Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Monday, February 09, 2009

Easy on Hanjin

THE rash of accidental deaths in the Hanjin Heavy Industries’ shipyard inside the Subic Bay Freeport is unusual and a legitimate source of public concern. A total of 19 workers have died in 17 incidents since 2006; if the executive branch is uninterested or unwilling to investigate the matter, then it should at least allow the Senate’s own investigation in aid of legislation all the room it needs.

But a presidential palace without any qualms about aggressively asserting its prerogatives wants to crowd the Senate.

Last week, Press Secretary Cerge Remonde asked senators to go easy on Hanjin. “Ang sa akin lang [My own preference is], let us not overreact because of these things, [leading us to a point where] we will ask for the closure of these companies.”

In the first place, journalists dutifully take note of what spokesmen like Remonde say not because of their own views, but because they speak for President Macapagal-Arroyo or her administration. So the news reports that issued from that news conference Remonde called accurately described his statements as presenting Malacañang’s own position.

Secondly, it is important to note that Remonde’s statements were based on a key but unstated assumption: that the Senate (despite now being under the leadership of senators aligned with the administration) can be quite unfair in the conduct of its investigations. “I think it is important that we should treat our foreign investors fairly so that we can attract more of them,” Remonde said, not unreasonably.

Thirdly, and crucially, Remonde’s appeal reminded the public that the Arroyo administration plays the definition game deviously. What does it mean to overreact? For Malacañang, the very fact that the Senate is investigating the spate of workplace accidents is already an overreaction. (In the same way, the administration’s calibrated preemptive response policy formulated in 2005 redefined the meaning of street demonstrations, or its prejudicial questions approach in the House of Representatives redefined the object of impeachment.)

“We are not saying that this should not be investigated, but maybe we should look at this in a context that attracting foreign investors is one of the major efforts of our government because that is very important to our economy,” Remonde told reporters. But what, for Malacañang, does a “context that attracts foreign investors” mean?

In 2008, Malacañang preempted government sanctions against Hanjin (after three workers died in one accident) by saying the Korean shipbuilder, one of the country’s largest investors, was not even liable. “The Palace doesn’t support suspending Hanjin’s operations because of the accident,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said. “I called [Subic Freeport] Chairman Armand Arreza and he said the accident didn’t involve Hanjin but its supplier. Hanjin has no liability.”

And yet, as it turns out, and as one of Arreza’s officials has acknowledged only this month, Hanjin uses a multi-layered corporate setup that results “in the insulation of the mother company, HHIC-Phil Inc., from liability arising from employee injury or death, or from collection cases by unpaid suppliers.”

This is something worth looking into, and if the executive branch is uninterested or unwilling to investigate, let the Senate step into the breach.

Remonde’s appeal becomes even more inadequate, even more unresponsive to the public’s real interest, when seen in the light of the Korean ambassador’s haughty letter to the Senate last December. Part of that unfortunate letter reads as a distinct threat: “The possibility that [Hanjin] may be an object of a Senate inquiry could generate substantial and negative repercussions.”

In the midst of a global financial crisis, the need for the country to attract more foreign investments takes on a new urgency. But at the same time, current economic priorities should not blind us to the unusual accidents that have claimed Filipino lives. Remonde could have used his news conference to remind the learned Korean ambassador, ever so gently, that the Philippines and Korea have close ties going all the way back to the birth of the Korean republic, that the Philippines only wants international safety standards securely in place—and that foreign direct investment does not vest the investor with some sort of diplomatic immunity.

--Philippine Daily Inquirer

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