Life in a 'service economy'

June 19, 1991

By Andrew Nette

Who benefits from US bases in the Philippines? Not ordinary Filipinos. In the second of two articles, ANDREW NETTE reports on a visit to Olongapo, near the Subic Bay naval base.

Fishing, which used to be the main source of income in Olangapo, is now a dead industry, pollution from the base having made the waters of Subic Bay unfishable. Poverty is now so great that there are reports of families having to sell their children into prostitution simply to survive. Many more are reduced to scavenging around the base's perimeter.

It is not just US servicemen who are the culprits in systematic sexual exploitation. Foreign sex tourists, many Australian, also flock to the Philippines each year to take advantage of cheap sex. Early in March, the Philippines Immigration Commission ordered the arrest of two Dutch nationals and a German suspected of engaging in sex with children in Olongapo. Although the German managed to flee, the two Dutchmen were caught and flown to Manila for questioning. They denied the charges and said that the 10 young boys in their company were their 'scholars'.

The link between prostitution and poverty was again demonstrated later that night on Magsaysay Drive, the main red light district. On an average night, 6000 sailors and marines cross the canal separating the base from this thin strip of road, on which are crammed over 600 go-go bars, massage parlours, short-time hotels and nightclubs. It is named after former president Ramon Magsaysay, but there is little of the Philippines on this street. Instead the clubs reflect the tastes and styles of their Western customers; rock and roll, top 40, heavy metal, rap and hip hop.

In this and other parts of the city, an estimated 16,000 prostitutes work. Of these, 5000-6000 are registered hospitality women in a licensed bar or brothel. The remainder are "freelance prostitutes" or streetwalkers. They are illegal, face greater health and personal risks and, if caught by the police, can be picked up and imprisoned.

Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, and local government officials deny any type of prostitution takes place in Olongapo; the women are referred to as "hospitality girls" or "entertainment girls".

Thousands of young women from all over the Philippines are drawn to Olongapo each year to answer ads for waitresses and barmaids. Prostitution is usually what they find. Most of the women who come quickly get into debt to a club owner, a spiral most of them will never escape from until he tells them they are too old to work and

he has hired a more beautiful teenager in their place.

Diseases

The spread of AIDS and other venereal diseases is a growing problem in Olongapo. At a time when US military officials are worried about the future of the military bases in the Philippines, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is a serious public relations problem. US commanders at Subic have spent considerable amounts of money trying to educate the prostitutes and their own servicemen about the dangers of STDs, particularly AIDS.

This has had little effect. Technically, while working, a registered prostitute must have medical checkups every second week at the Social Hygiene Clinic run jointly by the City Health Department and the US Navy. If a woman is found positive, her place of work is contacted, and she must report for treatment and stop working until she is well. However, a break from work cannot be afforded, and if their license is confiscated, most prostitutes just go underground and work the streets.

According to our guide for the night, Rose, herself a prostitute in Olongapo for several years, "Many sailors and sex tourists don't like using condoms. If a prostitute is faced with the risk of catching a sexual disease or losing a client's business, her poverty gives her little choice."

Servicemen are found to have contracted a sexual disease are not allowed to leave the base. But many sailors get treatment outside the base at local clinics to avoid these restrictions. As Rose puts it, "Sexual diseases are usually viewed by Western men as a Filipino problem, as the prostitute's problem, and they take few precautions in the matter".

The lack of responsibility which the US Navy takes towards this is best illustrated by one of Subic's high-ranking officers in an interview in the US press last year. "I see our boys crossing the bridge. I see them buying a girl a drink. I see them laughing and having a good time. I do not see what happens after they leave the club." Foreign sex tourists also refuse to wear condoms. Australian men are particularly known for this.

The other result, unwanted pregnancies, is another daily problem. Rose has a baby daughter of her own, the child of a US serviceman who left the country soon after the birth. He gave her no financial support, a typical story among many of the single mothers in Olongapo.

Abortion, although still illegal in the Philippines, is not difficult to get in Olongapo. But few prostitutes can afford to get this done properly; most have to resort to backyard abortions, or

doing it themselves, with all the attendant health risks. Rose has had three friends die from the effects of incorrectly carried out abortions.

Dependence

The night before we arrived in Olongapo, a US marine was killed by unknown assailants right outside Subic's main gate. Fearing the start of a new outbreak of attacks by the communist New People's Army, US commanders confined all personnel within the base. Except for the occasional foreign sex tourist, Magsaysay Drive was quiet and empty.

This made the point about Olongapo's dependence on the base just as effectively as it would had we seen the place in full swing. Desperate doormen tried to lure whoever they could into their establishments. Inside one club we entered, disco music blared to an empty dance floor while the women sat listlessly about the bar watching a US science fiction movie on a huge screen above the entrance. There would be no money for these women to take home tomorrow morning.

There are a few in Olongapo, like the Irish priest Shay Cullen, who continue to speak out against Subic's presence. This can be dangerous. Cullen himself has been subjected to harassment from the authorities ever since he established the PREDA Centre for drug rehabilitation.

Threats

Cullen has received numerous threats, ranging from death to deportation. He says, "This is only part of a general campaign against all priests and lay workers in Olongapo. Many have been imprisoned, some even killed by the military and their hired death squads, who view us as communists and subversives."

There is much evidence that this has the tacit support of the local government of Mayor Gordon. Gordon is boss of a family which has dominated politics in Olongapo since 1959, when the US military conceded home rule. City officials, as well as the nightclub owners whose businesses are reliant on things staying the way they are, are fierce supporters of the US presence at Subic, and accuse people like Cullen of spreading the image of Olongapo as a "Sin City".

Despite this, those working for change have had some successes. Last year several welfare groups got together a program to help organise the prostitutes to improve their conditions. Similar campaigns around AIDS and contraception have also been organised.

Cullen has collected two decades' worth of material detailing

abuses by US servicemen, and plans to use the evidence to launch independent legal actions. GABRIELA, a national coalition of women's organisations, has also attempted to bring class suits against the US military on behalf of the prostitutes, and prosecuted foreigners dealing in the sex slave trade.

Prostitution is only one of the symptoms of the social problems of the Philippines. Those working for change in Olongapo are the first to admit that, until prostitution is related to the broader national situation, what they do will amount only to band-aid measures.

How to stem the flow of young women forced out of rural areas impoverished by the Philippines' economic dependence? What alternatives are there to offer women who want to leave prostitution? There are only factories owned by multinationals, where women are still "raw material". Or they can become "export material", going to other countries as mail-order brides or domestic workers.

It is something we should think about next time US ships pull into Fremantle or other Australian ports, full of men with money to spend and looking for sex.

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