Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Sunday, January 25, 2009

South Korea envoy warns Senate on Hanjin probe

South Korea’s ambassador to the Philippines has warned the Senate of “substantial and negative repercussions” if it investigates the rising number of deaths of Filipino workers at the shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries Corp.-Philippines at the Subic Bay Freeport.

Sen. Pia Cayetano said Ambassador Choi Joong-kyung relayed the warning in a letter to Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.

“The Senate probe stands as our last chance for an independent inquiry. But I hope the Senate will not be bullied out of the Hanjin inquiry by the Korean ambassador. Otherwise, this concern may as well be elevated to the International Labor Organization,” she said.

Cayetano, in a privilege speech, denounced the Korean ambassador for issuing the letter dated Dec. 23.

The letter indicated that it was copy-furnished to Cayetano and Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, but Cayetano said her office only received a copy by fax last Jan. 12.

“Mr. President, are we now to be told by a representative of a foreign country what we should and should not inquire into as a national lawmaking body, and even be threatened by ‘deep and far reaching’ effects within and beyond the boundaries of the Philippines?” she asked.

Cayetano said the Senate leadership should pursue an investigation, especially since another Filipino laborer, 19-year-old Raldon del Rosario, died Friday after an 800-kilogram metal door being installed at the shipyard fell on him. Another worker, Camalio Buchie, 24, reportedly suffered a leg injury during the incident.

Del Rosario is reportedly the 18th worker killed in traffic- and work-related accidents at the job site since 2006, according to Hanjin’s official count.

But the People’s Task Force Hanjin has recorded over 40 deaths among the workers, including those from malaria.

“It’s exasperating to see how our authorities have allowed these deaths to continue without imposing stringent measures and taking legal action against all those responsible on behalf of the victims,” Cayetano said.

She also scored the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and the Department of Labor and Employment for alleged indifference.

A portion of the South Korean ambassador’s letter read: “The tremendous political influence of the Senate means that its actions may have fatal effects (on) the existence of an actor in the private sector. The possibility that HHIC-Philippines may be an object of a Senate inquiry could generate substantial and negative repercussions.”

Reacting to Cayetano’s speech, Senate labor committee chairman and Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada said he would schedule an inquiry.

Sen. Jamby Madrigal, who chairs the committee on environment and natural resources, also voiced her intention to investigate environmental issues at the Freeport, including the controversial hotel-casino project of another Korean investor, Grand Utopia Inc.

Investigation underway

SBMA administrator and chief executive officer Armand Arreza vowed to investigate the latest death and punish anyone found liable for the accident.

“We’re definitely taking action on this, and heads will roll and we will be firm but fair,” Arreza said, as he announced the suspension of Great Steel Construction during a press briefing.

While emphasizing that the recent death “had nothing to do with shipbuilding activity,” Arreza said this does not mean that HHIC-Phil. is cleared of any liability.

“The SBMA is also looking into the contingent liability of Hanjin because it is the general contractor of the shipyard,” Arreza added.

Arreza said he has also instructed the SBMA Legal Department to assist the families of the victims.

He said SBMA safety personnel are checking canvass doors installed by Great Steel at the shipyard to find out if they are of substandard materials.

SBMA personnel also said there were no safety or warning signs that could have made the two workers avoid the area where the accident took place.

In a safety inspection on Jan. 6, SBMA personnel found that some workers at the shipyard had no personal protective equipment, and that some work areas were dimly lit and not well-ventilated. It warned Hanjin of the safety lapses. – By Aurea Calica With Bebot Sison Jr. - PhilStar

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