Here is the strongest present-day example of the venality of the Philippine government. It starts with a group of urban poor women in Olongapo who went around in a circle and as they are introduced themselves, their twenty-five respective introductions homogenized into one: “My name is ________, I have five children. My husband works at Hanjin. I have no work.”
South Korean-owned Hanjin Shipping, its Philippine-based arm named Hanjin Heavy Industries Corporation (HHIC – PHIL. INC) and referred to simply as “Hanjin” by locals, is a subsidiary of The Hanjin Group, the parent company of Korean Air. Born out of WWII and business dealings with the US military, the conglomerate’s history is conspicuously milestoned by the major wars of the last century (namely Vietnam, Korea and the first Gulf War). Moving from literal to metaphoric battlefields, Hanjin began its largest shipbuilding operation in 2006 in Subic Freeport Zone, Zambales, Philippines. It is now the fourth largest shipyard in the world.
The area now known as Subic Freeport Zone, within the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), remains much as it was before its conversion from a US naval base– a playground for the fluctuating-depending-on-the-number-of-troops-in-town population of 3,000 who get to enjoy duty-free department stores, mega strip clubs, and American-style burger shacks and schools, all just a Japanese-sponsored superhighway from Manila. Nothing much has changed either for its 200,000 neighbors in the adjacent city of Olongapo. Hidden behind an unusually militarized gated entrance, Olongapo might go unnoticed by its Subic neighbors if not for its crucial supply of prostituted women and exploitable labor, many of the latter who work at Hanjin.
As an economics-impaired person, I’ll keep my explanation of this special economic zone as succinct and colloquial as possible: Subic Freeport Zone is an area designated and tailored as tax-free by the Philippine government to lure in foreign direct investment in the name of national “development”. The Freeport Zone functions as a type of flypaper for foreign multinational corporations; attracting companies with its surfeit of hardy and desperate laborers, laidback enforcement of labor laws and tax breaks. In this freewheeling, capitalist utopia, Hanjin, the largest operation in town, is making out like a bandit.
The company has an arrangement with the Philippine government that guarantees it a fifty-year lease and ten years of completely tax-free operations. This lack of restraints lays the groundwork for the highest degree of exploitation and profit maximization, enabling Hanjin to rake in over $470 million in total profit over the last three years while simultaneously having almost 100 employees die at its worksite (42 deaths from 29 accidents and 54 deaths due to malaria at the worksite, according to the officially unrecognized union of Hanjin workers and Kilusan Para Sa Pambansang Demokrasya, KPD). During a Congressional hearing prompted by reports of worker deaths, Representative Risa Hontiveros declared that Hanjin had “become a killing field for Filipino workers.”
Anything would be better than what Hanjin workers have right now. When I asked a worker to describe the conditions at the shipyard, he threw up his hands and yelled, “Apo!” Someone interjected and explained that he was calling out to his god in Ilocano. The laundry list of abuses begins immediately after workers sign their minimum 5-year contract which guarantees boarding, transportation and food allowances. No copy of the signed contract is given to the worker and no allowances ever materialize. As an exemplary result, one-fourth of each worker’s salary is spent on transportation (regular employees earn the minimum daily wage of Php 306, or $0.60/hour, and a one-way ride to work by jeepney costs Php 35, or $0.78). Instead of a food allowance, workers receive one meal of sardines and rice during their ten-hour, sometimes back-to-back, shifts. Meanwhile, their Korean superiors receive stipends for meals at the Hanjin canteen, luxury hotels and hired transport.
Then, there is death as an occupational hazard. Workers are made to handle heavy machinery and materials ranging from 1 to 800 tons without receiving any hands-on safety training and without any safety officers onsite. Workers also have to earn their safety gear. For instance, workers only receive safety boots after one full year of employment. Leaked photographs of what has come to be known, for obvious and tragic reasons, as the “Father’s Day Accident”, illustrate the grim outcome of work-safety negligence. In the photos, two workers lay facedown on pavement, squashed by a 20-ton beam, like cartoon characters that have been steamrolled. One man’s arm is across the other’s back giving the illusion that he was either bracing the other worker before impact, or possibly trying to push him away to safety.
In the likely event that an accident does occur, Hanjin’s small onsite clinic does not have the resources to treat actual injuries. Despite the frequency of major incidents and a present workforce of approximately 20,000 (16,000 Filipino workers, 3,000 subcontractors, 300 Koreans and 50 Romanians), there is still no hospital within the 263-hectare compound. The nearest hospital is two-hours away in Olongapo.
Falling tonnage is not the only hazard workers face: they are psychologically and physically “terrorized” by their Korean superiors on a regular basis. This includes, but is not limited to, getting slapped in the face, kicked and sexually assaulted for “no reason”. Some of these workers are as young as 16-years-old.
To be fair, Hanjin does offer its employees some carrots. With a two-week period of perfect attendance, workers can expect an extra $5 in their paycheck. A full year of perfect attendance earns workers five days off with “valid” reasons; illness not being one of them. “Perfect attendance”, however, is a sort of pie in the sky because arriving even one minute late breaks the entire deal. Sometimes attendance is not even optional as workers’ IDs are confiscated upon entrance and they are forced to remain working both day and night shifts consecutively for an entire week or until their IDs are returned.
We are left to wonder how Hanjin gets away with all of this. None of the allegations of maltreatment and illegality spell serious consequences for the company because Hanjin is equipped with a large team of corporate lawyers who are very good at their jobs. So good, in fact, that Hanjin was named “One of Asia’s Fab 50 Companies” by Forbes Magazine, was a runner-up for a Management Transparency Award and its former president was awarded a Medal of Merit from Philippine President Gloria Arroyo at a ceremony held in South Korea. Publicly, Hanjin prioritizes worker safety as desideratum while its PR campaign includes web pages of convoluted jargon, legal techno speak and utterly stupid charts and graphs such as this:
In reality; however, the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment reports rate Hanjin at only 42.6 percent compliance with occupational health and safety standards. There is also hard evidence linking Hanjin to the depletion of the local fish supply and to other attendant forms of environmental damage such as toxic contamination.
Hanjin avoids legal responsibility to workers and the environment with an airtight wall of 55 subcontractors, to which it devolves liability. Otherwise put, some subcontractors have been officially blacklisted due to worker deaths while Hanjin has remained unscathed. Hanjin has also proverbially erased over half of the deaths at its worksite, reporting to SBMA records that only 19 fatal accidents have occurred in the shipyard since it started its operations in 2006. Workers’ cell phones are confiscated upon entrance to prevent employees from capturing and publicizing images of onsite accidents.
You don’t have to have your finger on their pulses to understand what’s making Hanjin’s executive masthead tick. Filipino workers are berated by their Korean foremen as “bobo”, “walang alam”, “palpak” (idiot, know-nothing, failure) yet are building so fast that cargo vessels and tankers (price tag $60 million; $63 million) are completed in just three months. With this mass production, Hanjin projects a profit of $3.4 billion by 2012. Any activity perceived to threaten the achievement of the 2012 target is effectively subverted through the enforcement of a de facto, unions-are-a-big-“no-no” policy. Hanjin resorts to outright dismissal of employees as a quick-fix solution to union organizing. Workers are suspended and fired willy nilly, for asking questions or for suspected involvement with the union despite the fact that the right to self-organize and form unions is guaranteed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution. To further intimidate workers from assemblage, Hanjin maintains a highly militarized workplace with Special Action Forces of the Armed Forces of the Philippines as well as autonomous security inside the shipyard at all times.
Despite deterrents, KPD and the unofficial union of Hanjin workers continue to struggle for the recognition of basic worker rights and justice for displaced communities. While they do not deny advocating against the company’s imperialist practices and policies, community activists and organizers are not “against” Hanjin per se. Although targeted as seditious, the union’s demands for compliance with national labor standards are hardly radical. Enforcing Philippine national laws should not be the task of the people but rather the obligation of the government; yet there is a casting around of blame among government agencies and official statements claiming that safety at Hanjin is improving.
The plight of the neighboring fisher folk community, Nagtulong, is a second major concern for local NGOs in light of Hanjin’s aggressive expansionism and environmental destruction. Dolores Yanan, founder of Yokubari Foundation and Vice-Chair of KAISA-KA explained, “Hanjin will expand by 2016 and all of the houses we saw will be destroyed. Imagine, you’re born in a place and you live there until your hair turns white and one day someone comes and says ‘This is our land’. All of these homes will be demolished and relocated.” The Philippine government received Php 25 million from Hanjin for social development, i.e., relocation, of the local community but it is hardly a plot twist that the money is nowhere to be found and the scattered community is now surviving on a shoestring without ever having received governmental assistance. “Squatting” on the sinking slopes immediately outside of Hanjin’s barbed-wire gates, the people of Nagtulong can only count on one thing for certain: they will be displaced again until there is no place left to be pushed. However gloomy the outlook, there is optimism in that KPD is actively assisting the fifty Nagtulong families in organizing themselves to take their community out from under Hanjin’s heel. The families take concrete actions by participating in protests and have filed a legal complaint which, like most people’s concerns cases in the Philippines, is currently pending.
A final concern, to come full circle, is the Philippine government’s claim of true development and the reality of female invalidism, as I first encountered through the group of women in Olongapo. Exhibit A as to why there is no true development taking place is the gender gap in the employment rate of the Subic-Olongapo area. The women in the community aren’t being given work at Hanjin. Women only make up a tiny percentage of Hanjin workers (10%, i.e., 2,000 women) with the rationale that Hanjin doesn’t want female employees to be “mistresses” of the Korean foremen who tend to use the power differential of their top-down domination to coerce sexual favors out of female employees. As a result, many women in Olongapo are entirely dependent on their male partners as a lifeline, thus making them vulnerable to an array of abuses. Moreover, if their men are lucky enough to have work, which is precarious anyway, the income is insufficient to support an entire family. When mothers are poor and have no options their children are poor and have no options. Until the Philippine government recognizes this fact and addresses women’s right to employment, it cannot claim to stand for the development of the country.
What should hearten us is that, in the words of Dolores Yanan, “At least there is something we can do”. Get people’s motors running and get the government to take responsibility for, instead of sell out, its people.
Check out this and other blog posts by Khara at http://kharajabola.blogspot.com/