Even as Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian, Kentex legal counsel Renato Paraiso and Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz are telling the media about the factory owners’ compliance with labor standards, building requirements and fire and safety requirements, the death of 72 people, as of the last count, because of the fire and the tales of how the workers were treated at work are drawing outrage and calls for justice.
Following a fact-finding mission on Kentex by non-government labor institutions, they concluded that the death of the workers in the 7-hour factory fire in Valenzuela last Wednesday, May 13, resulted from the violations of occupational health and safety standards committed by the management of Kentex Manufacturing, Inc.
These violations were evidenced by the appearance of the burnt structure and the accounts of surviving workers, the non-government Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) said in a statement.
With them in the mission were the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research and the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).
Seventy-two people died and several others are still missing after the Kentex factory burned down. IOHSAD took special note of the fact that majority or 69 workers died on the second floor of the building, where they could have been able to pass through a fire escape if one had been functioning.
The three fatalities found at the stairs toward the ground floor reportedly included the son of the factory owner and his wife. They were racing down the stairs but the fire caught up with them, a survivor told the fact-finding mission.
IOHSAD said Kentex committed the following violations which caused the death of 72 people:
(1) “The management of Kentex Manufacturing did not comply with major provisions of Rule 1940 or the Fire Protection and Control Rule 1940 of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards of 1989.”
There were no “proper fire exits in the building,” IOHSAD and other labor advocates found out.
This is in clear violation of the provisions of Rule 1943.03 which states:
– “At least two exits shall be provided in every floor and basement of every workplace capable of clearing the work area in five (5) minutes,” and
– “On every floor, except the ground floor, one of the exits shall lead to an inside stairway or a smokeproof tower, while the other exits shall lead to inside stairways, smoke-proof towers or horizontal exits.”
(2) Survivors of the factory fire said containers of newly-delivered flammable chemicals (Superseal) were not stored properly. These were also placed near where workers were welding steel doors, a clear violation of the provisions of Rule 1943.07 on storage which says:
– “Significant quantities of commodities with fire hazards greater than ordinary combustible commodities shall be separated from the main bulk by fire walls.”
(3) Kentex workers said no fire drills were done in the workplace in the last few years, a clear violation of Rule 1948.03:
– “Fire-exit drills shall be conducted at least twice a year to maintain an orderly evacuation of buildings, unless the local fire department requires a higher frequency of fire drills.”
Compliance report ‘erroneous, unreliable’
Labor Secretary Baldoz said in a statement that “Kentex Manufacturing has been found to be compliant with general labor standards and occupational safety and health standards after a joint assessment by our Labor Laws Compliance Officers under the new Labor Laws Compliance System”.
But with the death of 72 workers in a factory fire, IOHSAD and various groups said such compliance is now questionable.
The labor center KMU believes Baldoz is simply making this up, “to make it appear her agency has not been remiss in holding labor inspections.” The group also believes Baldoz is just trying to make it appear Kentex’s capitalists are not criminally liable for the fire deaths.
‘String of fatal workplace incidents’
Since 2013, the Labor Department has touted its new Labor Laws Compliance System as “one of its kind,” and that the Philippines is “one of the first to adopt the innovative approach for improving compliance with labor laws”.
But, IOHSAD said, the exact opposite is happening as shown by workplace accidents and workers’ deaths.
Since the said compliance system was implemented, IOHSAD documented major workplace accidents including the fire tragedy in Kentex factory. These include the fire tragedy in Asiatech warehouse in Pasay in 2014 (where eight female workers died), the collapse of a building in a warehouse construction in Bulacan in Januay 2015 (where 12 died); and the construction site accident in BGC in February 2015 (where two died).
What voluntary compliance?
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said he was greatly saddened by the factory fire that killed 72 workers.
“We can make workplaces safe by improving working conditions in factories, including carrying out regular inspections to ensure that factories comply with structural, fire and electrical safety; and by ensuring workers’ rights, especially freedom of association and collective bargaining,” he said in another statement.
But such inspections are not really being carried out in the Philippines despite certificates and claims, based on the findings of IOHSAD in Kentex and in other workplaces where workers died at work.
In the Labor Department’s Order 131-13, it pushes the Labor Laws Compliance System, which, it said, aims to “inculcate and foster a culture of voluntary compliance, where there is less government intervention, and there is more workers’ and employers’ active participation in the plant-level.”
The Labor Department’s Order No. 57-04, meanwhile, is also being blamed by labor groups for rendering toothless the supposedly tough safety standards required in workplaces. “This promoted ‘self-assessment’ by establishments on their compliance with labor standards, prompting government agencies to shirk their responsibilities,” the Pamantik-KMU said in another statement.
All these labor department orders resulted in more injuries and deaths among workers as employers just continue violating OHS standards, the IOHSAD said.
“Workers’ lives, health and safety should not be anchored in the trust given by the Labor Department to company managements. Employers cannot be expected to voluntarily comply and report their violations of safety standards,” said Nadia de Leon, advocacy officer of IOHSAD.
Strict, frequent safety inspection urged
Instead of voluntary inspection and self-assessment, IOHSAD suggests mandatory, strict and frequent safety inspection by the Labor Department of all establishments.
“The inspection should be done through unannounced visits of labor inspectors to prevent companies from concealing safety standards violations. Results of the inspection should be published immediately and must be presented and approved by the general assembly of workers,” its recommendations said.
In the upcoming probe by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Labor on May 20, Senior Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Colmenares suggests looking not just at the occupational safety mechanisms of Kentex but on the liability also of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Aquino administration “for allowing like structured factories in Kentex to proliferate in the country.”
“The Bureau of Fire Prevention should also be summoned at the hearing because structures like the Kentex factory dealing with highly combustible materials should have higher fire safety standards,” the progressive solon added.
“The violation of occupational health and safety standards that led to the death of 72 workers is a crime that deserves criminal punishment. We are calling for nothing less. The workers of Kentex and the Philippines deserve nothing less,” KMU vice president Joselito Ustarez said.
The groups that conducted a fact-finding mission on Kentex demanded “concrete steps” to make the employers accountable for the lives lost.
IOHSAD called on the Labor Department to immediately release the results of the inspections done on Kentex Manufacturing, investigate the labor laws compliance officer (LLCO) who performed the inspection, and most especially, file concrete criminal charges against the Kentex management.
It also joined calls for the immediate passage of House Bill 4635 or Worker’s SHIELD (Safety and Health Inspection and Employer’s Liability Decree) seeking the Labor Department’s mandatory inspection of all establishments and the criminalization of violations of OHS standards.
If OHS violations were criminalized, they believe it will push companies to comply with health and safety laws. Under SHIELD, employers found guilty will not only pay penalties but will also be meted out appropriate criminal obligations based on the gravity of their violation. IOHSAD and the labor institutions it worked with made an appeal to legislators to immediately pass House Bill 4635 “and shield our workers from unsafe working conditions and deadly occupational hazards.”
Marya Salamat, Bulatlat.com