Filipino terminal workers: A life of exploitation and hardship

Harbor Center Shipping Terminal workers are not given basic labor rights.

Workers, who operated in abysmal conditions, were given only contractual status even after working for years.  

By Ina Alleco R. Silverio, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Despite winning their case in three legal venues, over 300 exploited workers of one of the biggest shipping terminals in the Philippines continue to be denied their rights to job security. They have also yet to receive fair indemnification for years of working under shockingly unsafe and inhumane working conditions.

On September 15, the Supreme Court denied a motion from the management of Harbor Centre Port Terminal Incorporation (HCTPI) for reconsideration of a case which was filed against the workers (the workers said they were illegally dismissed earlier in January last year). 

The court ruled with finality on the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) previous order that the terminal should give regular employment status to its 300 workers, all of whom have been working for it for more than two years, and many for over a decade.

Before the release of the Supreme Court decision favoring the workers, the company filed a motion for reconsideration to appeal the labor department’s decision, but this was denied by the Court of Appeals.

This means that the workers as represented by their union had won three times against the shipping terminal. Despite this, however, their livelihood and immediate future remain in question.

Exploited terminal workers won their case against Harbor Centre Port Terminal. Image credit: Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Harbor Centre.

A “World-Class Terminal”? 

The website and Facebook pages of the HCPTI proclaim the terminal to be “world-class”. Its clients are ships from overseas that transport non-containerized cargoes, as well as local vessels shipping containerized as well as non-containerized cargo. It is said to be the first highly modern and fully integrated shipping terminal in the country, operating two quays in the Manila North Harbor.

Headed by Chairman of the Board business and real estate mogul Reghis M. Romero II, the company in 2017 boasted that revenues continued to surge and that by the end of that year, its overall domestic and foreign cargo volume would reach 6.5 million metric tons.

Romero was quoted as saying that the terminal’s growth was due to “sound operating efficiencies and fiscal management”. This, he went on to be quoted, made “employees perform well to increase volume completion” even as vessel turnaround time was reduced.

That same year, the company implemented a re-fleeting program and acquired seven new 15-tonner forklifts to improve cargo-handling capacity. It also set aside P700 million (US$13.7 million) for CAPEX projects to upgrade facilities and IT equipment.

The company has also boasted of passing the audit and securing certifications from the International Organization of Standards (ISO) for Quality Management 2008, the Environmental Management Systems 2004, and its latest 2015 version, while retaining that of the Occupational Health & Safety Assessment Series.

The HCPTI also renewed its certification from the Office of Transportation Security (OTS) for another five years after it was declared compliant with the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code.

If one were to base an opinion on the updates on its Facebook page, the likely verdict is that the company maintains the best standards: employees are treated well, there are frequent workshops and seminars to improve business processes, and there are health and safety drills within the terminal.

There is, however, not a single mention of the workers – the machine operators, the linemen, the stevedores – those who do the literal heavy lifting to ensure that the company meets its growth and multi-billion profit targets.

Unethical business practice

The union, Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Harbor Centre (UMHC) or Union of Workers in HC, has been calling for the reinstatement of its terminated leaders and workers since HCPTI suddenly implemented an unjust lay-off scheme in January 2021 that target all the workers and union members. 

HCPTI justified the lay-offs by saying that the workers were all agency-hires and that its contract with the manpower agency Gracials Corporation had already expired. Gracials provided the manpower to the company, among them 216 port workers under the union.

Both the Harbor Center and the manning agency tried to evade the labor department’s decision that was released three years previously on August 30, 2017 to declare 378 port workers as regular workers The labor department said that the company should recognize and respect the seniority rights of the port workers, release their unpaid benefits and money claims, and include them in the official payroll. 

HCPTI originally owed the workers P99.8 million (US$1.9 million), but as of this writing, the union said that the Harbor Centre and Gracials “recomputed figures, and the amount they released to workers was greatly reduced to P30 million (US$590,000).

The communities where the terminal workers live. Many port area workers live in communities like these in Tondo, Manila where the North and South Terminals are. These communities are severely congested and highly polluted. The living conditions are way below decent human standards.

Labor rights violation

A non-government institution focused on worker concerns said that companies like Harbor Centre and agencies like Gracials are guilty of labor rights violations when they deny workers regular status even when they have worked for over a year for said companies.

According to Defend Jobs Philippines, it’s a tactic that companies employ: when workers assert their rights to become regulars, companies resort to a campaign of termination.

The group also pointed out that the labor department has also declared Gracials to be an illegal and unregistered manpower agency. This further justifies the call of the port workers that Harbor Centre hire them directly and stop resorting to giving contractual work.

A cease-and-desist order has already been issued against sa Grasials Port Services and Stevedoring Corporation (also known as Gerolyn Contracting and Stevedoring Corporation) after the labor department discovered that it was a “labor only contractor” agency.

Modern day slavery

Union president Francisco Manaog is 46 years old, and he has worked for Harbor Centre for two decades. “I started as a stevedore, then a crane operator, and eventually I became a leadman. The entire time I worked there was a living nightmare, but I had to make a living for my family.”

Before they were terminated, workers like Manaog worked three to four days weekly, 12 hours straight per day. They received P550 to P667 (US$10 to US$13) per workday, and this meant they earned a measly P45.83 to P55.60 (US$0.90 to US$1.40) per hour or P367 to P448 (US$7 to US$8) per eight hours. This is a violation of the minimum wage rate currently pegged at P537 (US$10) in the National Capital Region.

“Before the labor department stepped in, the company never issued proper pay slips. We got our pay in small brown envelopes with our respective names stapled on it on a slip of paper. The breakdown of our salaries was never explained. I worked there for 20 years, and it had always been like that,” he said.

Francisco told Maritime Fairtrade that the company never provided its workers with personal protective equipment. Despite the many hazards to life and limb that were inherent in their work, workers of Harbor Centre had to perform their duties of offloading cargo by hand and with machinery – they handled extremely heavy construction materials like steel bars that weigh 900 kilograms or a ton each, or massive timber logs.

“The company never gave us protective equipment: no hard hats, no gloves, no safety shoes, nothing. We always asked for them, but the company always ignored us. Unloading tons of steel from ships and into warehouses is difficult and dangerous work, but we were expected to just rely on good as protection against accidents,” Francisco said.

Ina Alleco R. Silverio, Maritime Fairtrade’s correspondent, interviews Union president Francisco Manaog.
Union president Francisco Manaog showed his pay slips which were handwritten on brown pieces of paper.

No safety training

Some men, however, have not been lucky. Former union president Eldefonso Bello, 62, said that he had seen his share of mishaps and accidents at the terminal as men suffered broken arms and legs or fractured skulls. Badly bruised and lacerated hands were common. Safety training on how to operate machinery was practically unheard of. People learned on the job and from experience.

“I’ve seen a man whose lower half was crushed after a heavy bundle of timber fell on him as it was being lifted by a forklift. I will never forget how the man’s blood mixed with the diesel and grease that already covered the floor,” he said.

Eldefonso said that accidents happened because workers were exhausted.

“We had to work for 12 hours straight – no breaks, not often toilet breaks,” he said. If a man had to urinate or move his bowels, he did it practically where he stood. “We’d stand in a corner and pee. If we had stomach troubles, we’d get a piece of paper and squat. The whole mess we’d throw in the garbage or toss it into the sea,” he said.

Former union president Eldefonso Bello.

Underpayment of wages

When the labor department conducted an onsite inspection in January 2017 and interviewed workers, the list of the company’s violations against occupational health and safety standards added to the already lengthy narrative on its violations when it came to wages and benefits.

The company was found guilty of underpayment of wages, failing to give overtime pay and 13th-month pay, delayed payment of salary, non-issuance of pay slips, non-remittance of social security and public health insurance contributions, and non-provision of personal protective equipment.

The labor department also discovered that the company did not have a fire safety inspection certificate and that it had no safety and health committee or even just a trained safety officer. The company did not maintain a clinic or keep emergency medicine and or first aid kits on the premises.

Worker left on hospital floor after accident

Eldefonso himself had an accident at work sometime in the late 90s. It was past 3 am and because of sheer exhaustion, he missed a step, and fell from height, and landed on a pile of steel bars. He fractured his skull and a few ribs, but the company administration employees just rushed him to the nearest public hospital and left him on the floor to wait for a doctor.

Eldefonso said: “They just left me there on my own. It was very cold and I was dizzy, weaving in and out of consciousness. By 10 am, I still did not receive first aid, and no one from the company came back. I did not want to call my family because they were all in Dagupan (three hours away, north of Manila) and I did not want them to worry. 

“When I begged a nurse for help because I was really feeling ill, they gave me an injection for the pain and cleaned my bloodied head. The doctor came in at 1 pm, and it was only then I got thoroughly checked.”

For all his suffering, the company gave him P500 (at the time, equivalent to US$12.40). He missed a week of work and did not get paid because the company had a no-work, no-pay policy, and vacation leaves or sick leaves were non-existent.

Inedible food, no water 

The general unjustness of their working conditions struck the workers even more sharply during what should have been normal meal hours.  Indignant and angry, Francisco said that the company was very strict against workers taking breaks even for meals and workers had to resort to different tactics just to get a mouthful.

“We couldn’t even wash our hands no matter how greasy and dirty they were. We ate in such a rush that we often had indigestion,” he said. “The company did not provide water fountains or any kind of drinking water so we also had to bring our own water.”

After working non-stop for 12 hours, many workers ended up dehydrated.  Francisco also said that although the company provided free food, it was often very bad and unfit to eat.

“The chicken they served was so old that it tasted like cardboard. The pork was frozen. When they served vegetables, they smelled rancid and tasted sour. It was food you would not want to feed your dog with, but that’s what they gave us,” he said.

Tragically, hunger and lack of money did not give them any choice but to eat what they were given.  This was the state of things until the workers decided to fight back and filed a case against the company in 2017.

Fighting for their rights

The struggle of the workers of Harbor Centre against unfair work conditions and other unjust labor practices escalated from 2017 and continued until they were laid off in January 2020. They regularly conduct picket protests in front of the terminal’s business offices and at the headquarters of the labor department.

Francisco said that the labor department should help them demand that the company comply with the Supreme Court’s decision as well its own verdict against the company’s unjust practices.

“We are not demanding anything that is beyond our rights and what is morally correct. When we organized our union, we were united in the goal to call public attention to our plight, to the abuses of the company that makes billions from our backbreaking work,” he said.

Workers holding picket protests in front of the Manila Harbor Centre terminal.  Image credit: Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Harbor Centre 

Retaliation against workers

Francisco said that Harbor Centre continued to punish the workers who dared to report its abuses by imposing an impossible to reach work quota, right up until the lay-off in 2020.

John Kenneth Candelario, 29, worked for seven years for the company as a stevedore and crane operator with various tasks in the warehouse.  

“The management became even more unreasonable – they made us work in teams of four or six with a quota to transport 200 metric tons of steel per hour. It was brutal. It was impossible not to think that it was the company’s way of retaliating against us,” he said.

Kenneth also said that the number of dockworkers – the men who did janitorial jobs in the warehouses and the pier area – was also cut down. “We had to do the work that used to be done by the dockworkers on top of our own work of transporting cargo from the ship to the warehouses and at no extra pay.”

When the lay-off came, Kenneth was not surprised.  “We knew that they could do it, and they did. The company already treated us like animals – what was stopping it to fire all of us so it can escape what it owed us?” he said.

Former union president Eldefonso Bello (left) and John Kenneth Candelario, stevedore.

Workers continue to fight for fair treatment

Earlier in June this year, Harbor Center received the delivery of light rail vehicles for use in the Philippine government project to expand one of the train networks in the country’s capital so it reaches the southern provinces. The event gained much media attention as it is a massive government project.

In the meantime, the International Container Services Inc (ICTSI) acquired 100 percent shares of the Manila Harbor Center Port Services (MHCPSI) for P2.447 billion (US$48 million) to “expand efficiency”. The MHCPSI is an affiliate of the terminal company of Harbor Center.

As for the workers of Harbor Centre, they continue their efforts to strengthen their union. They have received the support of progressive labor groups like the Manila Workers Unity (MWU) and the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) or May First Movement, as well as church and ecumenical formations and student groups. 

Their leaders like Francisco and Eldefonso have become even more determined to work to expose the plight of workers in Harbor Centre as well as the living conditions of Filipinos who live in the port area.

“Companies like Harbor Centre make billions in profits every year but it treats workers like us like garbage. Thousands of us who work in the shipping terminals and shipping companies live in terrible poverty because of low wages. We deserve to be treated with dignity and to receive what is due to us by law and by right,” Francisco said. 

Image credit: Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Harbor Centre

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more