Deaths haunt Hanjin shipyard in Subic Bay

Published by rudy Date posted on March 28, 2009

SUBIC BAY: Patrick Molina had been working for just four months at the mammoth South Korean-owned Hanjin shipyard, northwest of Manila, when disaster struck.

The 20-year-old was sitting on a bench beside steel plates stacked on a wooden platform when it gave way and the plates crushed his right leg.

“They rushed me to the nearest hospital, a trip that took an hour and a half,” said Molina, leaning on crutches at his boarding house near the Subic Bay industrial enclave, a former US naval base northwest of Manila.

Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction-Philippines, the local arm of South Korea’s Hanjin group, paid Molina’s medical expenses, but he is still waiting for the artificial leg the company has promised.

Molina is luckier than some Hanjin employees. Since construction of the shipyard began in 2006, 19 workers have died in industrial accidents, angering legislators and tarnishing what should be a showpiece of Philippine industrialization.

The 230-hectare Hanjin shipyard is the fourth largest ship-builder in the world, employing 18,000 people, making the Philippines a major location for the shipping industry.

The company is investing at least $1 billon in the project and may expand it even further despite the global economic slowdown.

Accident record

But the shipyard has racked up what labor leaders and politicians say is an unacceptable accident record.

Primo Amparo, a labor organizer at Hanjin, said there have been 5,000 accidents at the shipyard in just three years.

Additionally, the alleged South Korean managers manhandle Filipino workers, the cafeteria serves bad food, workers are forced to do overtime, and the company uses too many subcontractors who bring in unqualified laborers.

Lawmakers investigated the poor safety record and abuse charges in February.

While journalists have not been allowed inside the yard and requests for interviews with senior officials were turned down, Hanjin allowed a congressional team inside the sprawling complex to see for themselves if workers’ safety was being compromised.

Delegation leader Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, son of the disgraced former President Joseph Estrada, said he saw many lapses in safety, some of which violated labor laws.

These included workers not wearing proper safety equipment and lack of fulltime doctors on-site.

Although the legislators did not call for sanctions, they gave Hanjin six months to build a medical center and comply with industrial safety laws.

Inherently dangerous

Amparo concedes that shipbuilding is inherently hazardous, but said the accident rate was a result of Hanjin rushing to complete orders.

The shipyard was still under construction when shipbuilding began, adding to inherent dangers, he said, adding that shortcuts were taken in safety measures and not enough safety inspections were conducted.

He also alleged Hanjin had cut training time for new workers to 45 days from the normal 90 days just to get more people working.

At the congressional hearings earlier, the shipbuilder admitted it had difficulty hiring accredited safety officials.

Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction President Jeong Sup Shim also told the hearing: “In our country . . . the military culture still remains and exists . . . especially in the construction side,” leading to occasional rough treatment.

Workers also at fault

Armand Arreza, executive director of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), which has jurisdiction over the Hanjin shipyard, defended the company’s record, saying that “it’s not as alarming as it seems.”

He said the Labor Department investigations found that in most of the fatalities, the actions of the workers were partly to blame for the accidents.

Filipinos have never worked on a project the size of the Hanjin shipyard and have not yet adopted the necessary “culture of safety” or systems to avoid accidents at the site, he said.

“It is a new industry, a pioneering industry and there are unique risks,” said Arreza, who oversees the sprawling light-industrial zone and free port.

He said work on the shipyard had been hasty, and there were abuses by Hanjin foremen.

Vital to Philippines

Despite its poor safety record many agree that the shipyard’s economic benefits are vital to the local economy.

Arreza said the Hanjin shipyard is the biggest employer in the SBMA with a payroll of about P2 billion ($41.4 million) a year.

“We haven’t felt the effects of the financial crisis here because of Hanjin,” he said.

Even crippled welder Molina wants to return to the shipyard.

“I can’t do heavy lifting anymore, but I would like to ask them to take me back. Even if I am just reduced to handing out tools,” he said.

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