IN the aftermath of the fire at the Kentex footwear factory in Valenzuela on May 13, government officials have been falling all over themselves defending what their offices have done, how they have done everything to avoid a tragedy like this one that has left behind 72 dead, most of them burnt beyond recognition.
The City of Valenzuela is in a State of Mourning. Mayor Rex Gatchalian held a press conference with his city officials on May 14. City Fire Marshal Jose Mel Lagan said: “Initial investigation showed that the two buildings that were burned down have sound fire exits and have no violation of the Fire Code. … He said investigators will look into the possibility that there were more number of people in the second floor of the assembly area building that day than the fire exits could accommodate.” (Fact Sheet, Valenzuela City website)
Two buildings in the three-building Kentex compound burned to the ground. Mayor Gatchalian said “one of the burned-down buildings has been issued a building permit as far back as 1996. He said that whoever was the building official then was correct in his judgment on the building’s structural integrity, as shown by its four corner beams, which remains erect even after the fire. (Fact Sheet, Valenzuela City website)
Mayor Gatchalian spoke in an even tone, his voice controlled, his emotions in check. The city was providing families of victims with financial support and psycho-social counseling.
The Mayor promises those liable for these deaths will be punished.
The Interior Secretary
Like a hero, and as expected, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas has swooped in. Alongside a show of empathy and efficiency, the Interior Secretary took time to reveal his incredulity: “This is extraordinary. Seventy two died. Why were 69 of the 72 fatalities on the second floor? Why were they trapped there?” (Manila Standard Today, 15 May)
He surmised: “The company could be doing a pakyawan system, which means the owner hired workers in the neighborhood, paying them a fixed fee to produce a certain number of items, to meet the daily demand. This could have caused overcrowding in the factory.” (CNN Philippines, 15 May)
The Interior Secretary talked about how long it might take to identify the dead, given the process of gathering DNA from the living and cross checking these against the dead. He promises a thorough investigation, which “would determine if lapses and negligence were committed on the part of the officials.” It is also why the DILG ordered relieved Valenzuela City Fire Marshall Lagan and Chief of Fire Safety Enforcement Inspector Ed Oculam. (Philstar.com, 15 May)
The Labor Secretary
In the wake of the incident, the loudest voice I’ve heard – the one that I waited for with baited breath – was that of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary, Rosalinda Baldoz.
The Labor Department’s own press release on the incident highlights how the office did its job of assessing Kentex, and issued it a Certificate of Compliance (CoC) in March 2014. Visibly incensed, Secretary Baldoz said: “I need to say this in the wake of this deadly fire accident. The company has engaged, and is engaging, the services of an illegal sub-contractor, a violation of the Labor Code, and therefore, it is responsible for the sub-contractor’s workers. Kentex used the legitimacy of our assessment as cloak to circumvent our laws. I am very much disgusted by this kind of behavior.”(DOLE Website, 15 May)
Elsewhere, Secretary Baldoz is said to have declared that “the NCR office of the DOLE had issued the company a certificate of compliance on September 18, 2014 — proof that it passed the joint assessment conducted by labor laws compliance officers under the new Labor Law Compliance System. According to Baldoz, Kentex even has a safety committee with a union member representative that implements safety rules and regulations. (CNNPhilippines, 15 May) This CoC means that Kentex had met all occupational safety requirements since September last year.
Malacañang Spokesperson Sonny Coloma asserts: “According to DOLE, Kentex is a unionized company, with an existing safety committee, and that its workers are entitled to government mandated social security and workmen’s compensation benefits.” (CNNPhilippines, 15 May)
Blood on their hands
The statements from the Labor Department are astounding because it seems that they were most naïve here. Isn’t it almost expected in this country that a company about to undergo assessment puts its best foot forward to pass inspection? Isn’t it expected that after getting compliance papers a company would go back to business as usual, contractual (and sub-contractual) employment included?
The assertion that there exists a safety committee with a union representative sounds to me like an underhanded way to spread around the guilt, while refusing to declare DOLE’s culpability in the death of the 72. The notion of a safety committee that is made up of workers within a given company is problematic after all: why would workers – contractual ones at that – even imagine reporting that their working conditions are unsafe? Why would they risk six months of contractual employment to do the work of the Labor Department?
In fact DOLE’s Rules on Labor Laws Compliance System (Department Order 131-13) asserts that what it wants to foster is “a culture of voluntary compliance with labor laws” – an assertion that is laughable in itself. It is deaf, dumb, blind to the state of labor and employment in this country.
In May last year, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) declared the Philippines as one of the worst place for workers. The Labor Secretary had said: “We don’t have problems with workers’ rights. We can say the industry advocacy for workers in the country is very good. In terms of quality of work in the country, I can say we are doing OK.” (Inquirer.net, 20 May 2014)
If there’s anyone who should be fired it is Baldoz herself. But we know how the President likes to declare his loyalty to erring public officials. The 72 dead be damned.