laws value a person’s honor over the truth, and Mr. Serojihos may be found guilty and face jail time even if he can prove to the court that the statements are true. Philippine law does not protect an honest whistleblower from criminal liability for defamation. So even if Dole’s workers and the surrounding community were being exposed to the health and safety risks posed by endosulfan and Dole’s waste treatment process, Mr. Serohijos may still be convicted for simply dishonoring Dole. While a recent Philippine Supreme Court advisory makes it less likely that Mr. Serohijos will go to jail, if he is convicted he will always have the stigma of being a criminal, and he will have to find a way to pay the criminal fines despite not being fully employed.
What has Dole management achieved by all of this? Since truth is irrelevant to whether a person can be convicted of defamation in the Philippines as Dole’s attorneys will have likely advised them, it appears that Dole is pursuing Mr. Serohijos so aggressively simply to send a message to the community: we will build you a hospital and conduct fundraisers, just don’t ever speak badly of us, even if it may be true. Whether Dole will be successful in meting out its vindictive punishment against Mr. Serohijos remains to be seen. Regardless, everyone has gotten Dole’s message. Just ask Oscar Serohijos, who faces a legal battle that is draining both his personal and the union’s resources and where truth is not a defense.