Fire

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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.

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The Mayor
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.

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6 Comments

  1. roberto pidal on

    How come after all this time and all the many news articles in many newspapers until know nobody has the courage to report on who the owners of Kentex are?????

  2. victor m. hernandez on

    Whatever is something basic is often ignore. Risks pervade in all aspects of life. Risk due to fire is one of these risks.It is urgent and basic that fire prevention is of paramount importance, particularly in workplaces where many lives are at stake during workhours.
    It is time that DOLE and the Bureau of Fire Protection implement Risk Rating System along with the certificate of compliance that they issue. The higher is the risk rating of the workplace, the more frequent it should be inspected. Sanctions must be imposed on law enforcers and the workplace (company) that do not follow the frequency of inspection,and the compliance or prescribed improvement in safety and fire prevention. Performance of these law enforcers, and compliance of these workplaces must be penalized and severed from service, particularly if negligence, non-compliance result in death of a worker. Employer or company that does not properly and fully comply must be stopped from operating their business. No ifs and buts about it.

  3. victor m. hernandez on

    At least two Departments have failed the people of Valenzuela City in the fire that cuse the death of 72 workers in Kentex, the slippers factory that was razed a week ago. These Departments are Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), which supervises the Bureau of Fire Protection; and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which enforces laws of labor standards.
    DOLE ia headed by Secretary Baldoz, and DILG is headed by Secretary Mar Roxas. Unfortunately, Secretary Roxas seems to be hounded by bad karma, first in Eastern Visayas devastated by Yolanda, now in Valenzuela City with the fire that razed Kentex.The two secretaries have goofed and failed the people they sworn to serve. They should now vacate their offices, ASAP.

  4. Its incompetence from everyone, from the owners to the workers. Its obvious there were no fire exits from the first floor where most people were. Even the woners son & his wife died running down to the ground floor to try to get out of those exits. Now the owner should be held liable, but the workers who every day worked in those conditions should have informed, labout groups, newspapers, politicians, the mayor, then if a tragedy happens all can be held accountable. But not a single person it seemed complained to anyone, so when you keep quiet you are complicit & its you who suffer, & boy did they suffer, over 70 dead. But will the philippines learn from this, i doubt it very much as its how they are & they dont want to change.

  5. James Rooney on

    On March 25 in the year 1911, a tragic fire took place in the “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory” in New York City in the United States. The fire was brought under control in about 30 minutes, but killed 146 garment factory workers — mostly very young women aged 26-23, and the youngest two women were only 14 years of age.

    The factory had no fire escapes and inadequate exits — somewhat similar to the Kentex facility? In fact, in the Manhattan factory, the exits were apparently kept locked during working hours so that employees would not take long or unauthorized breaks, or pilfer items from the factory floors. The owners, Mr. Harris and Mr. Blanck, settled lawsuits for $75 dollars per life at that time after the incident. However, since an insurance policy covered them for $400 per individual lost — they pocketed about $60,000 in the end due to the tragedy. They opened another factory a few days after the first fire, also without adequate fire escapes and exits.

    While the factory owners were obviously not changed by this incident, fortunately the American people were. It was a turning point in regulation of worker safety and real enforcement of the same for the protection of factory workers who — in almost all cases — were unable to protect themselves.

    I am, for the most part, not a person who is fond of much government regulation. It seems that each year new unnecessary burdens are put on businesses that increase their costs, and that prevent much needed economic development and new business formation — seemingly only for the purpose of allowing administrative cogs to justify their tenured positions. However, there are some areas of government regulation that are absolutely essential and — although they, too, can at times become excessively burdensome in individual cases — should really never be compromised despite the economic costs.

    One of those is worker safety. Many companies are, I presume, quite ethical in this area. They analyze the risks, and look ahead to put in place the technology and procedures and training necessary to keep their employees safe. However, if even a small number of companies are not completely compliant with the many simple rules that can protect their employees on the job, the end result will of course be more worker disability and more lives lost — so very unnecessarily. This is one area of government regulation that is well worth some administrative inconvenience, and the minor negative effect it may have on economic development. And it must then also be lead by officials with insight who are not “asleep at the wheel.”

    And because yes, it is very naive to think that companies will all police themselves adequately in this area — any Secretary of Labor should expect lack of compliance, bribes of inspectors, use of non-compliant subcontractors, and every other avenue of skirting the rules that inventive entrepreneurs may at times develop and implement. To expect all companies to voluntarily comply without true and legitimate “surprise” inspections — fully enforced — is ludicrous. To expect that these legitimate inspections and enforcement will occur without adequate supervision at the highest level is equally disenlightened.

    I hope if nothing else comes from the recent loss of these 72 precious lives at the Kentex facilities, the people of the Philippines and the Government of the Philippines will take a hard look at who is protecting their most vulnerable factory workers, and make it clear that the current state of affairs is obviously not acceptable. I pray there will be an awareness and accountability similar to the change that began in America after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. In that way, at least these 72 souls lost and their mourning families will not have suffered for nothing.

    Philippine lives matter.