Workers' Advocates Decry Subic Bay Redevelopment

AS the former United States Subic Bay Naval Base is being converted to civilian use, factories here are already coming under criticism for exploiting workers, including apparent violations of the nation's labor laws.

After the US closed Subic in November 1992, the government of the Philippines began converting the facility to industrial use.

So far the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) has attracted 37 foreign and domestic companies, which employ about 6,000 workers, according to SBMA chairman Richard Gordon.

But at least one employer is paying below the minimum wage. Taiwan-based Subic Star, which manufactures Reebok shoes, pays some workers 90 pesos a day ($3.25), 20 percent less than the official minimum wage. Mr. Gordon calls this a legal, apprenticeship wage. But Subic Star has not applied for a waiver to pay such wages, according to Amada Portugal, the officer in charge of the Labor Department's regional office responsible for Subic.

Gordon became visibly agitated when asked about the minimum wage issue. ``Already you're taking potshots at us?'' he asked. ``We don't need this.''

Exploitation of workers, critics say, demonstrates that the SBMA is using an outdated development model based on the experiences of other Asian countries in the 1960s. Rev. Shay Cullen, executive director of the Praeda Foundation, says this model relies on paying low wages to non-union workers in order to attract foreign investment and generate exports.

``You have a non-union, strike-free working environment,'' says Fr. Cullen. ``I don't really see this as a genuine form of economic development.''

Gordon says he has been fighting an uphill battle to attract foreign investors in an internationally competitive market. He says workers' rights will be protected and that he has intentionally focused on attracting light industry to avoid pollution problems.

SBMA supporters say Gordon has been far more successful than officials at Clark Air Force Base, abandoned by the US after the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo volcano eruption. Thieves have looted much of Clark - down to the sinks and wiring - and other parts of the base are deteriorating.

Facilities in good repair

By comparison, Subic's infrastructure remains clean and well maintained.

A new power plant is being built. Federal Express and other foreign companies are starting to arrive. Gordon has mobilized about 8,000 volunteers to work in many capacities, from tour guides to night watchmen.

These volunteers ``have internalized the spirit of trying to get Subic going,'' Gordon says. Volunteers and their families are given preference in applying for work as new factories open up.

But Cullen says many of the volunteers have been coerced. District politicians, he says, ``order people to sign up. If they don't, they're warned they'll never get a job. It's a matter of fear, force, and exploitation.''

Random interviews with volunteers who live in nearby Olongopo City indicate at least some agreement: ``I was told to volunteer or else,'' says one resident who declined to give his name.

Other residents, however, say they volunteer both out of civic pride and self interest. Bakery employee Rowena Benaflor says she and her entire family gladly work for free at the base. ``We hope to get jobs in the future,'' she says.

New strategy needed

But what kind of jobs and at what pay? Cullen asks. The model that applied in other Asian countries no longer applies, he argues. In the 1960s countries such as South Korea and Taiwan industrialized by paying low wages and exporting garments or electronic goods to the US and Japan. Today Japan and Western nations have less money for foreign aid and business investment.

As an alternative to this approach for development, Cullen says the government should establish a university on a portion of Subic that has a primeval forest. ``We could have students from the Philippines and all over Asia,'' he says, come ``to study the environment. The economic spin off would be enormous.''

He says that development here at the former base should include light industry, provided that management accepts unions and collective bargaining agreements. ``We welcome that kind of foreign investment,'' he says.

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