Into the breach again: US looks to Filipinos
By Cher S Jimenez
MANILA - When the United States moves to downsize its military facilities in Okinawa, Japan, and begin construction on new military bases designed to house 8,000 marines and their families on the Pacific island of Guam, Filipino construction workers will likely do most of the heavy lifting.
In September, Philippine labor officials accepted an invitation from Guam - a US territory - to discuss hiring 15,000 Filipino construction>workers to work on the new military facilities, including barracks, administration buildings, schools, training sites, runways and entertainment establishments. On-land construction activities on Guam are set to begin early next year and the estimated US$10 billion
project is scheduled for completion in 2014.
The US Congress' Overseas Basing Commission had earlier estimated that the cost of relocation and building the new base in Guam, including>facilities for a new command post and housing for the marines' family members, at about $2.9 billion. For undisclosed reasons, the US military now says the total cost will be closer to $10 billion, of which Japan has agreed to shoulder 59% of the bill. Cheap Filipino labor, it is believed, will help bring down those spiraling costs.
If the deal is done, it will mark the latest big hire of Filipino workers by the US military and its affiliated business interests. The US has employed more than 7,000 Filipino workers - nearly half of them undocumented - in its four main military camps in Iraq, according to Philippine labor officials. Neither the Philippine nor US governments has publicly owned up to how thousands of Filipino workers have slipped into Iraq and found work on US military facilities.
US federal policy prohibits the employment of non-Americans inside US military facilities, but the Bush administration's heavy use of private contractors has blurred the lines between public and private functions. After a Filipino truck driver killed in Iraq caused a domestic uproar against the Philippines' participation in the United States' war effort, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in July 2004 banned any new deployments of Filipino workers to Iraq.
Philippine-based non-governmental organizations tracking Arroyo's support to the United States' global counter-terrorism campaign contend that both Washington and Manila have quietly decided to ignore the official ban to maintain the steady supply of cheap, English-speaking Filipino workers in Iraq. Washington clearly seems to
favor Filipinos over other English-speaking nationalities for its most crucial and sensitive military-related construction projects.
In March 2002, Washington and Manila secretly processed the papers of 250 Filipino construction workers to help build new or overhaul old detention facilities now in use at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the US controversially holds hundreds of suspects as part of its "global war on terror" campaign, according to Philippine officials. For their efforts, Filipino workers received a $1,000 monthly salary - far below
what it would have cost the US military to employ US citizens.
Local labor recruiters have been told by government officials that the Guam assignment is a US reward for the Arroyo administration's strong support for its "war on terror". There is also an element of trust: US soldiers frequently train with their Philippine counterparts and US advisers are currently training and providing logistical support to Arroyo's campaign against Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines.
Philippine officials estimate that if and when Filipino workers are deployed to work in Guam, they will earn wages similar to those paid for the Guantanamo operation. From the United States' perspective, hiring cheap Filipinos makes good economic sense at a time when the US military budget has spiraled out of control with the mounting expense of operations in Iraq and to a lesser degree Afghanistan.
It also appears to be part of a quiet outsourcing process: the US Department of Defense's 2005 base realignment and closures recommendations aimed to pare "unnecessary management personnel" at Guam's existing facilities, including "military, personnel and contractor personnel", to the tune of 174 lost jobs over the period spanning 2006-11.
Cheaper Filipinos are expected to fill some of the lost contractor positions, Philippine labor sources say. And they will be charged with building facilities alongside some of the most advanced and important assets the US military maintains outside the continental US. This includes Andersen Air Force Base, which can handle aircraft ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles to long-range strategic bombers, and
Apra Harbor, which services everything from nuclear submarines to aircraft carriers. Andersen's special hangar facilities are designed specifically to protect the special radar-evading skin of B-2 bombers.
Sources from the Philippine recruitment industry say that, apart from their low cost, Filipino construction workers are "highly favored" by the US because of their English-language skills. According to industry sources, Middle Eastern companies that have recently hired large numbers of Filipino construction workers there are often subsidiaries of or somehow affiliated with big US reconstruction firms, including Halliburton, Bechtel and Flour Daniel.
"Americans favor Filipino workers because we can understand them and they speak English," said Loreto Soriano, president and chairman of the board of LBSeBusiness, a Manila-based recruitment firm. "Construction manuals and plans are written in English, so we can follow easily, and that's what they like."
Their overall skill sets, including their ability to work with modern construction technology, however, are very much in question. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) recently said that from 2001 to 2005 it was only able to meet 56% of global orders for 103,167 construction workers because of their low skills,
including their inability to operate modern construction technology. Much of that demand has come from the Middle East, where booming oil prices have led to a flurry of new construction and infrastructure projects.
Soriano said the Philippines generally could not meet the surging demand for highly qualified construction workers, including welders, flame cutters, plumbers, pipe fitters and carpenters. For the past few months, job advertisements for construction workers and engineers rose by almost 29%; there were new requests for 4,000 overseas placements in September, according to official statistics.
As of 2005, the Professional Regulation Commission registered 312,478 construction-sector professionals, where nearly one-third was listed as qualified civil engineers. However, the POEA, the government agency that oversees labor deployment abroad, had registered only 737 professionals over the period spanning 2002-04. Now, local employers are complaining about the growing number of construction workers who
leave their jobs without notice after they have been placed overseas.
Some in Manila fear that if the government paves the way for 15,000 workers to take jobs in Guam, the already labor-strapped local Philippine construction could come to a total grinding halt. However, that could also happen to the planned new military facilities in Guam if Filipino workers lack the skills to implement US building designs effectively and efficiently.
Cher S Jimenez is a Manila-based journalist with the BusinessMirror
newspaper. She recently received a grant from the Ateneo de Manila
University to conduct investigative journalism on illegal workers in
the United Arab Emirates.
(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.)