Sun, sea, salt... and exploitation in the ports of the Philippines
Under the scorching heat of the noonday sun, by the edge of the wooden planks of a small but bustling private port here on the outskirts of a Southern Philippine province, a man named Allan sits in exhaustion.
He is wearing a khaki long-sleeved shirt to protect his already roasted skin from the heat. A thick navy blue bonnet covers his head.
The port is in chaos. A hulking black cargo vessel from Japan has just arrived. It is filled with 6,000 metric tons of ammonium sulphate, a type of inorganic salt used as raw material for agricultural fertilizer.
Allan and 20 other men are taking turns unloading the mountain of white-coloured salt. It will take two days to empty the vessel. There is barely time to rest. The giant cranes are working nonstop.
The men are scattered all over. Some operate the rusty ship-to-shore cranes. Others control the conveyor. The rest supervise the unloading.
As this is happening, with the sea breeze blowing in all directions, the smallest salt particles fill the air. It is luxury to be able to breathe at all in these conditions, but Allan and his fellow port workers have no choice but to endure the suffocating environment.
The vessel is only the second ship to arrive this month. When there is no ship, Allan and the rest of the gang are jobless.
They are, after all, contract workers, at the beck and call of the company that only hires them when a vessel arrives.
‘If there is no vessel, we don’t have a job,’ Allan tells me, squinting his eyes as the glare of the sun becomes unbearable.
Allan says they don’t have much choice because with no qualifications, they cannot easily find other jobs.
And so, left with no other choice, port workers like Allan live with the harsh working conditions.
In this port, the dangers are clear and prevalent. One slip of the heavy cranes could lead to the deaths of many. A malfunction in the labyrinth of rusty metal machines can lead to a short circuit or at worst, an explosion.
The air is filled with soot-like particles.
The pay isn’t good, either. They earn just 160 pesos (US$4) for eight hours’ hard manual labour.
Those who have the skills and knowledge to operate the machines are given 550 pesos ($12). There is no security of tenure, social security pay or retirement benefits.
It’s a tough job but Allan and his fellow workers take it. It’s the same old story, and one repeated in many other parts in the Philippines where labourers are exploited as desperate living conditions force them to settle for meagre pay.
In special economic zones all over the country, giant transnational firms are given five-year income tax holidays and the cost of labour is brought down as an incentive for them to set up shops in the country.
‘You just have to get used to it,’ Allan says. He wipes off some of the salt that now covers his wrinkled face and gets back to work.