NFA employees oppose rice tariffication law

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 18) — Employees of the National Food Authority (NFA) donned black on Monday in protest of the new law which removes import limits on rice and strips off the agency's regulatory powers.

Speaking to NFA employees during the agency's flag raising ceremony, NFA officer in charge Tomas Escarez said the rice tariffication law "broke the hearts of millions of Filipino farmers, consumers, small grains businessmen, and employees who rely on NFA for support, livelihood, affordable rice, food safety, food security and order in the grains industry."

However, Escarez told NFA employees they will keep their jobs.

"The NFA management assures you, our hardworking, dedicated, highly competent professional employees, that no one will be adversely affected by this Act," said Escarez in a speech that was read to NFA employees nationwide.

He assured employees that the NFA will fight for the "best deal" for them, the farmers and consumers in drafting  the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the rice tariffication law.

He also said the NFA has created a Change Management Team which will handle the transition to whatever role the agency would get once this is defined under the IRR.

"Whatever role will be given to us, we must accept wholeheartedly, change gears, but still provide the best brand of service that NFA has always been known for," Escarez said.

The law removed from the NFA its power to implement negotiable warehouse receipts for grains, inspect grains for inventory, register, license and supervise warehouses and mills, and to regulate the grains trade.

It retains the power to maintain a rice buffer stock which will be used in emergency situations and to sustain the government's disaster relief programs. Rice for this purpose will be sourced solely from local farmers.

"Buffer stocking and local procurement are still major responsibilities that require a lot of manpower and logistics to handle," Escarez said.

Meanwhile, the NFA Council has instructed the NFA to submit a restructuring plan within 30 days, instead of its original proposal of 180 days.

"Our objective in liberalizing rice imports is to bring down the costs of the staple. Our price is 50 percent higher than the others, including Singapore, which does not produce rice. Will it take us 180 days to effect a reduction in the cost of living our the people?" Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez was quoted as saying in a statement about the Council's meeting on Monday.

Dominguez also proposed that funds be freed up as a result of the NFA's restructuring to support local farmers while the ₱10-billion a year Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund is still being set up.

The Finance department said new duties on imported rice will be implemented beginning March 3.

Farmers and rice retailer groups have criticized the law, with the Kilusan ng Magbubukid ng Pilipinas even calling it a "death warrant" for the rice industry.

Malacañang assured farmers they will have safeguards that will benefit them. The law contains a provision earmarking ₱10-billion every year for six years to assist farmers.

CNN Philippines Digital Producer Alyssa Rola contributed to this report.