A union under construction at Philippine shipyard

A sash given to Filipino workers by members of the South Korean union as a sign of solidarity. Courtesy of author.

Subic Bay, in the Zambales province in the Philippines, used to be home to the largest U.S. naval base in the Pacific. Locals worked at the base, trading and interacting with the American sailors until the Philippine government asked the United States to withdraw in 1992. The base has since been converted into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, a pleasant, quiet town reminiscent of a suburb in the United States. Then came South Korea’s Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, Subic’s biggest investor. Now, Subic is home to a fight against cross-border labor exploitation.

One of the giants of the shipbuilding industry, Hanjin’s shipyard in Subic is the fourth largest in the world and employs approximately 20,000 Filipinos. It’s a highly profitable venture that brings in a lot of money for the company and also for the Philippines, a country whose economy relies — some say too much — on foreign investment.

When I was in Subic last September as part of a documentary crew, we found ourselves in the middle of a typhoon. I spent my first few days in the Philippines standing by the side of the road dressed in a bright blue raincoat and magenta boots like some sort of demented Paddington Bear, carrying spare batteries and lights for our cameraman. Alongside us, pointing out sites and sharing experiences, were members of SAMAHAN (Samahan ng Manggagawa sa Hanjing Shipyard), an association set up by workers and ex-workers of Hanjin. Together with the Manila-based labor rights organization Makabayan Workers for People’s Liberation, they document cases of abuse and organize workers, a long-term undertaking that has brought only small victories so far.

The struggle is in many ways a typical labor dispute: Workers complain of their employer’s actions, low wages or unsatisfactory work conditions, while employers issue terse statements denying any lapse on their part. Hanjin’s South Korean workers have also spoken out against their employer, with protests reaching a peak when labor activist Kim Jin-Suk lived on top of a crane in the Busan shipyard for almost a year. But such struggles aren’t limited to Hanjin; we came across very similar stories while working on a documentary about the Foxconn plants in China.

In the past year — between March 2011 and 2012 — SAMAHAN has documented 40 cases of workplace injuries and six fatalities. Workers allege physical abuse from supervisors, pressure to work overtime and a lack of workplace safety. Those who have suffered serious injuries find themselves unable to work or support their families.

Despite attempts to formalize its status, SAMAHAN remains unrecognized as a union. Hanjin objected to SAMAHAN’s union registration application, saying that the workers are not Hanjin employees, but come from 18 different subcontractors who supply workers to the shipyard. Activists have pointed out that Mr. Young Hwan Kim — the representative of Hanjin Heavy Industries who signed the company’s appeal nullifying SAMAHAN’s union registration — is also listed as a majority stockholder in most of the sub-contractors. “They are using the sub-cons in order to evade or to avoid direct responsibilities to the workers,” says labor activist Primo Amparo in our documentary, Storm in Subic Bay.

Many of the chief organizers, such as SAMAHAN’s President Alfie Alipio, have had their employment at the shipyard suspended or even terminated because of their activities. In May 2011, over a thousand workers participated in a noise barrage, banging on their plates, cups and trays with forks and spoons during lunch hour in protest against the poor working conditions. Some of the workers were interrogated by the company, then suspended or terminated.

Almost a year after I was last in Subic, SAMAHAN now has a membership of about 8,000 workers and former workers of Hanjin, but it is still unrecognized by Hanjin as a legitimate union. It is therefore unable to enter into negotiations with the company on behalf of its members. Still, the workers press on.

The story of the workers stayed with me even after we escaped the typhoons and returned to Singapore, and over the course of the past year I have tried my best to keep tabs on SAMAHAN’s efforts. This month, I am once again in the Philippines teaching at a training camp for young advocates, where I have managed to catch up with Precy Dagooc, secretary-general of Makabayan and currently a participant in the camp.

“SAMAHAN plans to continue their work pushing for redress on the legitimate issues of the workers in the shipyard,” says Precy Dagooc, who works with SAMAHAN’s leaders.

As part of its ongoing work, SAMAHAN carries out trainings on the weekends, making sure that Hanjin workers are aware of their basic rights and the possibilities of unionism. The weekend sessions also keep members updated on campaigns and upcoming activities. To raise more awareness, posters and flyers are printed with essential information, then pasted all over Subic, concentrating on areas where most of the workers live.

As news of the workers’ plight spread, SAMAHAN has found allies among students from tertiary institutions such as De La Salle University, St. Scholastica’s College, University of the East, College of St. Benilde, Polytechnic University of the Philippines, University of the Philippines and the Philippine Normal University. At the end of 2011, students came together and formed an organization known as Friends of Hanjin Workers.

“The students believe that it is important to organize because we feel that the government has turned a blind eye on these people,” writes Ernesto Levanza, media spokesperson for Friends of Hanjin Workers, in response to email questions. “As students, we know that sooner or later we will become employees. If such practices are tolerated by the government and the people, what kind of working conditions will we face? The students realize the power of activism and that together we can make a difference not only in the lives of the workers of Hanjin but also in our society.”

While SAMAHAN focuses on directly organizing the workers, Friends of Hanjin Workers — largely based in Metro Manila in the Philippines’ capital — provides support in terms of applying more pressure on the government to act by magnifying the issue. With generally higher levels of media literacy and connectivity, the students use blogging platforms and liaise with local media organizations to attract more attention to the working conditions at the shipyard. They also organize forums at various universities in Metro Manila, initiating petition drives and multimedia presentations to raise awareness.

“The government is now beginning to realize that this is no longer an internal issue between the management of Hanjin and its workers,” says Levanza. “It is now a national issue where the government has to step in. The students won’t stop until substantial improvements on working conditions take place.” Friends of Hanjin Workers has also had a dialogue session with the undersecretary from the Department of Labor and Employment, who has promised that investigations into conditions at Hanjin shipyard will be carried out.

Beyond the Philippines, international non-governmental organizations have also begun to take notice. Later this year, Amnesty International will be launching a report on Hanjin’s operations, both in the Philippines and in South Korea. SAMAHAN was involved in helping to collect and collate data from within the Subic shipyard.

Hanjin Heavy Industries is reported to be expanding its operations in Subic, investing a further $700 million. It is set to employ another 10,000 this year. SAMAHAN, Makabayan and Friends of Hanjin Workers remain unfazed.

“Hanjin’s expansion is welcome,” says Precy Dagooc. “It is an opportunity to organize more workers.”

But the fight is not coming to an end any time soon. In a country where over a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line, Hanjin is considered a godsend, one the authorities will be loathe to offend. Previous complaints about workplace abuse have been dismissed by officials, remarkably, as “cultural differences.”

The association also has to deal with a shortage of resources; all organizers are full-time volunteers, subsisting from day to day on food and shelter that friends and other workers can provide. In order to progress, the movement will have to find ways to move beyond workers and students to gain more visibility and awareness among the general public, engaging more organizations to establish credibility and making it harder for the government to ignore the alleged lapses and abuses happening in Subic.

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