Hawaiian Sakadas

Dad's Cane Cutter 
Remembering things in my house left from my dad growing up in the Silicon Valley. I remember a very large knife hanging in the backyard tool shed. I found out later that it was actually a knife used for cutting sugarcane. The oversized blade made it easier to chop through the cane stock which makes a lot of sense, the heavier the blade the easier it is to cut the sugarcane. All this time I thought that huge knife hanging in my dad's tool shed was a butcher knife. I always seen my dad using this knife to butcher pigs and goats with it. He worked as a plantation worker on the island of Kauai.

The Philippines was still a commonwealth of the United States and Hawaii did not have statehood yet when my father first came to the United States. My dad was 16 when he came to Kauai in 1922. He was recruited to work as a laborer in a sugar plantation on contract for a period of 3 years. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association had recruiting offices in the Ilocos region and in Manila Philippines. Most of the Filipino workers were Ilocano and Visayan. These Filipino workers were referred to as "Sakadas" which translates into "Laborer" in Tagalog.

My father came to Hawaii with his older brother Pablo, they were both teenagers 16 and 18 years old. Imagine yourself at that age coming to a new country enthusiastic with promise of a better life eager to work hard and become successful, being naive to the harsh reality of the world awaiting them.

There were many Filipinos recruited to work in the plantations, some were Ilokanos, some were Visayans, some were Tagalog and neither of them could understand each other because of the different dialects they spoke. It must have been somewhat cumbersome trying to communicate and I'm sure there was some level of comradery amongst them.

Filipino workers were recruited and paid lower wages to discourage other workers from going on strike asking for higher wages. A technique used by the Plantation owners to manipulate the workers. A good example of Colonial mentality to use the Filipino workers to undermine all the other workers, a divide and conquer plan to keep the wages low. All camps, Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese, were segregated. In the Filipino camp imagine being further segregated by dialect. So, for a Filipino labor leader to organize the Filipino camp must have been a frustrating challenge because of the language barrier and mistrust of each group as they were all eager to work for their fair share of the labor.

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Hard work and low wages can only last for so long before someone begins to complain. The plantation owners were living high on cheap labor while the workers were struggling just to make ends meet.
Everyone who is willing to work should be able to afford the basic needs like food, drink, shelter, and clothing. Then be provided with the assurance of personal safety, security, law & order, and stability.
All these are basic needs that employers were obligated to cover for their workers anything more than that could be viewed as extra expense for the plantation owners. Employers were not obligated to provide any extra incentives and there were no laws in place to provide employees with a living wage. These Filipino workers were paid just enough to survive and provide work, nothing more.

The majority of the Filipino laborers were single young men with little education. They earned around $25 a month working 10-12 hours a day and lived in the worst housing on the plantation. The plantation police were the lowest paid white workers at $140 a month. Moral was low, you work like a dog, get paid like a dog, and live like a dog. That's all that you were hired for, but like the saying goes "You back a dog in a corner, sooner or later that dog will fight back." Where there is no hope for advancement and you are bound by a 3-year contract, the only way to fight back is to strike.

There was one Sakada that stood out from the rest and did fight back. He organized labor movements for Filipinos on every island plantation they worked on. His name was Pablo Manlapit.

Pablo Manlapit
Manlapit was a migrant worker, a lawyer, and President of the Filipino Federation of Labor which he founded. He was exceptional and put himself through school to become a lawyer. He fought against the exploitation of Filipino workers by the plantation owners to pay a fair living wage. Manlapit believed that the opportunity for advancement is a principle of the American dream. In his own words he stated:

"It is one of the cherished American ideals that each generation shall stand in advance of the preceding one: better physically, mentally, spiritually. And America demands for her workers this opportunity for development."