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Prioritize Hanjin workers’ rights

The downfall of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Philippines has resulted in a mad scramble for solutions to revive and rehabilitate what was once the world’s 10th largest shipbuilding facility. Efforts have centered on searching for a “white knight” that would rescue the failed enterprise. Potential bidders include two US fund groups, a Dutch shipbuilder, two Chinese firms, Filipino tycoons, and the Philippine government itself.

In all of these, the Hanjin workers appear to have been marginalized and their concerns barely noticed.

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At its height, the 300-hectare Hanjin shipyard employed 33,000 workers. But, aside from a handful of administrative-clerical staff, almost all were contractual employees hired by 21 subcontracting firms that, incidentally, were also Korean-owned or -controlled. Due to the “heavy tail payment” scheme in fulfilling ship orders, workers got paid only when building a ship and were retrenched when the job was completed. When another order came, only then were they rehired.

Hanjin management could thus argue that the shipyard workers were not their employees, but of the subcontracting firms. This is reminiscent of the notorious and outlawed “cabo” system in Philippine dockyards.

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Workers were paid at rates not commensurate with their high skills. They had to endure stifling work conditions such as intense heat and having to lift heavy and sharp metal bars. They were prevented from forming a labor union, and had to settle for organizing an association that management tried to suppress. Over 10 years, 40 workers were killed and 15,000 injured in workplace accidents due to unsafe conditions, e.g. lack of safety harness and the absence of a comprehensive health facility.

Workers also complained of unfair labor practices, including the illegal dismissal of workers, long working hours, contaminated cafeteria food and maltreatment by Korean supervisors, who yelled and inflicted physical harm on them. One worker killed in a 2014 accident had been made to work for 20 hours straight.

These concerns led to protests by Hanjin workers in June 2011, with pickets at the Korean Embassy and the Hanjin office in Taguig, a noise barrage at Welcome Rotonda, Quezon City, and a protest caravan from Quezon City to the Hanjin shipyard in Subic. Only then were some of the issues addressed. Safety measures improved and maltreatment ended. Nevertheless, deaths from avoidable workplace accidents continued, with two fatalities occurring as late as May 2018.

With Hanjin’s current status, however, the workers’ sufferings continue. Only about 300 maintenance workers have remained of the original number. They were made to sign voluntary retrenchment program (VRP) forms in exchange for a separation pay of one month per year of service. Two hundred signed and were given new contracts, but the 100 who refused were locked out and denied entry into the shipyard.

As a response to the massive unemployment that took place, the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) held a job caravan on Feb. 11, which attracted 103 employers. But of the 2,464 former Hanjin workers who participated, only 99 found employment.

The Samahan ng Manggagawa sa Hanjin Shipyard/Workers for People’s Liberation (Samahan) has issued the following immediate demands: (1) separation pay for the retrenched workers, (2) return of the employment training bond of 3 percent deducted monthly from their pay, (4) unemployment subsidies to those retrenched, (5) a moratorium on Pag-Ibig housing loan repayments, (6) workers’ representation in all negotiations for Hanjin’s rehabilitation, and (7) allow the 100 workers who did not sign VRP forms to return to work.

These are urgent and just demands that should immediately be granted. A dialogue on Feb. 21, organized by the Dole regional office between Samahan and Hanjin subcontractors, ended inconclusively. The Philippine government, through its relevant agencies, should require Hanjin and its subcontractors to do the right thing and give its workers what is due them. The workers’ welfare and rights should be prioritized over those of corporate interests.

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Eduardo C. Tadem, Ph.D., is convenor of the Program on Alternative Development, UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies, and a retired UP professor of Asian Studies.

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TAGS: Eduardo C. Tadem, Hanjin workers, Inquirer Commentary
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