Our new documentary, “Storm in Subic Bay” airs today on Al Jazeera English’s 101 East. We will post the link to the film as soon as it is available.

Rudolfo Alvarez and his children. Photo by Kirsten Han.

We meet Rodolfo Alvarez on a gloomy, overcast afternoon. His home isn’t much to look at – a basic brick and cement structure halfway up a slope, in a village about two hours’ drive from Subic Bay, Philippines. There’s no electricity in the house. Mosquitoes hover around our ankles. Alvarez is lying in his bed, clutching a rosary. We can see the pain in his eyes.

Alvarez’s wife, Rizalyn gives us a shy, toothless smile. She doesn’t say much and neither does her husband. Pain has worn him out. Worry lines her face. He used to be an electrician inside a shipyard owned by South Korean corporate giant, Hanjin. Three months earlier, while repairing a security alarm system, Alvarez’s lower body was badly crushed by a closing barrier. The accident means he can no longer walk unaided, work on control his bodily functions.

“They had to remove everything,” a visiting friend tells us. “Everything. Even his sexual organs.”

We don’t quite know what to say.

Alvarez is one of some 5,000 workers injured in worksite accidents since Hanjin started operations in the Philippines in 2006. At least 32 men have also died in the shipyard. Workers and activists accuse Hanjin of failing to meet basic safety standards. We’ve come to Subic to investigate.

Every worker we meet in the Philippines tells us it’s a struggle finding a decent job in their country. It’s hardly surprising then, the kind of clout Hanjin enjoys with the government. It is the country’s single biggest foreign direct investor and a major employer. 22,000 Filipinos work in Subic alone. That number is expected to rise.

The government’s gone out of its way to accommodate Hanjin – granting it a 10-year tax holiday and a 50-year lease on prime land. Activists say the Labour Department even waived a requirement that the company build an emergency hospital inside the shipyard.

Hanjin’s shipyard in Subic is the fourth largest in the world.

And yet, despite the growing outrage, despite the uproar, men from all over the Philippines continue to head out to Subic, hoping to find work at Hanjin. We witness their desperation at a bus depot one morning. It’s pouring down with rain – remnants of a typhoon that’s been lashing the area for days. Hundreds of men wait in line for a shipyard-bound bus. The ones we speak to are critical of Hanjin. They complain about safety, about being mistreated by their Korean foremen, about having to work despite the typhoon. These are all legitimate concerns. And yet, when a bus arrives, there’s a mad scramble to get on board.

“It’s a stampede!” A worker shouts.

We laugh nervously. He’s right. The men push, shove, grab, shout, scramble, do whatever they can to get onto the bus. We learn later that they are paid a daily wage. Latecomers will have their salaries docked. Persistent latecomers will eventually lose their jobs. No one can afford this. But the workers complain that there are never enough buses. And so, the stampede, the desperation.


As a Singaporean, I’ve been conditioned not to question authority, to work hard and to be practical. Keep your head down. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Over the last 20 years, for various reasons, I’ve started unlearning all these lessons. Life has become slightly more interesting. Coming to Subic, I’m reminded why its important to keep questioning.

An activist at an anti-Hanjin protest.

The workers with whom we spend the most time – the ones involved in organising their fellow shipyard employees, the ones who’ve lost their jobs as a result of their activism – they’re clear about the kind of relationship they want with their paymasters. Wealth, they believe, does not and should not grant anyone a right to behave like an asshole.

“The Koreans come here to build ships, we also help to build their ships, we’re all building the ships together,” one terminated worker explains. “They can’t build their ships without us.”

Makes sense. But this worker is now jobless, in debt, still hopeful that Hanjin will re-hire him. Therein lies the problem. The lone, desperate worker needs his wealthy employer much more than it needs him. So what does he do? He joins up with other workers. They organise. They rally around their injured colleagues, they hold protests, they write letters, circulate petitions, start a blog, talk to the press. And slowly, they hope, change will happen.

“But what if Hanjin just ups and leaves the country?” We ask.

“They’ve already invested $1.6 billion. They can’t just leave.”

Very clever, I think. Make the wealthy’s wealth work against them.

But there are other grim realities. For every man who is fired for joining a protest, there are many many more willing to take his job. Blame poverty. It’s everywhere in the Philippines, and it’s precisely the reason why the government is so eager to win over corporations like Hanjin. Foreign money, they hope, will help boost the country’s economy.

The angry worker, the powerful investor. Who will win in the end? I don’t know. What I do know now is that if the worker seethes in silence and the government does nothing on his behalf, the investor will have no incentive to change things. Why should it?


Our time in Subic is marked by gusty, rainy conditions. Two typhoons tear through the area while we’re here. It’s a pain, filming in the midst of a storm. There are frequent power outages in our hotel, and for a time, there’s no internet. Even so, we live in relative comfort. At night, we’re dry and safe. We can barely hear the wind howling outside.

A typhoon wreaks havoc for some in Subic Bay.

We’re only reminded how bad things are for some people in Subic when we visit a community living near Hanjin’s shipyard. Driving up to meet them, we pass the remnants of a landslide and a row of houses window-deep in water. Our van stops by the side of the road. Our guides lead us down a slope.

The ground is wet and squishy. We’re glad we have wellies. But the kids we meet are sloshing in the mud in their flip-flops. There’s water everywhere. No one thought to build drains, or, as we discover later, a proper sewerage system in this place.

Conditions are awful. About 1,000 families live in ramshackle huts here. They had once occupied the land where Hanjin now stands. Victims of progress, they were all evicted to make way for the shipyard.

A villager shows us around. A pile of wood and straw lies on the ground. It used to be his father’s house. The old man was inside when the storm came. A neighbour pulled him out just before the entire thing collapsed.

It’s a depressing place. Houses, crushed by fallen trees. Shacks made up of discarded wood and tarpaulin. No running water. The villagers have a sense of humour though. Outside an abandoned old hut, there’s a “For Sale” sign.

“Five thousand pesos only!” The woman next door declares.

They insist on cooking us lunch. Fish soup and rice. And afterwards, there’s a minor argument as we try to persuade them to take some money for the meal. They are generous people and we feel awful. They have so little.

Before we leave, the villagers show us an eviction notice. Someone has laid claim to the land they now live on and a court has ruled that some families must move. A fisherman tells us it will be the fifth time in five years his house is being demolished. He doesn’t know where he’ll go next. No one does.

It’s an awful situation. There’s not a single permanent structure in this place. No one in power has been able to offer the community a lasting solution. The villagers dare not spend money to build anything more sturdy then their makeshift homes. They cannot afford to. But their little huts offer scant protection against the elements.

It’s all so ironic. This is the kind of poverty the Philippine government wants to alleviate by striking deals with foreign investors. Yet life for the community has been nothing short of hellish ever since Hanjin arrived.

It doesn’t add up.


We still get updates about Rodolfo Alvarez. He’s not doing well – suffers from frequent infections and constantly thinks about dying.

The displaced villagers are still waiting for the demolition crew to arrive. They say they’ve asked their Mayor to help and are hopeful he’ll do something soon.

The people of Subic are now embroiled in a new struggle. Their government recently approved plans by a South Korean investor to build a coal-fired power plant worth hundreds of millions of dollars in their area. The plant will have one main customer – Hanjin Philippines.