Gov’t can’t punish erring Haiyan contractors

Rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson says the government may do away with bunkhouses and just give construction materials to victims to rebuild their homes

NO MORE BUNKHOUSES? The government may do away with building bunkhouses and instead giving construction materials to victims who want to repair their old homes. Photo by LeANNE Jazul

MANILA, Philippines – Contractors built poor-standard housing for victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), but the government is relatively powerless to teach them a lesson.

This was revealed by Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery Panfilo Lacson on Monday, January 27, when he presented the results of his probe into the alleged overpricing of bunkhouses in disaster-hit areas.

There was no overpricing in the building of bunkhouses for Yolanda victims, he said at a briefing in Malacañang, but it was clear some contractors did not follow government’s specifications in building the temporary housing.

Unfortunately, Lacson said, there is a law that protects contractors from criminal charges, thus rendering the government helpless in punishing troublesome companies.

“We’re hampered by a provision in Republic Act 9184, the Procurement Law, that gives contractors a 60-day period to make repairs. I think that provision should be amended because, what if the underspecification was deliberate? Why would you give them a chance to repair?” he said.

Lacson said the provision is used by contractors as a “scapegoat.” He said he will propose amendments to that provision to Congress.

In a text message, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson told Rappler that the government “cannot suspend [contractors]. Instead we will ask them to rectify” substandard housing.

He said the government cannot ban contractors either from future government projects even if they built houses under specificiations if they were able to repair them within the 60-day period allowed by law

“If [they don’t repair the houses], we don’t pay them since many of them just volunteered to help,” he explained. Withholding payment is the best punishment the government can legally mete out for now.

He said the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and the Armed Forces are investigating the anomalous bunkhouses and that the government will have to wait for their findings for now.

“They will come up with their recommendation. Whether or not criminal charges will be filed, it depends on the evidence. But like I said, if the evidence will warrant the filing of charges, then so be it,” he said.

Lacson emphasized that bunkhouses only cost about P800,000 – or less than a million – but said once rehabilitation is in full swing, billions of pesos will pour in. He said the good thing is those with dishonest plans will likely have learned that they are being watched and cannot get away with any sort of corruption.

“If we let them get away with meddling with P800,000, then we should be worried about the P361 billion or P100 billion [that will come in]. That’s what’s scarier,” he said.

‘Don’t punish opposition mayors’

Lacson said some houses were so substandard that when Tropical Depression Agaton, carrying 55km/hour winds, hit earlier in January, it blew away roofs and sent traumatized Yolanda victims fleeing.

Because of the poor quality of temporary housing built by contractors, international organizations have been forced to step in to repair the subpar bunkhouses.

“The International Organization for Migration (IOM), they take care of the homeless. So far, as of yesterday, they have repaired bunkhouses, around 100,” Lacson said.

“We can’t just wait for contractors to repair them. But IOM is very quick on the draw, they themselves did the repairs and they strengthened [the structures].”

Lacson said IOM spent an average of P10,000 per bunkhouse on repairs, although the prices varied, depending on the damage sustained by the bunkhouses from Agaton.

Earlier this month, reports emerged that a local politician was colluding with contractors for 30-35% commission from the bunkhouses being built for Yolanda victims. Lacson said in a radio interview that “unscrupulous lower-ranking officials” have begun to take advantage of the daunting task ahead. (READ: Lacson smells rehab corruption in LGUs.)

Lacson on Monday said that these local politicians, “not more than 10” of them, have started to “lie low.” He admitted local politics has been a challenge.

He also said he told local politicians not to let politics hamper rehabilitation work in their provinces.

We all know that local politics can be pretty shallow. When the mayor is with the opposition, they (higher level officials) don’t attend to his city or town,” he said in Filipino. “So the other day, I told them during a meeting with local government units (LGUs), if you want to punish the mayors who are with the opposition, the ones you are hurting are their constituents against whom you have nothing against.”

Lacson said the politicians were “receptive.” He refused to name the politicians despite calls for their identity.

“The important thing here is the idea that if you don’t want to help, don’t obstruct,” Lacson said. “I don’t think the names are that important. The message is more important.”

No more bunkhouses?

Following the complications with bunkhouses, Lacson said he and Singson have discussed the possibility of doing away with the bunkhouses altogether.

“We will just give construction materials to the people who would rather repair transition shelters. Because if they fix their old homes, in effect those are temporary shelters, since they will be relocated too eventually once the housing units are built in the relocation sites,” he said.

This is now the focus of the government: to relocate victims to safer areas after Yolanda.

Lacson said he is coordinating closely with the National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as well as appealing to private sectors partners to buy land and donate it to victims along with houses.

“[The private sponsors] can procure the land from private land owners themselves and include it to their donation for the areas in need of rehabilitation,” he said.

Lacson lauded the companies that have volunteered to serve as development sponsors, and have pledged to develop specific districts in various provinces namely PLDT, SMART, International Container Terminal Services Inc., Metrobank, INJAP Land Corp, Lopez Group, Aboitiz, EEI Corporation, Nickel Asia Corp, ABS-CBN Sagip Kapamilya, Vicsal Foundation, Ayala Corporation, Globe, JG Summit Holdings Inc, Ayala Land and Secours Populaire Français.

Other companies also pledged to be sector sponsors, vowing to develop education, health, housing, and livelihood in the areas hardest hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda.