Hundreds of Filipino workers stranded at remote US military base amid wage dispute

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Hundreds of Filipino workers are stranded at a US military base on an Indian Ocean island due to a dispute between their employer, a major US contractor, and the Philippine government over their wages, workers say and Filipino officials.

The Philippine government alleges that Kellogg Brown & Root, also known as KBR, has canceled scheduled charter flights from the Camp Thunder Cove base in Diego Garcia to the Philippines since earlier this year as a form of “emotional blackmail “. Philippine officials, who told KBR it needed to raise employee wages to meet the U.S. federal minimum wage rate, said the company was pressuring employees to continue working at current wages.

The suspension of charter flights, however, may not be the only, or even the main, factor holding back some Filipino workers in Diego Garcia, located more than 1,000 miles from the southern tip of India. Several Filipino employees said they were reluctant to leave the island for home visits, fearing that the company or their own government would prevent them from returning to work if the pay disagreement was not resolved.

In statements to the Washington Post, KBR denied that the flight suspension was in any way related to the pay dispute and initially said it “cancelled charter flights at the request of the US government to help prevent the spread of COVID-19”. In a later statement, the company said there had been no charter flights since late last year due to a lack of demand from workers wishing to travel, adding that no employees had been unable to leave the island due to a lack of flights.

KBR had previously chartered flights approximately every three months that carried between 200 and 250 workers between the base and the Philippines. Workers said in interviews that KBR representatives told them the suspension of charter flights this year was due to the wage dispute.

More than 1,200 civilian employees at the base had been unable to travel earlier in the pandemic due to coronavirus flight restrictions, and many have not left Diego Garcia for more than three years, workers said.

Families were divided. A worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he had never met his daughter, who turned 3 earlier this year. “I’ve only ever seen her on video calls,” he said. Another KBR employee said she had not seen her 3-year-old since the child was a few months old.

“KBR prevented them from returning to the Philippines to be with their families unless they signed an extension of their contract based on the old minimum wage rate,” said Bernard Olalia, Undersecretary of the Philippine Department of Labor. immigrants. “Indeed, KBR is exercising emotional blackmail by making their return to the Philippines conditional on their acceptance of an onerous contract. Not only is this illegal, but it also violates the fundamental rights of these Filipino workers. »

Philip Ivy, KBR’s vice president of global marketing and communications, denied the accusation. “Charter flights have never had anything to do with the salary requirements of the Philippines, and if anyone had been informed of this, it would have been inaccurate. We do not know of any employees who have been told this” , did he declare.

Ivy said military flights connecting the base — a highly strategic U.S. outpost that supports U.S. Navy and Air Force operations — with Japan and Bahrain continued to operate, and Filipino employees can take these flights, with the cost of their trip to the Philippines covered by KBR. “When seat availability on military flights is insufficient and passenger volume in both directions warrants a charter flight, one is scheduled,” he said.

But three employees said in interviews that seats for contract workers on military flights are scarce and that KBR has not provided clear information about seat demand. There are no commercial flights serving Diego Garcia.

“There was no need to go that far,” said a 33-year-old KBR worker on the island who also spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing he would lose his job. “We are stuck here because of the minimum wage issue. Everyone is upset, but we have no choice.

Another KBR employee said the wage dispute prevents the company from hiring new workers. “If the charter flights worked, people would leave and it could have an impact on their operations. That’s what they’re afraid of,” said the employee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Tensions between the Houston-based contractor and his employees have risen since the Philippine government in October 2020 demanded that grassroots companies pay their Filipino workers the US federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The Philippine government sets minimum wages for its citizens who work abroad through agreements with employers, job recruiters and other governments, and sometimes prohibits migration to countries it considers to mistreat its nationals. .

KBR, which employs more than 1,200 mostly Filipino workers in Diego Garcia as clerks, warehouse workers and other semi-skilled jobs, kept pay rates unchanged. Many employees continued to be paid at an hourly rate of around $5.25 an hour, four workers said.

Ivy said KBR does not underpay its employees and already meets the standard set by the Philippine government. “The minimum total compensation for our Filipino employees exceeds the mandatory hourly rate when housing, food, medical coverage and other benefits are added,” he said in a statement. He added that employees also don’t have to sign an extension to their existing contract to go on vacation.

To increase employee pay, Ivy said, “KBR asked the [U.S.] The Ministry of Defense if it reimbursed KBR for the cost of additional salaries and the government refused.

Cmdt. Katie Cerezo, a US Navy public affairs officer, said her contract with KBR was a fixed-price deal. She said the Navy appreciates the work done by Filipinos in Diego Garcia and the specifics of the job are between KBR and its workers.

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While the vast majority of KBR employees in Diego Garcia are traditionally Filipino, the company is now trying to hire workers of other nationalities, according to its statement.

KBR employees said their jobs were vital to supporting their families in the Philippines and that losing their jobs would be devastating.

“I have a family to feed. Life in the Philippines is so hard,” said one worker, who sends money every month to his parents and siblings. “It’s better to have this job than nothing, especially now [that] the cost of living in the Philippines is rising.

While workers are hungry for higher wages, they said Diego Garcia is a desirable place to work and live. They said their accommodation was good and they could spend their free days using the sports facilities and going to the beach.

Diego Garcia is the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago, a British territory leased to the United States for five decades solely for the operation of a military base. Strategically located due to its proximity to the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, Diego Garcia serves as a naval logistics, communications and supply hub. Aircraft operating from Diego Garcia have been active in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The islands’ indigenous population, the Chagossians, were expelled by British and American forces in the late 1960s and early 1970s to pave the way for the development of the military base. The British government has banned Chagossians from returning, citing defense and security interests.

But the lack of local people means that US Department of Defense contractors have had to rely on foreign workers, recruiting them mainly from the Philippines.

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