A class action suit filed by over 70 Filipino workers was initiated, even prior to the explosion, against the Grand Isle Shipyard for discrimination, labor trafficking, slavery and forced servitude, and fraud.
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — The Philippine Forum and other Filipino solidarity groups in the United States have declared full support for the plans of relatives of Filipino workers Avelino Tajonera, Ellroy Corporal and Jerome Malagapo who were killed in the November 16 explosion at the Black Elk Energy oil platform in Louisiana, USA.
Last November 16, 2012, the Filipino workers employed by Grand Isle Shipyard, owner of Black Elk, were welding a pipe on the deck of West Delta Block 32 platform, south of Grand Isle, Louisiana when it exploded, killing the three and severely burning several others.
The Grand Isle Shipyard is an oil company based in Louisiana, which recruits Filipino workers. Filipinos in the company mostly work as welders, pipefitters and scaffolders. The company has been hiring and providing Filipino workers to oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico, through the DNR Offshore Crewing Services, since 2005
On January 16, the relatives of the killed Filipinos would go to New York with some of the other workers who filed a class action lawsuit against the company.
“The families continue to demand for justice and they would join the Filipino community in a series of actions and a press conference here in New York starting January 16,” said Anne Beryl Corotan-Naguit of Philippine Forum and the Justice for Grand Isle Shipyard Filipino Workers (J4GIS-Fil-Workers).
According to the Philippine Forum, the workers would expose the company and their experiences in working for it with the aim of raising awareness about their case and the plight of other GIS Filipino workers.
Based on reports, Black Elk has a history of safety problems. Since 2010, it has been cited 315 times for safety violations; in 2012, it was cited for 45 incidents of non-compliance to company safety standards.
As a result of the tragedy, more than 80 Filipino workers filed a class action suit for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), namely discrimination, labor trafficking, slavery and forced servitude, and fraud. The class suit is currently pending at the Louisiana Federal Court.
According to reports, Filipinos who worked for the company said that they are being required by the company to work six to seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, without overtime pay. It has also been reported that some Filipino workers even worked for four straight months offshore. This is said to be excessive when compared to their American counterparts who work only two weeks straight, then return onshore to rest.
It has also been reported that Filipino workers were restricted in their movements, isolated and were not allowed visitors. They are being guarded 24 hours a day. Surveillance cameras are set up outside their bunkhouses to prevent them from leaving or escaping. They are asked to leave their rooms and vacate their beds should an American worker decides that he wants to occupy it.
“They stayed at a bunkhouse where there is a 10 p.m. curfew and heavily guarded and monitored with cameras. While American workers can freely move around, Filipinos are not allowed to leave. They are only allowed to buy groceries for an hour a week accompanied by a company driver. Filipino workers are also not allowed to get state identification cards and drivers’ licenses,” said the Forum in a statement.
The group also alleged that literally “millions of dollars are being stolen from Filipino workers.” This is because they are being charged from $1,000 to $3,000 every month for use of the bunk beds in a 10 x 10 feet room. Most of the salaries of Filipino workers are also said to have gone to unlawful deductions and tax fraud.
“One worker was still even required to work while on treatment for temporary blindness because of welding for long hours. Another was burned inside a tank but was hidden in a house without medical treatment,” the Philippine Forum said. The worker, Saxon Gannod, said that while getting medical treatment, he was continuously required to work.
The Filipino worker who suffered burns received only three days of medical treatment. IHe was hidden in one of the recruiter’s homes without being given sufficient medical treatment.
Filipino workers are also sent to platforms that are severely unsafe. They reportedly previously hesitated in filing formal complaints because the company allegedly threatened to deport anyone who protests.
Class action lawsuit
The class action suit filed by over 70 Filipino workers was initiated even prior to the explosion. Solidarity groups in the US said that in the coming weeks, more Filipino workers would join the class action lawsuit. An estimated 500 other workers are said to be victims of the company’s abuses and injustices.
The 70 Filipino workers, who filed the suit, had previously called on the Philippine Embassy, specifically Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose L Cuisia, Jr. to address their concerns; the official did not respond.
Cuisia was even reported to have allegedly said after his visit that Filipino workers in Louisiana were fine,” despite the fact that three were killed in the explosion. The official is also alleged to have said that the Philippines is “looking forward to bringing more Filipinos to work for Grand Isle Shipyard”.
When asked by the media about the class action lawsuit filed by the 70 Filipino workers, Cuisia reportedly claimed that he had no information on it.
Jonna Baldres, community action coordinator of the Philippine Forum, said the Benigno Aquino III government is turning a blind eye against the cases of abused Filipino workers overseas. She said community actions are already being planned in different parts of the United States within the next few days, starting with New York, to demand that the Philippine government genuinely addresses the issues and concerns of the Filipino workers of Grand Isle Shipyard.
Baldres is also the deputy general secretary of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON).
In the meantime, the explosion has also attracted the attention of lawmakers in Washington, D. The congressmen, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, the senior Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce and House Natural Resources committees respectively, have demanded a briefing from the executives of Black Elk. They have also reportedly sent a letter to Grand Isle Shipyard regarding the matter.
Justice for shipyard workers
The JFGIS-Fil-Workers is also being supported by Anakbayan New York, Anakbayan New Jersey, New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (NYCHRP) and Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment (FiRE).
“We at the Philippine Forum have handled and witnessed countless cases of abused migrants in the US. We denounce the inhumane capitalist extraction of super profits by companies such as Grand Isle Shipyard that intentionally rob Filipino workers of their dignity through severe forms of exploitation and oppression,” Corotan-Naguit said.
National organizations and alliances, such as US-based National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON) and the Ecumenical Forum for Filipino Concerns (EFFCON), have also signified their intention to join the campaign.
Philippine-based organizations such as Migrante International, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN-Philippines) and the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) would also be helping out on the Philippine end of the campaign. The International Migrants Alliance (IMA) and the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS), international alliances with hundreds of member grassroots organizations around the world, have also expressed support.
In the meantime, the Migrante Partylist has also expressed support to the Filipino workers and their actions against Grand Isle Shipyard. It said that all Filipino workers as well as the workers from other nationalities in the Grand Isle Shipyard should join the class suit.
“While American workers enjoy the civil liberties granted any other worker in the US – namely, days off and work holidays and other benefits – Filipino workers are treated like slaves and blatantly discriminated against,” it said.
The group said it fully supports the fight of Filipino workers in the said companies and vows to actively campaign for the immediate resolution of their plight.
“The violations committed by the companies against them are unacceptable. The companies perpetuate modern-day slavery and allow the discrimination and dehumanization of migrant workers,” it said. “The Philippine and US governments should investigate, punish and hold accountable perpetrators of labor trafficking, contract substitution and contract violations of Filipino migrant workers.”