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Fairy tale

ONCE upon a time, some 2,000 Filipino workers chose to leave their families here in the Philippines to work for US corporate giants Brown and Root, Inc. and its affiliate, the Halliburton Group of Companies.

ONCE upon a time, some 2,000 Filipino workers chose to leave their families here in the Philippines to work for US corporate giants Brown and Root, Inc. and its affiliate, the Halliburton Group of Companies.

It was pretty much a dream job for them. Brown and Root, Inc. (now known as Kellog, Brown and Root or KBR) is considered one of the 10 largest construction and engineering companies in the world. It has a long history of providing engineering and construction services for defense and other governmental contracts. It is also the engineering and construction arm of oil field services giant Halliburton, which US Vice President Dick Cheney headed from 1995 until he ran for office in 2000. (Cheney was both chair and chief executive officer of the company.)

The pay was good and the benefits even better. The Filipino workers who were recruited by Brown and Root and Halliburton were given a 42-page booklet that itemized all the good things they were to get by working in the companies’ projects abroad. There were pension, old age, sickness and other generous healthcare benefits, insurance and death benefits, the workers were even going to get Social Security coverage from the US government.

Confident that their dream for a better life was easily within reach, off these Filipino workers went, to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, the Persian Gulf, and the many other places in the Middle East where Brown and Root and Halliburton had projects.

From 1976 to the 1990s, this motley crew of Filipino welders, electricians, insulators, pipe fitters, painters, riggers, technicians, foremen, mill wright operators (etc., etc.,) worked and worked, giving the best years of their lives, looking forward to that day when they would get to the edge of the rainbow where that small pot of promised gold lies waiting.

It’s been almost three decades now and that fairy tale of Brown and Root and Halliburton is being told by old men. The happy ending they were waiting for never happened. The benefits never came. One hundred and sixty of their fellow Filipino workers have already died without seeing a single dollar from the benefits Brown and Root and Halliburton once guaranteed.

The dream these Filipino workers once shared has turned into a nightmare. They should be basking in retirement, enjoying their golden years. Instead they are fighting bloody David vs. Goliath legal battle against their former employers—and this one too bodes a different ending from the biblical story we are familiar with.

Here, the Filipino Davids are losing. The consequences of judicial delays for ordinary litigants are immense, but in the case of these Filipino workers it is even tragic. After 21 years of pursuing their claims for back wages, differential and other benefits from these US corporate giants in court, most of them are now too old or too tired to handle the wear and tear.

They do not want to give up. They do not want to lose hope. But even their own government who is supposed to look after their interests and protect them from discrimination had provided them little to hold on to.

Only once did they have reason to rejoice. In 2002, the National Labor Relations Commission under then chair Roy Señeres ordered Brown and Root to pay the Filipino workers $609 million in unpaid wages and benefits and other damages out of the discrimination suit filed against the SU corporate giants. The NLRC decision was a “final and executory” judgment. There was, indeed, reason to rejoice.

But the ensuing miracle favored Goliath instead of David.

Brown and Root failed to appeal the NLRC decision within the requisite period of 15 days. It filed its appeal months after. It also did not file the requisite suspersedeas bond in its late and what should have been invalid appeal before the NLRC.

And yet somehow, by—like I said—some unfortunate miracle, a decision that was supposed to be “final and executory” was overturned by the same body that issued it. And the Filipino workers lost their case.

The Filipino workers had to bring their case before the Court of Appeals where it is now awaiting resolution.

If this is not a travesty of justice, then I don’t know what is. That it happened to the so-called new heroes of our nation, right in their own backyard is unforgivable.

Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has reportedly awarded Halliburton at least $2.2 billion in defense-related businesses. And yet somehow this super rich firm cannot even pay its former employees from a Third World country, on whose backbreaking work the company depended on for its huge profits, the wages and retirement benefits they so direly need and were promised in the first place.

And what of our own government? What is the Macapagal-Arroyo administration doing about this case, when so many workers are in need of jobs and the economy is desperate for dollars?

Our courts should never allow businesses, whether local or foreign, to trample willy-nilly on the rights of our workers. And yet that is precisely what happened here in the case of these Filipino workers who once believed in the Brown and Root and Halliburton fairy tale.

For most of them, it’s too late to live happily ever after. But justice would be good enough.

(Send comments to opinion@manilatimes.net)

Ernesto F. Herrera

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