By GILL H. BOEHRINGER
Contributed to Bulatlat
Despite a horrific health and safety record at its Subic Bay Freeport shipyard, South Korean shipbuilding giant Hanjin continues to reap enormous profits from the facility that produces ships at a rate seldom bettered anywhere in the world. It has even pledged to invest another US$86 million according to recent media reports in which Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority proudly announced an annual growth in investments of 13.6 percent. 
But what has the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) done about the health and safety violations that have resulted in more than 40 deaths and over 5,000 injuries in the three and a bit years Hanjin has been operating? The record of the labor department is worth scrutinizing as it is, in theory, the regulatory agency tasked with supervising employers’ activities to ensure workers are not under threat of injury or death. But it seems to have done very little to stem the flow of reported “accidents” at Hanjin.
First, after complaints about Labor Code violations in September 2008, DOLE stated that “Recent inspections showed that Hanjin has implemented appropriate safety and health measures upon the recommendations of the labor department.” Yet the deaths and injuries continued and Hanjin adroitly shifted responsibility to “subcontactors.”
Second, DOLE has continually frustrated the attempt by the Hanjin Workers Union to register as the representative of the more than 15,000 workers at the site, relying on the dodge that the workers are employed by “subcontractors.” According to Melchor Remedios, the union president, Hanjin and Greenbeach Power Tech Corp, the major labor employer, are in fact one organization. 
Third, given Hanjin’s tactic of blaming deaths and injuries on the “subcontractors,” perhaps it is a little surprising that DOLE has stood by idly while 80 percent of them have failed to register with the department.  This failure to regulate subcontracting takes on added significance in light of the deaths recently of two workers while being driven to the shipyard in a bus operated by a “subcontractor.” Nineteen other workers were injured in the crash. In early February of this year, a similar crash caused more than 20 injuries in similar circumstances. 
That DOLE continues to protect Hanjin is shameful. The resultant laxity of management at the shipyard was dramatically illustrated recently when a Korean foreman assaulted a Filipino worker, Aceo Malit, with a steel flashlight, causing significant injuries. The attacker, Lee Cheon Sik, was employed by none other than Greenbeach. The assault is now the basis for a criminal charge of frustrated murder. In the meantime, SBMA administrator Armand Arezza asked Greenbeach authorities to suspend Lee for 30 days during the investigation. This was done. Arezza commented: “If found guilty Lee will be handed over to the Bureau of Immigration” presumably to be sent back to Korea.  But Olongapo Councilor John Carlos de los Reyes, obviously reacting to the assault in the context of a history of incidents at the shipyard negatively affecting his constituents, commented that the suspension was “too soft a response.” 
In what must rank as high-order hypocrisy, given the toll taken on workers’ lives, limbs and health at SBMA in recent years, Arreza also stated that “we will definitely not tolerate or condone any form of violence at the workplace or any such incident that may compromise the safety and welfare of workers at the Freeport.” 
The question remains: When will the DOLE probe into the shipyard, announced after a death back in January, finally be completed?
And speaking of probes, what has happened to the Senate probe, which kicked off promisingly in early February amid a flurry of publicity about the then recent deaths at Hanjin?  Spearheaded by Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Pia Cayetano, it seemed likely to put the cat among the pigeons. After an onsite inspection, Estrada pointed to numerous breaches of safety standards and the violation of a number of provisions of the Labor Code. Cayetano said “only 21 of its 101 subcontractors are registered with the DOLE, raising the possibility that the practice of labor-only contracting is rampant.” Which, of course, was evidence of a very shonky operation and, as it turns out, a very dangerous modus operandi in shipbuilding.
In the face of such findings, and the continuing carnage at Hanjin, why has the Senate gone quiet? How can we account for the reluctance of DOLE, SBMA and even the publicity-seeking senators to bring Hanjin to account? Why have they “run dead” in giving protection to Filipino workers and Koreans who also have been victims of unsafe workplace practices. Of course, the difficulties in getting the union registered even after a year since it was organized is a classic example of bureaucratic hurdles placed in the path of workers, denying them the capacity to collectively protect themselves. But there is more here.
Surely the failure of government agencies to seriously attempt to protect these workers flows from the January warning by the South Korean ambassador that there would be “substantial and negative repercussions” should the Senate probe seriously address the safety and health record of Hanjin. That threat of “deep and far-reaching effects” certainly worked wonders.  There has been no significant attempt by any government institution to rein in the cowboys operating at the Freeport facility who seem to obey only the law of the jungle.
Certainly, the Korean threat was not seen as an empty gesture. Koreans have a considerable degree of leverage over the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. They send the largest number of cashed-up tourists to the Philippines. They continue to welcome significant numbers of OFWs. In March, they announced the donation of 15 trainer helicopters to an under-equipped and sorely pressed Philippine military.  Also in March, Korea announced it was extending a grant of P649 million for the farm sector in the Philippines. Along with the US$86 million promised investment at Subic Bay by Hanjin (making the SBMA Freeport a leader in the national growth stakes), it is clear that the failure to pursue the shipbuilder for its dismal record regarding worker health and safety has been rewarded handsomely.
It is an old story played out once again in the Philippines. “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” But sadly for the Hanjin workers, it remains a funeral dirge.
(The author is a professor at the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.)
1. See the Manila Times and the Philippine Star, June 24, 2009
2. Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 6, 2009
3. Philippine Star, June 8, 2009
4. Daily Tribune, July 1, 2009
5. Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 25, 2009
6. Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 4, 2009
7. Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 25, 2009
8. Philippine Star, 4 February, 2009
9. Philippine Star, January 25, 2009
10. Philippine Star, March 5, 2009
11. Philippine Star, March 28, 2009