Philippines: Filipino workers stuck at US military base following dispute over vacation

Jojo Riñoza
Philippines:  Filipino workers stuck at US military base following dispute over vacation An undated file photo shows Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean and site of a major U.S. military base. The United States has been leasing the island from Britain since 1966.

Close to a thousand Filipino migrant workers are stranded at a U.S. military base on an island in the Indian Ocean following a labor dispute with an American defense contractor, a Philippine government official said Friday.

Susan Ople, who heads the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), said Kellogg Brown & Root, a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy at the military base on Diego Garcia, had allegedly prohibited workers from going on vacation.

“I think around 800 workers are stranded there. Many are working for KBR as it is the biggest contractor there,” Ople said in a local radio interview on Friday.

She said these workers, known locally as Overseas Filipino Workers or OFWs, have been unable to go home for the past three years.

Ople said the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency had told the contractor that vacation benefits were part of the workers’ contracts, which were approved by the agency.

Ople also alleged that KBR was only paying workers U.S. $5.25 per hour, lower than the American federal minimum hourly wage of $7.

BenarNews contacted the U.S. Embassy in Manila, the U.S. Navy and KBR for comment but did not immediately hear back.

According to a report published in The Washington Post on Wednesday, KBR said workers could not leave because of the cancellation of flights due to a lack of demand and due to COVID-19.

Located just south of the equator, the island of Diego Garcia is the largest of the 60 small islands in the Chagos Archipelago, and can only be reached via chartered flights. The island is situated in an isolated area of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The U.S. military has been leasing Diego Garcia from Britain since 1966, with the lease contract renewed in 2017.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Agency and the contractor are scheduled to discuss the issue again, according to Ople, but she did not say when. If KBR does not act, Ople said they would write to the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Navy.

According to its website, KBR employs over 1,200 staff at the Diego Garcia military base. It offers construction services such as complex refineries, government structures, and warehouses, among other things.

The Philippine presidential palace has yet to issue a statement, pending a report from the DMW.

“For the moment, we are relying upon and monitoring through the DMW,” Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles told reporters on Thursday. “So, we will comment upon receiving her [Ople’s] report.”

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., meanwhile, is set to leave for New York on Sept. 18 to attend and speak at the 77th United Nations General Assembly. Marcos is expected to talk about food security, climate change, and rule of law, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

There is no word yet on whether the Philippines’ new president plans to raise the issue of the workers during his week-long trip to the United States.

The U.S. is the Philippines’ oldest military ally, and Filipino workers are a fixture in many of its military installations worldwide.


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